FROM INDUS TO INDEPENDENCE: A TREK THROUGH INDIAN HISTORY: Part 17

Canberra, 1 October 2013
THE KUSHANS
Section I
THE BEGINNING
Ch’in Shi Huang Ti succeeded in unifying several warring states, who had been fighting each other for centuries, and became Emperor of China in 221.B.C. He initiated a chain of events that had a cascading effect, finally culminating in bringing the Kushan dynasty to power in India. On assuming the throne, Ch’in Shi Huang Ti consolidated his power and thereafter turned his attention to protecting the state from attacks of the nomads from the north. He mobilised resources to build a wall, subsequently to be called The Great Wall of China, as a physical barrier that separated China from the nomadic territories of Mongolia and Manchuria. The Great Wall evolved over a period of time and through the rule of various dynasties to finally stretch for more than 4000 miles over mountains and deserts. The immediate impact of the raising of the wall was that China, which was easy prey to predatory attacks became effectively closed to the nomadic tribes, forcing themed to look westward. By around 170 B.C. major migratory ructions were already taking place in the steppes of Mongolia and Central Asia. 
This migration of the nomad nations from the Mongolian heartland had a momentous impact on India. The story starts with the crushing defeat meted out to the large Yueh-Chi tribe by a tribe of Turki nomads called Hiung-Nu. Some sources have dated this event as having occurred in 165 B.C., but it is more appropriate, and perhaps prudent, to accept it having happened within the limiting dates of 174 to 160 B.C. The Yueh-Chi were driven out of their traditional pastures in the province of Kan-Su in north-west China and forced to move west. Although defeated, the Yueh-Chi was not a small tribe—it is estimated that they had a fighting force of between 100 and 200 thousand bowmen and that the entire tribe that started to move had a total population in excess of one million. The racial build-up of the Yueh-Chi is uncertain; however, they were not snub-nosed Mongols but big men of Turkish in appearance, with large noses and pink complexion, and their customs very similar to those practiced by the Hiung-Nu.
The Migration of the Yueh-Chi
The Yueh-Chi marched west past Kucha, north of the Desert of Taklamakan (named Gobi in older maps), and came into conflict with the Wu-Sun tribe. The Wu-San occupied the basin of the Ili River and its southern tributaries, Tekes and Konges. Although they were numerically much smaller and had only 10,000 bowmen, the Wu-San put up a spirited and stiff resistance. However, they were defeated, their chieftain killed, and the people of the tribe scattered. Soon after this victory, the Yueh-Chi split into two groups, with the smaller of the two—Little Yueh-Chi—diverging south and settling at the Tibetan border. The main body, called Great Yueh-Chi continued their westward journey and encountered the Shakas in the area west of the Wu-Sun territory and north of the River Jaxartes (Syr Darya). The Yueh-Chi successfully expelled the Shakas from their pastures and occupied them. The Shakas in turn migrated and ultimately made their way to India. (Explained in Part 16, Section II) The Yueh-Chi settled own in the conquered territory for the next 15 to 20 years, till a revengeful Wu-Sun tribe came back to haunt them.
Around 140 B.C. the Yueh-Chi were attacked by the Wu-Sun, led by the slain chieftain’s son who had been protected by the Hiung-Nu (the traditional enemies of Yueh-Chi) and brought up under their care. The Wu-Sun defeated the Yueh-Chi thus avenging their earlier defeat, and drove them out of the Shaka lands that they had occupied. The Yueh-Chi moved on to the valley of the River Oxus and around 125 B.C conquered the local inhabitants, known to the Chinese as Ta-Hia. They exercised political control over both sides of the river, including Bactria in the south, but their centre of power, the capital, remained in the north for many years. In the fertile territory and salubrious climate of the Oxus valley, the Yueh-Chi gradually lost their nomadic habits, becoming a settled territorial nation in the span of a few generations. Their area of dominance extended to the Bactrian lands in the south and Sogdiana in the north.
At this time, the Yueh-Chi spoke an Iranian affiliated language and the tribe were divided into five autonomous principalities. Their political and social development as a settled nation was, in a manner, also complete. One of the five principalities, the Kuei-Shang (subsequently called Kushan in India) was to go on to build an empire that would rank alongside, the Roman, Parthian and Chinese empires as one of the most powerful of its day. There is almost no information regarding the Yueh-Chi for the next one century; it is presumed that they continued as five semi-independent principalities living amicably but separately within the larger land holding and traditions of the umbrella tribe. The Yueh-Chi come up again in Chinese literature at the beginning of the Christian era, around 15 A.D., when it is mentioned that the Kuei-Shang, under their chief Kujula Kadphises, subdued the other four principalities and assumed overall control of the tribe as well as the tribal lands, which by then covered most of Afghanistan and eastern Iran. There is only limited information regarding Kujula Kadphises—he is considered to have been in power in the 10s and 20s A.D and to have entered India through the Khyber Pass.
Also by this time, the erstwhile nomadic warriors, always ready for battle and prepared to accept life in flux, had absorbed influences of other tribes through the constant ‘collisions’ during migration. Further, they had by now led a settled life for more than a century. Therefore, when they were united by the Kushans as one great tribe, they already had a vibrant and syncretic material culture. In 1978, excavations at Tillya Tepe (Golden Hill) in Bactria uncovered what can only be a royal cemetery where princes and princesses were interned. All the bodies that have so far been excavated are adorned with gold jewellery and ornate trappings. The excavations were interrupted by the Taliban rule, but fortunately the artefacts, which were presumed to have been destroyed, were found in a vault in the Kabul Central Bank in 2003. Only six graves have so far been excavated, but they provide a descriptive picture of the Kushan nobility.
By the time they entered India, the Kushans had irretrievably changed from being nomadic raiders and become rulers—they preferred to exercise administrative control over conquered lands rather than conduct sporadic and temporary raids; and they started to collect taxes and tributes rather than resorting to forced and violent confiscation of wealth. They had also created an aristocracy with Kujula Kadphises as king. Under Kujula, the Kushans defeated the last Greek prince, Hermaeus, to rule in Afghanistan and North West India, finally ending the long line of Indo-Greek rulers. It is possible that the Kushans under Kujula reached the banks of the Indus. Around the same time, the Parthian vassal king Gondophares was also conquering lands to the south and finally came to share a border with the Kushans. In Afghanistan, Gondophares ruled Archosia and Kujula the Kabul valley, with Gandhara being split between the two rulers—Kujula assuming control of the territory west of the Indus and Gondophores controlling Taxila and surrounding areas. Conflict was inevitable, as it always is, when two ambitious kings share a border. In the mid-40s A.D., the Kushans were expelled from their lands and the Khyber and Kabul fell under the control of the Parthians. [It seems that the Yueh-Chi, now Kushans, were not very adept at defending their lands, always giving way to more aggressive tribes/rulers that they regularly encountered in their migratory moves.]
Kujala died aged about 80 and was succeeded by Wema Kadphises (also known as Kadphises II) around 45 A.D. In the mid-60s A.D. Wema led the Kushans back into India, reconquered all the land that was lost to the Parthians two decades ago, and in 75 A.D. razed Taxila to the ground. Kadphises II went on to conquer the Punjab and moved east across the Gangetic plains up to Benares. The conquered Indian provinces were ruled by military viceroys and could account for the fact that a large number of coins that have been found are of nameless ‘kings’. These coins have been found in the Kabul valley and up to Ghazipur, as well as in Benares, Kathiawar and Kutchch. It is also around this time that the Kushans started to have pretensions to greatness. Their coins were of the highest quality and some at least were probably recast Roman aurei. After the sacking of Taxila, the gold and copper Kushan coins started to have inscriptions describing the king variously as Maharajah (Indian influence), Son of God (similar to the Chinese Celestial Emperor), Saviour (Greek influence), King of Kings (from the Shakas), and Caesar (Roman influence). Historically it is seen that victory in battle and the subservience of lesser tribes and chieftains, combined with the conquest of a large body of land that spans sub-continents invariably evokes a sense of grandeur in the chiefs of the victorious tribes, and Kadphises II was no exception. He was succeeded on the throne by Kanishka, whose relationship with the Kadphises cannot be ascertained. With the arrival of Kanishka, the Kushan dynasty was on its ascendancy to real greatness! 

 © [Sanu Kainikara] [2013]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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