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AD 78-225 Yuezhi / Yueh-chi / Kushan Empire

The history of the Kushan empire presents many difficulties, given the paucity and heterogeneity of the Greco-Roman, Syrian, Indian, and Chinese sources. The only sources of Kushan origin consist of coin legends, seals, and votive inscriptions. The dating of these remains problematic because several different eras are used in them.

Al Biruni makes the Turk kings of Kabul come from the mountains of Tibet, and Grecian and Chinese authors concur in saying that in the first years of the Christian era the valley of the Indus and some of the neighboring countries were occupied by a people from Tartary. Ptolemy, Dionysius, and the author of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, give to the country watered by the Lower Indus the name of Indo-Scythia, and Ptolemy applies the same name to a country at the bottom of the Gulf of Cambay. The Chinese writers relate that a Tatar people named Yue-chi or Yue-tchi crossed the Hindu-kush, and established themselves in Afghanistan. Fa-Hian speaks of these barbarians having occupied, long before his visit to India, the province of Peshawar. The conquerors, who remained in the valley of Kabul, received the name of the Little Yue-tchi, while the mass of the nation was designated the Great Yue-tchi. In these Little Yue-tchi we have the ancestors of the modern Jats. The Yue-tchi evidently established themselves in Kabul subsequent to the reign of Kanishka, and probably not long after, for Fa-Hian, about the year 400 AD, speaks of their occupation of that valley, as if it were a transaction of no recent date.

In pre-Han (third century BC) dynasty Chinese sources there are many groups of 'barbarians' on the northern frontiers of China. Chinese sources of the second century BC mention one group of early Xinjiang people, the Yuezhi. In the two centuries after their arrival the Yuezhi consolidated their rule in Bactria, moved south into Gandhara. The Yuezhi supplied the Chinese with jade, which they got from the nearby mountains of Yuzhi at Gansu.

The Yuezhi were mentioned in 645 BC by the Chinese author Guan Zhong. The Yuezhi are interesting because they can probably be identified with the Tokharians, who spoke an Indo-European language. The Yuezhi are generally believed to have spoken a language related to Tocharian, of the Indo- European family, and to have been ethnically Caucasoid.

The Yuezhi had previously dominated the northern steppes, before being driven west by the Xiongnu. Various nomadic tribes, such as the Yuezhi (Yueh-chih) were part of the large migration of Indo-European speaking peoples. Although known by a Chinese name (Meat Eaters, a Chinese appellation), the Yuezhi was one of the numerous Iranian or Aryan nomadic tribes. During the Qin and Han Dynasties, the Yuezhi were one of the three major ethnic groups (the other two were the Eastern Hu and Xiongnu). Even though they invaded Central Asia with a population of four hundred thousand, the Greater Yuezhi could not have changed the entire original population structure of the region.

In the second century BCE the Xiongnu attacked their neighbors, the Yuezhi. When news of conflict between the Yuezhi and the Xiongnu reached the Han court early in the reign of Wudi, he decided to send an envoy westward to the Yuezhi, hoping to make an alliance with them against the Xiongnu. The encroachment by the Yuezhi compelled the Sai to move southwards.

Defeats in 208207 BC forced the Yuezhi to gradually migrate westwards across the Tarim Basin to the Ili Basin and Lake Issyk Kul. The power of the Yuezhi was weakened after they were defeated by the Modu Shanyu of the Xiongnu. The remnants of the Yuezhi moved west across Central Asia, settling in Bactria (within modern Afghanistan).

In 174 BC the Hiungnu defeated the Yuezhi, and the majority of the Yuezhi people fled to the East Tarim Basin After being defeated by the nomadic Xiongnu people, the majority of the Yuezhi migrated to Transoxiana (part of southern Asia). The Lesser Yuezhi moved to the south while the Greater Yuezhi moved west. The majority of the Yuezhi continued to move west into the Greek state of Bactria. When the Great Yuezhi went to the West and defeated and drove away the Sai king (or the Sai wang) went southwards and crossed Xuandu, and the Great Yuezhi occupied their country. When Zhang Qian visited the Yuezhi in 126 BC, trying to obtain their alliance to fight the Xiongnu, he explained that the Yuezhi were settled north of the Oxus.

From about the middle of the second century BC the nomad and pastoral tribes of Central Asia for some reason or other, probably a change of climate, were obliged to leave their home territories and move to the south and west in search of pasturage for their herds and subsistence for themselves. These wild people overwhelmed the Greek kingdom of Bactria and set up governments of their own. The earliest swarm was known to the Indians by the name of Sakas. They made their way into Sistan on the Hilmand river, west of Kandahar, which was consequently called Sakastan, or the Saka country. Saka rulers also established themselves in Surashtra or Kathiawar, and probably at Taxila and Mathura.

It is still in dispute whether it was the Yuezhi themselves or others whom they in turn pushed south-eastward who founded the Kushan empire. The period between the middle of the second century BC and about 30 CE, when the Kushans established themselves as supreme within the Yuezhi confederation, was one of great change within Yuezhi-Kushan society. After their conversion to Buddhism, the Yuezhi by then known as the Kushans proceeded to conquer India.

During the late first century AD, having reestablished the administrative control over southern China and northern Vietnam that had been lost briefly at beginning of this same century, the Eastern Han made a concerted effort to reassert dominance over Inner Asia. A Chinese army crossed the Pamir Mountains, conquered territories as far west as the Caspian Sea, defeated the Yuezhi Kushan Empire, and even sent an emissary in search of the eastern provinces of Rome.

In the first century after Christ the nomad tribe from Central Asia, the Yueh-chi, descended upon the plains of northern India. Their leading clan, the Kushans, founded a great empire which extended southwards apparently as far as the Narbada. The Kushans appear to have been big fair complexioned men, probably of Turki race, and possibly akin to the Iranian or Persian Aryans. The Saka and Yueh-chi conquests must have introduced a large element of foreign blood into the Indian population.

The horde of nomads, called Yueh-chi by the Chinese historians, descended through Bactria and Kabul to India. The leading clan of this horde was named Kushan or Kusana. The conquest of the countries now known as Afghanistan and the Punjab by the chiefs of the Kushan clan of the Yuehchi horde, about the middle and close of the first century A. D., brought India into relation with the Roman empire as extended eastward by Augustus and his successors. The prince, whom European scholars conveniently designate as Kadphises I (circa AD 45-85), annexed the Kabul valley and surrounding regions to the Kushan empire, and issued copper coins bearing on the obverse a king's head palpably imitated from that of Augustus, and on the reverse a figure of the king seated on a Roman curule chair.

His son, successor, and namesake, Kadphises II (circa AD 85-125), the conqueror of Northern India, carried much farther the imitation of the imperial Roman coinage, and struck a large number of gold pieces, both aurei and double aitrei, exactly agreeing with their Roman prototypes in weight, though considerably inferior in purity. The testimony of Pliny that in his time (AD 77) a copious stream of Roman gold flowed eastward is abundantly confirmed by the numerous hoards of Roman coins which have been discovered both in Northern and Southern India. About the last quarter of the first century after Christ the Kushan chief, known to historians as Kadphises II, conquered the various Indo-Greek and Indo-Parthian princes on the frontier and made himself master of a large part of Northwestern India, where his coins are found abundantly.

His successor after an interval was Kanishka, son of Vajheshka, also a Kushan, but of a family other than that of Kadphises II. Recent researches give support to the opinion that Kadphises II came to the throne in AD 78, and reigned for more than thirty years, until about AD 110, and that Kanishka attained supreme power about AD 120. His capital was Purushapura (Peshawar), from which he ruled Kabul, Kashmir, and all Northern India, perhaps as far as the Narbada. In his later years he favoured Buddhism, and, like Asoka, assembled a council of Buddhist monks, which prepared authorized commentaries of the scriptures. He spent many years in war on the other side of the difficult Pamir passes, and, after the death of the Chinese general, Pan-chao (AD 102), is believed to have annexed Kashgar and Khotan, now in Chinese Turkestan. He is said to have been smothered by discontented officers.

About AD 150 or 153 Huvishka succeeded to the sole government, certainly of India, and probably of the whole empire. He was a powerful king, and is known to have founded a town in Kashmir and a monastery at Mathura. In or about AD 182 Huvishka was succeeded by Vasudeva I, during whose reign the empire began to break up. With the accession of Huvishka's successor, Vasudeva (circa AD 185), marked decadence sets in. The aurei retain their old weight, but each contains nearly ten grains less of pure gold. Vasudeva reverted to the obverse device of the standing king sacrificing at an altar, as favoured by Kanishka, and to the reverse type of Siva with his bull, as used by Kadphises II. The eclectic pantheon of the two immediately preceding reigns has disappeared. The execution of Vasudeva's coins is semi-barbarous, and his authentic issues are succeeded by a crowd of wholly barbarous imitations, many of which are copied from Sassanian models. The Hellenic tradition is maintained only by the use of corrupted Greek characters in the legends. The reign of Vasudeva terminated about AD 225. Scarcely anything is known of the history of Northern India from his time to the rise of the Gupta dynasty in AD 320.

It is probable that the Saka era of AD 78 dates from the coronation of Kadphises II, the Saka king, who subdued Northern India. Indian authors use the term Saka vaguely to denote all foreigners from beyond the passes, and would not have hesitated in calling a Kushan a Saka. In later ages the era was known as that of Salivahana.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2012 19:53:01 ZULU