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Kushan or Indo-Scythian Period

In the first century BC, the Greek rule was swept away in the new wave of invasions by the Scythians and the Parthians. Greek rule yielded to that of the Kushans, nomadic invaders from Central Asia who arrived roughly 2000 years ago. Kushan rule resulted in another round of cultural synthesis, generating the Gandharan “golden age.” The period of the Kushans had started with its new capital Purushapura i.e. Peshawar. Kushan kings nourished Buddhism and erected stupas and monasteries in the vicinity of the city of Peshawar. It was the winter capital of Kanishka and a great center of Buddhism. At that time, the world’s largest Buddhist monastery was situated at Peshawar. The spread and propagation of Buddhism in the Pakhtun’s territory covers a lengthy time span, from the Kushan period to the Muslim conquest. It is attested by many inscriptions left by Buddhist pilgrims, Chinese travelers, and by the discovery of other important inscriptions from Bajaur, Tirah, Swat, Gilgit, Hunza, Mardan and Swabi written in Kharosthi and Brahmi scripts.

From about the middle of the second century BC the nomad and pastoral tribes of Central Asia for some reason or other 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 Slstan on the Hilmand river, west of Kandahar, vhich was consequently called Sakastan, or the Saka country. Saka rulers also established themselves in Surashtra or Kathiawar, and probably at Taxila and Mathura.

Another horde of nomads, horde of nomads, called Siao-Yue-Chi or Yueh-chi by the Chinese historians, descended through Bactria and Kabul to India. The leading clan of this horde was named Kushan or Kusana. About the middle of the first century AD 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 north-western India, where his coins are found abundantly.

His successor seems to have been Kanishka. Some consider Kanak to have reigned a little prior to the commencement of the Christian era, and to be the same as the Kanika or Nika of Fa-Hian; the Kanishka of Hiuen-thsang and the Rajataranginf and the Kanerkes of the Greco-Barbarian coins. Scholars differ about the date of Kanishka, but the best opinions are that he came to the throne either in 78 AD or about forty or fifty years later. Recent discoveries establish that he was a member of the Kushan clan, the son of Vashishpa, and that he reigned at least forty years. In the latter part of his reign he showed great favour to Buddhism, and, like Asoka, assembled a council of Buddhist monks, which composed commentaries on the scriptures. His capital was Purushapura or Peshawar, from which he ruled Kabul, Kashmir, and Northern India, perhaps as far as the Narbada. There is good reason to believe that he carried his arms across the difficult passes of the Pamirs and subjugated Khotan and Kashgar. He was succeeded by Huvishka, probably his son, who also was a powerful prince. He built a monastery at Mathura, and a town in Kashmir. Huvishka was followed by Vasudeva, in whose time apparently the Kushan empire broke up, but it is not known exactly what happened. No period in Indian history is more obscure than the third century AD.

The Saka era dating from 78 AD, called in later ages the era of Salivahana, certainly was introduced by foreigners, and perhaps the most probable theory is that it marks the accession of Kanishka. Indian authors use the term Saka in a vague way for all sorts of foreigners from the other side of the passes, and would have felt no difficulty in describing a Kushan king as a Saka. Certain reasons, however, support the opinion that Kanishka's accession took place about 120 or 125 AD, and some scholars are inclined to believe that the Saka Satraps of Surashtra originated the Saka era.

Both Kanishka and Huvishka were great builders, and spent much money on Buddhist monasteries and stupas at Mathura, Peshawar, and other places, of which some traces still exist. Ever since the time of Asoka, India had been filled with magnificent Buddhist buildings. The monasteries were often huge structures built of timber on brick foundations, several stories high and splendidly decorated. The stupas were domed cupolas, generally constructed of brick, designed either to enshrine relics or to mark some holy spot. The larger ones were often surrounded by richly carved stone railings with highly ornamented gateways, and no expense was spared in the adornment of the buildings in every possible way. The best preserved example is the great stupa at Sanchi in Bhopal. The finest carved railing was that which surrounded the stupa of Amaravati on the Kistna river in the Gantur District, Madras. In and about the Peshawar District the remains of numerous stupas and monasteries of Kushan age exist, and multitudes of wellexecuted sculptures resembling in style the Graeco-Roman work of the first three centuries AD have been found. The Buddhists also were fond of hewing cltaityas, or churches, out of the solid rock. The best examples of these are at Karle and other places in the Bombay Presidency. The practice lasted for many centuries, and some of the cave-temples were excavated for Jain and Hindu worship. The Jains also built stupas exactly like those of the Buddhists.

The Kushan dynasty was deposed and replaced by another line of kings who were called the Sakas. They recognized the suzerainty of the Sassanians. During this time, new Persian elements were introduced in the area. In fourth century AD little Kushan occupied Gandhara. They were also called Kidar Kushans.

In 455 AD, the Huns defeated the Guptas and in 465 AD they captured Gandhara, Pakistan, and the surrounding area nowadays inhibited by the Pakhtuns. They followed their own religions such as Tengri, Nestorian, Christianity and Manichaeism. After the capture of Gandhara, the Huns pushed on into the Gangetic plains in India.

Indo-Scythian Empire 126 BC - AD 100

Indo-Scythian Empire
Scythians c 130c 30 BCE
Antimachus II130125
Strato I13095
Lysias 120110
Artemidorus ?95
Peucolnus ?95
Zoilus II 9580
Dionysios 9580
Apollophanes 9580
Hippostratus 8570
Strato I (restored) 8075
Strato II 8075
Appolodotus 50
Hippostratos 30
Azes I5735
Azes II3512
The Indo-Scythians are a subset of the much larger nomadic tribe known as the Scythians, the Sakas or the Indo-Iranian Sakas. Many different tribes grouped together under the Scythian or Scytho–Sarmatians, established their rule after the Scythian conquest of the Indo-Greek Kingdom. They became a strong ethnic group in the Indus Valley, Rajasthan, Gujrat, and upper Ganges Valley.

Between the middle of the 2nd century BC and the 4th century AD, the Indo-Scythians migrated (often one step ahead of the invading Yuezhi tribe) from Central Asia across the Oxus (present-day Amu Darya) River into Bactria, Arachosia, Gandhara (in present-day Afghanistan), then eastward into the Punjab and Kashmir (present-day Pakistan and India) as well as Gujarat and Rajasthant (Western and Central India. The Indo-Scythian invasion represents just one of many events and consequences triggered by the Yuezhi invasion, which permanently changed the landscape of Bactria, the Kabul Valley and India, with repercussions felt as far off as Rome.

The Yuezhi (of Yüeh-Chih), also known as "The Great Clan of Yue," were a Central Asian tribe of nomads migrated west and south to Transoxiana [the region north of the ancient Oxus (present-day Amu Darua) River] by 155 BC, and thence to Bactria by 120-110 BC, where they wiped out the remains of the Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms and, after 50 BC) formed the Kushan Empire. This forced the Scythians to undertake their own migration, south to the Iran Plateau, Afghanistan and northern India, where for a time they established a loosely defined Indo-Scythian Rule.

The Greco-Bactrian dynasty fell, partly beneath the superiority of the Parthian, partly from the invasion of Scythian (Tartar) nomad hordes, advancing into the country from the north: and from the year 126 BC there grew up the vast Indo-Scythian empire of the Sacae, comprising Bactria, Kaboolistan, the countries on the Indus, the Punjab, and a large portion of Rajpootana. The Indo-Scythian Sakae ruled modern day area of almost all Pakistan and Northwest part of India. Sakae (Indo-Scythian) capitals were: Sigal, Taxila, Mathura and Minnagara.

In 126 BC Taxila was wrested from the Greeks by the Indo-Scythian Sus, with whom it remained for about three-quarters of a century, when it was conquered by the later Indo-Scythians of the Kuslidn tribe, under the great Kanishka. During this period Parshawar would appear to have been the capital of the Indo-Scythian dominions, while Taxila was governed by satraps. The great Indo-Scythian capital was at Thatha. Edrisif describes Manhabar as situated on a low plain, and surrounded with gardens and running water. Captain Hamilton gives the same description of Thatha, which, he says, "stands in a spacious plain, and they have canals cut from the river, that bring water to the city, and some for the use of their gardens."

During his relatively brief reign (85-60 BC), the Indo-Scythian ruler Maues invaded the Indo-Greek territories of modern Pakistan, established a capital at Sirkap (near Taxila in present-day Pakistan) and established a regime that tended to assimilate, rather than destroy, Greek culture. Some scholars suggest that Maues (who took the tile of "Great King of Kings," derived from a traditional Persian royal title) may have been a Scythian general hired by the Indo-Greeks. In any case, unlike the Yuezhi, Maues appeared to tolerate and patronize the local Greek and Indian communities, a practice his successors would continue.

The Indo-Scythian kingdom was greatly diminished in the year 56 BC by Vikramaditya, "the mortal foe of the Sacae"; at least, it was broken up into the Punjab and the countries lying east of it. This monarch, who seems to have again enlarged the Indian empire to the west as far as the Indus, appears quite in a light of mythical brilliancy, fabulously exaggerated by Indian tradition. The time of his sovereignty, identical with that of the birth of Christ, is said to have been the real date of Indian science and art in its meridian splendour.

Azes I (probable rule: 57-35 BC) began and Azes II (ruled circa 35-12 BC) completed the domination of the Indo-Greeks by the Indo-Scythians in northern India. The Greeks had been able to regain the lost territories of Punjab, but Scythian King Azes 1, dethroned the last Greek King to reign in Western Punjab, (including Taxila and Pushkalavati) expelled them in 55 BC. Gondophares, the founder of the Indo Parthian Kingdom, came to power towards the end of reign of Azes.

After the death of Azes II (circa 12 BC), the rule of the Indo-Scythians crumbled under pressure from the Kushans, one of the five tribes of the Yuezhi which had lived in Bactria for more than a century, and expanded from Afghanistan into India to create a vast Kushan Empire. In about 10 AD the Scythian Rajuvula, the Satrap of Mathura (middle Ganges Valley), conquered last Greek bastion at Sagala (Sialkot) in eastern Punjab and thus the Greek power came to an end. The coinage of this period is much debased. Rather later, about the year 60 AD, when the Periplus of the Red Sea was written, a Indo-Parthian empire existed that extended at least to Jellalabad, and had nearly the whole extent of the Indo-Scythia of Ptolemy.

After the death of Azes, the rule of Indo Scythians in northwest India crumbled with the conquest of Indo Parthian ruler Gondophares, who established their Empire temporarily till 1st Century AD. which was replaced by Kushans, a tribe of Yuezhi, who lived in Bactria for more than a century, and came to India to create a Kushan Empire. Indo Scythians established a Kingdom by the coast in Abiria and Surastrene (Sindh and Gujrat) around 1st Millennium, moving northwards into Greek Kingdom and gained total control. Sakas established several Kingdoms in India. One of them founded by Vonones, (northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, Baluchistan) who ruled with his brother Spalahores, after his death his son Spalarises ascended the throne.

As concerns the duration and circuit of this polity much is enveloped in mystery. Even the notices furnished by Pliny, and resting, as it appears, on accurate information, throw no light on the existence and character of a great Indian empire. On the other hand, Ptolemy, about the year 140 AD, was acquainted with a kingdom of Caspiraans, the ruling people of Cashmeer, which extended as far as the Ganges on the east, and very likely had expanded itself east as well as south at the expense of the then considerably limited Indo-Scythian kingdom. To the south of the Ganges, Ptolemy enumerates a series of nations and kings, none of whom seem to have possessed an ascendency, and may rather be considered as having been all independent. The systematic inquiries of Ptolemy are most valuable, as they belong to a period at which time the greater part of North-west India had been subjected by the Indo-Scythians.

Like the Yuezhi and other nomadic wanderers, the Indo-Scythians appear to have prospered through both legitimate trade and the acquisition of booty during conflict. Transported by camel caravan in a journey that took many months from China to the Mediterranean, portable wealth in the form of jewelry, artworks, silks and other precious things were warehoused at key trading posts located at Bactra, Shibargan, Begram (the Kushan's summer capital), Samarkand and the desert oasis city at Merv. Dating the grave sites was possible by studying the coins found in the deceased person's hands or pockets. The specimen with the latest confirmed date was a gold coin of the Roman emperor Tiberius minted in the city of Lugdunum in Gaul (present-day France), between 16 and 21 AD. The years required for the Tiberius coin to travel from Gaul to northern Afghanistan during ancient times suggests a date for the Tillia-tepe burial as the second quarter of the 1st century AD.

The Indo-Scythians whom the Chinese first discovered in the Jaxartes region in BC 130 had been driven from their original habitat near Erguiul (Liang Chou) seventy years earlier by the very Scythians (Hiung-nu) whom the Chinese partly conquered in BC 121. The Indo-Scythians only became such after being Chino-Scythians, gradually working their way over the Oxus, displaced the Sacae. The Chinese called the indigenous people displaced by the Indo-Scyths, by the name Sak, and everything available in the way of evidence points to these being the Greek writers' Sacae of the Sacasthene region, now called Seistan. The Sacae were the eastern branch of the Scythians, who constantly harassed the eastern provinces of the Persian empires and invaded Afghanistan and Northern India in the first century BC. There is not the faintest trace in Chinese history of any white, or Greek, rulers.

By the time the Indo-Scythians had come into contact with Parthia, Cophene, and India, all remnants of Greek rule had disappeared from Bactriana, and the rude Indo-Scythians had to choose between two rival civilisations, — between the fire religion of Persia and the Buddhism (mixed perhaps with Brahmanism or Sivaism) of India ; there were no other religious influences at hand. The evidence of coins found shows that the Indo- Scythian kings — though many or most of them were converted to, or partial to, Buddhism by the time they had conquered Cophene and reached the Indus — still tolerated the Persian religions, for they are represented on those coins as sacrificing upon the fire altar, with an effigy, however, of Siva and his cow on the other side.

About twenty miles east of the modern city of Kabul, there is a level piece of table land, extending over six square miles, called the plain of Beghram. The surface was strewed with fragments of pottery, metals, and sculpture. Here and there arose solitary mounds of stone and brick, which seemed to indicate the remains of human habitations. The happy situation of this plain at a spot where rivers meet, and where the main roads and mountain passes converge from all the four quarters, and the interesting vestiges visible on the surface of the ground— all this would soon shew, even to the casual observer, that here had once existed a great capital. In modern times the plain had become a sheep pasture. A vague avarice induced the shepherds to scratch up the soil in search of treasure. Soon they found seals, rings, bits of metal, and coins in vast quantities. The coins, which were principally copper, they would hawk about the city of Kabul. As these " treasure troves" became frequent, the trade began to thrive. And soon the mint-masters and copper-smiths of the city would repair to the great plain, visit the tents of the shepherds, and purchase the coins by weight. It was estimated, that about thirty thousand coins a year used to be procured in this manner, and melted down. And thus were consigned to indiscriminate destruction, myriads of coins, which the greatest academicians in Europe would have honoured with a place in their cabinets, and which might have told us more about Central Asia than all the histories that ever were written.

In all the coinage of the Indo-Scythian kingdom, there is a palpable admixture of Mithraic, Buddhist, and Brahmanical emblems. It is clear, therefore, that the IndoScythians patronized all three forms of faith. What wonder then, that the religious edifices, constructed at that time, should be decked with heterogeneous symbols ? Such are the curious cross rays of light, which the different departments of discovery throw upon each other. And, indeed, the concatenation of circumstances, attending these curious monuments, is wonderful. Who would have thought, that, in the North of India, there would be discovered Buddhist buildings, containing coins of Scythian kings with the names written in Greek letters, and with titles, partly Greek, partly Persian, partly Indian—or that rude imitations of the Greek Hercules and the Greek Victory, on Scythian coins, should be found in the same casket with coins, also Scythian, but blending the emblems of Mithra, of Siva, and of Buddha, and yet exhibiting Greek inscriptions? What can be a greater conglomeration than these things.

Indo-Scythian Transmission of Buddhism to China

Buddhism was introduced into China by the land route which was followed 1200 years later by Marco Polo and his uncles. During the process of "turning the Tartars' western flank" in BC 121, the victorious Chinese armies had captured a golden man from one of the Scythian princes then ruling over a state corresponding to Marco Polo's Erguiul. This "gold man" had been used for purposes of worship by the nomads, and for that reason the Emperor had directed it to be placed in his palace amongst the effigies of other notables ; incense was burnt before it, and obeisance made ; but it was not worshipped with sacrifice.

By BC 49 the Confucianists obtained favor at the Chinese Imperial Court ; but meanwhile there had been many imperial patrons of learning ; search had been made for copies of missing books ; the Confucian classics had been as far as possible reconstituted ; and there was no persecution — rather, indeed, "open door" to all opinions. Thus the ground was favorable for the planting of Buddhist seed.

But there was another circumstance which predisposed the Chinese to give thought to outlandish spiritual notions. The necessity for expanding and protecting extended frontiers had led to the systematic settlement of South China (BC 138-135); the "cutting off" of the Tartars' right arm (BC 127-111); the conquests of South-west China (BC 111-109) ; and that of Korea (BC 108). The western expeditions brought the Chinese into contact with the great Indo-Scythian monarchy of the Oxus Valley, then gradually extending itself towards the Indus. Chinese generals and commissaries had begun to hear strange things of India and its mysterious culture.

It is said that the way the name of Buddha was first introduced into China was this wise : Two centuries had elapsed since the era of discovery and external conquest began ; the Han dynasty had collapsed and been reconstituted ; and Chinese influence was once more beginning to assert itself in High Asia when, one day in AD, 62, the Emperor had a vision. He dreamt that a golden man with a bright light in the crown of his head had floated through the air into the Palace. A courtier who heard the story remarked that "it must be Buddha, a divinity in Western parts." This observation led the Emperor to despatch a special mission to India ; and, after two or three years' absence, this mission returned safely with a huge standing image of Buddha, and forty-two books, or chapters, of sutras. Two Hindoos, one of whom was named Kas'yapa Matanga, accompanied the mission back, apparently by way of the Cabul Valley, Yarkand, Khoten, and Lop Nor : these men, on arrival in China, at once began the study of the language, and the translation of the sutras thus brought.

The fact that a courtier was able to suggest the solution "Buddha" is of itself strong evidence in favor of the supposition that "people had been talking" about the new religion for some time. Fragments of an extinct Chinese history published about AD 220, and surviving in a second work compiled about AD 425, make it quite clear that, so early as the year BC 2, the King of the Indo-Scythians communicated to a Chinese scholar some prophetic words from a Buddhist sMra. Nor is this all ; it is explained that Buddha's father was called S'uddho-dana, and his mother Maya; the country in which they dwelt seems to be intended for K'ap'i — manifestly Kapilavastu.

The Indo-Scythian king in question would, judged by the date, be Kadphises the First ; and although that name is unrecognisable as given in Chinese dress, the two next kings, Kuzula-Kadphises and Oemo-Kadphises, will fit the Chinese names fairly well so far as the sounds Kuzulu and Oemo are concerned ; and there is a distinct statement in the AD 425 compilation that in AD 229 the Indo-Scythian King Vadeva (manifestly one of the Vasudevas) accepted a title from China.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2012 19:55:02 ZULU