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Territories (full line) and expansion (dotted line) of the Indo-Scythian Kingdom at its greatest extent.
Pali (Kharoshthi script)
Sanskrit, Prakrit (Brahmi script)
Ancient Greek religion
Indo-Scythians is a term used to refer to Scythians (Sakas), who migrated into parts of central, northern and western South Asia (Sogdiana, Bactria, Arachosia, Gandhara, Sindh, Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra) from the middle of the 2nd century BC to the 4th century AD.
The first Saka king in South Asia was Maues/Moga (1st century BC) who established Saka power in Gandhara, parts of modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, and gradually extended supremacy over north-western India. Indo-Scythian rule in northwestern Indian subcontinent ended with the last Western Satrap Rudrasimha III in 395 CE who was defeated by the Indian Emperor Chandragupta II of the Gupta Empire. The power of the Saka rulers started to decline in the 2nd century CE after the Indo-Scythians were defeated by the south Indian Emperor Gautamiputra Satakarni of the Satavahana dynasty. Later the Saka kingdom was completely destroyed by Chandragupta II of the Gupta Empire in the 4th century.
The invasion of northern regions of the Indian subcontinent by Scythian tribes from Central Asia, often referred to as the Indo-Scythian invasion, played a significant part in the history of the Indian subcontinent as well as nearby countries. In fact, the Indo-Scythian war is just one chapter in the events triggered by the nomadic flight of Central Asians from conflict with tribes such as the Xiongnu in the 2nd century AD, which had lasting effects on Bactria, Kabul, and the Indian subcontinent as well as far-off Rome in the west, and more nearby to the west in Parthia.
Ancient Roman historians including Arrian and Claudius Ptolemy have mentioned that the ancient Sakas ('Sakai') were basically nomads. However, Italo Ronca, in his detailed study of Ptolemy's chapter vi, states: "The land of the Sakai belongs to nomads, they have no towns but dwell in forests and caves" as spurious.
"One group of Indo-European speakers that makes an early appearance on the Xinjiang stage is the Saka (Ch. Sai). Saka is more a generic term than a name for a specific state or ethnic group; Saka tribes were part of a cultural continuum of early nomads across Siberia and the Central Eurasian steppe lands from Xinjiang to the Black Sea. Like the Scythians whom Herodotus describes in book four of his History (Saka is an Iranian word equivalent to the Greek Scythes, and many scholars refer to them together as Saka-Scythian), Sakas were Iranian-speaking horse nomads who deployed chariots in battle, sacrificed horses, and buried their dead in barrows or mound tombs called kurgans."
In the 2nd century BC, a fresh nomadic movement started among the Central Asian tribes, producing lasting effects on the history of Rome in Europe, Parthia in Western Asia, and Bactria, Kabul, and India in the east in Southern Asia. Recorded in the annals of the Han dynasty and other Chinese records, this great tribal movement began after the Yuezhi tribe was defeated by the Xiongnu, fleeing westwards after their defeat and creating a domino effect as they displaced other central Asian tribes in their path.
According to these ancient sources Modu Shanyu of the Xiongnu tribe of Mongolia attacked the Yuezhi (possibly related to the Tocharians who lived in eastern Tarim Basin area) and evicted them from their homeland between the Qilian Shan and Dunhuang around 175 BC. Leaving behind a remnant of their number, most of the population moved westwards into the Ili River area. There, they displaced the Sakas, who migrated south into Ferghana and Sogdiana. According to the Chinese historical chronicles (who call the Sakas, "Sai" ?): "[The Yuezhi] attacked the king of the Sai who moved a considerable distance to the south and the Yuezhi then occupied his lands."
Sometime after 155 BC, the Yuezhi were again defeated by an alliance of the Wusun and the Xiongnu, and were forced to move south, again displacing the Scythians, who migrated south towards Bactria and present Afghanistan, and south-west closer towards Parthia.
The Sakas seem to have entered the territory of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom around 145 BC, where they burnt to the ground the Greek city of Alexandria on the Oxus. The Yuezhi remained in Sogdiana on the northern bank of the Oxus, but they became suzerains of the Sakas in Bactrian territory, as described by the Chinese ambassador Zhang Qian who visited the region around 126 BC.
In Parthia, between 138-124 BC, the Sakas tribes of the Massagetae and Sacaraucae came into conflict with the Parthian Empire, winning several battles, and killing successively King Phraates II and King Artabanus I.
The Parthian king Mithridates II finally retook control of parts of Central Asia, first by defeating the Yuezhi in Sogdiana in 115 BC, and then defeating the Scythians in Parthia and Seistan around 100 BC.
After their defeat, the Yuezhi tribes migrated relatively far to the east into Bactria, which they were to control for several centuries, and from which they later conquered northern India to found the Kushan Empire.
The Sakas settled in Drangiana, an area of Southern Afghanistan, western Pakistan and south Iran, which was then called after them as Sakastan or Sistan. From there, they progressively expanded into present day Iran as well as northern India, where they established various kingdoms, and where they are known as "Saka".
The Arsacid emperor Mithridates II (c. 123-88/87 BCE) had scored many successes against the Scythians and added many provinces to the Parthian Empire, and apparently the Scythian hordes that came from Bactria were also conquered by him. A section of these people moved from Bactria to Lake Helmond in the wake of Yue-chi pressure and settled about Drangiana (Sigal), a region which later came to be called "Sakistana of the Skythian (Scythian) Sakai", towards the end of 1st century BC. The region is still known as Seistan.
The presence of the Sakas in Sakastan in the 1st century BC is mentioned by Isidore of Charax in his "Parthian stations". He explained that they were bordered at that time by Greek cities to the east (Alexandria of the Caucasus and Alexandria of the Arachosians), and the Parthian-controlled territory of Arachosia to the south:
The first Indo-Scythian kingdom in south western Asia was located in Pakistan in the areas from Abiria (Sindh) to Surastrene (Saurashtra, Gujarat), from around 110 to 80 BC. They moved progressively further north into Indo-Greek territory until the conquests of Maues, c. 80 BC.
The 1st century AD Periplus of the Erythraean Sea describes the Scythian territories there:
"Beyond this region (Gedrosia), the continent making a wide curve from the east across the depths of the bays, there follows the coast district of Scythia, which lies above toward the north; the whole marshy; from which flows down the river Sinthus, the greatest of all the rivers that flow into the Erythraean Sea, bringing down an enormous volume of water (...) This river has seven mouths, very shallow and marshy, so that they are not navigable, except the one in the middle; at which by the shore, is the market-town, Barbaricum. Before it there lies a small island, and inland behind it is the metropolis of Scythia, Minnagara."
In the southeast, the Indo-Scythians invaded the area of Ujjain, but were subsequently repelled in 57 BC by the Malwa king Vikramaditya. To commemorate the event Vikramaditya established the Vikrama era, a specific Indian calendar starting in 57 BC. More than a century later, in AD 78, the Sakas would again invade Ujjain and establish the Saka era, marking the beginning of the long-lived Saka Western Satraps kingdom.
The presence of the Scythians in north-western India during the 1st century BCE was contemporary with that of the Indo-Greek Kingdoms there, and it seems they initially recognized the power of the local Greek rulers.
Maues first conquered Gandhara and Taxila around 80 BCE, but his kingdom disintegrated after his death. In the east, the Indian king Vikrama retook Ujjain from the Indo-Scythians, celebrating his victory by the creation of the Vikrama era (starting 58 BCE). Indo-Greek kings again ruled after Maues, and prospered, as indicated by the profusion of coins from Kings Apollodotus II and Hippostratos. Not until Azes I, in 55 BC, did the Indo-Scythians take final control of northwestern India, with his victory over Hippostratos.
Several stone sculptures have been found in the Early Saka layer (Layer No4, corresponding to the period of Azes I, in which numerous coins of the latter were found) in the ruins of Sirkap, during the excavations organized by John Marshall.
Several of them are toilet trays (also called Stone palettes) roughly imitative of earlier, and finer, Hellenistic ones found in the earlier layers. Marshall comments that "we have a praiseworthy effort to copy a Hellenistic original but obviously without the appreciation of form and skill which were necessary for the task". From the same layer, several statuettes in the round are also known, in very rigid and frontal style.
Azes is connected to the Bimaran casket, one of the earliest representations of the Buddha. The casket was used for the dedication of a stupa in Bamiran, near Jalalabad in Afghanistan, and placed inside the stupa with several coins of Azes. This event may have happened during the reign of Azes (60-20 BCE), or slightly later. The Indo-Scythians are otherwise connected with Buddhism (see Mathura lion capital), and it is indeed possible they would have commended the work.
In northern India, the Indo-Scythians conquered the area of Mathura over Indian kings around 60 BCE. Some of their satraps were Hagamasha and Hagana, who were in turn followed by the Saca Great Satrap Rajuvula.
The Mathura lion capital, an Indo-Scythian sandstone capital in crude style, from Mathura in northern India, and dated to the 1st century CE, describes in kharoshthi the gift of a stupa with a relic of the Buddha, by Queen Nadasi Kasa, the wife of the Indo-Scythian ruler of Mathura, Rajuvula. The capital also mentions the genealogy of several Indo-Scythian satraps of Mathura.
The coinage of the period, such as that of Rajuvula, tends to become very crude and barbarized in style. It is also very much debased, the silver content becoming lower and lower, in exchange for a higher proportion of bronze, an alloying technique (billon) suggesting less than wealthy finances.
The Mathura lion capital inscriptions attest that Mathura fell under the control of the Sakas. The inscriptions contain references to Kharahostes and Queen Ayasia, the "chief queen of the Indo-Scythian ruler of Mathura, satrap Rajuvula." Kharahostes was the son of Arta as is attested by his own coins. Arta is stated to be brother of King Moga or Maues.
The Indo-Scythian satraps of Mathura are sometimes called the "Northern Satraps", in opposition to the "Western Satraps" ruling in Gujarat and Malwa. After Rajuvula, several successors are known to have ruled as vassals to the Kushans, such as the "Great Satrap" Kharapallana and the "Satrap" Vanaspara, who are known from an inscription discovered in Sarnath, and dated to the 3rd year of Kanishka (c. AD 130), in which they were paying allegiance to the Kushans.
The text of the Yuga Purana describes an invasion of Pataliputra by the Scythians sometimes during the 1st century BC, after seven great kings had ruled in succession in Saketa following the retreat of the Yavanas. The Yuga Purana explains that the king of the Sakas killed one fourth of the population, before he was himself slain by the Kalinga king Shata and a group of Sabalas (Sabaras or Bhillas).
After the death of Azes, the rule of the Indo-Scythians in northwestern India was shattered with the rise of the Indo-Parthian ruler Gondophares in the last years of the 1st century BC. For the following decades, a number of minor Scythian leaders maintained themselves in local strongholds on the fringes of the loosely assembled Indo-Parthian empire, some of them paying formal allegiance to Gondophares I and his successors.
During the latter part of the 1st century AD, the Indo-Parthian overlordship was gradually replaced with that of the Kushans, one of the five tribes of the Yuezhi who had lived in Bactria for more than a century, and were now expanding into India to create a Kushan Empire. The Kushans ultimately regained northwestern India from around AD 75, and the area of Mathura from around AD 100, where they were to prosper for several centuries.
Indo-Scythians continued to hold the area of Seistan until the reign of Bahram II (AD 276-293), and held several areas of India well into the 1st millennium: Kathiawar and Gujarat were under their rule until the 5th century under the designation of Western Kshatrapas, until they were eventually conquered by the Gupta emperor Chandragupta II (also called Vikramaditya).
Indo-Scythian coinage is generally of a high artistic quality, although it clearly deteriorates towards the disintegration of Indo-Scythian rule around AD 20 (coins of Rajuvula). A fairly high-quality but rather stereotypical coinage would continue in the Western Satraps until the 4th century.
Indo-Scythian coinage is generally quite realistic, artistically somewhere between Indo-Greek and Kushan coinage. It is often suggested Indo-Scythian coinage benefited from the help of Greek celators (Boppearachchi).
Indo-Scythian coins essentially continue the Indo-Greek tradition, by using the Greek language on the obverse and the Kharoshthi language on the reverse. The portrait of the king is never shown however, and is replaced by depictions of the king on horse (and sometimes on camel), or sometimes sitting cross-legged on a cushion. The reverse of their coins typically show Greek divinities.
Buddhist symbolism is present throughout Indo-Scythian coinage. In particular, they adopted the Indo-Greek practice since Menander I of showing divinities forming the vitarka mudra with their right hand (as for the mudra-forming Zeus on the coins of Maues or Azes II), or the presence of the Buddhist lion on the coins of the same two kings, or the triratana symbol on the coins of Zeionises.
Besides coinage, few works of art are known to indisputably represent Indo-Scythians. Indo-Scythian rulers are usually depicted on horseback in armour, but the coins of Azilises show the king in a simple, undecorated, tunic.
Several Gandharan sculptures also show foreigners in soft tunics, sometimes wearing the typical Scythian cap. They stand in contrast to representations of Kushan men, who seem to wear thick, rigid, tunics, and who are generally represented in a much more simplistic manner.
Indo-Scythian soldiers in military attire are sometimes represented in Buddhist friezes in the art of Gandhara (particularly in Buner reliefs). They are depicted in ample tunics with trousers, and have heavy straight swords as weapons. They wear pointed hoods (the Scythian cap or bashlyk), which distinguishes them from the Indo-Parthians who only wore a simple fillet over their bushy hair, and which is also systematically worn by Indo-Scythian rulers on their coins. With the right hand, some of them are forming the Karana mudra against evil spirits. In Gandhara, such friezes were used as decorations on the pedestals of Buddhist stupas. They are contemporary with other friezes representing people in purely Greek attire, hinting at an intermixing of Indo-Scythians (holding military power) and Indo-Greeks (confined, under Indo-Scythian rule, to civilian life).
Another relief is known where the same type of soldiers are playing musical instruments and dancing, activities which are widely represented elsewhere in Gandharan art: Indo-Scythians are typically shown as reveling devotees.
Indo-Scythians pushing along the Greek god Dionysos with Ariadne.
Numerous stone palettes found in Gandhara are considered good representatives of Indo-Scythian art. These palettes combine Greek and Iranian influences, and are often realized in a simple, archaic style. Stone palettes have only been found in archaeological layers corresponding to Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian and Indo-Parthian rule, and are essentially unknown in the preceding Mauryan layers or the succeeding Kushan layers.
Very often these palettes represent people in Greek dress in mythological scenes, a few in Parthian dress (head-bands over bushy hair, crossed-over jacket on a bare chest, jewelry, belt, baggy trousers), and even fewer in Indo-Scythian dress (Phrygian hat, tunic and comparatively straight trousers). A palette found in Sirkap and now in the New Delhi Museum shows a winged Indo-Scythian horseman riding winged deer, and being attacked by a lion.
The Indo-Scythians seem to have been followers of Buddhism, and many of their practices apparently continued those of the Indo-Greeks.
Several Indo-Scythian kings after Azes are known for making Buddhist dedications in their name, on plaques or reliquaries:
Excavations at the Butkara Stupa in Swat by an Italian archaeological team have yielded various Buddhist sculptures thought to belong to the Indo-Scythian period. In particular, an Indo-Corinthian capital representing a Buddhist devotee within foliage has been found which had a reliquary and coins of Azes buried at its base, securely dating the sculpture to around 20 BC. A contemporary pilaster with the image of a Buddhist devotee in Greek dress has also been found at the same spot, again suggesting a mingling of the two populations. Various reliefs at the same location show Indo-Scythians with their characteristic tunics and pointed hoods within a Buddhist context, and side-by-side with reliefs of standing Buddhas.
The Mathura lion capital, which associates many of the Indo-Scythian rulers from Maues to Rajuvula, mentions a dedication of a relic of the Buddha in a stupa. It also bears centrally the Buddhist symbol of the triratana, and is also filled with mentions of the bhagavat Buddha Sakyamuni, and characteristically Buddhist phrases such as:
Butkara doorjamb, with Indo-Scythians dancing and reveling. On the back side is a relief of a standing Buddha
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The country of Scythia in the area of Pakistan, and especially around the mouth of the Indus with its capital at Minnagara (modern day Karachi) is mentioned extensively in Western maps and travel descriptions of the period. The Ptolemy world map, as well as the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea mention prominently, the country of Scythia on the Indus Valley, as well as Roman Tabula Peutingeriana. The Periplus states that Minnagara was the capital of Scythia, and that Parthian Princes from within it were fighting for its control during the 1st century AD. It also distinguishes Scythia with Ariaca further east (centred in Gujarat and Malwa), over which ruled the Western Satrap king Nahapana.
The Indo-Scythians were named "Shaka" in India, an extension on the name Saka used by the Persians to designate Scythians. From the time of the Mahabharata wars (400-150 BC roughly) Shakas receive numerous mentions in texts like the Puranas, the Manusmriti, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Mahabhasiya of Patanjali, the Brhat Samhita of Vraha Mihira, the Kavyamimamsa, the Brihat-Katha-Manjari, the Katha-Saritsagara and several other old texts. They are described as part of an amalgam of other war-like tribes from the northwest.
A section of the Central Asian Scythians (under Sai-Wang) is said to have taken southerly direction and after passing through the Pamirs it entered the Chipin or Kipin after crossing the Hasuna-tu (Hanging Pass) located above the valley of Kanda in Swat country. Chipin has been identified by Pelliot, Bagchi, Raychaudhury and some others with Kashmir while other scholars identify it with Kapisha (Kafirstan). The Sai-Wang had established his kingdom in Kipin. S. Konow interprets the Sai-Wang as Saka Murunda of Indian literature, Murunda being equal to Wang i.e. king, master or lord, but Bagchi who takes the word Wang in the sense of the king of the Scythians but he distinguishes the Sai Sakas from the Murunda Sakas. There are reasons to believe that Sai Scythians were Kamboja Scythians and therefore Sai-Wang belonged to the Scythianised Kambojas (i.e. Parama-Kambojas) of the Transoxiana region and came back to settle among his own stock after being evicted from his ancestral land located in Scythia or Shakadvipa. King Moga or Maues could have belonged to this group of Scythians who had migrated from the Sai country (Central Asia) to Chipin.
The mixed Scythian hordes that migrated to Drangiana and surrounding regions later spread further into north and south-west India via the lower Indus valley. Their migration spread into Sovira, Gujarat, Rajasthan and northern India, including kingdoms in the Indian mainland.
There are important references to the warring Mleccha hordes of the Sakas, Yavanas, Kambojas and Pahlavas in the Bala Kanda of the Valmiki Ramayana. H. C. Raychadhury glimpses in these verses the struggles between the Hindus and the invading hordes of Mlechcha barbarians from the northwest. The time frame for these struggles is the 2nd century BC onwards. Raychadhury fixes the date of the present version of the Valmiki Ramayana around or after the 2nd century AD.
Mahabharata too furnishes a veiled hint about the invasion of the mixed hordes from the northwest. Vanaparava by Mahabharata contains verses in the form of prophecy deploring that "......the Mlechha (barbaric) kings of the Shakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Bahlikas, etc. shall rule the earth (i.e. India) un-righteously in Kaliyuga..."
The Scythian groups that invaded India and set up various kingdoms included, besides the Sakas, other allied tribes, such as the Medii, Xanthii, and Massagetae. These peoples were all absorbed into the community of Kshatriyas of mainstream Indian society.
The Shakas were formerly a people of the trans-Hemodos region--the Shakadvipa of the Puranas or the Scythia of the classical writings. Isidor of Charax (beginning of 1st century AD) attests them in Sakastana (modern Seistan). The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (c. AD 70-80) also attests a Scythian district in lower Indus with Minnagra as its capital. Ptolemy (c. AD 140) also attests to an Indo-Scythia in south-western India which comprised the Patalene and Surastrene (Saurashtra) territories.
Tadeusz Sulimirski notes that the Sacae also invaded parts of Northern India.Weer Rajendra Rishi, an Indian linguist has identified linguistic affinities between Indian and Central Asian languages, which further lends credence to the possibility of historical Sacae influence in Northern India.
The evidence of both the ancient authors and the archaeological remains point to a massive migration of Sacian (Sakas)/Massagetan tribes from the Syr Daria Delta (Central Asia) by the middle of the second century B.C. Some of the Syr Darian tribes; they also invaded North India.
Indo-Scythian kings, territories and chronology
|Northwestern India||Indo-Gangetic Plain||Central India||Southern India|
|Western Gangetic Plain||Northern India
(Central Gangetic Plain)
|Culture||Late Vedic Period||Late Vedic Period
|Late Vedic Period
|6th century BC||Gandhara||Kuru-Panchala||Magadha||Adivasi (tribes)|
|Culture||Persian-Greek influences||"Second Urbanisation"||Pre-history|
|5th century BC||(Persian rule)||Shishunaga dynasty||Adivasi (tribes)|
|4th century BC||(Greek conquests)||Kalinga|
|Culture||Spread of Buddhism||Pre-history||Sangam period
(300 BC - 200 AD)
|3rd century BC||Maurya Empire||Early Cholas
46 other small kingdoms in Ancient Thamizhagam
|Culture||Preclassical Hinduism[c] - "Hindu Synthesis"[d] (ca. 200 BC - 300 AD)[e][f]
Epics - Puranas - Ramayana - Mahabharata - Bhagavad Gita - Brahma Sutras - Smarta Tradition
|2nd century BC||Indo-Greek Kingdom||Shunga Empire||Early Cholas
46 other small kingdoms in Ancient Thamizhagam
|1st century BC|
|1st century AD||Kuninda Kingdom|
|2nd century||Kushan Empire|
|3rd century||Kushano-Sasanian Kingdom||Kushan Empire||Western Satraps||Kamarupa kingdom||Kalabhra dynasty|
|Culture||"Golden Age of Hinduism"(ca. AD 320-650)[g]
Co-existence of Hinduism and Buddhism
|4th century||Kidarites||Gupta Empire||Kalabhra dynasty|
|5th century||Hephthalite Empire||Alchon Huns||Kalabhra dynasty|
|6th century||Nezak Huns||Maitraka||Adivasi (tribes)||Badami Chalukyas|
|Culture||Late-Classical Hinduism (ca. AD 650-1100)[h]
Advaita Vedanta - Tantra
Decline of Buddhism in India
|7th century||Indo-Sassanids||Vakataka dynasty
Empire of Harsha
|Mlechchha dynasty||Adivasi (tribes)||Pandyan Kingdom(Under Kalabhras)|
|8th century||Kabul Shahi||Pala Empire||Pandyan Kingdom|
|9th century||Gurjara-Pratihara||Rashtrakuta dynasty|
|10th century||Ghaznavids||Pala dynasty||Kalyani Chalukyas|