Kanishka the Great

Although he ruled over much of Central and Southern Asia nearly two thousand years ago, people today still remember Kanishka the Great of the Kushan Empire for his military successes, his political acumen, and his promotion of Buddhism within his realm.

Kanishka's dates of birth, death, and reign are all under considerable dispute.  Different scholars advocate the starting date of his reign being everything from 78 CE to 278 CE, and continuing for some twenty-five or thirty years.

  The majority opinion seems to be that he ruled the Kushan Empire from about 127 to 151 CE.

The boundaries of his realm are somewhat better known.  The Kushan Empire during Kanishka's time likely encompassed the are between the plain of the Ganges River in India, north to what is now Uzbekistan, and east to the city of Turfan in the Tarim Basin, now controlled by China.  His empire thus included parts of modern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and China.  Kanishka's central capital city was at Purushpura, which is now called Peshawar, Pakistan.  He also maintained imperial cities at Mathura, India, and at Bagram, Afghanistan.

Historians do not know for certain, but many believe that Kanishka and his people were ethnic Yuezi, and may have been related to the Tocharians, the fair-haired Caucasoid people of far western China.  The emperor's inscriptions are in the Bactrian language, spelled out in Greek script.

Kanishka's wealth and influence were based on his empire's control of the land and sea trade routes between South and East Asia and the Roman Empire.  Traders along these routes, the early precursors to the Silk Road and the Indian Ocean Trade Routes, carried the luxury goods of the east to Rome in exchange for currency.

  The Kushan Empire was able to charge duties on goods moving through its territory, and many Kushan subjects worked as long-distance traders.

Chinese records tell of battles between the Han Chinese and the Kushan Empire over the Tarim Basin area.  Although the Chinese were able to seize the basin back from the Kushans in 127 CE, Kanishka's coins show up in various western Chinese cities including Yarkand, Khotan, and Kashgar.

Kanishka is famed for his support of Buddhism, including patronage of stupa-building projects such as the Kanishka stupa in Peshawar, which originally stood about 200 meters (600 feet) high.  A few of Kanishka's coins also feature a standing Buddha on the reverse side.  He also built an ornate casket to house three bone fragments from the Buddha, which now reside in Mandalay, Myanmar.  As emperor, Kanishka reportedly relied on the wisdom and advice of Buddhist scholars and holy men, including Ashvaghosha.

At this remove in time, and relying mainly on evidence from coins and the records from neighboring empires, it is difficult to get a clear picture of Kanishka the Great.  However, he seems to have been a powerful, spiritual, and savvy ruler, who leveraged his empire's position astride the trade routes to great advantage.


Dani, Ahmad H. & Vadim M. Masson.  History of Civilizations of Central Asia: The Development of Sedentary and Nomadic Civilizations, 700 B.C. to A.D. 250, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishing, 1999.

Samad, Rafi U.  The Grandeur of Gandhara: The Ancient Buddhist Civilization of the Swat, Peshawar, Kabul and Indus Valleys, New York: Algora Publishing, 2011.

Singh, Upinder.  A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, Delhi: Pearson Education India, 2008.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Kanishka the Great." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, thoughtco.com/kanishka-the-great-195663. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2016, August 9). Kanishka the Great. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/kanishka-the-great-195663 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Kanishka the Great." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/kanishka-the-great-195663 (accessed November 20, 2017).