Indian History Part 43 THE KHYBER PASS Section III: Greeks, Kushans, Sasanians and White Huns

Canberra, 2 October 2015

The regions around the Hindu Kush mountain ranges went through three hundred years of turmoil to create and consolidate kingdoms that rose and fell with the regularity and assurance of day following night. The Khyber Pass was at the centre of this upheaval and went through an era of volatility seldom seen in history. By 250 B.C., both the Seleucid Empire in the west and the Maurya Empire in India were entering terminal decline. Around the same time the Greeks of Bactria had established a kingdom that gathered in its fold some of the Indian territories; Scythians and Parthians—nomads from the steppes of Central Asia—had started to move south; and on the horizon could be seen gathering a great Iranian tribe, the Kushans. This period saw the start of a series of invasions through the Khyber Pass into India, which would influence and shape its history for the next 2000 years.

The process that almost always culminated in the invasion of India was simple. Essentially the tribes of Central Asia were nomadic and perpetually in a migratory state in search of new grazing for their livestock. During these moves, collisions with other similar tribes were inevitable where the weaker tribe would be expelled from their grazing grounds. They would then move on and come into violent contact with yet another tribe and so on, perpetuating a cycle of events. The cycle was almost eternal and created a chain of reactive migration, both forced and voluntary. The impact of these migrations were felt more in the sedentary tribes who were ill equipped to deal with the violence and viciousness of the warlike nomads and were invariably the losers. The tertiary impact of such militarised migrations were felt as ripples in faraway places. An example of such migratory movements can be seen in the Mahabharata, which states that Yavanas and Shakas (Greeks and Scythians) also served in the army of King Sudakshina of Kamboj. However, there is no documentary evidence or attributable source to gleam the history of the Khyber region during this turbulent period, approximately between 250 B.C. and 100 A.D. The only information available is through numismatics which is not conclusive or fully reliable.

The Seleucid realm stretched from Asia Minor to Afghanistan and faced the same challenge that all great empires have faced throughout history; that of their great size becoming unmanageable over an extended period of time. In order to manage the vastness of the kingdom, Seleucus made his son, Antiochus I, joint emperor in charge of the Eastern division. At this time, around 290 B.C., the Scythians had made considerable inroads into the Seleucid territory in Margiana and Aria. However on the death of Seleucus, Antiochus I, and subsequently his son Antiochus II, had to focus their attention to shore up the western borders, leaving the eastern provinces to be ruled by some satraps. By 240 B.C., the satraps of Bactria and Parthia, Diodotus and Andragoras declared independence and started to rule their provinces as Greek kingdoms.

Andragoras did not fare well for long and Parthia was rapidly conquered by the Scythians under Arsaces. The Scythians continued to move west and created a large kingdom. The territories to the north of the Hindu Kush (today northern Afghanistan) became the kingdom of Bactrian Greeks under Diodotus. Although the territory is arid and poor today, it was agricultural and relatively wealthy, enabling to Bactrian Greeks to expand their kingdom considerably. The Khyber Pass was once again under Greek control. Excavations in 1970 unearthed a highly developed Greek town—the city of Ai Khanum, the Lady of the Moon—on the Oxus River, testifying to the prosperity of the ancient Bactrian Greek kingdom. In 208 B.C., when Euthydemus was ruling the large kingdom of Bactria, Antiochus III then ruling the remnants of the Seleucid Empire, concluded a treaty with him and entered India through the Khyber.

There was no battle of significance that was fought with the Indian kingdom and Antiochus III renewed the treaty that his ancestor Seleucus had signed, this time with king Sophagasemus who is considered to have been a vassal king ruling in the extremity of the failing Maurya Empire. The significance of this intrusion and benign return was that it demonstrated the vulnerability of India through the Khyber Pass, which was controlled by outside kingdoms. The ruling house of Bactria was quick to note this.

This resulted in Demetrius, later known by the epithet ‘Aniketos’ meaning the ‘Invincible’, leading the Bactrian Greeks through the Khyber Pass into India in 190 B.C. The victorious army, still Macedonian in character, reached the Beas River. At this juncture they had to turn back because of a rebellion against Demetrius had matured in Bactria. In the power struggle that followed Demetrius was killed in battle by Eucratides, who went on to hold Gandhara and the North-West Frontier, controlling the Khyber. The core of Bactria itself however was in disarray, being periodically invaded by the Parthians. The Indian territories, the North-West Frontier including the important Khyber Pass continued to be under Greek control from 190 B.C. for nearly two centuries. Numismatic records show the rule of over a dozen Hellenic kings in the region, almost all of them indistinguishable from each other.

The most famous and recognisable of these was Menander who converted to Buddhism. Information of this king is available from the Buddhist text, Milindapanha where he is referred to as Milinda ‘The Saviour King’, which attests to his rule around 160-135 B.C. of a stabilised Indo-Greek kingdom. This kingdom consisted of the Punjab, Swat valley and some parts of the Gangetic Plains, with its capital in Sagala (Sialkot in modern Punjab). At the same time Tiridates, son of Arsaces had created the Parthian Iran that covered almost the entire western part of the erstwhile Achaemenian Empire and which would last for nearly five centuries. Although the Parthians fought the Roman eastern advance to a standstill in the west, they did not sweep to the east as previous regimes had done and therefore the Khyber continued to be under Greek control. However, tribal upheaval in Mongolia were pushing two Iranian tribes of Central Asia south towards India—the Scythian ‘Shakas’ and the Kushans.

In 130 B.C., the Shakas, the same tribe that had killed Cyrus the Great in battle few centuries ago, crossed the River Oxus into Bactria. Their occupation of Bactria was short-lived, since they were evicted by the Kushans in 127 B.C. The Shakas thereafter migrated through western Afghanistan and established the kingdom of Drangiana or Shakastan (modern province of Seistan) and commenced a fight against the Greeks for control of territory. By 65 B.C. they were in control of Gandhara and the Khyber. Although their rule even here did not last long, the Shakas left an indelible influence in the region. The current Pathan tribes of the Khyber are their descendants, a fact established through clear linguistic evidence. Further, the Central Asian deity called Surya, depicted dressed in Iranian finery was absorbed into the pantheon of Indian gods, and is worshipped to this day. The Shakas adopted the Indo-Greek culture of the conquered territories and, as has often been said of the Indian sub-continent, was subsequently conquered by the sub-continent and its culture.

For a short period of time the Greeks under king Amyntas and his son Hermaeus recaptured the Khyber in the 30s B.C. However, this blossoming of the Indo-Greek kingdom that had held sway in the region for more than two centuries was brief. This period also saw the Iranian Parthians gradually absorbing the Shakas of their eastern border and Gondophares the Shaka king had become a Parthian vassal. In the 20s B.C. the Kushans had started rolling down the Hindu Kush but were countered by the Parthians. They expelled the Kushans from the North-West and the Kabul valley and held them at bay in the north.

When the Iran Parthians were busy expelling the Kushans from their eastern provinces and bringing the Khyber under their control, the Roman Emperor Claudius was invading Britain in an attempt to bring it under his control. At the height of their powers, the Roman and the Parthians between them controlled all of modern day Europe, West Asia and the North and North-West India. This unification of a major portion of the known world into two empires brought with it a singular advantage to the progress of civilisation—it facilitated the interaction and connection between the East and the West by easing the challenges to long distance travel. The result was the intermingling of religion and culture with the inherent human instinct for trade and profit becoming a great motivating factor to maintain and strengthen the links. Obviously the same instinct for profit also led to rivalry and war.

This was the age of the famed Silk Road, a network of caravan routes that covered thousands of miles linking China with West Asia, and which carried luxury goods from one to the other in reciprocal trade. The Khyber Pass was part of the Silk Road system. For the Indian sub-continent, Gandhara was the regional trade centre, based on a route from Taxila through the Khyber to Bagram and then to Bactria. This was the primary route for Indian goods such as pepper, ivory and textiles to enter the Silk Road and thence become part of the international trade system. This was also a tumultuous period with Greeks, Scythians and Parthians contesting continually for control of the Khyber Pass and the territories of North-West India. In the bargain ideas were exchanged and influence flowed both ways, creating an amalgam of culture in the North-Western territories and emphasising the importance of the Khyber Pass as the connecting link between civilisations. Then came the Kushans.

The Kushan Invasion

Around the 10s and 20s A.D. a chieftain named Kujula Kadphises united the migrating and mutually warring tribes of Yuezhi under on banner while they were passing south through the Hindu Kush. Kujula became king of the Yuezhi who were now gradually being known as the Kushans. During his intrusion south, in an effort to expand the kingdom, Kujula captured the Kabul valley. However, the Kushans were expelled by the Parthian vassal king Gondophares ruling Archosia, keeping the Khyber under nominal Parthian control.

Fifty years later, in the mid-60s A.D., the Kushans returned, captured the Gandhara region and in 75 A.D. burned Taxila to the ground. They entered India through the Khyber Pass and established the famed Kushan Empire. Kanishka, the greatest Kushan king, and the only one of the dynasty that deserves the title Emperor, adopted Buddhism and went on to make it a truly global religion. This was achieved by the unification of many lands under the Kushan Empire that in turn permitted the free passage of ideas, facilitating the propagation of Buddhist ideals. For example, the large spread of the empire permitted a monk to travel from Pataliputra in the eastern Gangetic plains, through Gandhara and as far as Kashgar and vice versa under the protection of a single emperor. In this osmosis of ideas and culture, Khyber Pass became the essential and main means of transmission. For the first time, the religious teachings of Gautama the Buddha crossed the Hindu Kush in a comprehensive manner; not being taken out by itinerant traveller monks of limited influence. The importance of the Khyber as the main conduit for the spread of Buddhism from India, to Central Asia and on to China and the Far-East cannot be overemphasised.

This process of interaction also facilitated a give-and-take spread of artistic influence across the different empires. Gandharan art by this time had been fully influenced by the Greek art through its long association with Indo-Greek rulers. Along with the spread of Buddhism, Graeco-Roman art was also introduced to China and the Far-East with the Khyber being central to this development. In the broader sweep of history it is seen that the enduring contribution of the Kushans was the spread of Buddhism, which was only facilitated through the control that they exercised over the Khyber Pass. Khyber therefore was not only the gateway into India for invasion by external and at times less culturally developed warrior tribes, but also the exit point for the export and spread of uniquely Indian ideas and religions.

The Kushan Empire disintegrated not very long after the death of Kanishka, perishing in the fresh onslaught that came through the Khyber—the Sasanian Persians who had come to power in Iran were eager to reclaim their eastern provinces.

Sasanian Persians and White Huns

The Parthians who had conquered Iran continued to fight the expansion of Rome in the west and ruled for two centuries after the demise of the Kushans. During this period they took back the Indian territories that had been lost to the Kushan invasion. The 500-year Parthian Empire was demolished not by external aggression, but through rebellions from within the kingdom. They were replaced by the Sasanians whose origins are still not clear; and the beginning of their becoming politically powerful is beset in confusion. However, it has been ascertained that the Sasanians were one of the hereditary high priests of the temple of Istakhr, near the old royal capital of Persepolis.

It is certain that Sasan, from whom the dynastic name is derived, was a senior temple dignitary and his son Papak was married to the daughter of the local satrap/king ruling a province of Persia as a vassal of the Parthian Emperor. Papak seized power form his father-in-law but for some obscure reason the Parthian overlord, the king of kings, did not recognise Papak as the legitimate ruler of the province. Further, neither did he agree to Papak’s son being made the heir apparent nor did he recognise the son’s subsequent accession to the throne. The fact that even though the king did not recognise either Papak or his son, they continued to rule with the son first becoming the heir apparent and then succeeding to the throne is clear indication of the waning power of the Parthian dynasty. Their power and hold over the empire, especially in the outlying regions, was only an illusion to keep the ‘peace’.

Ardeshir, the son of Papak and newly consecrated king declared himself king of not only his province but the entire Persian region. He met the Parthian army in battle in 224 A.D. in which the Parthian king Artabanus V was killed. Ardeshir rapidly broke up and destroyed the coalition fighting him, which was an eclectic mix of Romans, Kushans, Scythians and Armenians. Within two years of the battle, Ardeshir was the ruler of an empire stretching from the Euphrates to Seistan. In some texts, the Sasanians are mentioned as the true descendants of the Achaemenians. However, this is incorrect and based on propaganda of the time made to improve the status of the king with the Sasanians copying the Achaemenians to further the myth.

The Rise of Zoroastrianism

Ardeshir was completely loyal to Ahura Mazda, the presiding deity of the Zoroastrian belief, perhaps because of his ancestral temple origin. He provided unstinting patronage to the religion throughout his reign which saw Zoroastrianism rise to its zenith during the Sasanian era. Ardeshir forged the disparate Zoroastrian beliefs and practices into a unified whole, forcibly removing statues and idols from the temples and replacing them once again with sacred fires. He recognised the limits of violence and force as well as the value of religion in gradually legitimising his claim over the throne, which had been seized by force, and perpetuating his dynasty. The Sasanians became the special protectors of the Zoroastrian faith. As a corollary, they also started to spread malicious rumours based on prejudices against the Parthians whom they had replaced, labelling them crude, uncivilised and pagans. These accusations gradually came to be believed over the centuries and denied the Parthians their rightful place in history as magnificent rulers of long endurance and positive contributors to the progress of Persian culture.

Ardeshir’s son Shapur came to the throne in 241 A.D. His father had bested the Romans and stabilised the western front and therefore Shapur turned his attention to the eastern provinces, some of which had been annexed by the great, but by now waning Kushan Empire. The Kushans were in decline although still ruling a rich, rather than powerful, empire that continued to enhance its prosperity through trade and the control of the Khyber Pass. Shapur’s first military campaign was to the eastern provinces and was a rapid success. He captured Peshawar, the capital of the Kushans and occupied the Indus valley, once again bringing the Khyber Pass under Persian domination. Turning north, he captured Bactria and crossed the River Oxus going on to capture Samarkand and Tashkent.

At this time the Sasanian Persian army was the epitome of exemplary professionalism whereas the once triumphant Kushan army had become indolent and soft through successive victories and easy living. It is also to be noted that the warrior ethos of the Kushan dynasty as whole had been gradually diluted over generations through the adoption of the pacifist code of Buddhism. The remnants of the mighty Kushan Empire was absorbed into the Sasanian Empire without much fanfare and the territorial holdings divided between vassal satraps acting as rulers. By the mid-240s the eastern boundary of the Sasanian Empire expanded even beyond the borders of the earlier Achaemenian kingdom. The intrepid Shapur consolidated his eastern victories and then turned west, embarking on another campaign of conquest. He entered Roman Syria and successfully fought his way to Antioch. Shapur’s western campaign is not directly connected to this narrative and is not being discussed further.

The only connection to the campaign in the west is that while the Sasanians were pre-occupied with the Roman campaign, the defeated Kushans in the east rebelled. This distracted the Sasanian operations in the west and they were forced to accept a disadvantageous peace treaty with the Romans in order to quell the rebellion and refocus on the eastern provinces. The rebellion resulted in a brief interlude of Kushan control of the Khyber and some parts of their earlier kingdom. Shapur II, who had by this time become the Sasanian Emperor returned to the Eastern provinces and this time comprehensively defeated and destroyed the Kushans. He placed Sasanian princes on the throne as vassals and because they had defeated the Kushans they were called the Kushanshahas, ‘kings of the Kushans’. All Kushan lands were ruled as a province with Bactria as the capital.

Shapur II ruled for 70 years and is the most celebrated of the Sasanian emperors. During his reign some of the most significant events to affect and change the course of the ancient world were taking place outside the Iranian lands—Rome adopted Christianity as its official religion; the glorious Guptas came to power in the Gangetic Plains of India; and a new nomadic tribe appeared on the North-East border of the Sasanian Empire. These events also acted as stimuli for activities within Iran itself. The Sasanians and the Guptas share a similar path in their rise to power and are considered by historians to be natural associates rather than rivals. They are seen as the zenith of their respective civilisations, rivalling each other in creating a golden era in their kingdoms with no rivalry in arms between the two, even though there were shared borders.

A new band of nomads, the Chionites, now threatened Bactria. Shapur II, for all his glory could not defeat these warriors even after two full seasons of fighting and had to accept a peace facilitated by the Buddhist community resident in Bamiyan, and had to hand over Bactria. The capitulation of Bactria kept the Chionites from moving towards India. Some years after Shapur II died, the last group of Iranian nomads to invade the southern civilisations from the steppes, the White Huns, threatened Bactria. These were not proper Huns, the Turkic people who harassed Rome, but a border tribe that had interacted with the Huns. The name ‘White Huns’ suggest that they were of Iranian origin, although they seem to have adopted some Turkic cultural attitudes. It is also apparent that the White Huns were far cruder than the other Central Asian tribes that had periodically rolled down the steppes.

By 425, the White Huns had deposed the Chionites from Bactria and in another two years had moved into the Sasanian Empire, reaching Teheran. Here they were defeated by the Sasanian king Bahram V and so they turned back east. By 465 the White Huns had captured Gandhara, seized the Khyber Pass and marched into India. The Sasanians had to accept the loss of their Indian lands. The White Huns encountered the borders of the great Gupta Empire when they entered Indian lands and suffered a long series of military defeats. The last Gupta king of any stature was Skandagupta who kept the invaders at bay throughout his reign. The waning of the Gupta power permitted the White Huns to establish a foothold in the sub-continent. Their viceroy, called Tegin, Toramana completely smashed the power of the Guptas, and although the dynasty continued to rule well into the 6th century, they were reduced in status and had become historically insignificant in the larger scheme of things.

In the meantime, the White Huns also continued to interfere in the Sasanian affairs. Their influence reached its apogee when they assisted the deposed king Karadh to regain his throne. However, the Persian Emperor Khusrau heralded the arrival of a rejuvenated Sasanian dynasty and restored the Iranian status. In collaboration with the Turks, the new rising power of the steppes, Khusrau crushed the White Huns and regained control of the Khyber Pass. From this point on, till the 7th century, the Sasanian Empire was ascendant. The Persian civilisation was ambitious and expansionary, impatient to spread out in all directions. Persian power backed by the efficient Sasanian army was by this time unassailable—they invaded the Holy Land, seized Jerusalem, conquered Egypt and extended their borders to Ethiopia. They captured Asia Minor and besieged Constantinople. The glory of the Sasanians was that their astounding military success was evenly matched by stupendous advances in the arts and the sciences, once again not being described as these developments are not germane to the core narrative—the history of India.

And then in 632, The Prophet Muhammad died in Medina, and the world changed forever.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2015]
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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 Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. 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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