Kushan History Kushan History

The Trading Empire

Wima Kadphises, Kanishka, Huvishka and Vasu Deva.

The order of Kushan kings is not certain. The Hermaues, 'Heraios', Kajula link was suggested by Tarn. The link from Kajula to Kanishka is testified by the Rabatak inscription. Kanishka to Vasudeva all appear on dated inscriptions but Vasishka may belong to a later set of inscriptions. An inscription from Mathura suggests that Huvishka is the great Grandson of Kajula. Vasaska, Vasaga, Kanishka II and Kanishka III appear on dated inscriptions at Mathura. Their relationship to each other and the rest of the Kushan dynasty is not known. So this table of the dynasty is just one of many possible interpretations.

The conquest of Shentu, the Indus valley, is reported by the Chinese chroniclers to have made the Kushan empire very rich. This is hardly surprising, the land itself was fertile and populous and the Roman Empire had traded with the east via the ports on the west coast of India for some time. The sea trade between Roman Egypt and India was an important feature of the time. The majority of Roman trade probably went to the southern port of Barygaza. The port of Barbarikon, which was under Kushan control, received only a small portion of this trade.

This trade maintained a wealthy urban population including Carpenters, Bankers, Caravan traders, Perfumers and innumerable other professions1 . The trade gave the urban elite access to Greek and Roman influences. The huge finds of Greek and Roman statues and art at Begram2 from between the first and third centuries shows the extent to which the Hellenic influences on local culture and art (best shown by the Gandharan and Mathuran schools of art) continued unabated under the Kushans. The trade also probably went some way towards funding Kanishka's apparently extensive military campaigns.

Of all the features of this remarkable empire probably the most remarkable was the religious tolerance widely assumed to have been prevalent under the Kushan kings. The coins of the empire carry on the reverse, most notably under Kanishka and Huvishka motifs from numerous religions; Zues, Heracles, Helios, Hephaistos, Sarapis, Selene from the Greek and Roman world. Mithra-Mitra, Mao, Vata and Atsho of Iranian origin as well as Siva from local Indian tradition 3. The Buddha is first represented in human form on the coins of Kanishka. This mirrors a development of Buddhism in local art.

Unfortunately despite a far greater amount being known about the life and rule of the Kushans in this period, matters of chronology have continued to elude historians and what is not known often outweighs what is. The debate which has for a long time stood as a sort of symbol of that lack of knowledge is the one that rages around the date of Kanishka's ascension. It is not that this date has any particular significance, would be particularly helpful or even that anyone really cares when Kanishka gained the throne, it is the symbolic value that it serves as a reminder of how much is still to be learnt about the past. Kanishka was the fourth in the sequence of Kushan kings and ascended the throne some time in the first or second century BC, though at one time the range of possible dates, extended over nearly four hundred years. By all accounts he was a warlike king who took the empire to the height of its power.

After him come three more kings, Huvishka, Vasishka and Vasudeva between them rule for nearly three quarters of a century until sometime after the third century. Almost in a sort of sympathetic prelude to the decline of the Roman empire whose trade had sustained it the Kushan empire blinks out of existence. With the death of Vasudeva coins are fewer in number and inscriptions become a rare event.


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