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Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Art and Mystery of the Kushans

An early Mahayan Buddhist pentad,  2nd-3rd century CE.
From l to r:  a Kushan devotee, the Bodhisattva Maitreya, the Buddha,
the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and a Buddhist monk.

One of the most intriguing tribes of ancient times is the little-known Kushan tribe.  They are thought to be a branch of the Yuezhi, an Indo-European group that either were the Tocharians or were closely related.  There is much confusion over the documentation of the ancient Central Asian people, so what little is known of the tribes contributes to their mystery.

Gold coin of Vasudeva I

Yet the Kushans left important evidence of their existence that is still admired and sought after today:  art.  And my definition of art here is inclusive of coinage, which in ancient times were spectacular miniature works of art.  Most importantly it was during the Kushan era that one of the most beautiful styles of art developed in the area of Gandhara.

The Kushan Empire was formed in the first century CE in the area of Ancient Bactria in what are now the countries of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.  It only lasted until the third century CE, when it fell to the Sassanid Empire to the West, and the Gupta Empire to the East.  What scholars have gathered on them today is from their art, inscriptions, and the accounts of other peoples, mainly the Chinese.  A lot of what is conjectured about them is arguable.

There is some trace of them in the archaeological record in the various areas shown on the map. A monumental temple here, a palace site there, and various sculptures and friezes reveal information about them.  Depictions of them show deformed skulls - a self-induced deformity popular among Central Asian nomads.  They were horseback enthusiasts, and archers. They dressed in tunics that are usually depicted as stiff, most likely made of leather.

Coin of Vima Kadphises showing Shiva

They gained control of an area known as Gandhara, which is now part of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  They adopted much of the Hellenistic culture that existed in Bactria.  They used the Greek alphabet to communicate in their own language, with the addition of a letter with a “sh” sound.

Kushan Buddhist devotee
 2nd century, Mathura
They were positioned right in the center of trade routes, "The Silk Road", that stretched from Rome to China, and their cities flourished.  Along with goods, there was the transmission of cultures and religions.  Roman glassware was found in Kushan sites attesting to their trade and relations with Rome.  They interacted with the Chinese and fought with them against the many nomadic incursions that threatened Chinese borders.  The Kushans eventually established a kingdom in the Tarim Basin (modern Xinjiang) where their efforts developed Serindian art from the influences of Greco-Buddhist art that they brought with them.

Their religious beliefs seemed to vary and be inclusive of what was popular at the time.  At first it seems they were Zoroastrian, but aspects of Buddhism began to appear.  One Emperor, Wima Kadphises, most likely practiced Saivism (a sect of Hinduism focusing on the god Shiva) judging by his coinage. 

There were several great rulers, known to us by their coinage and seals.  Their coins reflect the various religions important to the individual rulers.  Many of these artifacts depict Iranian deities, with some Greek and some Indian deities. 

The most famous ruler is Kanishka.  He holds a place of honor in the history of Buddhism for having held an important Buddhist council in Kashmir.  He also had Buddhist texts that were written in Prakrit, then the vernacular language, translated into Sanskrit.  For his actions he is considered one of the significant early benefactors of Buddhism.

Gold coin of Kanishka I with a depiction of the Buddha.
Legend reads "BODDO" in Greek script.

Maitreya with Kushan devotee couple.
2nd century, Gandhara
The Kushan period was the golden era of Gandhara.  The art here flourished and is considered some of the best pieces  of Central Asian art.  A synthesis of Hellenistic and Indian art, with many other influences, it offers the best of each style.

The Kushan Empire began to decline with the death of Vasudeva I circa 225 CE.  By the 5th century what remnants of the empire that remained were wiped out first by the Huns, then by the expansion of Islam. 

 Perhaps it’s because I like puzzles so much that I have always been intrigued by the Kushans.  There is little information about them, a lot of conjecture, and much of what has been published is in other languages.  Ah, but the art!

Standing Buddha, 1st-2nd century, Gandhara,
Tokyo National Museum

Head of the Buddha


Prince Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni
1st-2nd century CE, Gandhara
Images courtesy of Wikipedia