Glossary of Kushan History
The history of the Kushans stretches across more than 400 years,
thousands of miles and dozens of cultures. The locations, people and places
can be hard to identify. This is not an attempt to justify the associations
made between Chinese and Western place names, the reader should note that
many of these are still debated. This glossary is intended to help the student of
Kushan history by providing brief details on many of the items mentioned in
Wherever possible the alternative spellings of a name have been
included. This plethora of spellings for each word in Kushan history is
the result of changes in transliteration over the past century. Be warned the author
has simply used
the spelling he is most comfortable with (to provide an up to
date set of
transliterations for all the names in Kushan history would be worthy
a book in itself and is far beyond the expertise of this author).
A western province of the Persian empire conquered by Alexander in the
late fourth century B.C. Known to the Chinese as Ta-hsia. The Bactrians
seceded from the Seleucid empire in the third century and were not
conquered by the Parthians when the Seleucid empire was overrun. In the
130 or 140s Bactria was overrun by the Westward advance of the Yu-chi,
when the Greeks were best by internal troubles. The country remained in
their hands until it was lost to Persia at the start of the third
Buddhist monks had been a common feature in Indian and Bactrian
for centuries before the arrival of the Kushan invaders from central
Asia. The Buddhist theology changed considerably under the Kushans but
the main features were, a division of people into monks and laity,
emphasis on donation and meditation (for monks), desire for
enlightenment, and a belief in reincarnation. Buddhism appears to have
been favored by the fourth Kushan king Kanishka, though it is doubtful
if he converted to Buddhism. Buddhism declined as a religion in India
after the end of the Kushan period when Hinduism reasserted itself.
Gandhara was a central region of Kushan influence. It lies in
northern India, south of the Hindu Kush, at the convergence of the rivers
that form the Indus. The area is part of modern Pakistan and
Afghanistan. Gandhara was the site of several Greek kingdoms before
falling under Parthian and the Kushan domination, in the first century
BC. The region was also a center for new artistic trends in the Kushan
period. This new artwork produced the first images of the Buddha along
- Heraus (also Heraiou, Miaiou, Sanab)
is the first known king of the Kushan empire. He is known only from his coins
which are inscribed HIAOY. In fact HIAOY is the title of the Kushan king and modern
numismatists tell us that the name on the coin is Sanab.
Sanab was believed by Tarn to have been an ally of the Greek king Hermaues. Sanab
may be the father of Kajula or he may be a more distant relative. Unfortunately this
Kushan will remain largely a mystery as only his coins survive.
A collection of nomadic tribes in many ways similar to the Yu-chi.
They ruled large areas to the north of China. They became a serious
threat to the Chinese under the king Tumen at the end of the third
century BC. In 209BC Mao-tun became the first Hsiung-nu Emporer and in
the following decades subjugated all the other tribes and forced the
Chinese to pay tribute to him. In 176BC he sent a letter to the Emporer
Wen saying that he had 'Through the aid of Heaven, the excellence of our
fighting men and the
strength of our horses, we have succeeded in wiping out the Yueh-chih,
slaughtering or forcing to submission every member of the tribe. In addition
we have conquered the Lou-lan, Wu-sun, and Hu-chieh tribes as well as the
twenty six states nearby, so that all of them have become a part of the
Hsiung-nu nation.'(The Cambridge History of
Early Inner Asia if you want to find out more)
Known to the Greeks as Sogdia this province
lay beyond the Oxus river and to the west of Ferghana, which was the
original home of the Yu-chi. It had been a province
of the Achmaenid Persians according to Arrian but it was never conquered by
Alexander, or for any length of time by his successors.
- Kushans (or Kueh-Shan,Kusana)
The label Kushan is used for the group which came to dominate the
region of Pakistan, Afghanistan and north-west India from the first century
of this era onwards. Kushan is the name which
appears upon the coins of the dynasty. It is often associated with the
Kueh-Shan section of the great Yu-Chi horde. This is the group Chinese
sources tell us came to dominate the horde and who conquered India.
However some authors have argued on the basis of etymologies that the
Kueh-Shan was a group already present in Afghanistan before the
arrival of the Ta Yu-chi. If this is the case then it would not be an
element of the Yu-chi which came to dominate the empire.
A city to the west of the gangetic plain. This has been identified
by some as the 'summer palace' of the Kushan monarchs. A royal shrine with
statues of Vima Taktu and other Kushan monarchs have been found near the
modern city. It was the center of a school of art with strong Roman and
Greek influence. It shares with the Gandharan
school the distinction of being the first school to depict the Buddha
in human form.
- Mao-tun (also Motun)
First son of T'ou-Man. Hsiung-nu
leader credited with defeating the
Yu-chi. He gained power over the Hsiung-nu in 209 BC and held it for a
considerable length of time in the second century BC. In the process Mao-tun
became the first of a series Hsiung-nu emporers who was to threaten the
borders of northern china and whose actions facilitated the building of the
- Saca (also Saka, Scythian)
Saca is the name that the Greeks give to the nomadic tribes that
lived in central Asia. Herodotus gives us the first description of the
Saca and their nomadic way of life in the sixth century before christ.
Later descriptions are provided by Strabo. During the period of the
first and second centuries BC nomadic horsemen overran parts of northern
India and these are often known as a Saca or Saca-Parthian dynasty. In all
likelyhood they came from Persia and were supported later by the Parthian
government. It has been suggested that they were driven into India by the
advancing Yu-chi but this Scythic wave theory has a several problems.
- Sanab is the correct reading of the Heraus coins. Numismatists
have decided that the term HIAOY which was previously believed to be the name of the
first Kushan king. Harmatta thinks that the title HIAOY should be read as hyau and
seen as an archaic form of the title yabgu. The title yabgu is known from both Chinese
sources and the coins of Kajula Kadphises. Whatever the name on the coins Sanab or
Heraus is the first attested Kushan.
The Chinese chroniclers place Shen-tu to the south of Ta-hsia.
The term in later times comes to mean all of modern
India (and in fact Shen-tu, like our own term Indus is just a
transliteration of the Sindu river) but in the period of the Kushan dynasty
it is to be associated with the region of the Indus valley. The river itself
shifts within the valley during the annual flood. The region was renowned
for its wealth, provided in the Kushan period by the extensive sea trade with
Roman Egypt. The trade may have begun during the period of the Indo-Parthian
rulers. Though recent research seems to suggest that it was even
- Sogdia (Also Sogdiana and Sugd)
Known to Chinese chroniclers and geographers as
K'ang-chu this lay to the west of Ferghana. In the 5th century B.C
this province marked the eastern extent of the Persian empire and the
province lay just beyond the conquests of Alexander. Despite cultural
similarity in the Kushan period Sogdia seems to have remained an
This is the Chinese chroniclers name for the province more famous as
Bactria . It lay just beyond the widest control
that China was ever able to exert in the region (as far as Tashkent).
is probably the centre of the Kushan pantheon. He is believed to be related to the
Iranian diety Vayu. The exact relation of Wesho to the Kushan dynasty is not certain.
He is certainly important as he appears on the coins of almost evey Kushan king. He
is often shown holding out the diadem to the king. On the obverse the king often
carries the club or trident, which are symbols of Wesho. Wesho may be a Kushan god
of some antiquity, possibly the personnel god of the kings. Certainly, he seems to
confer authority on the King.
Identification of Wesho was not easy because the Kushans use images of other gods
to identify him. The images of Shiva which appear on Kushan coins represent Wesho. It
has been shown by Joe Cribb that Herakles is also to be identified with Wesho.
- Yu-chi (Also Yueh-chi, Yueh-chih, Yuezhi)
The Yu-chi were a nomadic horde ruled over by a single king,
living near to china. They were driven out by the Hsiung-nu and invaded
Bactria. One tribe the Kueh Shen were to become dominant and under Kajula
Kadphises found the Kushan empire. The Yu-chi are associated by most
authors since Tarn with the groups Roman and Greek authors called
Tochari and Assi. The attribution is still highly contested.
The meaning of Yu-chi is confused. In many texts Chinese authors
refer as if to a place rather than a group of tribes. Some authors claim
that Yu-chi means moon people. Most Kushan historians accept that the meaning of
unknown. Personally the author is inclined to think Yu-chi meant
people who live in the west" or "western peoples" but has no
this. Regardless the meaning of the name is of no real value.
- 1,Some people read this section of the Chinese works to
say that the area is tributary at best. A number of Indo-Greek Tetradrachms
that were purely Greek (not bilingual) were found in the Qunduz hoard, it
has been suggested (British Museum Quarterly) that these indicate that
Menander (129 BC) ruled north of the Hindu Kush.
- 2,The two events did not necessarily coincide and
could have occurred over a period of time. On the dating see Cambridge
Ancient History vol VII, part 1, p.219.
- 3,This date is very late. See Tarn's 'Greeks in India and
Bactria' for more discussion of the dating. Also see 'The Porthumous Coinage of
Hermaios and the Conquest of Gandhara by the Kushans' by Osmund Bopearachchi, in
'Gandhara Art in Context'.