1. Structures and Pottery:
The Shaka-Kushan phase saw a distinct advance in building activities. Excavations have revealed several layers of construction, sometimes over half a dozen, at various sites in north India.
In them we find the use of burnt bricks for flooring and tiles for both flooring and roofing.
However, the use of tiles may not have been adopted from outside. The period also saw the construction of brick-walls.
The characteristic 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 are to be found even in regions such as Farghana which lay on the peripheries of the Kushan cultural zone.
2. 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. As they did not have their own script, written language, or any organized religion, they adopted these components of culture from India and 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 popularized the use of reins and saddles, which appear in the Buddhist sculpture of the second and third centuries AD. The Shakas and the Kushans were excellent horsemen. Their passion for horsemanship is shown by numerous equestrian terracotta figures of Kushan times discovered from Begram in Afghanistan.
Some of these foreign horsemen were heavily armoured and fought with spears and lances. Presumably they also used some form of toe stirrup made of rope which facilitated their movements. The Shakas and Kushans introduced the turban, tunic, trousers, and heavy long coat. Even now 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. Given these advantages, they made a clean sweep of their opponents in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Later, when this military technology spread in India, the dependent princes turned them to good use against their former conquerors.
3. Trade and Agriculture:
The coming of the Central Asian people established intimate contacts between Central Asia and India. India received a great fund of gold from the Altai mountains in Central Asia. Gold may also 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 substantial income for the Kushans, and they built a large prosperous empire on the strength of the tolls levied from 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 date 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 that they collected tributes from numerous small princes.
The Shakas and Kushans strengthened the idea of the divine origin of kingship. Ashoka called himself ‘dear to the gods’, but the Kushan kings called themselves sons of god. This title was adopted by the Kushans from the Chinese, who called their king the son of heaven. It was naturally used in India to legitimize the royal authority. The brahmanical lawmaker Manu asks 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.
The Kushans strengthened the satrap system of government adopted by the Shakas. The empire was divided into numerous satrapies, and each placed under the rule of a satrap. Some curious practices such as hereditary dual rule, that is, two kings ruling in the same kingdom simultaneously, were begun, with instances of father and son ruling jointly at the same time.
It thus appears that there was less of centralization under these rulers. The Greeks also introduced the practice of military governorship, the governors called strategos. Military governors were necessary to maintain the power of the new rulers over the conquered people.
5. New Elements in Indian Society:
The Greeks, the Shakas, the Parthians, and the Kushans eventually lost their identity in India, in the course of time becoming completely Indianized. As most of them came as conquerors they were absorbed in Indian society as a warrior class, that is, as kshatriyas. Their placement in the brahmanical society was explained in a curious way.
The lawmaker Manu stated that the Shakas and the Parthians were kshatriyas who had deviated from their duties and fallen in status. In other words, they came to be considered 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 post- Maurya times.
6. Religious Developments:
Some rulers and others from Central Asia adopted 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 at Besnagar near Vidisa (headquarters of Vidisa district) in MP around the middle of the second century BC.
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 Nagarjuna, is a good source for the intellectual history of the post-Maurya period. The Kushan rulers worshipped both Shiva and the Buddha, and the images of these two gods appeared on the Kushan coins. Seveal Kushan rulers were worshippers of Vishnu, as was certainly the case with the Kushan ruler Vasudeva, whose very name is a synonym for Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu.
7. The Origin of Mahayana Buddhism:
Indian religions underwent changes in post-Maurya times partly due to a great 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 are found in the monastic areas of Nagarjunakonda in AP. Also, 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 an austere life. They now accepted gold and silver, took to non-vegetarian food, and wore elaborate robes. Discipline became so lax that some renunciates even deserted the religious order or the samgha and resumed the householder’s life.
This new form of Buddhism came to be called Mahayana or the Great Vehicle. In the old puritan Buddhism, certain things associated with the Buddha were worshipped as his symbols. These were replaced with his images at the time when the Christian era began. Image worship started with Buddhism but was followed on a large scale in Brahmanism. With the rise of Mahayana the old puritan school of Buddhism came to be known as the Hinayana or the Lesser Vehicle.
Fortunately for the Mahayana school, Kanishka became its great patron. He convened in Kashmir a council, whose members composed 300,000 words, thoroughly elucidating the three pitakas or 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.
8. Gandhara and Mathura Schools of Art:
The foreign princes became enthusiastic patrons of Indian art and literature, and displayed 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 a synthesis of both local and Indian elements influenced by Buddhism.
Indian craftsmen came into contact with the Central Asians, Greeks, and Romans, especially in the north-western frontier of India in Gandhara. This gave rise to a new form of art in which images of the Buddha were made in the Graeco-Roman style, and his hair fashioned in the Graeco- Roman style.
The influence of Gandhara art also spread to Mathura, which 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 at its lower end. It also produced several stone images of Vardhamana Mahavira.
Its pre-Gupta sculpture and inscriptions ignore Krishna, although Mathura is considered his birthplace and the scene of his 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. Currently the Mathura Museum possesses the largest collection of the pieces of Kushan sculpture in India.
During the same period, beautiful works of art were created at several places south of the Vindhyas. Wonderful Buddhist caves were constructed out of rock in Maharashtra. In AP, Nagarjunakonda and Amaravati became great centres of Buddhist art, and stories associated with the Buddha were portrayed on numerous panels.
The earliest panels dealing with Buddhism are to be found at Bodh-Gaya, Sanchi, and Bharhut, and relate to the second century BC. However, further development in sculpture occurred in the early centuries of the Christian era.