K is for Kushan

Vima Kadphises and Shiva, photo from columbia. edu.

You want to study the Romans?
You ought to study the Kushans.

Prof. Craig Benjamin, “Foundations of Eastern Civilization”

The Kushan dynasty may be the greatest empire that you’ve never heard of. 

The Kushans practically invented the Silk Road. At least the middle part of the road, since I noted previously that the Han dynasty forged paths across the mountains to create the road from the east and Darius’ Achmaenid dynasty had a “Royal Road” that crossed from Greece through Persia from the west. Craig Benjamin, who taught a crackerjack 45-lecture Great Course on Eastern Civilizations (yes that’s where I got some of this from), started out an ancient Rome scholar. But he ended up writing his dissertation on the Kushans, that dynasty that spread from Persia across northern Afghanistan and India, a terrain that is mountainous but traversable. 

Today, it’s known as the Hindu Kush.

The Hindu Kush is a place but also a people who spread far across the territory. Wikipedia.

Where the Twain Shall Meet

Kipling, as I mentioned back in E is for East, talked about how the twain didn’t meet except when they did meet, and that was in India. Kipling was telling a story about the British Raj, which comes in the 19th century, but maybe he was thinking back to Kush. The people of the Kush had their own predecessors from west and east. There was a steppe-dwelling group called the Sacae near Iran, who may have met the troops of King Darius in 500 or 600 BCE. 

They settled down in a place called the Tarim Basin, which is another word for the “bowl” of that Taklamakan Desert surrounded by the mountains. We saw yesterday that one version of the Silk Road went north over that basin through the Jade Gate. Here is where the road goes under the bowl, the extreme southwestern version of the basin. This was where Alexander the Great ended up, near the kingdom of Bactria, from whence the camels came. (It’s only “K” and my A to Z posts are starting to circle around the same topics!) 

This area was densely populated and called many things for a good reason. Think of all the desert and mountains nearby. Natural barriers limited where there might be fertile land, and that land might be in high demand by multiple groups. The Sacae nad settled there after Alexander the Great died , but before Emperor Augustus did (300 BCE to 30 CE). 

There was also a group called Yuezhi by the Chinese. They moved from the northeastern steppes down the basin into the Kush, and the travelers who reported back to the powerful emperor Wudi knew them well by 128 BCE. So civilizations at the endpoints, the Romans, the Bactrians, and the Chinese, all recognized this growing power in the arc that covered the lush lands of India. 

1993 Rabatak inscription detailing Kushan dynasty. Wikipedia.

Buried Treasure

In 1993, technicians funded by the NGO humanitarian organization HALO were looking for hidden mines in Afghanistan. Carefully digging, they came across lion’s paws statues and a tablet with an inscription. Historians certainly knew about the Kushans, but this listed the correct order and dates of their leaders in Greek and in Bactrian. It dated back to 200 CE, thrilling every historian who had opted not to just study ancient Rome. The lion paws have since gone missing.

…he gave orders to make (them) for these kings: for King Kujula Kadphises (his) great grandfather, and for King Vima Taktu, (his) grandfather, and for King Vima Kadphises (his) father, and also for himself, King Kanishka

Translation of the Rabatak inscription, wikipedia.

This was a group so familiar with languages and cultures that it flows into what they have become most famous for. Their coinage.

Kanishka with Buddha on the obverse. Photo at COININDIA.

The Cultural Blender

Let’s review. Alexander the Great (Greek). Bactrians and Iranians (Persian). Chinese influence. Hindus across the border. The coins are a polyglot of cultures from the time. Kanishka and the other kings wear robes in a Chinese style, with inscriptions in Greek on one side and Sanskrit on the other. The Buddha appears on the coin, one of the first times Buddha appears on a coin.

Coins weren’t necessarily simply for buying bread at the bakers. They were used by traders, acting as a shorthand for credit. Giving someone a coin means you’re guaranteeing that someone else will give them something of value equal to your purchase–it’s your credit being passed on in trust. It helps establish a common unit of measure, so there wasn’t a constant need to figure out the relative value between a sheep and a bolt of silk.

The coins would spread far and wide as the merchants traversed the road. The picture of the Buddha would lead to discussions about the Buddha, allowing the true believers an opportunity to launch into a religious spiel. The nights were long on the Silk Road and traders who sat around a fire might as well listen to something. It was thought that Buddhism made its way to China and the east along the Silk Road because of this patronage by the Kushans.

The Kushan dynasty lasted some 500 years, intact despite the strength of Rome and the Han dynasties on either sides of the Silk Route. They managed to keep from being absorbed, perhaps because of savvy trade negotiations and perhaps because partners appreciated their fetching fashion statements on the gold stamped bits of metal.

Ruins in Takht-i-Bahi, photo from factsanddetails.com.

Their once great cities are now just fodder for achaeologists. But the role they played in promulgating Buddha is still celebrated by Indians today, even though the Gupta empire eventually absorbed the Kushans and re-established the Hindu gods over the Buddha in the early 300-400s.

Thus, I hope you’ll agree with Prof. Benjamin: Travel is a great vehicle for religious conversion.

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