The Kushans (also Kushanas) belonged to the Yueh-chi tribe tribe who lived in Chinese Turkistan. Under pressure from other tribes they moved eastwards. They were divided into five branches and one of them was the Kushans.
Soon the Kushans became the most powerful among the various Yueh-chi tribes. They invaded India in the 1st century A.D. and occupied the western part of India after inflicting crushing defeats on the Bactrians, Parthians and Sakas.
They were divided into five tribes but gradually one of these tribes Konlei-Chouang (or the Kushans) defeated the other four and established its supremacy over them. Thus was born the well-known Kushan dynasty in the history of India.
Kings of Kushan Empire (Kushan Dynasty)
The first great ruler of the Kushan Empire was Kujula Kadphises I. He was succeeded by Kadphises II or Vima Kadphises. He issued gold coins which showed the wealth and prosperity of his kingdom.
Kajula Kadphises (Kadphises I)
The great Kushan ruler who defeated the four other sections of the great Yueh-chi tribe was Kujula Kadphises (or Kadphises I) as he is generally called. He was a great warrior who defeated the Greeks and established his supremacy over Kabul, Kandhar and Afghanistan. It is not definite whether he crossed the Indus or not.
Vima Kadphises is also popularly known as Kadphises II. He was a great warrior and administrator like his father. He defeated the Saka Kshatraps and extended the boundaries of his empire up to Benaras. It is generally believed that he entered into a long conflict with China but because of the great Chinese general Pan-Chao he could not achieve anything. According to some historians he suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Chinese and even promised to pay an annual tribute to the Chinese empire.
Vima Kadphises issued a large number of gold coins and some of his coins bearing the figure of Shiva clearly indicate that he was probably a devotee of Shiva. He had maintained friendly relations with the Roman Empire. The discovery of a large number of Roman coins of that period in India clearly indicates that there existed very close commercial relations between India and the Roman Empire during the reign of Vima Kadphises. The Roman gold began to pour in India in exchange for the Indian goods such as silk, spices and various other articles.
The relationship between the first two Kushan kings and Kanishka, who succeeded Vima Kadphises was unknown. Moreover, there is a sharp difference of opinion regarding the date of his accession. According to some historians his reign began in 78 A.D. from which the Saka Era dates. Many other scholars hold different views about the date of his accession. But that he was the greatest monarch of the Kushan dynasty is beyond any controversy.
Conquest of Kanishka: Kanishka was a great king, great alike in war as in peace. His capability as a great conqueror had been proved by his conquests.
During the early years of his reign he annexed Kashmir and strengthened the Kushan power. Kanishka waged war against Pataliputra and conquered Kashgarh, Khotan and Yarkand. He had crossed swords with the Chinese emperor as well. The result of this war is not definitely known.
Extent of Kanishka’s empire: Kanishka possessed a vast empire in India and outside it. His Indian empire extended from Kashmir in the north to the Vindhyas in the south and from Bihar in the east to the Indus Valley in the west. Outside India it consisted of three regions—the Trans Pamir region, the Oxus Valley and the vast area lying between the Hindukusha and the Indus. His capital was situated at Puruspur near modern Peshwar.
Kanishka’s religious views and Buddhism: True to the Indian tradition Kanishka was very catholic in his attitude towards religion. His name is recorded in many inscriptions and he issued a large variety of coins which bear a mixed assortment of Zoroastrian, Greek and Indian deities. This fact suggests that Kanishka was rather eclectic in his religious ideas. Buddhist literary tradition, however, affirms that, Kanishka became a convert to Buddhism at the beginning of his reign. It was under his patronage that the fourth and the last Buddhist council were convened at Kundalavana in Kashmir. This council was mainly conducted by Basumitra and Asvaghosa, two renowned Buddhist scholars. This council supported the cause of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. It also prepared an encyclopedia of Buddhist philosophy called Mahavibhasa which still exists in a Chinese translation.
An estimate of Kanishka: Kanishka was not only the greatest king of the Kushans, but he was one of the most outstanding figures of the Indian history too. In him the quality of Chandragupta, the great conqueror and empire-builder, and Ashoka, the great patron of Buddhism, found a fine blending. We thus find that Kanishka had many astounding qualities for which he is often mentioned as `Kanishka, the Great’.
Kanishka’s Death: Nothing definite can be said regarding the death of Kanishka. He probably died in 151 A.D.
India’s contact with outside world in the Kushan Age
The Kushan Empire comprised a large territory extending from the heart of India to Central Asia and borderland of China. Because of its geographical position the Kushan empire had close trade and cultural relation with other countries of the contemporary civilized world. During this period trades between India and Roman world on the one hand and China on the other made significant headway.
The Kushan kings of the period introduced coins in Western India that bore resemblances to Roman coins. In the Kushan period Indian colonies were established in places like Khotan, Kashgarh etc. The trade relation with China that fostered friendly ties was further strengthened through the propagation of Buddhism in eastern Asia. It is during the Kushan age that the countries like China, Japan, Korea etc. the Mahayana cult and Gandhara art spread.
Kushan Art and Architecture
Sanskrit literature began to develop during the Kushan period. In this respect Asvaghosha who was patronized by Kanishka, played a significant role. His works, Buddhacarita and Sariputra Karanam, opened a new horizon in the field of Sanskrit literature. It is believed that Asvaghosha laid the foundation of ancient Indian drama which was later developed by such luminaries as Kalidasa, Shudraka and Bhasha etc.
The period of Kushan marked new development in secular and religious architecture as well. In the realm of culture and fine arts a number of schools flourished in this period. In culture three distinct schools—the Gandhara School in north-western India, the Mathura school in the Ganges Valley and the Amarabati School in Andhra flourished.