Koshani Rulers in Afghanistan


Abdul Hai Habibi


The Koshan empire was formed in the early part of the first century in Bactria. This syncretic empire spread to encompass much of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India. Inscriptions dating to the era of the Kushan emperor, Kanishka the Great, have been found as far as Benares, India.

Around 165 BC those tribes which amalgamated with the Aryan Saka and Seiti tribes and had the same facial and physical features and linguistic affinities are considered to be Aryans from the north-west. The Chinese called these people Yueh-Chi. They left their old abode in eastern China and reached the Sir Darya valley, north of the Oxus river. They drove the Saka, living in the area, to the east and Bactria and southern Hindu Kush in Aryana to the extent that some of them retreated to India after 127 BC. Their lands were taken over by the Yueh-Chi.

In 138 BC when the Chinese emperor Wou-Ti (140-87 BC) got fed up with the actions of the Huang tribes he sent an emissary by the name of Tchang-Kein, to the Yueh-Chi, so they may aid him but his request was disregarded. According to this emissary the area south of the Oxus river, meaning Bactria and Badakshan, was inhabited by the Ta-Hia (Takhar) people. Another Chinese historian, Seu-Matsien (circa 90 BC), indicates that the Yueh-Chi still lived in the area north of the Oxus until 125 BC and had not migrated to the realm laying south of the Oxus.

The Yueh-Chi crossed the Oxus around 70 BC and with the help of the people from Takhar they occupied Bactria. After this an amalgamation took place between the Yueh-Chi and the Takhari people resulting in the creation of a distinguished blood line. The famous Koshi tribe (Kui-Shang=Koshan) was one of the five tribes of these people. The word Kuchi (nomadic, powinda in Pashto) is used both in Dari and Pashto and represents this lineage. According to a Chinese historian, the leader of the Kushans, by the name of Kieu-Tsiu-Kiu managed to subdue the leaders of the four other tribes and was recognized as king Kiu Shang. It is from this time that the word Kushan replaced the name of Yueh-Chi in history. The first famous king of these people, according to Chinese writers, was Kieu-Tsiu-Kiu=Kujula-Kara-Kadphises (circa 40 AD), who conquered the Parthians of Khorasan, Kabul and Kapisa and also subjugated the Pauta around Ghazni. According to the French historian, Du Posin, these people are the Pashtuns.

This Koshan king, during his long reign, managed to root out remnants of the Greek and Parthian empires, spread his influence all over Aryana and lay the foundation of the greatest empire in Afghanistan. He died at the age of 80 after reigning for 38 years. Only his copper coins, with different denominations and shapes, have been found in Greek and Kharoshti script letters. In Greek his name is Kozalokidaphes. His title has been denoted as religious and the king of the son of sky.

After the death of great Kushan emperor, Khadphises I, his son Wema Khadphises II ruled until 110 AD and died at the age of 80. He was the first Koshani king who expanded the eastern limits of his kingdom as far as the banks of the Ganges river. He sent an emissary to the Chinese court and asked for the hand in marriage of the daughter of the Chinese emperor but when his request was rejected he sent an army of 70 thousand men in 90 AD, under the command of his deputy Si, by way of the Pamir mountains to eastern China but was defeated by the Chinese general Pan-Chao and had to pay taxes to the Chinese emperor Ho-Ti. After this he maintained ties with the Roman empire and in 99 AD sent his representatives to the Roman emperor, and maintained trade and cultural relations with the Roman empire. The style of Roman coin minting can be seen in coins minted during his era. The words, the great Kushan King Deva-Putra, (meaning son of god), can be seen on the coins. His death is considered to have taken place around 110 AD. After this there is a gap of 20 years since no coins relating to any Koshani  king have been discovered. Some scholars consider Sutar Megas (the great savior) as the sovereign during this period. But most are of the opinion that this person was the deputy of Wema in India.

Anyhow the great Koshani empire was ruled by Emperor Kanishka between 125-144 AD. It is possible he had a blood relationship with the Khadphises family. Kanishka set up a great empire which ruled over our country until the middle of the third century and his empire spread to parts of northern India also.

The winter capital of Kanishka’s empire was Puro Shapura (Peshawar) and Bagram of Kapisa was his summer capital. The eastern limits of his empire spread to Banaras and mingled with Parthia in the west. He conquered Kashghar, Yarqand and Khutan in the north. He held Chinese hostages and adopted Buddhism. Like Ashoka he started preaching and spreading the religion. He set up the fourth grand Buddhist council, which included 500 religious scholars, in Srinagar of Kashmir to sort out the differences which had surfaced among the spiritual orders of the religion. Since sedition had surfaced in Buddhism and the religion had veered from its original teachings and different sects had developed these problems were resolved out at the council under the leadership of the 7th high priest of the faith, Vasumitra, the religious scholar from Gandhara. It was decided that the old Hina-Yana sect (small wheel) of the religion, which was practiced for five centuries after the death of Buddha, needed to be reformed. This sect, which recommended simple piety and the refining of the soul, was converted to the new sect of Maha-Yana. It was prepared by a scholar by the name of Nagarjuna. In the great Buddhist religion, which later spread to eastern Aryana also, it was believed that the self should attain Bodhisattva, which is a spontaneous wish to attain buddha hood for the benefit of all sentient beings. Instead of just showing the feet or other features of Buddha, his statues should show his whole body, like the Aryan gods, which were common place in Greco-Bactrian life and the use Sanskrit instead of the south Indian Pali language as the language of religion. Because of this the sect of lesser wheel is practiced in southern India and the greater wheel is followed in northern India. When the great Kushan emperor embraced Buddhism he started engraving the full bust of Buddha on coins instead of the Aryan gods. In this way the followers of the greater wheel managed to distance themselves from the lesser wheel and spread their belief in the world of Buddhism and prepared and interpreted their new religious guidance.

At that time we see no other court which had more competent religious scholars than Kanishka’s court. Beside Nagarjuna there were other great scholars such as, Asvaghosha, a writer of epics, dramas and Budhachatra and Sariputra; Charaka, the writer of medical texts; Parsuwa, the religious advisor of the court; Singarashka and Sadrasana, the missionaries who converted Kanishka to Buddhism.

During Kanishka’s reign a large number of Buddhist temples and monasteries were built all over the country. According to Hsuan Tsang, the temple of Sha-Lo-Kya had been built by Chinese invaders, which also contained a buried treasure at the foot of the great statue Mahakala. If the temple were to be destroyed it could be built with the buried treasure. The ruins of this temple are present in Puza-e Shuturak, two kilometers from Bagram. Beautiful sculptures and exuberant engravings have been discovered at the site.

Another temple which Kanishka built is located near the winter capital of Peshawar. Relics of this temple are present in Shahr-e Shahki. These remains are on a 150 ft. high mound. The temple was built to preserve Buddha’s parta-chitya (cup suspended by a chain). About 700 monks lived in the monastery of this grand temple. According to Hsuan Tsang, the cup was later moved to Kandahar (it was moved to the Kabul museum in 1952). It is said that the cup was moved to Kandahar when King Kingala of Kabul conquered Gandhara during the 6th century.

A 100 ft. tall peepal tree grew near the temple and according to legend Buddha slept in the shade of the tree and predicted the birth of Kanishka, the emperor who promoted the Buddhist religion. Emperor Kanishka built a large stupa to the south of the holy tree and according to Fa Hein the tree was adorned with expensive gems. Relics of the temple have been found in Shahji Daheri, half a mile south of Peshawar, in the area of Shashgari. In 1909 Spooner found a decorated metal chest on which a standing portrait of Kanishka was carved. The chest contained holy relics of Buddha which were given by Lord Curzon to the Burmese Buddhists. An inscription on the chest has been translated as follows: “The slave Agisala, the overseer of works at Kanishka’s Vihara in the Sangharam of Mahasena.”

At any rate Kanishka was one of the greatest Koshani emperor in Afghanistan and with his departure a central administration and civilization developed in the land. Since he ruled for 22 years his death can be estimated to have taken place around 151 AD and he may have died in Khutan between the Chinese mountains and Sugd.

After Kanishka’s death his empire was divided between his sons and his son, Vasishka, who was a governor in Matura of India, ascended the throne. His coin has not been found but in an inscription found near Matura, which was written in the 24th year of the reign of Kanishka, his name has been mentioned. His name also occurs in two other writings written in the year 26 and 29 of Kanishka’s reign. This indicates he ruled from 154 to 160 AD in India. In the Ara inscription, near the Indus river, his name has been written as Wajishka Putra Kanishka, meaning Vasishka son of Kanishka. His son was named Kanishka II.

Kanishka had another son by the name of Huvishka, who, in the 33rd year of the empire, was the governor of the eastern provinces and around the 40th year of Kanishka’s empire (169 AD) he was named Maharaja Devaputra (born from a god). This shows he did not have full independence before this date and minted coins later. It seems as though he ruled over India and his nephew, Kanishka II, was the king of Aryana. In the 51st year of the empire (circa 180 AD) Huvishka’s influence had spread all the way to Kabul. According to the inscription, found in Kwat of Wardak, he is considered a maharaja (emperor). Numerous coins related to him have been discovered in Bagram. The eastern limits of his empire extended from Kashmir to Matura in India. He built a magnificent temple in Matura under his name. Coins related to him are inscribed with the words Emperor Huvishka Kushan in Greek letters. The city of Huviskka Pura, in Kashmir, was built by him. His death is believed to have taken place around 182 AD.

Another prince of this family is Vasushka. In Indian writings he has been known as Vasu-Diva. He ruled in India around 182 AD and his sphere of influence did not extend as far as Aryana. In coins his name has been minted in Greek letters as the shahinshah (emperor). We do not know any other king from this family after him.

The era of the Koshani empire, which started with the accession of Kanishka in 125 AD, ended in 250 AD with the death of Wushuskha, lasting a century and a quarter. During this time elements of Vedic and Avestan culture and thinking amalgamated with Achaemenid, Greek, Indian and Buddhist civilizations. Elements of Saka and the Turani Aryans of the north also fused with this movement resulting in the creation of a strong Afghan culture in which there was total religious freedom. Zoroastrian fire temples existed side by side with Buddhist stupas where holy and sacred Buddhist holy scriptures were preserved and worshiped. Greek and Indian gods were present in temples and their names ascribed on coins. Even though Kanishka and his sons were strict followers of Buddhism, temples of other faiths and their followers were present all over the vast Kushani empire. For example the Mahadazh temple of Baghlan was built during the reign of Kanishka. This temple was repaired during the 31st year of the empire (160 AD). Relics of the holy fire and a Zoroastrian temple have been discovered there. A person from the Marig family repaired the temple whose name was Nokonzoko. According to French archeologists the name Marig has also been mentioned in two Kharushti inscriptions found in the Khwat tablet in Wardak. In the Baghlan temple relics of fire worshipping have been discovered while the Khwat inscription reflects signs of Buddhist religion. This temple was built in the 51st year of Kanishka’s ascension (around 180 AD). The two temples were built 20 years apart. Other paragons of religious freedom during this period are: In Taxila, center of Buddhism, relics of a fire worshiping temple have been discovered. This temple was 158 by 85 feet. The columns of this temple manifest Greek architecture which was built after the setting up of the Greco-Bactrian civilization. In addition there were Buddhist temples and Brahmin idol worshipping temples in the area also. The followers of each faith conducted their religious rites in these places with utmost freedom.

The Koshani culture was well developed as it used Greek, Brahman and Kharoshti scripts in inscriptions found in the temples. The old Takhari Dari language has been used in writing the Mahadezh of the Baghlan temple which was close to Pashto. We also see the use of Brahman language at the time. The modifications added to the Greek script during the Koshani period have been considered as the Greco-Kushani script by some scholars. This script was used until the time Hsuan Tsang’s visit during the 7th century. It was written from left to right and contained 25 letters.

Relics found at the Koshani and Kanishka temple of Surkh Kotal, dating 130 AD, shows that the Koshanis played a major role in developing the thoughts, culture and industry of the land, which after the Greco-Bactrian era can be coined as an “Afghan culture.” During this time visible changes have taken place one of which is the creation of rituals of king worshipping together with the remnant Buddhist and Zoroastrian (the devotion of holy fire) elements contained the inclusion of idols of kings in the temples. We see the continuation of this ritual until the beginning of the Islamic period in the turnstile of the Bamian gate in the Ghazni mosque. Fearing that Moslems invaders would destroy the idol of his ancestors, the last king of the Loyak family hid the statue in a silver casket and buried it in the mosque which was formerly a special temple for king worshipping. This event has been recorded in Ghazni’s history.

Monsieur Fousher writes: The Koshani craftsmanship can be considered as the ingenuity of this period since the stupas of this period are far more superior that that of the Ashoka period. Stupas built during the time of Ashoka were not in use in Iran but those of Kanishika and his followers have found their way to India. In the outskirts of the city of Peshawar the Koshani emperor built one of his largest temple.

The German, Hermin Goetz, a scholar on India, writes about the arts of the Koshani period: “A transformation has taken place in Greek art as it started adopting the Indian forms and converted to the Gandhara school of arts. We should not call this art an expansion of the Greek and Buddhist style but an expansion of the eastern Iranian (Aryana) style of art. It developed parallel with the arts which developed during the time of the south-eastern Sakas and the Koshanis. It remained extant until the third and fourth centuries as we see signs of it in the Harwan temples of Kashmir. It remained as a pure and permanent form of art and it was the raids of these people which overthrew the Greek, Bactrian and Indian empires. A form of art was created which is linked to the north-eastern parts of Iran and is not a derivative of the western Iranian and Achaemenid arts.

The civilization of the Koshani period in Afghanistan was a manifestation of the culture of this land. The architecture, statue carving, language, minting of coins and clothing showed total Afghan properties. For example the coins of the kings, despite the use of Greek language and script or Indian script and language or Khorashti, also contained words from Takhari Dari, which is the mother of present day Dari, such as sha=shah and shananasha (shahanshan, emperor) and fer (magnificence). These are words used in old Dari. The best example of this civilization is the temple of Naushad in Baghlan, whose remains were discovered in Surkh Kotal. It was the largest Zoroastrian fire worshiping temple where inscriptions, statues, coins, ancient relics and a fire worshiping alter were discovered.

Three tablets were found in the temple. The most important and complete stone tablet, found in Surkh Kotal, is a huge cube stone. The side of the stone is 117x110 cm. while the face is 132x125 cm. Its surface is flat and plain. The condition in which the inscription was found makes it evident that the stone contained certain marks before the inscription was carved, The inscribed words have not been damaged and 25 lines can be read with ease. There are  a total of 947 letters in Greek script, 25 to 48 per line.

In the lower section of the temple remnants of a large well were found. The walls of the well are made of stone masonry. Some of the stones used in the well contain the same script and words which were used in the most prominent inscription on the large stone tablet with the exception of some minor spelling errors. Twenty one of these stones form the second inscription and it contains 27 lines. With regard to the correctness of the carving of letters and spelling it can be considered second class to the first one. The third tablet contains 32 stones and 27 lines and its form of writing and spelling is crude. It is not clear why these 53 stones were used in the well. All three tablets are now preserved in the Kabul museum.

It is evident from the writing of the inscription that the primary founder of the Baghlan temple was Kanishka (circa 130 AD). It was this great king who built the Baghlan temple which was also called the Naushad temple. But after Kanishka’s death (circa 151 AD), the water of the temple dried and as a result the fire worshipers left the temple until in the 31st year of the empire (about 160 AD), when King Baghpur Loyak Busar son of Shizogarg the late, who was a regent of the area under the Kushanid empire instructed Nokonezok, as a result of the king’s order, who had the title of Kenarangi of the Marek family and was responsible for the distribution of water came to Baghlan and dug a well to renovate the temple once again and raised the walls of the well with stones and added a large courtyard to the temple. After the availability of water the Naushad temple was put to use once again and fire worshipers gathered there.

The names of several people, who participated in the rebuilding of the temple, are inscribed at the end of the tablet. They are Burzomehr, Kuzgashkipur, Nokonezeki Kenarang Mariq, Ayman Noubakht Mehramand, and Burzomehr Puramehraman. 

The language which is written in Greek script is without doubt an ancient form of the present day Dari. On the basis of use of words and grammar it has close affinities to Pashto also. The French Archeological team writes that this magnificent temple, in later centuries, was burned down as a result of a vast fire and thick layers of ashes were found in the bed-chamber, hallway and veranda of the building. Evidence of setting of fire are present in both the primary and secondary Nowshad temples. It is possible that  deliberate burning of the temple may have taken place during the conquest of the Sassanid king, Shapur I, about 240 AD.

An analysis and study of the inscription shows that the Dari language was spoken and written during the first and second centuries AD in its ancient form in Takharistan and the Koshani court. During this time Pahlavi was spoken in western and northern Iran and it was the language of the court and religion. This symmetrical use of the two languages, in the east and west, indicates that the Dari language did not take root from Pahlavi and did not spread from the west to the east, but it was the native language of the people of Afghanistan and was close to Pashto, having similar roots.

Since a language does not develop or improves instantly we can say that the old Dari language existed in Takharistan before the migration of the Saka and the Koshanis to this area. With the domination of the Greeks, the Greek language took precedence over it and it was the language used in the minting of coins, the court, and in official documents by the rulers who were in power after Alexander. It is possible that Aryan tribes, living in the north, crossed the Oxus river and became residents of Takharistan and Bactria, and later dominated all of Aryana, the Dari language may have become the language of court. The Surkh Kotal inscription is a testimony of the official footing and celebrity of this language.