Kushan History Kushan History

Was Huvishka the Sole Ruler of the Kushan Empire?

After the death of Kanishka the kingdom should have passed to his son. The Rabatak inscription shows that this had been the normal practice from the time of Kajula Kadphises. But the situation after Kanishka's death is unclear. Three kings, Huvishka, Vasishka and Kanishka, are named in inscriptions after AD137. Harmatta has explained this as a 'Triple Kingship'. However, there are good reasons to think that Harmatta might be wrong, and that from AD 138 or 142 Huvishka was sole King of the Kushan Empire.
Huvishka appears in profile on most of his coin portraits. Unlike Kanishka he does not appear standing before a fire alter and unlike Vasudeva he never appears in armor.

Harmatta's thinks that Kanishka was succeeded by Vasishka who made his son, Kanishka (II), joint king. In effect Vasishka was acting as regent for Kanishka (II), who had not yet reached his majority. After several years he then made Huvishka joint king as well. Vasishka and Kaniska II then died leaving Huvishka as sole king. Then, a few years later, Huvishka died and was succeeded by another Huvishka (II).

Harmatta's theory is outlined in the second volume of the 'UNESCO History of Central Asia', published in 1994. In that Harmatta assumes a date of c.144 for the start of the Kanishka Era. Here I have assumed a date of c.115. Since the two dates don't agree I will date the argument entirely in the Kanishka era. This era was inaugarated by Kanishka when he assumed the throne (AD 144 or AD 115 depending on when you think Kanishka ascended to the throne).

Harmatta bases his argument on an inscription from Kamra. Unfortunately Harmatta gives no reference and in 1960 when Narain compiled a list of all the dated inscriptions there was no Kamra inscription. There have been numerous inscriptions discovered since and I assume that Harmatta's must be among these. An inscription from Kamra roughly matching Harmatta's description is recorded as no.183 in Shrava's collection. But this inscription does not say what Harmatta suggests. Harmatta says that the Kamra inscription shows that Vasishka was the great grandson of Kujula Kadphises and ruled jointly with Kanishka (II). His second piece of evidence is a reference in the Rajatarangini which indicates that three kings Huska, Jushka and Kanishka ruled together. He assumes that Hushka must be Huvishka and Jushka, Vasishka. He draws on the numismatic evidence and says that the differences in later groups of Kanishka coins indicate a second king Kanishka. Such a distinction makes sense and Gobl had previously commented on the distinction between the early and late issues of Kanishka.
The family tree shows the series of succession that is suggested by Harmatta and the period for which the various kings ruled.

So Harmatta makes a final reconstruction on the basis of a 'Triple Kingship' with power shared between Vasishka, Kanishka (II) and Huvishka. The last inscription of Kanishka is the year 23. The first of Huvishka is the year 28. There are inscriptions for Vasishka in 20, 22, 24 and 28. Inscriptions also exist for Kanishka (II) in the years 31 and 41. To which we can add the Kamra inscription Harmatta describes, dated year 30. So Kanishka ruled until 19. After his death Vasishka, Kanishka's son, became king and made his son joint ruler. Vasishka also appointed Huvishka joint ruler in 28. Then shortly after 30 Vasishka died. Kanishka (II) continued to rule until 41 and after this Huvishka was sole ruler. Since Harmatta bases part of his argument on the assumption that the early and late issues of Kanishka indicate different kings he has to assume that the early and late issues of Huvishka also indicate two kings. So Harmatta assumes that Huvishka dies in 49 after eight years as sole king and is succeeded by his son, Huvishka (II).

The Rabatak inscription has some bearing on Harmatta's theory. Because the inscription adds an extra king to the list of Kushan monarchs, between Wima Kadphises and Kanishka, some modification is needed. Harmatta's inscription from Kamra indicates that Vasishka was the great grandson of Kajula Kadphises, so he would have to be the brother, not son, of Kanishka. This would not alter the main thrust of Harmatta's argument but it would require some modification of the family tree.

There are several problems with Harmatta's theory. Firstly, why are there no coins of Vasishka? Of course there are coins of a Vasishka but these clearly belong after those of Vasudeva. Instead Harmatta suggests that Vasishka did not mint coins, but his son did. So the later coins minted by Kanishka were in fact minted by his father Vasishka. And this continued to be the case once Huvishka was minting coins. Harmatta points to the division of the coins into early and late types. This division is perfectly correct but does not constitute two kings. Single kings can change their coin types without implying a succession. Nor does it explain why Vasishka allows Huvishka to mint coins or why he takes the full titles of a Kushan king but acts as a regent to Kanishka when minting coins.

The second reason to think that Vasishka and Kanishka (II) are not contemporary with Huvishka is the distribution of the inscriptions. Since there is a period before Huvishka comes to power where Vasishka rules alone, on behalf of Kanishka (II), and a period after Vasishka and Kanishka die when Huvishka rules alone, then the inscriptions for both should be evenly distributed across the whole empire. This is not the case. The map on the right shows where inscriptions of the two kings have been found (Vasishka's including those for Kanishka II). Whereas Huvishka's inscriptions show the same sort of distribution as those of the first Kanishka and Wima Kadphises, those of Vasishka appear only south of the Hindu Kush.
The map plots the major find sites for inscriptions. The majority of inscriptions have been uncovered at Mathura.

There are several other problems with the inscriptions. The number of inscriptions for Vasishka and Kanishka (II) is much smaller than for Huvishka. There is no explanation inherent in Harmatta's theory as to why there should be only 7 inscriptions for Kanishka (II) and Vasishka. There are more than 50 for Kanishka and more than 20 for Huvishka. Since most inscriptions are from around Mathura this would make sense if Kanishka (II) and Vasishka ruled in the northwest of the Kingdom. But the distribution clearly shows that only Huvishka's inscriptions appear in the northwest of the kingdom. If the kingdom was divided with Kanishka (II) ruling in the northwest then it would be expected to find his inscriptions there. And if he ruled in the southeast more of his inscriptions would be expected.

As well as the curious distribution of the inscriptions the titles dound on the inscriptions are inconsistent with Harmatta's thesis. Kanishka and Huvishka only rarely take the full imperial titles, often making do with Maharaja Devaputra, or just Maharaja. But both Vasishiska and Kanishka (II) take the full imperial titles and add an additional term Kaisar, or Caesar, borrowed from Rome. Vasudeva tends towards grander titles than his predecessors, Kanishka and Huvishka, but less grand than those used by Kanishka (II) and Vasishka. This would imply that the two belong not before, but after Vasudeva.

One of the stronger arguments in favour of the existence of Vasishka is the need to explain the gap in inscriptions between Kanishka and Huviska. The range of each kings inscriptions is listed in the table below. It is clear that there are gaps between each of the kings, from Kanishka and Huvishka and from Huvishka to Vasudeva. There is no need to postulate an additional king in order to fill in the gaps. Otherwise an additional king would be needed between Huvishka and Vasudeva.
Kanishka 1 - 23
Kanishka II 20 - 41
Vasishka 20 - 28
Huvishka 28 - 60
Vasudeva 64 - 98
Yasaga 36
The range consists of the two most extreme dates provided for each king. All are believed to be in the Kanishka era but it has been suggested that some may be a second century of the same era, with the 1 ommitted in the same way that modern dates are written 76 or 84, rather than 1976 or 1984.

An alternative interpretation of the evidence is possible. It might be that after Kanishka the next Kushan King was Huvishka, who was then followed by Vasudeva. After Vasudeva the kushan era is repeated with the 1 missing from the front. So that the dates for Vasishka are 120 - 128 and for Kanishka (II) 120 - 141. It is still possible that Vasishka acts as regent for the later Kanishka (II) who would assume power sometime after 128. The main problem is that another Kanishka is needed between the end of Vasudeva's rule and the start of Vasishka's. This Kanishka would become Kanishka II and the Kanishka (II), who is being discussed, would become Kanishka III.
If it is assumed that Vasishka and Kanishka come later then the later Kanishka becomes Kanishka III and a Kanishka II must be added after Vasudeva.

One advantage of this interpretation is that there is strong numismatic evidence for it. There are coins for the third century for further Kanishkas and a Vasishka. These would match with a second century of Kushan rulers shown in the chart below. The order would also explain the distribution of the inscriptions. The later Kanishka and Vasishka would be ruling the empire at a time after the loss of the northwestern regions beyond the Hindu Kush.

So the conclusion of this is that Huvishka was the sole king of the Kushan empire. For various reasons Harmatta's theory of the Triple Kingship cannot be accepted. It simply does not fit the evidence of coins and inscriptions as well as the theory presented here. In fact the evidence of inscriptions suggests that for the first and second centuries the Kushan Empire is ruled by a consecutive series of kings with no division of the empire.

The Geneological Descriptions of the Kushan Kings

There are only 4 significant inscriptions which provide geneological information about the Kushan kings. Togethor these provide only a sketchy outline of the dynasty that ruled the Kushan Empire.


If you would like to read Harmatta's theory you will find it in The UNESCO History of Central Asia (1994, vol.II: 323). The dates of the inscriptions are layed out neatly in the same volume by B.N Puri (254). Full details of all the inscriptions can be found in Satya Shrava's Dated Kushana Inscriptions (1993). As to the existence of a second century of the Kanishka era the reader should consult Rosenfields article 'The Mathura School of Sculpture; Two Contributions to the Study of Kushan Chronology' in The Date of Kanishka (1968: 267ff) or F.W Thomas India Antiqua (296-303). A full bibliography on the succession to Huvishka can be found in BN Puri's Kusana Bibliography (1977: 64-68). Puri includes a discussion of the problem, the conclusion of which I have broadly followed. AL Basham has examined several of the competing theories in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies vol.xx (1957: 77-88).

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