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Kushan Empire

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The Kushan Empire (c. 1st- 3rd centuries) was a state that at its height, about 105 - 250, stretched from Tajikistan to the Caspian Sea to Afghanistan and down into the Ganges river valley. The empire was created by Tocharians from modern Xinjiang, China. They had diplomatic contacts with Rome, Sassanian Persia and China, and for several centuries were at the center of exchange between the East and the West.



The name Kushan derives from the Chinese term Guishuang (Ch:貴霜) that described one of the five tribes of the Yuezhi (Ch:月氏), a loose confederation of Indo-European peoples speaking versions of the Tocharian language. They were the easternmost Indo-Europeans, who had been living in the arid grasslands of the Tarim Basin in modern-day Xinjiang, until they were driven west by the Xiongnu in 176-160 BCE. The five Yuezhi tribes are known in Chinese history as Xiūḿ (Ch:休密), Guishang (Ch:貴霜), (Ch:雙靡), (Ch:肸頓) and Dūḿ (Ch:都密).

The Yuezhi reached the Hellenic kingdom of Greco-Bactria, in the Bactrian territory (northernmost Afghanistan and Uzbekistan) around 135 BCE, and displaced the Greek dynasties there, who resettled in Indus basin (in present day Pakistan) in the western part of the Indo-Greek Kingdom.

A multi-cultural Empire

In the following century, the Yuezhi tribe of the Guishang (Ch: 貴霜) gained prominence over the others, and welded them into a tight confederation. The name Guishang was adopted in the West and modified into Kushan to designate the confederation, although the Chinese continued to call them Yuezhi.

Gradually wresting control of the area from the Scythian tribes, the Kushans expanded south into the region traditionally known as Gandhara (An area lying primarily in Pakistan's Pothowar, and NWFP region but going in an arc to include Kabul valley and part of Qandahar in Afghanistan) and established twin capitals near present-day Kabul and Peshawar then known as Kapisa and Pushklavati respectively.

The Kushans adopted many elements of the Hellenistic culture of Bactria, where they had settled. They adapted the Greek alphabet to suit their own language and soon began minting coinage on the Greek model.


Heraios was probably the first of the Kushan kings. He may have been an ally of the Greeks, and he shared the same style of coinage. Heraios was probably the father of Kujula Kadphises.

Kujula Kadphises

At the beginning of the 1st century, during the reign of Kujula Kadphises, the Kushans suffered a strong setback, as a large part of their empire was invaded by the Parthians. The Parthian leader Gondophares established an Indo-Parthian Kingdom that was to last until the end of the century. By around 75, however, the Kushans had regained most of their territory.

Kanishka I

The rule of Kanishka I, the fourth Kushan emperor, who flourished for at least 28 years from c. 127, was administered from two capitals: Purushapura (now Peshawar in northern Pakistan) and Mathura, in northern India. 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 Vima Taktu, and the great-grandson of Kujula Kadphises.

The rule of the Kushans linked the seagoing trade of the Indian Ocean with the commerce of the Silk Road through the long-civilized Indus Valley. At the height of the dynasty, the Kushans loosely oversaw a territory that extended to the Aral Sea through present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan into northern India.

The loose unity and comparative peace of such a vast expanse encouraged long-distance trade, brought Chinese silks to Rome, and created strings of flourishing urban centers.

Cultural exchanges also flourished, encouraging the development of Greco-Buddhism, a fusion of hellenist and Buddhist cultural elements, that was to expand into central and northern Asia as Mahayana Buddhism. Kanishka is renowed in Buddhist tradition for having convened a great Buddhist council in Kashmir. This council is attributed with having marked the official beginning of the pantheistic Mahayana Buddhism and its scission with Nikaya Buddhism. Kanishka also had the original Gandhari vernacular, or Prakrit, Mahayana Buddhist texts translated into the high literary language of Sanskrit. Along with the Indian king Ashoka, the Indo-Greek king Menander I (Milinda), and Harsha Vardhana, Kanishka is considered by Buddhism as one of its greatest benefactors.

The art and culture of Gandhara, at the crossroads of the Kushan hegemony, are the best known expressions of Kushan influences to Westerners.

Contacts with China

During the 1st and 2nd century, the Kushan Empire expanded militarily to the north and occupied parts of the Tarim Basin, their original grounds, putting them at the center of the profitable Central Asian commerce with the Roman Empire. They are related to have collaborated militarily with the Chinese against nomadic incursion, particularly when they collaborated with the Chinese general Ban Chao against the Sogdians in 84 CE, when the latter were trying to support a revolt by the king of Kashgar. Around 85 CE, they also assisted the Chinese general in an attack on Turfan, east of the Tarim Basin.

In recognition for their support to the Chinese, the Kushans requested, but were denied, a Han princess, even after they had sent presents to the Chinese court. In retaliation, they marched on Ban Chao in 86 CE with a force of 70,000, but, exhausted by the expedition, were finally defeated by the smaller Chinese force. The Yuezhi retreated and paid tribute to the Chinese Empire during the reign of the Chinese emperor Han He (89-106).

Later, around 116 CE, the Kushans under Kanishka established a kingdom centered on Kashgar, also taking control of Khotan and Yarkand, which were Chinese dependencies in the Tarim Basin, modern Xinjiang. They introduced the Brahmi script, the Indian Prakrit language for administration, and expanded the influence of Greco-Buddhist art which developed into Serindian art.

The Kushans are again recorded to have sent presents to the Chinese court in 158-159 CE during the reign of the Chinese emperor Han Huan.

Following these interactions, cultural exhanges further increased, and Kushan Buddhist missionaries, such as Lokaksema, became active in the Chinese capital cities of Loyang and sometimes Nanjing, where they particularly distinguished themselves by their translation work. They were the first recorded promoters of Hinayana and Mahayana scriptures in China, greatly contributing to the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism.


From the 3rd century the Kushan empire began to fragment.

Around 225 Vasudeva I died and the Kushan empire was divided into western and eastern halves. Around 224-240, the Sasanians invaded Bactria and Northern India. Around 270, the Kushans lost their territories on the Gangetic plain.

Remants of the Kushan empire were ultimately wiped out in the 5th century by the invasions of the White Huns, and later the expansion of Islam.

Main Kushan rulers

See also

External links


  • Falk, Harry. 2001. “The yuga of Sphujiddhvaja and the era of the Kuşâņas.” Silk Road Art and Archaeology VII, pp. 121-136.
  • Foucher, M. A. 1901. "Notes sur la geographie ancienne du Gandhâra (commentaire à un chaptaire de Hiuen-Tsang)." BEFEO No. 4, Oct. 1901, pp. 322-369.
  • Hargreaves, H. (1910-11): "Excavations at Shāh-jī-kī Dhērī"; Archaeological Survey of India, 1910-11, pp. 25-32.
  • Harmatta, János, ed., 1994. History of civilizations of Central Asia, Volume II. The development of sedentary and nomadic civilizations: 700 B.C. to A.D. 250. Paris, UNESCO Publishing.
  • Hill, John E. 2004. The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu. Draft annotated English translation.[1]
  • Hill, John E. 2004. The Peoples of the West from the Weilue 魏略 by Yu Huan 魚豢: A Third Century Chinese Account Composed between 239 and 265 CE. Draft annotated English translation. [2]
  • Konow, Sten. Editor. 1929. Kharoshthī Inscriptions with Exception of those of Asoka. Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, Vol. II, Part I. Reprint: Indological Book House, Varanasi, 1969.
  • Litvinsky, B. A., ed., 1996. History of civilizations of Central Asia, Volume III. The crossroads of civilizations: A.D. 250 to 750. Paris, UNESCO Publishing.
  • Liu, Xinru 2001 “Migration and Settlement of the Yuezhi-Kushan: Interaction and Interdependence of Nomadic and Sedentary Societies.” Journal of World History, Volume 12, No. 2, Fall 2001. University of Hawaii Press, pp. 261-292. [3].
  • Sarianidi, Victor. 1985. The Golden Hoard of Bactria: From the Tillya-tepe Excavations in Northern Afghanistan. Harry N. Abrams, New York.
  • Spooner, D. B. 1908-9. "Excavations at Shāh-jī-kī Dhērī."; Archaeological Survey of India, 1908-9, pp. 38-59.
  • Watson, Burton. Trans. 1961. Records of the Grand Historian of China: Translated from the Shih chi of Ssu-ma Ch'ien. Chapter 123: The Account of Ta-yüan, p. 265. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231081677

There is also an unrelated Kushan Empire in the PC game series "Homeworld."

Last updated: 08-27-2005 05:41:13