The King with no face

It looks like Kanishka was not just dynamic but also wise. His vast empire had so many different types of people living in it: Indians and Persians, Greeks and Romans, Bactrians and Central Asians. Kanishka managed to keep them all happy by supporting the best of their cultures and religions. Pretty cool, don’t you think?

In a dusty, forgotten corner of the Mathura Museum (Uttar Pradesh), stands an extraordinary stone statue of a man. The arms and head are missing, but something about the pose suggests that this is a very powerful person. He wears a stiff, belted, ankle-length coat over a tunic. The unnaturally large feet are turned outwards and encased in heavy, strapped, padded boots. And he obviously means business: his left hand rests on a massive, lethal looking sword and his right hand holds a mace or sceptre of some kind.

From the way he’s dressed, we can safely say he’s a horseman from a much colder climate and hence, probably a ‘foreigner’. From his regal pose, he’s obviously a man of authority. But who is he and why is his statue here in the sweltering plains of North India?
The statue was discovered in 1911 in a village outside Mathura by Pandit Radha Krishna, an amateur archaeologist and collector of antiquities. A Brahmi inscription on its base declares that this is Kanishka, the great Kushana king.

Powerful & prosperous

The Kushanas were originally known as the Yeuh-chi, a nomadic Central Asian tribe that came rampaging down from beyond the Hindu Kush Mountains. They had been displaced from their central Asian pasture lands by the Han Chinese in the early centuries of the Common Era (or the beginning of AD as it was known earlier).

Within decades, they managed to establish an empire that swept from northern Afghanistan to the plains of the Ganga. By the time Kanishka became king in 78CE, his empire included most of Afghanistan, present-day Pakistan, Kashmir and the entire northern Indian belt all the way up to Benaras. His kingdom was so vast that he had two capital cities: one in Mathura and the main one in Purushapura (modern Peshawar).

Their location was a stroke of luck for the former nomads.They were at the very centre of the famed Silk Route. This was a strategic place to control the trade streaming out of northern India towards China, West Asia and the Mediterranean. Traders were now confident enough to use a very treacherous but short route to China via the Karakoram Mountains. From there Indian textiles, gold, precious stones and spices could easily join the Silk Route. Caravans laden with Chinese silks came in the reverse direction. The Kushanas began to get pretty prosperous. 

And how do we know this? Large numbers of beautiful Kushana coins in copper, silver and gold have been found all the way from the Oxus River in Afghanistan to Benares.  They were inscribed with figures of the Kushana kings and the various titles they liked to give themselves like ‘King of Kings’ and ‘Saviour’. Kanishka usually called himself ‘Son of God’.

‘Son of God’

Kanishka was a most intriguing person. Clearly, he was a fearsome warrior. But at the same time, Buddhist records of the time can’t stop singing his praises. In fact, some of them even compare him to Ashoka as a major patron of Buddhism.

 Using the newly active trade routes via the Karakoram Mountains, Buddhist pilgrims, teachers and artists began to travel to Central Asia and China in large numbers. Many of them were directly sponsored by Kanishka himself. All along the Karakoram route there are inscriptions, carvings, stupas and monasteries, reminding the traveller that the Maharaja Kanishka was their patron and well-wisher.

 The Fourth Buddhist Council was held under his patronage in Kashmir.  At this council, the Buddhist religion spilt into two distinct traditions: Hinayana (the more orthodox) and Mahayana (less orthodox). At Purushpura, archaeologists have found the remains of a massive stupa. It was a hundred metres in diameter and said to have been over two hundred metres high! Definitely one of the wonders of the ancient world.

But here is something remarkable. Archaeological evidence shows us that Kanishka was tolerant of many different gods and religions. Coins from his era show not only Buddha but Shiva and Nandi, Persian gods such as Mithra and Atash, and even the Greek god Helios. Recently, an inscribed stone slab from Kanishka’s time was found in Afghanistan. The inscription talks of how he instructed his officials to build a temple to the goddess Nana, a west Asian goddess.

Prosperity usually goes with a flowering of arts and literature. The art world really buzzed during Kanishka’s time. Two different schools of art came up: one centred in Mathura and one in north-west India known as the Gandhara School of Art. Until now, Buddhists had always used symbols to represent Buddha: a footprint, a wheel, a stupa or a tree. Now, for the first time, they began to portray the Buddha as a human figure.

The Kushana kingdom, particularly the Gandhara area (in modern Afghanistan), was a meeting point for artists and craftsmen from all over Central Asia, Bactria and India. Kanishka personally invited many Graeco-Roman artists to come and work in his kingdom. Greece was part of the Roman Empire in those days. These artists brought their own style of working to Indian themes.  They began to produce beautiful, intricate carvings of serene Buddhas with curly hair, muscular bodies and flowing garments that resemble Roman togas. The attendants are elaborately dressed and often wear sandals.

Backdrops sometimes feature grapevine tendrils and soldiers in Roman uniform! So the theme was Indian but the sentiment or feeling was Graeco-Roman. One inscription even names a certain ‘Agasilaos’ (a very Greek name) as an overseer at Kanishka’s vihara or monastery.

Kanishka died with his boots on. He was killed while fighting a campaign in Sinkiang. Many of the beautiful pieces of art produced during his time have been preserved in our museums. If you are lucky enough to see them, stop a while and give a thought to the extraordinary person who made this creative and cultural fusion possible: that King whose face we do not know.

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