The Era of the Kushans

I have written a new post on my personal blog about the dating of the Kushan empire. I have shown through a range of facts and arguments that the Kanishka Era should start around 233 CE and not 127 CE as is currently believed.

The Era of the Kushans

Most of you folks are unlikely to go through the entire article. My intention behind it is to get some attention from the scholars and the academia. Hence I have tried to gather as much evidence as I could to strengthen my case.

Let me state here in brief what this article is all about.

It is generally believed now that the era established by Kanishka in his 1st yeat began in 127 CE. A minority of scholars still believe that it begins in 78 CE. At the same time there is a minority view that also believes that the Kanishka Era began in the 3rd century CE – most of them being numismatists.

The main reason why 127 CE and earlier 125 CE is so popular among the scholars as the likely Year 1 of Kanishka is the belief that Chinese historical texts of the Later Han and Wei dynasties, which are chief textual sources on the Kushans, give information about Kushans and India from a report that was given to the Chinese Court in 125 CE. As per the account Kushans had recently conquered North India and were ruling over it but Kanishka is not mentioned leading scholars to infer that he must have come to the throne around or after 125 CE.

Already a few years ago, I had come across an old article by the doyen of Indian historians, R C Majumdar, where he pointed out quite clearly that there was no basis to believe that this information about the Kushan state and India was only from this report of 125 CE since the Chinese texts mention lots of information which is clearly several decades later than 125 CE. And the texts maintain that their record of history closes at the end of Han period i.e. 220 CE and 239 CE respectively. So by default one has to assume that the current state of affairs these texts relate about India and the Kushans, according to which Kushans were in control of North India, dates to around 220 and 239 CE respectively.

Most strikingly I found out, the early Kushan Emperors, before the time of Kanishka were dating their inscriptions using two Eras which were separated from each other by 129-144 years. There are only two historical eras, which incidentally happen to begin around this period, which can fit in as per this criteria and these are the Vikram Era of 57 BC and Saka Era of 78 CE which are separated in time by 135 years. Dating the early Kushan inscriptions using these two Eras pushes the Kushans in the 3rd century CE which we already noted is what the Chinese texts seem to support.

Even more remarkable was the fact that in the homeland of the Kushans in Balkh or Bactria, there was an Era, referred to commonly as the Bactrian Era, which began in the 3rd century CE and was in use atleast until the 9th century CE. It is difficult to argue that this Era is not the same as that of Kanishka the Kushan since the Kushans were native to Bactria and we know of no one else who possibly inaugurated an Era during this period. So the Kanishka Era aka the Bactrian Era began in 233 CE as it fits in well with the dates given in Vikram and Saka Era of the early Kushans.

Modern Kushan scholarship is dominated by numismatic studies. The credit for this goes to Robert Gobl, an Austrian numismatist, who revolutionised the numismatic research on Kushan coins by his indepth study and research on the subject, unlike anything that came earlier. What is worth noting is that Robert Gobl, based on his indepth study of Kushan coinage and that of Sasanian and Roman coinage as well came to the conclusion that the Great Kushans ruled in the 3rd century CE.

So, I realised that there was strong inscriptional, textual and numismatic data that supports the date of Kushans in the 3rd century CE yet no one has tried to bring all of this data together in one place and make a strong case for the Kanishka Era beginning in 3rd century. This lockdown gave me the time and opportunity to do that and I bit the bullet, as it were.

One quite interesting fact about the history of the Kushans is that they appear to have had a long standing rivalry with the Sasanians on their west. As I have argued in my article, the Kushans seem to have lost their homeland Bactria to the Sasanians during the reign of Kanishka I’s son Huvishka who nevertheless appears to have regained it within a handful of years. However, during Kanishka II’s reign in the 330s CE, as per our dating, Bactria was again lost to the Sasanians under Shapur II, and this time for several decades. The Sasanians even managed to conquer Gandhara south of the Hindu Kush.

By the end of Shapur II’s life in the 370s, a new force rises and they are conventionally referred to as the Kidarites by the scholarship. These Kidarites however claimed that they were descendents of the Kushans and the Chinese texts also endorse this. But ofcourse, there is very little evidence to confirm or deny this claim. Nevertheless, these Kidarites get hold of all existing Kushan territory and also reclaim Gandhara and Bactria from the Sasanians. Later on, the Kidarites also manage to conquer the kingdom of Sogdia (Sughd) north of Bactria. What is also quite revealing is the evidence that the Sasanians were apparently forced by these Kidarites to pay tribute to them.

In the latter half of the 5th century CE, the Sasanians refuse to pay tribute and this leads to a conflict which perhaps brought the downfall of the Kidarites around 460-470 CE. Bactria again went to the Sasanians. But by 484 CE, another obscure group, who are known as Hephthalites in modern convention defeated the Sasanians and even killed their emperor Peroz I. The Sasanians were again forced to pay tribute, this time by this new group and Bactria was lost by the Sasanians once again.

Another interesting thing during this period is that Hinduism’s influence in Central Asia kept on spreading during the Kidarite and Hephthalite rule. During the Kidarite era, it even spread to Sogdia. The Indian cultural influence across Bactria, Sogdia and all across the kingdoms of Tarim Basin lasted for several centuries until they were Islamised.

20 thoughts on “The Era of the Kushans”

  1. One of my favorite empires. If The Kushans (Yuezhi/Wusun) were tocharians as suggested shouldn’t we see R1b in the area they ruled?

  2. The Kushans were native to Bactria or Balkh which was centred in the Northern Afghanistan of today north of the Hindu Kush.

    They spoke an Eastern Iranian language similar to eastern Iranian languages spoken in the region today like Pashto, Yaghnobi etc and also the ancient ones like Avestan, Sogdian and Khotanese.

    1. Their homeland was in the Tarim no? The Yuezhi/Wusun were almost certainly Tocharian speakers imo.

  3.  Actually, pretty good text after the first skimming/reading. I may make another comment after detailed reading.
     It is symptomatic that a comment under the text complaining that Kushans are presented as ‘foreigners’ not as SA indigenous people. It can imply that author is an AIT guy.
     Pretty good parallels with various contemporary sources (Chinese, Romans, etc)
     And, really, who were Kushans? It seems that these guys with so powerful empire are still pretty unknown.

    “The Kushans “…controlled a large and stable political entity at the heart of Inner Eurasia, which included extensive regions of the modern states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan; the western fringes of modern Xinjiang Province in China; most of the territory of Afghanistan and Pakistan; and large regions of northern and central India, including the Ganges Basin.”(Benjamin 2018). “

    – Razib says – they are R1a, it means – Aryans’ (i.e. Serbian) descendants.
    – I recently published here hundreds of toponyms from Central Asia where was the Kushan empire. Many of these toponyms (anyone can check on Internet or by reading atlas maps) are identical with toponyms in Serbia
    – Names finishing with ISHKA still exist in Serbian language (Yulishka, Anushka, Kanishka). There are now used as additions to the names – for example – Razibishka would mean – sweet, little Razib.

    – Yuezhi was a name which Chinese used for Serbian tribes. I also wrote about more than a thousand of years of Chinese/Serbs coexistence, sometimes mutual wars and common wars against Mongols (often Chinese villages paid Serbian tribes to protect them from Mongols). Serbs in Xinjiang lived a thousand of years before Chinese and Turks came.

    – Kushans’ money was ‘dinar’, the same as Serbian unit, since Alexander until today (the comment under text obviously does not know that Alexander and Seleukic were Serbs, not Greeks)
    – Very interesting description of relationships with Roman Emperors, Severus and Constantine. Together with previous Alexander – all Serbian affairs. Fantastic.

    – Only missing a description of silk trade which was apparently done by Kushans. Romans have never seen a Chinese. I wrote before about the origins of Latin and Greek names for Silk, i.e. sericum and serikos, so as silk trade conducted via ‘silk route’ and ‘ocean route’ via Serendib (i.e. Sereno’s homeland).

    – It is pretty good challenging the extent of the role of Greeks in SA
    – Only wrong is – Yavana are not Greeks than Serbs. ‘Yavanajataka’ consists of two Serbian words.
    – Saka, Alans are also Serbian speaking tribes
    – It is interesting that Kushans’ language was ‘similar to Pashto, Yaghnobi and also the ancient ones like Avestan, Sogdian and Khotanese’. It seems to me that Kushans language is still pretty unknown, what is strange.

  4. Jatt_Scythian,

    The Chinese record that a tribal confederation known as the Yuezhi were forced to migrate from their homeland somewhere in the north of the Tarim Basin, by the Xoingnu (the Huns) in the early 2nd century BC. They had to flee a long distance to escape from the Huns and finally settled in northern Bactria around 130 BC.

    The Chinese, from then on, continued to call the kings of Bactria as the Yeuzhi. But when the Kushans rose to power, between 150-200 CE, it was nearly 300 years after that migration. And the Kushans promoted what is known as the Bactrian language, not the Yuezhi language from the steppe. So while the Kushans may have had some tenuous old links to the Yuezhi, they were clearly native to Balkh/Bactria when they rose to Imperial glory.

    The Tocharian language is only attested in the northern Tarim Basin and not outside of it. Any links with the language of the Kushans is therefore purely speculative.

  5. Kushans skipped a bunch of Gujarat. Did they not like dokla and Dar Dokhri?

    1. Do most people?
      Actually idk. Just trying to figure out why I’m able to comment here but not on the open thread. Any thoughts?

  6. The map shows Kashmir excluded from the Kushan empire. It was actually part of it. Many Kashmiris believe that Kanishk, Huvishk and Juvishka were native Kashmiri kings.

    1. HYes Kashmir was most likely a part of the Kushan empire. The maps are not entirely accurate but tolerable. We do not know the exact boundaries of the Kushan empire, only that they ruled large parts of Central Asia excluding Sogdia to the north and Merv to the west but most likely including almost all of the kingdoms of the Tarim Basin which were administered using the Gandhari language in the Kharoshthi script. In India their ruled reached the borders of Orissa, Bengal and Maharashtra. But what marked a territory out from Kushan control is still a matter of conjecture.

  7. 11 out of 12 Tarim mummies are R1a and they are 3800 years old. Most likely, they came with Aryans and lived in Tarim for 2400-2500 years before Chinese came and about 2700 before Turks came (in 842 AC). There is so many information about them on Internet.

    Regarding the names… I already mentioned that many names in Serbia are finishing with ISHKA so as Kushans emperors (Kanishka, Huvishka, Vasishka, etc). Modern names are Mishka, Gishka, Yulishka, Anushka, Gradishka. There are so many modern names where K was lost – Radisha, Sinisha, Grubisha, Dobrisha, Lyubisha, Dragisha, Hvalisha, Malisha, Gradisha, etc…ISHKA is now often used for making slang names, for e.g.’ Supermarket’ in Serbian is called ‘self-service’ but colloquially this changes to ‘selfISHKA’ (i.e. ‘samishka’). Or, ‘zalyubiti se’ (falling in love) changes into ‘zalyubISHKA’. It would be interesting if there is such usage of ISHKA in any other language.

    I would suggest the research of silk trade. A good detail in text is questioning of the role of Greeks. They were not horse riders because they simply did not have any fertile land and they did not have any horses. How they could come to SA, just walking around by foot? In the same time, they were a part of non-fighting units in Roman Army charged to conduct the maintenance of roads. Elite Roman Illyric legions were consisted of Serbian fighters and, mostly because of this, they produced more than a dozen of Roman Emperors. Greeks, as road workers, could not produce any Emperor. The territory of today’s Greece was a Roman Province – Illyric (what was the name for Serbia). Yavans were Serbs, not Greeks.

  8. Recently, I published here more than a thousand of Serbian toponyms in South Asia, some of them are identical with modern toponyms in Serbia. Here, I just repeat few toponyms from Tarim Basin. I believe that the most of them are still the same or slightly changed. Thousands of SA toponyms are still waiting for brown researchers.

    Koren, Buka, Gora, Radolez, Nis, Bogorjana, Boris, Djuka, Bogovan, Varazunic, Restunic, Palunic, Budunic, Buzuvic, Okan, Visak, Gornja, Nikopolj, Karin, Galic, Stara, Srbi, Tmoric, Zora, Jerez, Rodibaka Tri, Ker, Drcan, Dvina, Srebra, etc…

    1. Onlooker,
      As per the current state of numismatic and epigraphic evidence, there was no Kushan emperor by the name Juvishka.

      Kanishka was followed by Huvishka who was in turn followed by Vasudeva I and then Kanishka II, Vashishka and Kanishka III and some later kings whose names are doubtful. In the reign of Kanishka II, the Kushans lost their homeland of Bactria.

    1. Sdutta,
      The dating and chronology of pre-6th century India is extremely messed up. I shall write on the Guptas in the future but let me say it’s going to be controversial. Let us just remember that Alberuni is a primary source for the existence of a Gupta era beginning from 319 CE. However Alberuni records the tradition that the Era was established in celebration at the demise of the wicked and powerful Gupta kings. So surely it is difficult to argue that instead this Era marked the beginning of the Gupta Era.

      The Guptas did use an era of their own but that it is the same as that mentioned by Alberuni is just guesswork.

      The Western Kshatrapas preceded the Kushans. There is no doubt about it. Among other things the palaeography of their inscriptions suggests a more antique style of Brahmi then is found in Kushan inscriptions.

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