UPSC History Early empire (6 BCE to 1 CE) NCERT Extracts - Central Asian Contacts

NCERT Extracts - Central Asian Contacts

Category : UPSC

 The Indo-Greeks


  • The first to invade India were the Greeks, who are 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.
  • The most famous Indo-Greek ruler was Menander or Milinda (165-145 B.C.).
  • He had his capital at Sakala in Punjab; and he invaded the Ganga-Yamuna doab.
  • He was converted to Buddhism by Nagasena, who is also known as Nagarjuna.
  • 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 history of India because of the large number 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.
  • The Indo-Greeks were the first to issue gold coins in India. The Greek rule introduce 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 Alexanders death. Gandhara art was its best exampi in India.


The Shakas


  • The Greek were followed by the Shakas. There were five branches of the Shakas with their seats of power in different parts of India and Afghanistan.
  • First Branch - Afghanistan, Second Branch - Punjab (Capital - Taxila), Third Brand Mathura, Fourth Branch - Western India and Fifth Branch - Upper Deccan.
  • In about 57-58 B.C. a king of Ujjain fought against the Shakes and succeeded in drivi) them out in his time. He called himself
  • An era called the vikrama Samvat is reckoned from the event of his victory over Shakas in 57 B.C. From this time onwards, Vikramaditya became a coveted title. Whoever achieved anything great adopted this title just as the Roman emperors adop the title of Caesar in order to emphasize their great power
  • As a result of this practice we have as many as 14 Vikramadityas in Indian history.Chandragupta-n was the most famous Vikramaditya,
  • The Shaka benefited from the seaborne trade in Gujarat and issued large number of silver coins. The most famous Shaka ruler in India was Rudradaman-1 (A.D. 130-150)1 he is famous in history because of the repairs he undertook to improve the Sudarshana in the semi-arid zone of Kathiawar.


The Sudarshana (beautiful) lake in Gujarat

  • The Sudarshana lake was an artificial reservoir. We know about it from a rock inscription in Sanskrit, composed to record the achievements of Rudradaman.
  • The inscription mentions that the lake, with embankments and water channels, was built by a local governor during the rule of the Mauryas.
  • However, a terrible storm broke the embankments and water gushed out of the lake.
  • Rudradaman, who was then ruling in the area, claimed to have got the lake repaired using his own resources, without imposing any tax on his subjects.
  • Another inscription on the same rock (c. fifth century) mentions how one of the rulers of the Gupta dynasty got the lake repaired once again.
  • Rudradaman was a great lover of Sanskrit. Although a foreigner settled in India, he issued the first-ever long inscription in chaste Sanskrit.


The Parthians


  • The Shaka domination in north-western India was followed by that of the Parthians.
  • Originally the Parthians lived in Iran from where they moved to India.
  • They occupied only a small portion of north-western India in the first century.
  • This most famous Parthian king was in whose reign St. Thomas is said to have come to India for the propagation of Christianity.
  • In course of time, the Parthians, became an integral part of Indian polity and society


The Kushans


  • The Parthians were followed by the Kushans, who are also called Yuechis or Tbcharians.
  • The Kushans were a nomadic people from the steppes of north Central Asia.
  • Their Empire extended from the Oxus to the Ganga, from Khorasan in Central Asia to Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.
  • Kushans had two successive dynasties. The first dynasty was founded by a house of chiefs who were called Kadphises and who ruled for 28 years.
  • It had two kings. The first was Kadphises-I and the second king was Kadphises II, who issued a large number of gold money and spread his kingdom east of the Indus.
  • The early Kushan kings issued numerous gold coins with higher degree of metallic purity than is found in the Gupta gold coins.
  • 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.
  • In Purushapura, 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. He started an era in 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, Some of his successors bore typical Indian names such as Vasudeva.


Impact of Central Asian Contacts


Structures and Pottery

  • The Shaka-Kushan phase registered a distinct advance in building activities.
  • 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.


Better Cavalry

  • The Shakas and Kushans introduced better cavalry and the use of the riding horse on a large scale. They made common the use of reins and saddles.
  • The Shakas and the Kushans were excellent horsemen.
  • The Shakas and Kushans introduced turban, tunic, trousers, and heavy long coat.
  • The Central Asians also brought in cap, helmet and boots.


Trade and Agriculture

  • 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 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  dopted by the Kushans from the Chinese, who called their king the son of heaven.                                                     
  • The Kushans also introduced the satrap system of government. The empire was divided into numerous satrapies, and each satrapy was placed under the rule of satrap.
  • Some curious practices such as hereditary dual rule, two ruling in the same kingdom at one and the same time, were introduced.
  • The Greeks also introduced the practice of military governorship.
  • They appointed their governors called strategos.


New Elements in Indian Society

  • The Greeks, the Shakas, the Parthians and the Kushans ultimately lost their identity in India. They became completely Indianized in course of time.
  • Since most of them came as conquerors they were absorbed in Indian society as warrior class, that is, as the 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 (worship of Vishnu).
  • The Greek ambassador called Heliodorus set up a pillar in honour of Vasudeva near Vidisa in Madhya Pradesh around the middle of the second century B.C.
  • The famous Greek ruler Menander became a Buddhist.
  • 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.


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.
  • 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 with the Buddha were worshipped as his symbols.
  • Images 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 3,00,000 words, which thoroughly explained the three pitakas or collections of Buddhist literature.
  • Kanishka set up many other stups to perpetuate the memory of the Buddha.


Gandhara and Mathura Schools of Art

  • The Kushan Empire brought together mansons and other artisans trained in different schools and countries. This gave rise to several schools of art: Central Asian, Gandhara and Mathura.
  • 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 Greece- Roman Style. The influence of the Gandhara art also spread to Mathura.
  • Mathura produced beautiful images of the Buddha, but it is also famous for the headless erect status of Kanishka whose name is inscribed on its lower part.
  • It also produced several stone images of Vardhamana Mahavira.
  • 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.
  • Beautiful Buddhist caves were constructed out of rocks in Maharashtra.
  • In Andhra Pradesh, Nagarjunakonda and Amaravati became great centres of Buddhis 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 Bharhu and belong to the second century B.C.


Literature and Learning

  • The earliest specimen of Kavya style is found in the Junagadh inscription of Rudradaman in Kathiawar in about A.D. 150.
  • Ashvaghosha enjoyed the patronage of the Kushans. He wrote the Buddhacharita
  • He also composed the Saundarananda, which is a fine example of Sanskrit kavyg
  • The progress ofMahayana Buddhism led to the composition of numerous avadana;
  • One objective was to preach the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism to the peoph
  • Some of the important books of this genre were the Mahavastu and the Divyavadan.
  • The Greek 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.
  • Yavanika was derived from the term Yavana, which was a Sanskritized form of Ionian, a branch of the Greeks known to the ancient Indians.
  • The best example of secular literature appears in the Kamasutra of Vatsyayaw
  • 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 nagarat who lived in a period of hriving urbanism.


Science and Technology

  • In post-Maurya times Indian astronomy and astrology profited from contact with the Greeks. 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 charakasamhita contains names of numerous plants and herbs from which drugs are to be prepared for the use of patients.
  • Kanishka is represented as wearing trousers and long boots. Possibly the practice making leather shoes began in India during this period.
  • 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.




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