Military Campaigns of Kushans by Airavat Singh

Credits: Original Post by Airavat Singh on his blog, “Horses and Swords”/ "Military History of India"

Quite different from the failed Bactrian and Saka attempts at empire-building in northwest India was the Kushan Empire——it actually covered a part of northern India for almost a hundred years. The Kushan Empire’s relative success was due, in part, to the absence of any empire or strong kingdom in North India at that time. But, as described elsewhere, the Satvahan Empire in the Deccan delivered at least one major defeat to the Kushans at the height of their power in India.

The background of the Kushans has been related in this blog post——their victories over the Parthians and their subjugation of the Saka Kshatraps has been described here. The one thing that the Kushans had in common with the Indo-Greeks and the Sakas was their state structure, with a number of semi-independent governors and generals, participating in the empire-building. Before 78 CE one of these, named Kanishka, crushed his competitors, overthrew the old dynasty, and started his own rule over the Kushan Empire.

After consolidating his hold on the core Kushan lands in northwestern Punjab, Afghanistan, and Bactria, Kanishka also received the submission of Kushan governors in eastern Iran (Khorasan) and Central Asia (Khotan). The Chinese author Fu fa-tsang yin yuan chuan (470 CE), writing on Kanishka’s wars in Iran states, " The two armies joined the battle, and the daggers and swords were raised incessantly. Thereupon king Kanishka gained the victory, and he killed altogether 900,000 Parthians ."

The Saka Kshatraps in Baluchistan and Sindh, who had probably regained independence due to the Kushan infighting, were tackled next. Their submission brought in additional armed strength to the empire, which was used against the Indian warrior clans and kingdoms in that region.

Kanishka was probably present at the conquest of Ujjain from the Malavs, on which occasion a new era called Varsha (78 CE) was established by these foreigners. It was done to erase all memories of the Samvat era (57 BCE) of the Malavs….a memory of an Indian victory over the foreigners.

But as described here this region was left semi-independent under the Kshaharat Sakas. Kanishka returned to his capital and, sometime later, began a campaign against the eastern Indian lands. Before becoming the emperor, Kanishka had been the Kushan governor of western UP, from where he led raids into the east to acquire the wealth that financed his fight for the throne. He certainly had a good knowledge of the conditions in eastern India, the heartland of the ancient Maurya, Shunga, and Kanva Empires, but now in a state of political confusion.

Kanishka’s military campaign in this region is mentioned by Chinese and Tibetan texts——although some of his coins have been found here, the quantity is too minute to suggest conquest. What is more likely is that these were temporary raids since no governor was appointed and no epigraphs inscribed by any vassal king……Indian texts mention that the Buddhist philosopher Asvaghosa was carried off by Kanishka from Pataliputra, which would not be necessary if that important city was included in his empire.

While Kanishka was consolidating the Kushan Empire, the Chinese general Pan Chao was leading a campaign west (73-94 CE) against the tribes far away from the Chinese frontier. Skirting the Tibetan Plateau and crossing the Pamirs, Pan Chao claimed to have subdued the rulers of Khotan and Kashghar in Central Asia. This challenged Kushan rule in the region and Kanishka sent an army against the Chinese……suffering greatly in crossing the mountain ranges the Kushan army was badly defeated.

But some years later another campaign against China brought better results and a Chinese prince was taken hostage and kept in the Kushan dominions[1].

No major campaigns are known for the successors of Kanishka——it seems that the empire’s hold on northern India was effective only in his reign. This will become clear in the history of the contemporary Indian warrior clans to be described later.

As shown earlier the Kushan Empire suffered its biggest defeat at the hands of the Satvahan Empire, in the loss of lands and the killing of its Saka viceroy in Gujarat-Malwa. But the Emperor Kanishka II recovered the territory within a few years. The long reign of the next ruler Vasudeva (145-176 CE) saw the unmistakable decline of the empire……new states grew in the Ganga-Yamuna plains, the traditional opponents of the foreigners in Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan gained territory and power.

It is quite striking that of all the Kushan and Saka governors in the former empire, only one, the Mahakshatraps of Gujarat emerged as an independent power. This suggests that the other foreign governors were overthrown by the Indian warrior clans in different parts of the empire.

The power of the Kushan kings was maintained in the core of their kingdom in eastern Iran (Khorasan), Kabul, Bactria, and Gandhar (northwest Punjab). But new threats emerged to trouble the Kushans——from the north the Juan-Juan tribe and from the east, the Sassanians pressed into their dominions. The Kushans were obliged to pay tribute to the Sassanians but later won their independence and formed an equal alliance with them. In 360 CE the Sassanian king Shapur II won a victory over the Roman Empire with the aid of an aged king named “Grumbates”……believed to be the Kushan ruler Kidara.

Samudra Gupta of the Gupta Empire defeated the Kushans and received homage[2] from them….his son Chandra Gupta II led a campaign across Punjab and Afghanistan into Bactria (412 CE). This was in the nature of a successful military raid that did not lead to any permanent conquest. The Kushans, now reduced to being a minor power, had to face yet another power in their later history……the Huns.

  1. This is solely on the authority of the Chinese pilgrim Hieun Tsang, who visited India in the 7th Century CE. He also states that this Chinese prince was kept at Gandhar in the summer months and at a place called Chinabhukti (Kangra valley) in the winter. ↩︎

  2. Samudra Gupta’s name is inscribed in the coins of a Kushan chief in Gandhar. Although the Kushan King was recognized as an independent ruler, with all his ancestral titles, in the Gupta Emperor’s Allahabad pillar inscription. ↩︎