The Kushan Empire originally formed in the early 1st century AD under Kujula Kadphises in the territories of ancient Bactria around the Oxus River (Amu Darya), and later based near Kabul, Afghanistan. “The Kushan Empire spread from the Kabul River Valley to defeat otherCentral Asian tribes that had previously conquered parts of the northern central Iranian Plateau once ruled by the Parthians.”
During the 1st and early 2nd centuries AD, the Kushans expanded across the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent at least as far as Saketa and Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares), where inscriptions have been found dating to the era of the Kushan emperor Kanishka, which began about 127 AD. Around 152 CE, Kanishka sent his armies north of the Karakoram mountains. They captured territories as far as Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkant, in the Tarim Basin of modern-day Xinjiang, China. A direct road from Gandhara to China was opened which remained under Kushan control for more than 100 years. The security offered by the Kushans encouraged travel across the Khunjerab Pass and facilitated the spread of Mahayana Buddhism to China.
The Kushan were a branch of the Yuezhi confederation. Previously a nomadic people residing in eastern Central Asia, the Yuezhi moved southwest and settled in ancient Bactria. They had diplomatic contacts with the Roman Empire, Sassanid Persia and Han China. While much philosophy, art, and science was created within its borders, the only textual record we have of the empire’s history today comes from inscriptions and accounts in other languages, particularly Chinese. The Kushan control fragmented into semi-independent kingdoms in the 3rd century AD, which fell to the Sassanians who targeted from the west. In the fourth century, the Guptas, an Indian dynasty also pressed from the east. The last of the Kushan and Sassanian kingdoms were eventually overwhelmed by the Hepthalites, another Indo-European people from the north.
Chinese sources describe the Guishuang i.e. the Kushans, as one of the five aristocratic tribes of the Yuezhi, with some people claiming they were a loose confederation of Indo-European peoples, though many scholars are still unconvinced that they originally spoke an Indo-European language.
“For well over a century, however, there have been many arguments about the ethnic and linguistic origins of the Da Yuezhi , Kushans , and the Tochari, and still there is little consensus.
The Yuezhi had been living in the arid grasslands of eastern Central Asia’s Tarim Basin, in modern-day Xinjiang and western part of Gansu, possibly speaking versions of the Tocharian language, until they were driven west by the Xiongnu in 176–160 BC. The five tribes constituting the Yuezhi are known in Chinese history as Xiūmì , Guishuang , Shuangmi, Xidun , and Dūmì.
John Keay contextualizes the movements of the Kushan within a larger setting of mass migrations taking place in the region:
“Chinese sources tell of the construction of the Great Wall in the third century BC and the repulse of various marauding tribes. Forced to head west and eventually south, these tribes displaced others in an ethnic knock-on effect which lasted many decades and spread right across Central Asia. The Parthians from Iran and the Bactrian Greeks from Bactria had both been dislodged by the Shakas coming down from somewhere near the Aral Sea. But the Sakas had in turn been dislodged by the Yueh-chi who had themselves been driven west to Xinjiang by the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu would not reach India for a long time. But the Yueh-chi continued to press on the Shakas, and having forced them out of Bactria, it was sections or clans of these Yueh-chi who next began to move down into India in the second half of the first century AD.”
The Yuezhi reached the Hellenic kingdom of Greco-Bactria (in northern Afghanistan and Uzbekistan) around 135 BC. The displaced Greek dynasties resettled to the southeast in areas of the Hindu Kush and the Indus basin (in present day Pakistan), occupying the western part of the Indo-Greek Kingdom.
General Cunningham identified the Kushans as Gurjars (or Gujjars). The word Gusur is referred in the Rabatak inscription of Kushan king Kanishka. According to some scholars the Word Gusur, which means Kulputra or man or woman born in high family, in this inscription stands for Gujar or Gurjaras. The Gurjars of Central Asia are termed as Gusur (Gujur) even today.
Some traces remain of the presence of the Kushans in the area of Bactria and Sogdiana. Archaeological structures are known in Takht-I-Sangin, Surkh Kotal (a monumental temple), and in the palace ofKhalchayan. Various sculptures and friezes are known, representing horse-riding archers, and significantly men with artificially deformed skulls, such as the Kushan prince of Khalchayan (a practice well attested in nomadic Central Asia). The Chinese first referred to these people as the Yuezhi and said they established the Kushan Empire, although the relationship between the Yuezhi and the Kushans is still unclear. On the ruins of ancient Hellenistic cities such as Ai-Khanoum, the Kushans are known to have built fortresses. The earliest documented ruler, and the first one to proclaim himself as a Kushan ruler was Heraios. He calls himself a “tyrant” on his coins, and also exhibits skull deformation. He may have been an ally of the Greeks, and he shared the same style of coinage. Heraios may have been the father of the first Kushan emperor Kujula Kadphises.
The Chinese Hou Hanshu chronicles gives an account of the formation of the Kushan empire based on a report made by the Chinese general Ban Yong to the Chinese Emperor c. 125 AD:
“More than a hundred years later [than the conquest of Bactria by the Da Yuezhi], the prince [xihou] of Guishuang (Badakhshan) established himself as king, and his dynasty was called that of the Guishuang (Kushan) King. He invaded Anxi (Indo-Parthia), and took the Gaofu (Kabul) region. He also defeated the whole of the kingdoms of Puda (Paktiya) and Jibin (Kapisha and Gandhara). Qiujiuque (Kujula Kadphises) was more than eighty years old when he died. His son, Yangaozhen [probably Vema Tahk(tu) or, possibly, his brother Sadaṣkaṇa], became king in his place. He defeated Tianzhu [North-western India] and installed Generals to supervise and lead it. The Yuezhi then became extremely rich. All the kingdoms call [their king] the Guishuang [Kushan] king, but the Han call them by their original name, Da Yuezhi.”
Main Kushan rulers
Kujula Kadphises (ca. 30 – ca. 80)
“…the prince [elavoor] of Guishuang, named thilac [Kujula Kadphises], attacked and exterminated the four other xihou. He established himself as king, and his dynasty was called that of the Guishuang [Kushan] King. He invaded Anxi [Indo-Parthia], and took the Gaofu [Kabul] region. He also defeated the whole of the kingdoms of Puda [Paktiya] and Jibin [Kapisha and Gandhara]. Qiujiuque [Kujula Kadphises] was more than eighty years old when he died.”
These conquests probably took place sometime between 45 and 60, and laid the basis for the Kushan Empire which was rapidly expanded by his descendants.
Kujula issued an extensive series of coins and fathered at least two sons, Sadaṣkaṇa (who is known from only two inscriptions, especially the Rabatak inscription, and apparently never have ruled), and seemingly Vima Takto.
Kujula Kadphises was the great grandfather of Kanishka.
Vima Taktu or Sadashkana (ca. 80 – ca. 95)
Vima Takto (Ancient Chinese: 閻膏珍 Yangaozhen) is not mentioned in the Rabatak inscription (Sadashkana is instead. See also the reference to Sims-William’s article below). He was the predecessor of Vima Kadphises, and Kanishka I. He expanded the Kushan Empire into the northwest of the South Asia. The Hou Hanshu says:
“His son, Yangaozhen [probably Vema Tahk(tu) or, possibly, his brother Sadaṣkaṇa], became king in his place. He defeated Tianzhu [North-western India] and installed Generals to supervise and lead it. The Yuezhi then became extremely rich. All the kingdoms call [their king] the Guishuang [Kushan] king, but the Han call them by their original name, Da Yuezhi.”
Vima Kadphises (ca. 95 – ca. 127)
Vima Kadphises (Kushan language: Οοημο Καδφισης) was a Kushan emperor from around 90–100 AD, the son of Sadashkana and the grandson of Kujula Kadphises, and the father of Kanishka I, as detailed by the Rabatak inscription.
Vima Kadphises added to the Kushan territory by his conquests in Afghanistan and north-west Pakistan. He issued an extensive series of coins and inscriptions. He was the first to introduce gold coinage in India, in addition to the existing copper and silver coinage.
Kanishka I (ca. 127 – ca. 140)
The rule of Kanishka, fifth Kushan king, who flourished for about 13 years from c. 127. Upon his accession, Kanishka ruled a huge territory (virtually all of northern India), south to Ujjain and Kundina and east beyond Pataliputra, according to the Rabatak inscription:
“In the year one, it has been proclaimed unto India, unto the whole realm of the governing class, including Koonadeano (Kaundiny, Kundina) and the city of Ozeno (Ozene, Ujjain) and the city of Zageda (Saketa) and the city of Kozambo (Kausambi) and the city of Palabotro (Pataliputra) and so long unto (i.e. as far as) the city of Ziri-tambo (Sri-Champa).”
—Rabatak inscription, Lines 4–6
His territory was administered from two capitals: Purushapura (now Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan) and Mathura, in northern India. He is also credited (along with Raja Dab) for building the massive, ancient Fort at Bathinda (Qila Mubarak), in the modern city ofBathinda, Indian Punjab.
The Kushans also had a summer capital in Bagram (then known as Kapisa), where the “Begram Treasure”, comprising works of art from Greece to China, has been found. According to the Rabatak inscription, Kanishka was the son of Vima Kadphises, the grandson of Sadashkana, and the great-grandson of Kujula Kadphises. Kanishka’s era is now generally accepted to have begun in 127 on the basis of Harry Falk’s ground-breaking research. Kanishka’s era was used as a calendar reference by the Kushans for about a century, until the decline of the Kushan realm.
Vāsishka (ca. 140 – ca. 160)
Vāsishka was a Kushan emperor who seems to have a 20 year reign following Kanishka. His rule is recorded as far south as Sanchi (near Vidisa), where several inscriptions in his name have been found, dated to the year 22 (The Sanchi inscription of “Vaksushana” – i. e. Vasishka Kushana) and year 28 (The Sanchi inscription of Vasaska – i. e. Vasishka) of the Kanishka era.
Huvishka (ca. 160 – ca. 190)
Huvishka (Kushan: Οοηϸκι, “Ooishki”) was a Kushan emperor from about 20 years after the death of Kanishka (assumed on the best evidence available to be in 140 AD) until the succession of Vasudeva I about thirty years later. His rule was a period of retrenchment and consolidation for the Empire. In particular he devoted time and effort early in his reign to the exertion of greater control over the city of Mathura.
Vasudeva I (ca. 190 – ca. 230)
Vasudeva I (Kushan: Βαζοδηο “Bazodeo”, Chinese: 波調 “Bodiao”) was the last of the “Great Kushans.” Named inscriptions dating from year 64 to 98 of Kanishka’s era suggest his reign extended from at least 191 to 225 AD. He was the last great Kushan emperor, and the end of his rule coincides with the invasion of the Sassanids as far as northwestern India, and the establishment of the Indo-Sassanids or Kushanshahs from around 240 AD.
After the death of Vasudeva I in 225, the Kushan empire split into western and eastern halves. The Western Kushans (in Afghanistan) were soon subjugated by the Persian Sassanid Empire and lost Bactria and other territories. In 248 they were defeated again by the Persians, who deposed the Western dynasty and replaced them with Persian vassals known as the Kushanshas (or Indo-Sassanids).
The Eastern Kushan kingdom was based in the Punjab. Around 270 their territories on the Gangetic plain became independent under local dynasties such as the Yaudheyas. Then in the mid 4th century they were subjugated by the Gupta Empire under Samudragupta.
In 360 a Kushan vassal named Kidara overthrew the old Kushan dynasty and established the Kidarite Kingdom. The Kushan style of Kidarite coins indicates they considered themselves Kushans. The Kidarite seem to have been rather prosperous, although on a smaller scale than their Kushan predecessors.
These remnants of the Kushan empire were ultimately wiped out in the 5th century by the invasions of the Hephthalites, and later the expansion of Islam.
Main Kushan rulers
- Heraios (c. 1 – 30), first Kushan ruler, generally Kushan ruling period is disputed
- Kujula Kadphises (c. 30 – c. 80)
- Vima Takto, (c. 80 – c. 95) alias Soter Megas or “Great Saviour.”
- Vima Kadphises (c. 95 – c. 127) the first great Kushan emperor
- Kanishka I (127 – c. 140)
- Vāsishka (c. 140 – c. 160)
- Huvishka (c. 160 – c. 190)
- Vasudeva I (c. 190 – to at least 230), the last of the great Kushan emperors
- Kanishka II (c. 230 – 240)
- Vashishka (c. 240 – 250)
- Kanishka III (c. 250 – 275)
- Vasudeva II (c. 275 – 310)
- Vasudeva III reported son of Vasudeva III,a King, uncertain.
- Vasudeva IV reported possible child of Vasudeva III,ruling in Kandahar, uncertain.
- Vasudeva of Kabul reported possible child of Vasudeva IV,ruling in Kabul, uncertain.
- Chhu (c. 310? – 325?)
- Shaka I (c. 325 – 345)
- Kipunada (c. 345 – 375)