Kusana Coins and History

Author: Parmeshwari Lal Gupta & Sarojini Kulashreshtha

Publisher: DK Printworld, 1994

209 pages, 8 Black and White Plates

Available from Amazon at a price of 15. Or directly from Biblia Impex. 

This is a collection of twelve papers, originally published between 1950 and 1988. Ten are by P L Gupta, and two are by S Kulashreshtha. Such collections are a fairly common feature of modern Indian publishing, and are often useful in highlighting articles first published in obscure, or difficult to acquire, journals. The papers in this volume cluster around the last paper 'Kusanas in the Yamuno-Gangetic Region'. This is an attempt by Gupta to outline a narrative account of the Kushan's Indian dominion. It focuses upon four broad themes, the Gangetic Valley, the genealogy of the Great Kushans, the history of the late Kushans, and the date of Kanishka. In each case the earlier papers provide an indication of how Gupta's research developed on these four themes.

The Kushan Expansion into the Gangetic Valley

This is the subject of four papers. 'Date of Kushana Currency in the Eastern India' is a reprint of Gupta's seminal 1953 paper in the Journal of the Numismatic Society, and shows his strongest scholarship; good research and archival skills, a talent for presenting evidence concisely; and a strong critical sense for the context of sources. The other two papers 'Eastern Expansion of the Kushan Empire', 'Gold Amulets and the Kushana History' and 'Kusana-Murunda Rule in Eastern India' are extensions of the currency paper, to discuss other forms of evidence, and to update the discussion of currency to encompass Bihar and West Bengal in more detail.

In these papers Gupta argued convincingly that the Kushan coins in East India, from eastern Uttar Pradesh to Orissa, had arrived by way of trade a considerable period after it was minted. It is therefore unfortunate that these well written works jar so badly with the coverage in his 'Kusanas in the Yamuno-Gangetic Region' in which he abandons his earlier position and replaces it with an insistence that the Kushans had in fact conquered the region. He does not provide any reason for abandoning his earlier position, and instead depends upon just two inscriptions - The Reh Inscription of 'Menander' and the Hathugumpha inscription. 

Gupta is correct in pointing out that the last line of the Reh inscription is so badly damaged that reading the name Menander is absurd. However, there is nothing in the inscription to indicate it was inscribed by any Kushan king either, and he completely ignores the letter forms, the principle reason for dating the inscription to the second century BC in the first place. Paleographic dating is not an exact science but the difference between characters of the Indo-Greek and Kushan periods is so marked it can hardly be ignored. So given that there is nothing in the inscription to link it to a Kushan king,  it seems a tenuous piece of evidence on which to overturn his earlier work. The Hathigumpha inscription (insc. 930) likewise dates to a period considerably earlier than the Kushans period, by about a hundred years. So it is equally unclear how Gupta can use either of these as evidence of Kushan activity in the east.

The Genealogy of the Great Kushans

Gupta presents a complex reconstruction (161-173) of the Kushans known from the first sequence of Kushan dates (Kanishka, Huvishka, Vasudeva). The line of thought is shown in earlier papers, in particular 'Kanishka, son of Huvishka' and 'Kusana Coins from Mathura Region'. His reconstruction gives the following Kings between Vima Kadphises and Kanishka II:

Vima Kadphises - Huvishka I - Kanishka - Huvishka II - Huvishka III - Vasudeva I - Vasudeva II - Vasudeva III (?) - Kanishka II

This is remarkable in achieving seven rulers where previously scholars identify only three. It is based on two lines of evidence. Firstly, a copper coin found at Sonkh, south of Mathura, and published by Gupta in 1973. Gupta reads the legend, split across the two sides as 'Huvishkasya / putra Kaniskasya' (66) and concludes '... the coin is historically very important and reveals a fact unknown so far, viz. the father of Kanishka I was Huvishka'. On this point, more recent discoveries have undone Gupta. The Rabatak inscription (insc. 567) clearly indicates that Kanishka's father was Vima Kadphises. The coin still requires some explanation, but readers tempted to posit that Kanishka II might be the son of Huvishka, and brother of Vasudeva, should bear in mind that the coin is remarkably un-Kushan in its general appearance, and that the characters read as 'putra' are quite indecipherable on the plate provided by Gupta. 

In order to explain his Huvishka I, father of Kanishka, Gupta looked for a division in the coinage of Huvishka. He found one in the analysis of David MacDowell, who has split the coins of Huvishka into three types. Gupta allocated the earliest type to Huvishka I and placed it before, rather than following Kanishka. However, now committed to seeing changes in coin type as homonymous kings, he made a further division for the two following groups, and further subdivided Vasudeva. His model for this process was the division of the coinages of Azes into two groups, the issue of Azes I, and Azes II. However, this is hardly an uncontested example, and it should be noted that scholars did not split Azes because of a change in coin types, they looked for a change in coin type because they believed his issue of coins was split at Taxila by another king, Azileses. The biggest problem with seeing homonymous kings where coin types change is that it would force large numbers of otherwise unattested divisions. In addition to the divisions of Huvishka and Vasudeva, there seems no reason why a Kanishka I and Kanishka II should not be separated on the basis of the change from Greek to Bactrian legends on the coins.

These papers begin from a sound premise, and show that Gupta was willing to engage with new evidence. Unfortunately, further discoveries have rendered them worthless from all but a historiographical point of view.

The Late Kushans

Gupta's discussion of the post-Vasudeva rulers (174-80) draws on articles by Sarojini Kulashreshta included in this volume. These a 'Quarter-stater  of Kanishka' and 'Coins of Vasishka' are interesting papers. However at the time the understanding of these later Kushans was undeveloped (for example, 'Shaka' which appears on later coins is not a tribal group but the name of a king).

Kulashreshta also provides an additional argument for dating inscriptions to the second kushan era/century. It is of sufficient interest to be worth examining in detail. She argues that the title 'shahi' only appears on inscriptions after the year 83 of Vasudeva, in particular those of Vasishka, and therefore can be used to separate inscriptions of the first and second sequence. I am aware of a number of inscriptions that use the title: The Mat inscription of Vima Taktu (insc. 173). Years 7 (insc. 198) 8 (insc. 199) and 17 (insc. 214) of Kanishka. year 28 of Huvishka (insc.233), and 31 (insc. 482), years 84 (insc.308) and 87 (insc.314) of Vasudeva. As well as two inscriptions of Vasishka (insc.228 & 231), and the Gupta mention of Shaka (insc.510). 

Such a list would appear to make a nonsense of the suggestion that the title is somehow uniquely associated with the later Kushans, however Kulashreshta does try to argue that. The Kanishka inscriptions she argues, like Lohuizen, belong to the second sequence on stylistic grounds. She suggests that the Mat inscription should be linked to Vasishka rather than Vima. Her argument is based on the ending of his name not being compatible with 'Kadphises' but of course we now know the inscription refers to Vima Taktu. The year 28 inscription of Huvishka she argues does not name Huvishka, but some other king called 'Puvishka'. This ignores the ease with which 'hu' and 'pu' are confused in Brahmi Inscripions. She tries to strengthen the argument by saying that no Kushan king would be mentioned with just the title Shahi, ignoring that the king is actually mentioned with the titles Shahi and Devaputra, which is exactly the way in which both the year 31 inscription (insc. 482), and the Gupta's record (insc. 510), refer to the Kushan king. She also ignores the coins. Shahi is just the Indian spelling of Shao, an Iranian title for King which replaces Basileus on the coins of the Kushans from the reign of Kanishka I. Her insistence that the title is used regularly after the year 83, and ignores that insc. 469, 227 & 232 of Vasishka do not use the title. Rather than being a clear indication of a post-Vasudeva inscription, as she claims, the term Shahi is simply an unfamiliar Iranian title take by all the Kushan kings from at least Vima Kadphises, but used sporadically by their Indian subjects.

The Date of Kanishka

This is by far the weakest section of the book. Gupta makes two attempts at the date of Kanishka, in 'Date of Kanishka' he tries to calculate the time between the collapse of Mauryan rule and the inception of Kanishka's era by taking the number of intervening kings and multiplying by an 'average reign'. The same process is used to count backwards from the Guptas to Vasudeva in 'Chronology of Post-Vasudeva Rulers and Allied Tribes'.

The first paper, originally titled 'The Coinage of the Local Kings of Northern India and the Date of Kanishka' was risibly bad when first presented at the conference on the Date of Kanishka in 1960. The uncertainties of the various minor dynasties, and at what point they coincide with the Kushans, or follow the Mauryan/Sunga rulers, would make it futile even if the length of their reigns were actually known. Working back from the Gupta's is just as futile. Given that it is well known that Shaka was a contemporary of Samudragupta c. 350 AD Gupta counts 5 kings back to Vasudeva. He assigns 20 years to each ones rule (the average is calculated by taking the 100 years from Kanishka to Vasudeva and dividing by 5 (which is the incorrect number of kings that Gupta believes ruled in that period), and gets him 250 AD for the end of Vasudeva's reign, and thus 150 AD as the era of Kanishka.

It is obvious how bad the method is when one considers changing the average reign. If it is reduced to 10 years (a not unreasonable number) then it gives 210 AD for Kanishka. And if it is extended to 33 years (the actual average reign of the Kanishka to Vasudeva period) it gives 72 AD. In short, it gives what ever answer the author wants, because it is based on an entirely arbitrary number, the average reign. The reader would be far better off consulting one of the authors, Narain, Rosenfield, or Ghirsham, that Gupta denigrates than wasting their time with either of these papers.

P L Gupta's contribution to Kushan studies

There is one last problem with this volume. The paper taken from JNSI vol. 15, pt. 2 (1953), pages 178-84, on 'Date of Kushan Currency in Eastern India' is not the same paper published in that issue. It has been modified in several places. In particular the very last paragraph which makes explicit that the reasoning and conclusions are related to his then belief that the date of Kanishka is 78 AD:

"But if it indicates a political expansion, then we will have to drop the belief in the date of Kanishka's accession in 78 AD, and will have to place the date of his accession, in the light of the observations made above, some time in the second century AD" (1953: 192)

Exactly why the paper has been altered is unclear, and it is the only paper I am familiar with which has been substantially altered (though as noted the 'Date of Kanishka' papers title has been changed). What is clear is that it is unfair both to the reader and to Gupta to be presented with a modified version, especially on probably his most important paper in Kushan studies.

The volume has remarkable historiographical interest, in showing the development of Gupta's ideas and how they relate to one another. Though a reader interested in that aspect would still need to be familiar with the other articles related to Gupta's writing. It is not suitable for the general reader, who will lack the familiarity and critical skills to interpret so much of this (which it does badly need), though it may have a use for students who can critically examine both strong and weak papers by a good historian.

Contents Page Reviews   

The Late Kushans

The Date of Kanishka  History of Civilizations of Central Asia 

Robert Bracey.