You are here
Home > Books > Chapter 16. Central Asian Contacts and their Results (Old NCERT History Ancient India)

Chapter 16. Central Asian Contacts and their Results (Old NCERT History Ancient India)

16. Central Asian Contacts and their Results

The period which began in about 200 B.C. did not witness a large empire like that of the Mauryas, but it is notable for intimate and widespread contacts between Central Asia and India, In eastern India, central India and the Deccan, the Mauryas were succeeded by a number of native rulers such as the Shungas, the Kanvas and the Satavahanas. In north-western India they were succeeded by a number of ruling dynasties from Central Asia. Of them the Kushans became the most famous.

The Indo-Greeks

A series of invasions began in about 200 B.C. The first to cross the Hindukush were the Greeks, who ruled Bactria, lying south of the Oxus river in the area covered by north Afghanistan. The invaders came one after another, but some of them ruled at one and the same time. One important cause of invasions was the weakness of the Seleucid empire, which had been established in Bactria and the adjoining areas of Iran called Parthia. On account of growing pressure from the Scythian tribes, the later Greek rulers were unable to hold their power in this area. With the construction of the Chinese wall the Scythians were now pushed back from the Chinese border. So they turned their attention towards the neighbouring Greeks and Parthians. Pushed by the Scythian tribes, the Bactrian Greeks were forced to invade India. The successors of Ashoka were too weak to stem the tide.
The first to made India were the Greeks, who were called the Indo Greeks or Bactrian Greeks. In the beginning of the second century B.C., the Indo-Greeks occupied a large part of north-western India, much larger than that conquered by Alexander, it is said that they pushed forward as far as Ayodhya and Pataliputra. But the Greeks faked to establish united rule in India. Two Greek dynasties ruled northern India, on parallel lines, at one and the same time. The most famous Indo-Greek ruler was Menander (165-145 B.C.). He is also known by the name Milinda. He had his capital at. Sakala (modern Sialkot) in Punjab; and he invaded the Ganga yamuna doab. He was converted to Buddhism by Nagasena, who is also known as Nugarjuna. Menander asked Nagasena many questions relating to Buddhism. These questions and Nagasena’s answers were recorded in the form of a book known as Milinda Panho or the Question of Milinda.
The Indo-Greek rule is important in the fusion of India because of the large number of coins which the Greeks issued. The Indo-Greeks were the first rulers in India, to issue coins which can be definitely attributed to the kings. This is not possible in the case of the early punch-marked coins, which cannot be assigned with certainty to any dynasty. The Indo-Greeks were the first to issue gold coins in India which increased in number under the Kushanas. The Greek rule introduced features of Hellenistic, art in the north-west frontier of India. This art was not purely Greek. It was the outcome of the Greek contact with non-Greek conquered peoples after Alexander’s death. Gandhara art was its best example in India.

The Shakas

The Greeks were followed by the Shakas, who controlled a much larger part of India than the Greeks did. There were five branches of the Shakas with their seats of power in different parts of India and Afghanistan. One branch of the Shaka settled in Afghanistan. The second branch settled in Punjab with Taxila as its capital. The third branch settled in Mathura, where it ruled for about two centuries. The fourth branch established its hold over western India where the Shakas continued to rule until the fourth century A.D. The fifth branch of the Shakas established its power, in, the upper Deccan.
The Shakas did not meet much effective resistance from the rulers and peoples of India. In about 57-58 B.C. we hear about of king of Ujjain who effectively fought against the Shakas and succeeded in driving them out in his time. He called himself Vikramaditya and an era called the Vikrama Samvat is reckoned from, the event of his victory over the Shakas to 50 BC. Fom this time onward Vikaramaditya became a coveted title. Whoever achieved anything great adopted this title just as the Roman emporers adopted the title of Caesar in order to emphasize their great power. As a result of his practice we have as many as 14 Vikramadityas in Indian history. Chandragupta II was the most famous Vikramaditya. The title continued to be fashionable with the Indian kings till the twelfth century A.D. and it was especially prevalent in western India; and the western Deccan.
Although the Shakas established their rule in different parts of the country, only those, who ruled in western India held power for any considerable, length of time, Tor about, four centuries or so. They benefited from the seaborne trade hi Gujarat and issued large number of silver coins. The most famous Shaka ruler in India was Rudradaraan 1 (a d, 130-150). He ruled not only over Sindh, but also over a good part of Gujarat, Konkan, the Narmada valley, Malwa and Kathiawar. He is: famous; in history because of ills repairs he undertook to improve the Sudarshana Lake in the semi-arid zone of Kathiawar. This lake had been in use for irrigation for a long time and was as old as the time of the Mauryas.
Rudradama was a great lover of Sanskrit; although a foreigner settled in India, he issued the first-ever long inscription in chaste Sanskrit. All the eaMier longer Inscriptions that we have in this country were composed in sanskrit.

The Parthians

The Shakas domination in north-western India was followed by that of the Parthians in many ancient Indian Sanskrit texts the two peoples are together mentioned as Shakas and Pahlavas. In fact both of them ruled over this country on parallel lines for some time. Originally the Parthians lived in Iran from where they moved to India. In comparison with, the Greeks and the Shakas they occupied only a small portion of north-western India in the first century. The most famous Parthian king was Gondophernes, in whose reign St. Thomas is said to have come to India for the propagation of Christianity. In course of time, the Parthians, like the Shakas before them, became an integral part of Indian polity and society.

The Kushans

The Parthians were followed by the Kushans, who are also called Yuechis or Tocharians. The Kushans were one of the five clans into which the Yuechis tribe was divided. The nomadic people from the steppes of north Central Asia living in the neighbourhood of China, the Kushans, first occupied Bactria or north Afghanistan where they displaced the Shakas. Gradually they moved to the Kabul valley and seized Gandhara by crossing the Hindukush, replacing the rule of the Greeks and Parthians in these areas. Finally they set up their authority over the lower Indus basin and the greater part of the Gangetic basin. Their empire extended from the Oxus to the Ganga, from Khorasan in Central Asia to Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. A good part of Central Asia now included in the Commonwealth of Independent States (in former USSR), a portion of Iran, a portion of Afghanistan, almost the whole of Pakistan and almost the whole of northern India were brought under one rule by the Kushans. This created a unique opportunity for the commingling of peoples and cultures and the process gave rise to a new type of culture which embraced nine modern countries.
We come across two successive dynasties of the Kushans. The first dynasty was founded by a house of chiefs who were called Kadphises and who ruled for 28 years from about A.D. 50. It had two kings. The first was Kadphises I, who issued coins south of the Hindukush. He minted coppers in imitation of Roman coins. The second king was Kadphises II, who issued a large number of gold money and spread his kingdom east of the Indus.
The house of Kadphises was succeeded by that of Kanishka. Its kings extended the Kushan power over upper India and the lower Indus basin. The early Kushan kings issued numerous gold coins with higher degree of metallic purity than is found in the Gupta gold coins. Although the gold coins of the Kushans are found mainly west of the Indus, their inscriptions are distributed hot only in north-western India and Sindh but also in Mathura, Shravasti, Kaushambi and Varanasi. Hence, besides the Ganga Yamuna doab they had set up their authority in the greater part of the middle Gangetic basin. Kushan coins, inscriptions, constructions and pieces of sculpture found in Mathura show that it was their second capital in India, the first being Purushapura or Peshawar, where Kanishka erected a monastery and a huge stupa or relic tower which excited the wonder of foreign travellers.
Kanishka was the most famous Kushan ruler. Although outside the borders of India he seems to have suffered defeat at the hands of the Chinese, he is known to history because of two reasons. First, he started an era in A.D. 78, which is now known as the Shaka era and is used by the Government of India. Secondly, Kanishka extended his wholehearted patronage to Buddhism. He held a Buddhist council in Kashmir, where the doctrines of the Mahayana form of Buddhism were finalized. Kanishka was also a great patron of art and Sanskrit literature.
The successors of Kanishka continued to rule in north-western India till about A.D. 230 and some of them bore typical Indian names such as Vasudeva.
The Kushan Empire in Afghanistan and in the area west of the Indus was supplanted in the mid-third century A.D. by the Sassanian power, which arose in Iran. But Kushan principalities continued to exist in India for about a century. The Kushan authority seems to have lingered in the Kabul valley, Kapisa, Bactria, Khorezm and Sogdiana (identical with Bokhara and Samarkand in Central Asia) in the third-fourth centuries. Many Kushan coins, inscriptions and terracottas have been found in these areas. Especially at a place called Toprak-Kala in Khorezm, which lies slouth of the Aral Sea, on the Oxus, a huge Kushan palace of the third-fourth centuries has been unearthed. It housed an administrative archives containing inscriptions and documents written in Khorezmain language.

Impact of Central Asian Contacts

Structures and Pottery

The Shaka-Kushan phase registered a distinct advance in building activities; Excavations have revealed several layers of construction, sometimes more than half a dozen at various sites in north India. In them we find the use of burnt bricks for flooring and that of tiles for both flooring and roofing. But the use of surkhi and tiles may not have been adopted from outside. The period is also marked by the construction of brick-walls. Its typical pottery is red ware, both plain and polished, with medium to fine fabric. The distinctive pots are sprinklers and spouted channels. They remind us of red pottery with thin fabric found in the same period in Kushan layers in Central Asia. Red pottery techniques were widely known in Central Asia and they are found even in regions like Farghana which were on the; peripheries of the Kushan cultural zone.

Better Cavalry

The Shakas and Kushans added new ingredients to Indian culture and enriched it immensely. They settled in India for good and completely identified themselves with its culture. Since they did not have their script, written language, or any organized religion, they adopted these components of culture from India. They became an integral part of Indian society to which they contributed considerably. They introduced better cavalry and the use of the riding horse on a large scale. They made common the use of reins and saddles, which appear in the Buddhist sculptures of the second and third centuries A.D. The Shakas and the Kushans excellent horsemen, Their passionate love for horsemanship is attested by numerous equestrian terracotta figures of Kushan times discovered from Begrani in Afghanistan. Some of these foreign horsemen were heavily, armoured and fought with spears and lances. Possibly they also used some kind of a toe stirrup made of-rope which facilitated their movements. The Shakas and Kushans introduced turban, tunic, trousers and heavy long coat. Even now the Afghans and Punjabis wear turbans and the sherwani is a successor of the long coat, The Central Asians also brought in cap, helmet and boots which were used by warriors, Because of these advantages they made a clean sweep of their opponents in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, Later, when this military, technology spread in the country, the dependent princes turned them to good use against their former conquerors.

Trade and Agriculture

The coming of the Central Asian people established intimate contacts between Central Asia and India. As a result India received a good deal of gold from the Altai mountains in Central Asia. Gold also may have been received by it through trade with the Roman empire. The Kushans controlled the Silk Route, which started from China and passed through their empire in Central Asia and Afghanistan to Iran and Western Asia which formed part of the Roman empire in the eastern Mediterranean zone. This route was a source of great income to the Kushans and they built a large prosperous empire, because of the tolls levied from the traders. It is significant that the Kushans were the first rulers in India to issue gold coins on a wide scale.
The Kushans also promoted agriculture. The earliest archaeological traces of large-scale irrigation in Pakistan, Afghanistan and western Central Asia belong to the Kushan period.


The Central Asian conquerors imposed their rule on numerous petty native princes. This led to the development of a feudatory organization. The Kushans adopted the pompous title of king of kings which indicates their supremacy over numerous small princes who paid tributes.
The Shakas and the Kushans strengthened the idea of the divine origin of kingship. Ashoka was called dear to the gods but the Kushan kings were called sons of god. This title was adopted by the Kushans from the Chinese, who called their king the son of heaven. It was used in India naturally to legitimize the royal authority. The Hindu law giver Manu asks the people to respect the king even if he is a child, because he is a great god ruling in the form of a human being.
Since most of them came as conquerors they were absorbed in Indian society as a warrior class, that is, as the kshatriyas. Their placement in the brahmanical society was explained in a curious way. The law-giver Manu stated that the Shakas and the Parthians were the kshatriyas who had deviated from their duties and fallen in status. In other words, they came to be considered as second-class kshatriyas. In no other period of ancient Indian history were foreigners assimilated into Indian society on such a large scale as they were in the post Maurya times.

Religious Developments

Some of the foreign rulers were converted to Vaishnavism, which means the worship of Vishnu, the god of protection and preservation. The Greek ambassador called Heliodorus set up a pillar in honour of Vasudeva near Vidisa (headquarters of Vidisa district) in Madhya Pradesh around the middle of the second century B.C.
A few other rulers adopted Buddhism. The famous Greek ruler Menander became a Buddhist. The questions and the answers that he exchanged with the Buddhist teacher Nagasena, also called Nagaijuna, constitute a good source for the intellectual history of the post-Mauryan period. The Kushan rulers worshipped both Shiva and the Buddha and the images of these two gods appeared on the Kushan coins. Several Kushan rulers were worshippers of Vishnu. This was certainly the case with the Kushan ruler Vasudeva, whose very name is a synonym for Krishna, who was worshipped as an incarnation of Vishnu.

The Origin of Mahayana Buddhism

Indian religions underwent changes in post-Maurya times partly due to a big leap in trade and artisanal activity and partly due to the large influx of people from central Asia. Buddhism was especially affected. The monks and nuns could not afford to lose the cash donations from the growing body of traders and artisans concentrated in towns. Large numbers of coins have been found in the monastic areas of Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh. Further, the Buddhists welcomed foreigners who were non-vegetarians. All this meant laxity in the day-to-day living of the nuns and monks who led a sparse life. They now accepted gold and silver, took to non-vegetarian food and wore elaborate robes. Discipline became so slack that some renunciates even deserted the religious order or the Sangha and resumed the householder’s life. This new form of Buddhism came to be called the Mahayana or the Great Wheel. In the old puritan Buddhism certain things associated wan the Buddha were worshipped as his symbols. These were replaced with his images with the opening of the Christian era. Image worship in Buddhism seems to have led to this practice in brahmanism on a large scale. With the rise of the Mahayana the old puritan school of Buddhism came to be known as the Hinayana or the lesser Wheel.
Fortunately for the Mahayana, Kanishka became its great patron. He convened a council in Kashmir. The members of the council composed 300,000 words, which thoroughly explained the three pitakas of collections of Buddhist literature. Kanishka got these commentaries engraved on sheets of red copper, enclosed them in a stone receptacle and raised a stupa over it. If this tradition is correct, the discovery of the stupa with its copper inscriptions could shed new light on Buddhist texts and teachings. Kanishka set up many other stupas to perpetuate the memory of the Buddha.

Gandhara and Mathura Schools of Art

The foreign princes became enthusiastic patrons of Indian art and literature and they showed the zeal characteristic, of new converts. The Kushan empire brought together masons and other (artisans trained in different schools and countries. This gave rise to several schools of art: Central Asian, Gandhara and Mathura. Pieces of sculpture from Central Asia show synthesis of both local and Indian elements under the influence of Buddhism.
Indian craftsmen came into contact with the Central Asians, Greeks and Romans, especially in the northwestern frontier of India in Gandhara. This gave rise to a new kind of art in which images of the Buddha were made in the Greeco-Roman style. The hair of the Buddha was fashioned in the Graeeo-Roman style.
The influence of the Gandhara art also spread to Mathura although it was primarily a centre of indigenous art. Mathura produced beautiful images of the Buddha, but it is also famous for the headless erect statue of Kanishka whose name is inscribed on its lower part. It also produced several stone images of Varahamana Mahavira. Its pre-Gupta sculpture and inscriptions ignore Krishna, although Mathura is considered his birthplace and scene of early life. The Mathura school of art flourished in the early centuries of the Christian era and its products made of red sandstone are found even outside Mathura. At present the Mathura Museum possesses the largest collection of sculptures of Kushan times in India.
During the same period we notice beautiful k works of art at several places south of the Vindhyas. Beautiful Buddhist caves were constructed out of rocks in Maharashtra. In Andhra Pradesh, Nagarjunakonda and Amaravati became great centres of Buddhist art and the stories connected with the Buddha came to be portrayed in numerous panels. The earliest panels dealing with Buddhism are found at Gaya, Sanchi and Bharhut and belong to the second century B.C. But we notice further development in sculpture in the early centuries of the Christian era.
The foreign princes patronized and cultivated Sanskrit literature. The earliest specimen of kavya style is found in the Junagadh inscription of Rudradarnan in Kathiawar in, about A.D. 150. From now onwards inscriptions began to be composed in chaste Sanskrit, although the use of Prakrit in composing inscriptions continued till the fourth century A.D. and even later.
It seems that some of the great creative writers such as Ashvaghosha enjoyed the patronage of the Kushans. Ashvaghosha wrote the Buddha charita, which is a biography of the Buddha. He also composed the Saundarananda, which is a fine example of Sanskrit kavya.
The progress of Mahayan Buddhism led to the composition of numerous avadanas. Most of these texts were composed in what is known as the Buddhist-Hybrid Sanskrit. Their one objective was to preach the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism to the people. Some of the important books of this genre were the Mahavastu and the Divyavadana.
The Greeks contributed to the development of the Indian theatre by introducing the use of the curtain. Since the curtain was borrowed from the Greeks it came to be known as yavanika. This word was derived from the term yavana, which was a sanskritized form of Ionian, a branch of the Greeks known to the ancient Indians. In the beginning, the, term yavana was used to refer to the Greeks but at a later stage it came to be used for all kinds of foreigners.
The best example of secular literature appears in tire Kamasutra of Vatsyayana. Attributed to the third century A.D., it is the earliest work on erotics dealing with sex and love-making. It gives us a picture of the life of a city-bred person or nagaraka who lived in a period of thriving urbanism.

Science and Technology

In post-Mamya times Indisi n astronomy and astrology profited from contact with the Greeks. We notice many Greek terms about the movement of planets in Sanskrit texts. Indian astrology came to be influenced by Greek ideas and from the Greek term horoscope was derived the term horashastra used for astrology in Sanskrit. The Greek coins, which were properly shaped and stamped, were a great improvement on punch-marked coins. The Greek term drachrria came to be known as dramma. In return the Greek rulers used the Brahmi script and represented some Indian motifs on their coins. Dogs, cattle, spices and ivory pieces were exported by the Greeks, but whether they learnt any craft from India is not clear.
However, the Indians did not owe anything striking to the Greeks in medicine, botany and chemistry. These three subjects were dealt with by Charaka and Sushruta. The Charakasamhita contains names of numerous plants and herbs from which drugs are to be prepared for the use of patients. The processes laid down for the poupding and mixing of the plants give us an insight into the developed knowledge of chemistry in ancient India. For the cure of ailments the ancient Indian physician relied chiefly on plants, for which the Sanskrit word is oshadhi and as a result medicine itself came to be known as aushadhi.
in the field of technology also the Indians seem to have benefited from contact with the Central Asians. Kanishka is represented as wearing trousers and long boots. Possibly the practice of making leather shoes began in India during this period. In any case the Kushan copper coins in India were imitations of the Roman coins. Similarly gold coins in India were struck by the Kushans in imitation of Roman gold coins. We hear of two embassies being exchanged between the Indian kings and the Roman kings. Embassies were sent from India to the court of the Roman emperor Augustus in A D, 27-28 and also to the Roman emperor Trajan in A.D. 110-20. Thus the contacts of Rome with ancient India may have introduced new practices in technology. Working in glass during this period was especially influenced by foreign ideals and practices. In no other period in ancient India did glass-making make such progress as it did during this period.


1. Explain the reasons for the invasions by the Indo-Greeks, Parthians, Shakas and Kushans.
2. Prepare a chart to show the chronology of the Indo-Greeks, the Parthians, the Shakas and the Kushans. Indicate the areas ruled by them.
3. Discuss the impact of the Central Asian contacts on India’s political system, society, and science and technology.
4. Describe the development of Mahayana Buddhism.
5. Describe the developments in art and literature during the period 200 B.C.-A.D. 300, with examples. Describe the characteristic features of the Gandhara and Mathura schools of art.
6. On an outline map of India, show the areas which cam e under the rule of the Indo-Greek, Parthian, Shaka and Kushan kings. Also prepare a list of the names of places mentioned in the text and show them in the map.
7. Take up a group project to show how Indian culture was enriched during this period.

Leave a Reply

error: Content is protected !!