The Kushanas entered the northwest in the early first century A.D. when various powers were contending for supremacy in the region. The Yuch-chi tribe, to which they belonged, had settled down in Bactria by the end of the second century B.C., where they were divided into five units. Each of them had a chief known as yabgu. Kujala Kadphises, the chieftain of the Kuei-shang (Kushana), united the five tribal units of the Yuch-chi and proceeded to conquer Kabul and Kashmir. When he died at the age of eighty, he was succeeded by his son Wima Kadphises, who conquered northern India. The early history of the Kushanas is recorded in the chronicles of the Han dynasty of China, which are said to have been compiled around the fifth century A.D.
Wima Kadphises was succeeded by Kanishka, but the relationship between the first two kings and Kanishka is far from clear. Some of the early inscriptions of Kanishka have been found at Sarnath, Kausambi, and Mathura, suggesting that he was initially associated with the eastern part of the empire and from there he moved on to extend his authority over the rest of the Kushana territories. Under him, the empire extended from the Oxus in the west to Varanasi in the east and from Kashmir in the north to Sanchi in the south, with Mathura occupying the position of a second capital. Purushapura (Peshawar) was the imperial capital. Kanishka was succeeded by Huvishka, and Vasudeva was the last important Kushana ruler. The dynasty continued into the early decades of the third century AD. However, by then the empire had shrunk, and whatever little we know about these later rulers is essentially based on information gathered from their coins.
NATURE OF KUSHANA STATE: The geographical spread of the Kushana coins and inscriptions, as well as the richness of the Kushana layers in terms of archaeological material found in various sites from Central Asia to Varanasi, would, on the face of it, suggest the existence of a well-organized, centralized state. However, the available administrative details appear to be far from satisfactory. It is said that the political organization did not possess the rigid centralization of the Mauryas. The inscriptions and coins do not indicate a powerful and large administrative machinery. However, we do come across grandiloquent titles of the rulers. They bore titles such as maharaja, ratatiraja (king of kings), devaputra (son of God), etc. Kanishka and his successors used the title shaonano shao (shahanushahi being its Persianized form) as a prefix to their names on the coin legends. Even the epithet Kaiser or Kaisara was used.
For example, Kanishka, in an inscription at Mathura, represents himself as maharaja rajatiraja devaputra shahi. The Kushana titles, on the one hand, suggest their superior position in relation to other petty rulers and chieftains, and on the other, point to the possible influences which went into their making. While maharaja was an old Indian title, encountered as early as the Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavela, rajatiraja was of Sanskrit origin and had been used by the Sakas. The term devaputra, being close to the Chinese idea of the ‘mandate of heaven,” may have had something to do with such influences.
The details of provincial and local administration are hazy. It is doubtful whether the Kushanas exercised direct administrative control over all parts of their territories. Below the king, there seems to have been the kshatrapas at the provincial level. It has been suggested that there were about five to seven satrapies. However, contemporary sources do not provide sufficient information about such administrative units or the kshatrapas themselves. The Sarnath Buddhist image inscription from the time of Kanishka refers to the reinstatement of two kshatrapas who were descendants of a mahakshatrapa. In some cases, people erected a stupa and sangharama in honor of the kshatrapa. This practice was analogous to the system of giving religious donations to ensure the well-being of the Kushana kings. Such evidence points to the autonomous status of the Kshatrapas. There are references to vishayas as administrative units, and at the bottom of the hierarchy, the grama constituted the basic unit of administration. Terms like dandanayaka and mahadandanayaka, which combined civil and military functions, are encountered, and the kshatrapas seem to have exercised their power through these officials. However, like the kshatrapas, their territorial jurisdiction and functional aspects are far from clear.
References to other officials like bakanpati (in charge of religious affairs), danapati (related to donations), and the padrapala, who looked after uncultivated land around the villages, also exist. In the region of Mathura, the gramika, as the village headman, seems to have looked after the maintenance of local law and order. The importance of this institution is also supported by other contemporary references. Manusmriti refers to the term gramasyadhipati, and in the Shanti Parva, we come across the expression gramadhipatti. The kshatrapas were also known as gramasvami. All of these indicate the importance and authority of the village headmen. Similarly, the guilds may have played an important role in the administration of urban centers.
When analyzing the political system, the available administrative details are rather insufficient. The interrelation between different levels of administration is unknown. Given the small size of the administrative machinery and the abundance of Kushana coins, especially in gold and copper, it is speculated that the officials would have been paid in cash. Some have attempted to identify feudatory relations within the Kushana polity, drawing from the autonomy of the kshatrapa and the use of terms such as rajatiraja, mahakshatrapa, and mahadandanayaka, which denote the existence of lesser rulers. However, instead of invoking such parallels like feudatory relations, one could view it as an incorporative political system, similar to the case of the Sakas.
The preoccupation of the Kushanas with legitimizing their power and their non-sectarian, broad-based syncretic religious policy, in the context of limited information regarding administration, raises questions about the nature and structure of the Kushana state. For instance, the Kushanas used high titles derived from various cultural contexts. Titles like devaputra unmistakably sought to establish a link with divinity. This aspect is further emphasized on their coins. The obverse of Kushana coins depicts the king engaged in rituals before a fire altar, with his bust emerging from the clouds, flames emanating from his shoulders, or a nimbus or halo around his head. In each case, the context clearly depicts a supernatural setting. The evidence of religious donations made by people for the well-being of the kings and the institution of devakulas under the Kushanas, which involved housing statues of deceased rulers in temple-like structures, suggests efforts to bestow divine status upon the kings or to confer such status upon them. The reverse of Kushana coins feature Indian (Hindu and Buddhist), Greek, and Persian symbols and deities, indicating their syncretic religious ideology. It is worth noting that there is archaeological and epigraphical evidence showing the flourishing of numerous later Hindu sects associated with Saivism and Vaishnavism, alongside Buddhism and Jainism, under the Kushanas in northern India. The Kushanas appear to have embraced and reinforced the assimilative nature of the Indian socio-religious and political system.
Turning to the socio-cultural situation within their empire, one can observe the prevalence of numerous languages, religions, and cultures. The population in Bactria was already diverse due to the integration of various influences. North Indian society was characterized by rich diversity, with the Upper and Middle Gangetic plains differing from ancient Punjab. In the Punjab and adjoining regions, there were a number of Gana-samghas that outlived the Kushanas and continued up to the Guptas, suggesting the existence of varied socio-economic and political patterns. The official language of the Kushana state was Bactrian, written in Kushanized Greek script. Sanskrit was also in use, and records were written in Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts as well. For instance, a coin of Kanishka found near Termez on the Oxus River bears legends in Bactrian on the obverse and Sanskrit on the reverse. The extensive territory inhabited by the Kushanas, which was home to various ethnic groups speaking different languages and practicing diverse religions, necessitated a liberal and accommodating approach from the state.
The Kushana state, characterized by ethnic, linguistic, and cultural pluralism, attempted to integrate diverse groups by adopting a non-sectarian and accommodating approach, fostering a syncretic ideology. In doing so, the state aimed to sustain itself by responding to the aspirations of various groups. This explains the adoption of multiple royal titles and the incorporation of numerous deities from different traditions across the empire. The Kushana titles and motifs on their coins exemplify their efforts to legitimize their rule.
With the establishment of Kushana power in the Gandhara and Indus regions, land trade from the Ganges to the Euphrates and sea trade across the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf to Rome flourished and expanded. The Silk Road passed through Kushana territories in Central Asia, connecting them with China and the Asian provinces of the Roman Empire. The Kushanas likely imposed tolls on caravans traveling along this route. Kushana gold and copper coins indicate that internal trade thrived under their rule. The Kushana era led to the establishment of new settlements with a mix of populations. This would have resulted in social mobility, and with the growth of crafts, guilds, and foreign trade, the rigidity of the caste system weakened, especially in trading ports and towns. The Kushanas had established trade links with the Romans, as evidenced by the adoption of the title Caesar (Kaisarasa) in the Ara (Attock) inscription of the year 47. Both the Kushanas and the Romans minted gold coins for use in trading transactions. The Kushanas benefited greatly from this trade. They also developed trading relations with Southeast Asia, China, and Central Asia during this period.
There is no evidence of state monopoly in any sector of the economy, nor of state intervention in day-to-day economic transactions. The Kushana state appears to have been non-intrusive, allowing for a considerable degree of autonomy at various levels. However, it did play a significant role in promoting trade and other commercial activities. Under Kanishka and his immediate successors, integrative forces prevailed over tendencies toward fragmentation or secession. If the Kushanas borrowed certain aspects of political ideas and organization from their predecessors and contemporaries, their coinage, titles, images, sculptures, and concepts of kingship, including the deification of the ruler, influenced the Guptas and other polities in early medieval India.