The Kushans, or Kushanas, were said to be an offshoot of
a branch of the Yueh Chi tribe following their mass exodus from China in
around 165 BC.
In all, there were five branches of the Yueh Chi. One of
their leaders, Kujula Kadphises or Kadphises I (c.AD 30-80), united these
five tribes and led a campaign down south, at a point sometime in the first
century AD. He encountered the Scythians (Sakas) who had already put down
roots in India. The Sakas were a Central Asian tribe which, along with the
Indo-Parthians (Pahlavas), had dominated India from present day Afghanistan
and Pakistan right over to parts of Maharashtra and Kathiawar (modern
Kadphises subdued the Sakas and established his kingdom in
Bactria and the valley of the River Oxus. He further captured Gandhara and southern Afghanistan.
Kadphises I lived to the ripe old age of eighty,
and was succeeded by Vima Takto. Vima conquered north-western India
and appointed a general to supervise it (as per the Chinese
chronicle, Hou Hanshu, which provides much of the details on
the Kushan empire).
Vima Takto was succeeded by Wema Kadphises,
otherwise known as Kadphises II (c.90-112 or c.105-127 -
dating for the Kushans is very difficult and few scholars seem to be
able to agree). Wema was the grandson of Kadphises I, and either the
son of Sadakshana, probably another son of Kujula Kadphises, or the
son of Vima Takto himself. Either way, he was a great conqueror and he expanded the borders of his
kingdom to the edges of China and Persia. He ventured into
India and established his kingdom as far as Punjab and parts of Uttar
Pradesh. Kujula Kadphises had embraced Buddhism, while his son, Wema,
embraced Shaivism (Hinduism). He also struck many coins that
have imprints of various 'shaivaite' deities like Lord Shiva and Nandi
(Shiva's carrier or bull).
Civil war and further expansion
After Wema Kadphises died, his kshatrapas (governors) fought amongst
themselves. Kanishka, the kshatrapa of Wema's eastern province, won
the struggle and declared himself to be the successor of Wema Kadphises.
Kanishka (variously attributed to around
AD 78-98, c.112-132 or 127-147) proved himself to be a great ruler. Firstly, he annexed to
his kingdom the various regions of India such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar,
Kashmir, Malwa, Rajputana, Saurashtra, and extended his rule as far
as Khotan (southern India). He made Purushpura (present day Peshawar in Pakistan) his
capital and appointed kshatrapas to rule his vast territories.
Kanishka was a Buddhist. It was during his rule that Buddhism split
into two sects, the Hinayana and the Mahayana (during the fourth and
apparently last great council of the Buddhists). Kanishka embraced
Mahayana Buddhism. The Peshawar monastery and the Stupa, built
by Kanishka, was a source of admiration for many travellers, and it was
during Kanishka's time that the Kashyapa Matanga introduced Buddhism to
China (AD 61-67).
Kanishka was a patron of the arts. Architecture and painting progressed
during his reign, with the mural paintings of the Ajanta caves
beginning to take shape. Also, the Gandhara school of sculpture
gained prominence. Images of Buddha and many other exquisite
sculptures, rock pillars, and rock edicts were built all over India.
(The headless statue of Kanishka wearing a long overcoat and quilted
boots has been found near Mathura, in Uttar Pradesh.)