The Kushan Empire

A Buddhist stupa rises over a field in Uzbekistan

Antonia Tozer / Getty Images

The Kushan Empire began in the early 1st century as a branch of the Yuezhi, a confederation of ethnically Indo-Europeans nomads who lived in eastern Central Asia. Some scholars connect the Kushans with the Tocharians of the Tarim Basin in China, Caucasian people whose blonde or red-haired mummies have long puzzled observers.

Throughout its reign, the Kushan Empire spread control over much of Southern Asia all the way to modern-day Afghanistan and throughout the Indian subcontinent—with it, Zoroastrian, Buhhdism and Hellenistic beliefs also spread as far as China to the east and Persia to the west.

Rise of an Empire

Around the years A.D. 20 or 30, the Kushans were driven westward by the Xiongnu, a fierce people who likely were the ancestors of the Huns. The Kushans fled to the borderlands of what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, where they established an independent empire in the region known as Bactria. In Bactria, they conquered the Scythians and the local Indo-Greek kingdoms, the last remnants of Alexander the Great's invasion force that had failed to take India.

From this central location, the Kushan Empire became a wealthy trading hub between the peoples of Han China, Sassanid Persia and the Roman Empire. Roman gold and Chinese silk changed hands in the Kushan Empire, turning a nice profit for the Kushan middle-men.

Given all their contacts with the great empires of the day, it is hardly surprising that the Kushan people developed a culture with significant elements borrowed from many sources. Predominantly Zoroastrian, the Kushans also incorporated Buddhist and Hellenistic beliefs into their own syncretic religious practices. Kushan coins depict deities including Helios and Heracles, Buddha and Shakyamuni Buddha, and Ahura Mazda, Mithra and the Zoroastrian fire god Atar. They also used the Greek alphabet that they altered to suit spoken Kushan.

Height of the Empire

By the rule of the fifth emperor, Kanishka the Great from 127 to 140 the Kushan Empire had pushed into all of northern India and expanded east again as far as the Tarim Basin—the original homeland of the Kushans. Kanishka ruled from Peshawar (currently Pakistan), but his empire also included the major Silk Road cities of Kashgar, Yarkand, and Khotan in what is now Xinjiang or East Turkestan.

Kanishka was a devout Buddhist and has been compared to the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka the Great in that regard. However, evidence suggests that he also worshiped the Persian deity Mithra, who was both a judge and a god of plenty.

During his reign, Kanishka built a stupa that Chinese travelers reported as about 600 feet high and covered with jewels. Historians believed that these reports were fabricated until the base of this amazing structure was discovered in Peshawar in 1908. The emperor built this fabulous stupa to house three of the Buddha's bones. References to the stupa have since been discovered among the Buddhist scrolls at Dunhuang, China, as well. In fact, some scholars believe that Kanishka's forays into the Tarim were China's first experiences with Buddhism.

Decline and Fall

After 225 CE, the Kushan Empire crumbled into a western half, which was almost immediately conquered by the Sassanid Empire of Persia, and an eastern half with its capital in Punjab. The eastern Kushan Empire fell at an unknown date, likely between 335 and 350 CE, to the Gupta king, Samudragupta. 

Still, the influence of the Kushan Empire helped spread Buddhism across much of Southern and Eastern Asia. Unfortunately, many of the practices, beliefs, art, and texts of the Kushans were destroyed when the empire collapsed and if not for the historical texts of Chinese empires, this history may have been lost forever.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Kushan Empire." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). The Kushan Empire. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Kushan Empire." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).