The Date of Kanishka

The Problem of the Kushan Inscriptions

So let us look at the Kushan inscriptions. These dates are in three groups: A set of dated inscriptions in Kharoshti of the early Kushan inscriptions, probably in the same era; Two inscriptions in Bactrian in another era; a large group dated between 1 and 98 in Brahmi and Kharoshti. It is this last group that are in the era of Kanishka. All of these dates are presented in the two tables below:

Note: Excluded from the table are three anomalous inscriptions, one from Afghanistan of year 50 (Harmatta. 1994), one of Vasudeva with the date 170 (Inscription 159), and one of Yasaga (Inscription 83).

Unamed Kushan King Vima Takpiso Vima Kadphises
184 (maybe 187?)

Kanishka Huvishka Vasudeva Vasishka Kanishka (III?)
1-5, 7-14, 16-18, 20, 23

28-29, 31, 33-35, 38-40, 45, 47-48, 50-51, 53, 58, 60

64, 70, 74, 76, 80-84, 87, 89, 91, 98

20, 22, 24, 28


The second table clearly shows that Kanishka initiated an era, one that was not used by the three Kushan kings who proceeded him. At first glance the inscriptions appear to indicate a clear series of rulers Kanishka-Vasishka-Huvishka-Vasudeva over a period of 100 years. However, if that were the case the rule of Vasishka overlaps with that of Kanishka and Huvishka, and it would be necessary to explain the inscription of Kanishka of year 41. This is possible, either by suggesting joint rule of the Empire with Huvishka, or by suggesting more than one Huvishka and inserting the other kings in the sequence (though only by fudging Vasishkas dates) thus Kanishka, Vasishka, Huvishka, Kanishka II, Huvishka II, Vasudeva. However it is far from an elegant solution.

If the inscriptions were the only evidence any solution would seem a little forced but would probably involve only a single century. However we also have the coinage of the Kushans. This gives a sequence as follows: Kajula Kadphises, Soter Megas, Vima Kadphises, Kanishka, Huvishka, Vasudeva, Kanishka II, Vasishka, Kanishka III, Vasudeva II, Shaka and others. When this is compared with our inscriptions it provides a more elegant solution. Kanishka, Huvishka and Vasudeva follow each other over a span of 100 years. Then a second sequence Kanishka II, Vasishka, and Kanishka III over 41 years. In order for this to work some of the inscriptions from 1 to 20 of Kanishka would in fact belong to the second Kanishka. This would fit very neatly with two centuries, the second of which was expressed without the symbol for 100. This leaves us with the theory of the 'dropped hundreds'.

Though this scheme has widespread acceptance there are still authors (Harmatta, 1994; Shrava, 1980) who favor only a single century, and joint rule or multiple Huvishka's..

The 'dropped hundreds' argument

The evidence strongly suggests that there are two sequences of dates, from 1 to 98, and from 22 to 41. The reason for interpreting this as a second century is the very natural way in which Vasudevas last date (at 98) would fit with the early inscriptions of the proposed Kanishka II. However, there is no real evidence for favoring a second century rather than two separate eras. So instead Kushan students have operated on a principle of parsimony, or 'Occams Razor', of preferring the solution that requires the smallest number of assumed eras.

There are a few problems with the 'dropped hundreds'. The eras used in Bactria, the Azes era, the Satavahana, the Saka era, and the Gupta era do not follow the practice of abbreviating inscriptions. So the practice, if it occurs is firmly located in the Kushan domain in a particular period. This is awkward in itself, but it makes it very unlikely that someone outside the region would have done the same, they would rather have expressed the date in its full form. The other problem is that the practice must be an abbreviation. Kushan inscriptions are often short, private donations, and the dating formula is often abbreviated, 'Sam' for 'Samvatsare', 'di' for 'divase', 'he' for 'hemata', space is clearly at a premium and the advantages of dropping the hundreds character are obvious. But this is clearly not the case for written records. A book written in Mathura would no doubt have used the full 'Samvatsare' and undoubtedly expressed the date in full.

Unfortunately an idea has become pervasive, but never openly stated, that the Kushan era was cyclical in character, counting up to hundred and then 'resetting' to 1. So that there never was a hundreds character at all. This has partly arisen in attempt to strengthen Falk's thesis concerning the date of Kanishka's era. It is however no more tenable than his use of the dropped hundreds thesis, and it illustrates how forcing evidence in a way that will not fit can lead to quite bizarre distortions of earlier evidence.


We can conclude that there probably are two sequences of Kushan dates, and that they might represent two centuries of the same era (Lohuizen, 1949), or two eras (Rosenfield, 1966). Without further evidence it is impossible to decide which option is true, but for the sake of simplicity it has often been discussed as if it were two centuries.

Contents Page The Date of Kanishka Lohuizen's Second Era Dates Inscription Evidence Bibliography

Robert Bracey.