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Under the rule of the Kushans, present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and western India participated both in seagoing trade and in commerce along the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean.
The word Kushan derives from the Chinese term Guishang, used in historical writings to describe one branch of the Yuezhi—a loose confederation of Indo-European tribes that had been driven out of northwestern China in 176–160 BC, migrated south, and reached Bactria (Tajikistan and northwest Afghanistan) around 135 BC.
The first self-proclaimed Kushan king, Heraios (ruled: 1–30 AD), was one short step away from being a Yuezhi tribesman. Thus it fell to his successor Kujula Kadphises (ruled: 30-80 AD) to assume the role of a true monarch and unite the disparate and quarrelsome Yuezhi tribes under the Kushan banner during the 1st century AD.
After gradually wresting control of Bactria from the Scythians and the Indo-Parthians, Kujula Kadphises moved the Kushantribes into the region known as Gandhara (northeast Afghanistan and northern Pakistan) with the main capital located at Taxila (northwestern Pakistan) and the summer capital at Begram (known in ancient times as Kapisa, near the present-day Bagram Air Base), which also served as a major trading cneter.
From these two capitals, plus other settlements and trading posts farther north, the Kushansbecame master traders , adopted the Greek alphabet and struck their own gold coins featuring Kushan royal portraits, Greek mottos and symbols inspired by Roman coins that were widely used at that time to purchase goods from caravans along the Silk Road.
By positioning themselves at the center of the Silk Road, midway between China and India in the east and the Mediterranean world in the west, the Kushans became a world power second only to China and Rome and the first unified force in Afghanistan to dispense rather than receive authority.
In 48 AD Kujula Kadphises crossed the Hindu Kush and formed an alliance with the last Greek king in the region, Hermaeus, in the Kabul Valley, which allowed Kujula's son Vima Kadphises to attack and defeat the Scythians (known as Saka) in northern India and establish an empire that his successors continued to enlarge until it extended from the Ganges River in the east to the Gobi Desert in the north.
The rule of Kanishka, the third Kushan emperor, who flourished from the late first to the early/mid-2nd century AD, was administered from two capitals: Purushapura (present-day Peshawar) adn the summer capital complex at Begram (Kapisa), which rivalled the pleasure palaces created by the emperors in Rome or Han dynasty China.
Under Kanishka's rule, the Kushans controlled most of Central Asia and amassed great wealth through extensive mercantile activities, a flourishing of urban life and continued patronage of Buddhist sculpture and the building of monasteries.
Settled life brought great changes to the lives of these former nomads. Having no traditions on which to build, they adapted what they found in ways best suited to their own personality. The result was a vibrant indigenous culture born of the fusion of western oriented Graeco-Bactrian ideals with those of eastern oriented India and interpreted by the forceful character of Central Asia — vital and dynamic.
The Gandhara region at the core of the Kushan empire was home to a multiethnic society tolerant of religious differences. Desirable for its strategic location, with direct access to the overland silk routes and links to the ports on the Arabian Sea, Gandhara had suffered many conquests during its long history — by the Achaemenid Persians, by Alexander the Great (327/26–325/24 BC), by the Mauryans from India, the Seleucid Empire, Graeco-Bactrian kings and their Indo-Greek successors (3rd-2nd centuries BC), as well as Scythians and Parthians (2nd-1st centuries BC).
The melding of races, beliefs and skills developed in the West and the East produced an eclectic culture, vividly expressed in the visual arts produced during the Kushan period. Themes derived from Greek and Roman mythologies were blended with Buddhist symbols and sensibilities, resulting in the first representations of the Buddha in human form during the Kushan era, as well as the earliest depictions of key Buddhist figures such as the bodhisattva.
The Kushans were patrons, not mere collectors of art. In works of art they commissioned, the Kushan kings ordered their faces and garments be placed side-by-side with the Buddha and his retinue. This new self-confidence invigorated a uniquely Ghandharan style of art in which Graeco-Roman art subject matter and motifs enriched by Indian ideals were employed by literally thousands of craftsmen in the service of the rapidly growing Buddhist faith.
Buddhists texts are full of praise for the Kushan Kanishka, "King of Kings" (circa 100 AD), whose benevolent patronage supported Buddhism like no one else during his lifetime.
Buddhist Patronage. Kanishka's reputation in Buddhist tradition began with convening the 4th Buddhist Council in Kashmir, circa 100 AD, which became essential to the development of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Kanishka provided encouragement to both the Gandhara school of Greco-Buddhist Art and the Mathura school of Hindu art. His greatest contribution to Buddhist architecture was the Kanishka stupa at Peshawar. Archaeologists who rediscovered the base of thes stupa in 1908-1909 ascertained that this stupa had a diameter of 286 feet. Reports of Chinese pilgrims such as Xuan Zang indicate that its height was roughly 600 to 681 feet high and was covered with jewels. This immense multi-storied building must have ranked among the wonders of the ancient world.
Buddhist monks from the region of Gandhara during Kanishika's lifetime played a key role in the development and the transmission of Buddhist ideas from India and Gandhara to China. For example, the Kushan monk, Lokaksema (c. 178 AD), became the first translator of Mahayana Buddhist scriptures into Chinese and established a translation bureau at the Chinese capital Loyang.
Kanishka's Casket. While the accounts of Kanishka's interest in Buddhism have been verified by numerous archaeological finds, he was also a devotee and patron of other local religions. Kushan coinage includes representations of the Buddha as well as a wide pantheon of gods and goddesses, deities of Greek, Persian and Hindu origin. Kanishka's reliquary casket, for example, features cast representations of Buddha as well as Hindu dieties Brahma and Indra, Persian sun and moon gods on the sides of the container and a garland, supported by cherubs in typical Hellenistic style.
Dated to the first year of Kanishka's reign in 127 CE, the casket was discovered in a deposit chamber under Kanishka's stupa, during the archeological excavations in 1908-1909 at Shah-ji-Dheri on the outskirts of Peshawar. The original is today at the Peshawar Museum; and old replica is in the British Museum. Rarities inside the casket are said to have included three bone fragments of the Buddha.
The inscription on the casket is signed by the maker, a Greek artist named Agesilas, who oversaw work at Kanishka's stupas (caitya), confirming the direct involvement of Greeks with Buddhist artworks [the inscription reads in part, "The servant Agisalaos, the superintendent of works at the vihara of Kanishka ..."].
The attribution of the casket to Kanishka has been recently disputed, on stylistic grounds [the casket may instead be attributable to Kanishka's successor Huvishka].
Surkh Kotal. The presence of Persian symbols in Kushan-era culture is most evident among the ruins of Surkh Kotal, a Zoroastrian temple complex with a vast processional stairway located north of the Hindu Kush near the city of Pul-i Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province.
Excavations at Surkh Kotal between 1952 and 1966 proved the co-existence of a purely indigenous Zoroastrian religion, unaffected by Buddhism, centered around the cult of fire. Kanishka personally seems to have embraced both Buddhism and the Persian cult of Mithra. Fragments of his statue found at Surkh Kotal ranks among the most precious objects in the Kabul Museum collection.
The Buddhist Shrine Complex at Hadda. A Greco-Buddhist archeological site located in the ancient area of Gandhara, six miles south of the city of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, Hadda was one of the largest Buddhist temple and pilgrimmage complexes in the world during the 1st through 3rd centuries AD.
A key location on the 2,000-mile path that pilgrims followed in the transmission of Buddhism from India to China, Hadda was an active center for manuscript translation and duplication as well as sculpture.
More than 23,000 Greco-Buddhist sculptures made of clay or plaster, architectural decorations plus heads and figures depicting men, women, children, assorted demons, as well as the elderly, with every conceivable mode of expression and dress, every rank and status, every facial type from all corners of the known world — more faces than one would need to re-create an entire Buddhist city — were excavated from Hadda in a series of archaeological excavations during the 1930s and the 1970s.
Sculptures from Hadda combine elements of Buddhism and Hellenism, in an almost perfect uniquely identifiable Hellenistic style. Although the style itself is suggested by experts to date from the late Hellenistic 2nd or 1st century BC, the sculptures from Hadda are usually dated, tentatively, to the 1st century AD or later.
Given the early date, superb quality, technical refinement, variety and stupendous quantity of sculptures, Hadda must have been a "factory town" where Greek or Greek-trained artists familiar with all the aspects of Hellenistic sculpture, lived and worked in, what scholar John Boardman described as "the cradle of incipient Buddhist sculpture in Indo-Greek style."
The transferance of Greek heros to Buddhism (e.g., Herakles being the inspiration and model for the Buddhist Bodhissatva) is fully on display at Hadda.
A sculptural group excavated at the Hadda temple known as Tapa-i-Shotor, for example, represents a Buddha flanked by a perfectly Hellenistic figure of Tyche holding her cornucopia and Herakles holding not his usual club, but the thunderbolt associated with the Boddhisatva fiture Vajrapani.
In addition to sculpture, Hadda contained some of the the oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts in the world, which are perhaps the oldest surviving Indian manuscripts of any kind,the long-lost canon of the Sarvastivadin Sect that dominated Gandhara and was instrumental in Buddhism's spread from India to China.
Probably dating from around the 1st century AD, looted from Hadda during the 1990s and smuggled to Pakistan, these Buddhist manuscripts were written on birch bark in the Gandhari language. Discovered in a clay pot bearing an inscription in the same language eventually passed to the British Library in London and the University of Washington in Seattle. The legal ownership of these priceless manuscripts remains in dispute.
More than 1000 of the vast assemblage of sculptures found at Hadda during the 1930s and 1970s were secured at the Kabul Museum and the Musée Guimet in Paris.
The temples and row upon row of burial stupas at Hadda became an open air museum — accessible to yet extremely vulnerable.