History Files


Middle Kingdoms India

The Sakas

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha & Peter Kessler, 2 August 2009. Updated 29 May 2019

The Sakas, better known as Indo-Scythians once they reached India, were a collection of nomadic tribes from Central Asia, some of which had inhabited the region around Lake Issykkul and the River Jaxartes. Generally, they were pastoralists and good horsemen. They often attacked sedentary societies with the intention of acquiring pastoral grazing land and livestock - typical cattle-centric steppe nomad behaviour.

Following the death of Alexander the Great and the gradual diminution of his eastern empire, the Sakas infiltrated those lands to create states of their own. They settled down in Bactria and Parthia, overrunning the Parthians (the Pahlavas or Indo-Parthians), and forcing remnants of their people into India, one of a complex series of incursions and migrations from Central Asia into India in this period. Then they were attacked and driven further south by the Yuezhi tribes, where they contributed towards the weakening of the remaining Greek kingdom there.

The Saka king, Maues or Moga (circa 90-60 BC), established Saka rule in Gandhara (modern Kandahar in eastern Afghanistan). He defeated the Indo-Greek territories (in modern Pakistan) and established his governance as far as the River Jhelum. But after his death the Indo-Greeks regained their territories.

Maues was succeeded by Vonones (75-65 BC), who ruled along with his brother, Spalahores. The brother was succeeded in turn by his son, Spalagadames (50 BC) who ruled areas between Central Asia and South Asia. Records are very hazy for this post-Greek period, often with the only information being supplied by coin finds.

Spalagadames' successor, Azes (57-35 BC), increased his importance by capturing the kingdom of the last great Indo-Greek king, Hippostratus. His joint ruler (although perhaps as a junior partner) was Azillises, who was succeeded by the somewhat doubtful Azes II (35-12 BC). Azes II completed the conquest of the Scythians in northern India, but his death coincided with the rise of the Kushans in India.

The Sakas ruled over the north-west frontier, and in Punjab, Sindh, Kashmir, western Uttar Pradesh, Saurashtra, Kathiawar, Rajputana, Malwa, and the north Konkan belt of Maharashtra. They also fought against the Satvahanas in India, and later entered into matrimonial alliances with them, furthering their own integration into Indian society. Benefiting from their earlier interaction with the Greeks, the Sakas kings employed the Greek system of rule and appointed kshatrapas (satraps, governors) to govern each region.

The Sakas were later overpowered by the Kushans when they succeeded in taking control from the Sakas. The Sakas were forced to accept their suzerainty but, after the Kushans themselves faded, the Sakas' own western kshatrapas once again rose in prominence. This was especially the case under King Nahapana, who occupied large swathes of Satvahana territory in western and central India. Eventually he was defeated by the Satvahana king, Gautamiputra Satkarni.

Nahapana was succeeded by King Chastana, who was mentioned by Ptolemy as 'Tiasthenes' or 'Testenes', and who ruled a large area of western India into the second century AD, especially the area of Ujjain (Ozene), during the reign of the Satvahana king, Vasisthiputra Sri Pulamavi. Chastana was the grandfather of the great western Mahakshatrap Rudradaman I.

Rudradaman I waged various successful wars against the Satvahanas. He was the father-in-law of the Satvahana king, Vashishtaputra Satkarni, whom he defeated twice in battle, which led to the decline of the Satvahanas. During his reign he converted to Hinduism after taking a Hindu wife. His kingdom extended over Malwa, Rajputana, Gujrat, and Maharashtra (except Pune and Nasik).

The Sakas were finally finished off as a regional power by the rulers of the Gupta dynasty. In time the remnants of the Sakas, now without any political power, blended into Indian society.

Typical Indo-Scythians in India, still the notable horse-borne warriors of their Indo-European heritage but by now greatly imbued with Indian cultural influences



Main Sources

Bajpai, K D - Indian Numismatic Studies

Chopra, P N & Puri, B N - A Comprehensive History Of Ancient India

Cook, J M - The Persian Empire, 1983

Grousset, René - The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, 1970

Justinus, Marcus Junianus, Yardley, John, & Heckel, Waldemar - Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus: Books 11-12, Volume 1

Majumdar, R C - Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Ltd, 1987

Naskar, Satyendra Nath - Foreign Impact on Indian Life and Culture (c.326 BC to c.300 AD)

Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History, Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000


Online Sources

Pokorny, J - Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

P'iankov, I - The Ethnic [Background] of [the] Sakas (Scythians), presented by the Iran Chamber Society

The Ancient History Encyclopaedia

Talessman's Atlas (World History Maps).



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.