January 27

The Kushanas, A Mighty Empire - History and Impact

After a series of tribal revolts in central Asia, the great Yueh-Chi tribe displaced the Shakas but was later itself defeated and displaced by the Hiung-Nu and forced to move southwards. Later they settled down in Afghanistan. There were five Yueh-Chi principalities, one of them being the Kushanas.

Kushana Empire, Kushana kingdom
Map of Kushana Empire

Source: Map created from DEMIS Mapserver, which are public domain. Koba-chan.Reference: Schwartzberg Atlas, v. , p. 145. Map g, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Kanishka ascended the throne in 78 AD and started an era known as the Shaka era

The Kushanas succeeded the Parthians and were also known as Tocharians. They were nomadic people from the steppes of north central Asia. They first occupied Bactria where they displaced the Shakas. Eventually, they established their authority over the lower Indus basin and the greater part of the Gangetic basin.

Their empire extended from the Oxus to the Ganges, from Khorasan in Central Asia to Pataliputra in Bihar. They also brought a portion of Iran, a portion of Afghanistan, and almost all of Pakistan and north India under one rule. 

There were two successive dynasties of the Kushanas. The first was founded by Kadphises. He also laid down the foundations of a unified empire in the 1st century CE. He issued coins south of the Hindukush, minting copper coins in imitation of the Roman coins. He was succeeded by his son Vima Kadphises who initially started off as a co-ruler during his father’s reign. 

Vima Kadphises conquered Kandhar from the Parthians and during his reign the Kushanas pressed further east and established their control over the Indus valley and the Mathura reign.

The house of Kadphises was succeeded by Kanishka. The Kushana empire reached its zenith under his reign. He established his first capital in Pataliputra or Peshawar and the second in Mathura. 

He ascended the throne in 78 AD and started an era known as the Shaka era, a name often used by the Government of India. During his reign the empire expanded further east into the Ganga valley and southwards into the Malwa region.

The immediate successors of Kanishka were Vasishka, Huvishka, Kanishka II, and Vasudeva I. The empire started declining from the time of Vasudeva I and Vasudeva II was the last Kushana emperor. The Kushana authority seems to have lingered in the Kabul valley, Kapisa, Bactria, Khorezm, and Sogdian in the 3rd and 4th centuries.


The Kushanas were the first rulers in India to issue gold coins on a wide scale. The early Kushana kings issued numerous gold coins. The coins of Kadphises I suggest an association with Buddhism while those of Vima proclaim a devotee of Shiva. The Kushana coins have been found as far east as Bengal and Odisha.


There was an increasing use of burnt bricks for flooring and tiles for both flooring and roofing. There was an increasing use of red pottery techniques which was well known in central Asia.


The Kushanas introduced better cavalry and the use of riding horse on a large scale. They popularised the use of reins and saddles. Their passion for horsemanship is shown by numerous equestrian terracotta sculptures of Kushana times discovered in Begram in Afghanistan. They introduced the use of turbans, tunics, trousers, and heavy long coats.

Kanishka is credited for the introduction of trousers, long boots, and stirrups. Seemingly, the practice of making leather boots began in India during this period.


India received a great amount of gold from Altai mountains in central Asia. The Kushanas controlled the silk route which started from China and passed through their empire in central Asia and Afghanistan to Iran and western Asia. This route was a source of substantial income for the Kushanas and they built a large prosperous empire on the strength of the tolls levied from traders.

The Kushanas also promoted agriculture. The earliest archaeological traces of large-scale irrigation in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and western-central Asia date to the Kushana period.


The Kushana empire was divided into numerous satrapies, and each placed under the rule of a satrap.

The Kushanas strengthened the satrap system of the Shakas. The empire was divided into numerous satrapies, and each placed under the rule of a satrap. 

Other inscriptions mention other officials performing both civil and military functions called ‘dandnayaka’ and ‘mahadandnayaka’ indicating prevalent feudal elements. Further inscriptions also mention two terms, ‘gramika’ and ‘padrapala’, both signifying village headmen who collected the king’s dues and took cognizance of crimes in his area.

The Kushans strengthened the idea of the divine origin of kingship. They used the title ‘Devputra’ or son of the gods. This title was adopted by the Kushanas from the Chinese, who called their king the ‘son of heaven’. Perhaps these pompous titles were adopted to emphasise the authority of the king and to muffle any voices of revolt. 


The inscriptions issued by the Kushana rulers include texts in Bactrian, written in Greek script and in Prakrit written in Brahmi or Kharoshthi script. The most important of this is the Rabatak inscription which established Kanishka’s genealogy with Kujula Kadphises, Vima Takto, and Vima Kadphises as his immediate ancestors. 


The Kushana rulers worshipped both Shiva and the Buddha and the images of both gods appear on the Kushana coins. Several Kushana rulers were worshippers of Vishnu as is evident from the name of the Kushana ruler Vasudeva, whose name is a synonym for Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu. 


Kanishka became a great patron of the Mahayana school

In the post-Mauryan period, Buddhism underwent a lot of change. The monks and nuns could not afford to lose the cash donations from the growing body of traders and artisans concentrated in towns. The Buddhists welcomed foreigners who were non-vegetarians. This meant laxity in the day to day living of the nuns and monks. They accepted gold and silver, took to non-vegetarian food, and wore elaborate robes. This new form of Buddhism came to be known as Mahayana or The Great Vehicle. The old puritan form of Buddhism came to be known as the Hinayana or The Lesser Vehicle.

Kanishka became a great patron of the Mahayana school. He convened a council in Kashmir whose members composed 300,000 words, thoroughly elucidating the three pitakas or collections of Buddhist literature. He got these commentaries engraved on sheets of red copper, enclosed them in a stone receptacle, and raised a stupa over it.


The Kushana empire brought together artisans and masons who were experts in different schools together. This gave rise to several schools of art: central Asian, Gandhara, and Mathura. The contact of Indian craftsmen with the central Asians, Greeks, and Romans in the northwestern frontier gave rise to a new art form. Images of the Buddha were made in the Graeco-Roman style with even his hair being fashioned in the Graeco-Roman style.

The Gandhara art also spread to Mathura which was the centre of indigenous art. It is also famous for the headless erect statue of Kanishka with his name inscribed at its lower end.


The Kushanas issued their coins and inscriptions in Greek, Kharoshthi, and Brahmi scripts

The Kushanas issued their coins and inscriptions in Greek, Kharoshthi, and Brahmi scripts. They used Greek, Prakrit, and Sanskrit influenced Prakrit with pure Sanskrit towards the of their rule. They thus officially recognised three scripts and four languages.

Some of the great creative writers like Ashwaghosha enjoyed the patronage of the Kushanas. He was the writer of the Buddhacharita, which is the biography of Buddha and he also composed Saundarananda which is a fine example of Sanskrit kavya.

The development of Mahayana Buddhism led to the composition of numerous avadanas. Some examples of this genre were Mahavastu and Divyadana. 


After the death of Vasudeva l in 225 AD, the Kushana empire split into western and eastern halves. The Persian Sassanid empire soon subjugated the western Kushanas. They were again defeated by the Persians in 248 AD and replaced with Persian vassals known as Kushanshas.

The eastern Kushana kingdom was based in Punjab. Around 270 AD their territories on the Gangetic plain became independent under local dynasties such as the Yaudheyas. They were subjugated in mid 4th century by the Gupta emperor Samudragupta.

Later the invasions of the white Huns in the 5th century, and after that the expansion of Islam, ultimately wiped out the remnants of the Kushana empire completely.

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