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"Kaniska" redirects here. For the brush-footed butterfly genus, see Kaniska canace.
Kanishka is also the name of the aircraft on Air India Flight 182, which was blown up in the air over the Atlantic Ocean by a bomb on 23 June 1985.
Kanishka I
Kushan king
Reign Kushan: 78 CE
Coronation Chinese records of Yueh-chi show coronation as 78 AD
Predecessor Vima Kadphises
Successor Huvishka
Full name
Kanishka (I)
Died Circa 151 AD
Religion Buddhism

Kanishka (Kanishka the Great), (Sanskrit: कनिष्क, Bactrian language: Κανηϸκι, Middle Chinese: 迦腻色伽 (Ka-ni-sak-ka > New Chinese: Jianisejia)) was the emperor of the Kushan dynasty in 127–151 famous for his military, political, and spiritual achievements. A descendant of Kushan empire founder Kujula Kadphises, Kanishka came to rule an empire in Bactria extending from Turfan in the Tarim Basin to Pataliputra on the Gangetic plain during the Golden Age of the Kushans. The Capitals of his empire were located at Purushpura (Peshawar in present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, previously part of Afghanistan) with other major capitals at the location of present-day Kapisa, Bagram in Afghanistan and Mathura in India. His conequests and patronage of Buddhism played an important role in the development of the Silk Road and the transmission of Buddhism to China.


Statue of Kanishka I, 1st century, Mathura Museum.

Kanishka was a Kushan of probable Yuezhi ethnicity. He used an Eastern Iranian, Indo-European language known as Bactrian (called "αρια," i. e. "Aryan" in the Rabatak inscription), which appears in Greek script in his inscriptions, though it is not certain what language the Kushans originally spoke; possibly some form of Tocharian – a "centum" Indo-European language. The "Aryan" language of the inscription was a "satem" language of the Middle Iranian period,[1] possibly the one spoken in "Arya" or "Ariana" (the region around modern Herat) and was, therefore, quite possibly unrelated to the original language of the Kushans (or the Yuezhi), but adopted by them to facilitate communication with local people.

Vima Kadphises was Kanishka's father. British Museum.

Kanishka was the successor of Vima Kadphises, as demonstrated by an impressive genealogy of the Kushan kings, known as the Rabatak inscription.[2][3] The connection of Kanishka with other Kushan rulers is described in the Rabatak inscription as Kanishka makes the list of the kings who ruled up to his time: Kujula Kadphises as his great-grandfather, Vima Taktu as his grandfather, Vima Kadphises as his father, and himself Kanishka:

"... for King Kujula Kadphises (his) great grandfather, and for King Vima Taktu (his) grandfather, and for King Vima Kadphises (his) father, and *also for himself, King Kanishka"[4]

A number of legends about Kanishka, a great patron of Buddhism, were preserved in Buddhist religious traditions. He is considered by Buddhists to have been one of the greatest Buddhist kings.

Kanishka's era[edit]

Kanishka's era was used as a calendar reference by the Kushans and later by the Guptas in Mathura for about three centuries. Kanishka's era is now believed by many to have begun in 127 AD on the basis of Harry Falk's ground-breaking research.[5][6] The actual source, however, gives 227 AD as Year One of a Kuṣâṇa century without mentioning Kanishka's name. Since Kuṣâṇa centuries always "drop the hundreds" an incept of 127 AD was deduced by Falk on the basis of Chinese and other sources. This date and reference are disputed by some scholars.

The last chapter of Yavanajataka by Sphujidhwaja deals with mathematics, its 15th verse states : "Take the number of years that have passed of the Kosanas, add 149, and subtract from this (sum) the time of the Sakas (i.e., the year in the Saka era); (the remainder) is the number of years in the (165 year) yuga which have elapsed." Preceding verse states that this yuga started in Shak 66. Putting AD 78 for the start of Shak era, this formula gives 127 AD as the start of Kushan era, which confirms the results obtained by Falk. Sphujidhwaja is believed to belong to the region which was ruled by Kanishka, although Sphujidhwaja must have been born much later than Kanishka. Hence, this evidence is native and more reliable, in contrast to Chinese evidence.

Conquests in South and Central Asia[edit]

Kushan territories (full line) and maximum extent of Kushan dominions under Kanishka (dotted line), according to the Rabatak inscription.[7]

Kanishka's empire was certainly vast. It extended from southern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, north of the Amu Darya (Oxus) in the north west to Pakistan and Northern India, as far as Mathura in the south east (the Rabatak inscription even claims he held Pataliputra and Sri Champa), and his territory also included Kashmir, where there was a town Kanishkapur, named after him not far from the Baramula Pass and which still contains the base of a large stupa.

Bronze coin of Kanishka, found in Khotan, modern China.

Knowledge of his hold over Central Asia is less well established. The Book of the Later Han, Hou Hanshu, states that general Ban Chao fought battles near Khotan with a Kushan army of 70,000 men led by an otherwise unknown Kushan viceroy named Xie (Chinese: 謝) in 90 AD. Though Ban Chao claimed to be victorious, forcing the Kushans to retreat by use of a scorched-earth policy, the region fell to Kushan forces in the early 2nd century.[8] As a result, for a period (until the Chinese regained control c. 127 AD)[9] the territory of the Kushans extended for a short period as far as Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand, which were Chinese dependencies in the Tarim Basin, modern Xinjiang. Several coins of Kanishka have been found in the Tarim Basin.

Controlling both the land (the Silk Road) and sea trade routes between South Asia and Rome seems to have been one of Kanishka's chief imperial goals.

Kanishka's coins[edit]

Gold coin of Kanishka I with the Hellenistic divinity Helios. (c. 120 AD).
Obverse: Kanishka standing, clad in heavy Kushan coat and long boots, flames emanating from shoulders, holding a standard in his left hand, and making a sacrifice over an altar. Greek legend ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΝ ΚΑΝΗϷΚΟΥ "[coin] of Kanishka, king of kings".
Reverse: Standing Helios in Hellenistic style, forming a benediction gesture with the right hand. Legend in Greek script: ΗΛΙΟΣ Helios. Kanishka monogram (tamgha) to the left.

Kanishka's coins portray images of Indian, Greek, Iranian and even Sumero-Elamite divinities, demonstrating the religious syncretism in his beliefs. Kanishka's coins from the beginning of his reign bear legends in Greek language and script and depict Greek divinities. Later coins bear legends in Bactrian, the Iranian language that the Kushans evidently spoke, and Greek divinities were replaced by corresponding Iranian ones. All of Kanishka's coins – even ones with a legend in the Bactrian language – were written in a modified Greek script that had one additional glyph (Ϸ) to represent /š/ (sh), as in the word 'Kushan' and 'Kanishka'.

On his coins, the king is typically depicted as a bearded man in a long coat and trousers gathered at the ankle, with flames emanating from his shoulders. He wears large rounded boots, and is armed with a long sword similar to a scimitar as well as a lance. He is frequently seen to be making a sacrifice on a small altar. The lower half of a lifesize limestone relief of Kanishka similarly attired, with a stiff embroidered surplice beneath his coat and spurs attached to his boots under the light gathered folds of his trousers, survived in the Kabul Museum until it was destroyed by the Taliban.[10]

Hellenistic phase[edit]

A few coins at the beginning of his reign have a legend in the Greek language and script: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΝ ΚΑΝΗϷΚΟΥ, basileus basileon kaneshkou "[coin] of Kanishka, king of kings."
Greek deities, with Greek names are represented on these early coins:

The inscriptions in Greek are full of spelling and syntactical errors.

Iranian/Indic phase[edit]

Kushan Carnelian seal representing the Iranian divinity Adsho (ΑΘϷΟ legend in Greek letters), with triratana symbol left, and Kanishka's dynastic mark right. The divinity uses stirrups.

Following the transition to the Bactrian language on coins, Iranian and Indic divinities replace the Greek ones:

  • ΑΡΔΟΧϷΟ (ardoxsho, Ashi Vanghuhi)
  • ΛΡΟΟΑΣΠΟ (lrooaspo, Drvaspa)
  • ΑΘϷΟ (adsho, Atar)
  • ΦΑΡΡΟ (pharro, personified khwarenah)
  • ΜΑΟ (mao, Mah)
  • ΜΙΘΡΟ, ΜΙΙΡΟ, ΜΙΟΡΟ, ΜΙΥΡΟ (mithro, miiro, mioro, miuro, variants of Mithra)
  • ΜΟΖΔΟΟΑΝΟ (mozdaooano, "Mazda the victorious?")
  • ΝΑΝΑ, ΝΑΝΑΙΑ, ΝΑΝΑϷΑΟ (variants of pan-Asiatic Nana, Sogdian nny, in a Zoroastrian context Aredvi Sura Anahita)
  • ΜΑΝΑΟΒΑΓΟ (manaobago, Vohu Manah )
  • ΟΑΔΟ (oado, Vata)
  • ΟΡΑΛΑΓΝΟ (orlagno, Verethragna)

Only a few Buddhist divinities were used as well:

  • ΒΟΔΔΟ (boddo, Buddha),
  • ϷΑΚΑΜΑΝΟ ΒΟΔΔΟ (shakamano boddho, Shakyamuni Buddha)
  • ΜΕΤΡΑΓΟ ΒΟΔΔΟ (metrago boddo, the bodhisattava Maitreya)

Only a few Hindu divinities were used as well:

Kanishka and Buddhism[edit]

Gold coin of Kanishka I with a representation of the Buddha (c.120 AD).
Obv: Kanishka standing.., clad in heavy Kushan coat and long boots, flames emanating from shoulders, holding standard in his left hand, and making a sacrifice over an altar. Kushan-language legend in Greek script (with the addition of the Kushan Ϸ "sh" letter): ϷΑΟΝΑΝΟϷΑΟ ΚΑΝΗϷΚΙ ΚΟϷΑΝΟ ("Shaonanoshao Kanishki Koshano"): "King of Kings, Kanishka the Kushan".
Rev: Standing Buddha in Hellenistic style, forming the gesture of "no fear" (abhaya mudra) with his right hand, and holding a pleat of his robe in his left hand. Legend in Greek script: ΒΟΔΔΟ "Boddo", for the Buddha. Kanishka monogram (tamgha) to the right.

Kanishka's reputation in Buddhist tradition is based mainly that he convened the 4th Buddhist Council in Kashmir. Images of the Buddha based on 32 physical signs were made during his time.

He provided encouragement to both the Gandhara school of Greco-Buddhist Art and the Mathura school of Hindu art (An inescapable religious syncretism pervades Kushana rule). Kanishka personally seems to have embraced both Buddhism and the Persian cult of Mithra.

His greatest contribution to Buddhist architecture was the Kanishka stupa at Peshawar, Pakistan. Archaeologists who rediscovered the base of it in 1908–1909 ascertained that this stupa had a diameter of 286 feet (87 metres). Reports of Chinese pilgrims such as Xuan Zang indicate that its height was 600 to 700 (Chinese) "feet" (= roughly 180–210 metres or 591–689 ft.) and was covered with jewels.[13] Certainly this immense multi-storied building ranks among the wonders of the ancient world.

Kanishka is said to have been particularly close to the Buddhist scholar Ashvaghosha, who became his religious advisor in his later years. At the time of Kanishka's coronation and when India's first gold coin was minted, Yuz Asaf was the spiritual advisor to the king.

Buddhist coinage[edit]

The Buddhist coins of Kanishka are comparatively rare (well under one percent of all known coins of Kanishka). Several show Kanishka on the obverse and the Buddha standing on the reverse, in Hellenistic style. A few also show the Shakyamuni Buddha and Maitreya. Like all coins of Kanishka, the design is rather rough and proportions tend to be imprecise; the image of the Buddha is often slightly corrupted, with oversize ears and feet spread apart in the same fashion as the Kushan king, indicating clumsy imitation of Hellenistic types.

Three types of Kanishka's Buddhist coins are known:

Standing Buddha[edit]

Bronze standing Buddha with features similar to those of Kanishka's coins. Gandhara, usually dated 3rd–4th century.

The standing Buddha in Hellenistic style, bearing the mention "Boddo" in Greek script, holding the left corner of his cloack in his hand, and forming the abhaya mudra. Only six Kushan coins of the Buddha are known in gold (the sixth one is the centerpiece of an ancient piece of jewellery, consisting of a Kanishka Buddha coin decorated with a ring of heart-shaped ruby stones). All these coins were minted in gold under Kanishka I, and are in two different denominations: a dinar of about 8 gm, roughly similar to a Roman aureus, and a quarter dinar of about 2 gm. (about the size of an obol).

The Buddha is represented wearing the monastic robe, the antaravasaka, the uttarasanga, and the overcoat sanghati.

The ears are extremely large and long, a symbolic exaggeration possibly rendered necessary by the small size of the coins, but otherwise visible in some later Gandharan statues of the Buddha typically dated to the 3rd–4th century CE. He has an abundant topknot covering the usnisha, often highly stylised in a curly or often globular manner, also visible on later Buddha statues of Gandhara.

In general, the representation of the Buddha on these coins is already highly symbolic, and quite distant from the more naturalistic and Hellenistic images seen in early Gandhara sculptures. On several design, a mustache is apparent. The palm of his right hand bears the Chakra mark, and his brow bear the urna. An aureola, formed by one, two or three lines, surrounds him.

"Shakyamuni Buddha"[edit]

Depictions of the "Shakyamuni Buddha" (with legend ϷΑΚΑΜΑΝΟ ΒΟΔΔΟ "Shakamano Boddo") in Kanishka's coinage.

The Shakyamuni Buddha (with the legend "Sakamano Boudo", i.e. Shakamuni Buddha, another name for the historic Buddha Siddharta Gautama), standing to front, with left hand on hip and forming the abhaya mudra with the right hand. All these coins are in copper only, and usually rather worn.

The gown of the Shakyamuni Buddha is quite light compared to that on the coins in the name of Buddha, clearly showing the outline of the body, in a nearly transparent way. These are probably the first two layers of monastic clothing the antaravasaka and the uttarasanga. Also, his gown is folded over the left arm (rather than being held in the left hand as above), a feature only otherwise known in the Bimaran casket and suggestive of a scarf-like uttariya. He has an abundant topknot covering the ushnisha, and a simple or double halo, sometimes radiating, surrounds his head.

"Maitreya Buddha"[edit]

Depictions of "Maitreya" (with legend ΜΕΤΡΑΓΟ ΒΟΔΔΟ "Metrago Boddo") in Kanishka's coinage.

The Bodhisattva Maitreya (with the legend "Metrago Boudo") cross-legged on a throne, holding a water pot, and also forming the Abhaya mudra. These coins are only known in copper and are badly worn. On the clearest coins, Maitreya seems to be wearing the armbands of an Indian prince, a feature often seen on the staruary of Maitreya. The throne is decorated with small columns, suggesting that the coin representation of Maitreya was directly copied from pre-existing statuary with such well-known features.

The qualification of "Buddha" for Maitreya is inaccurate, as he is instead a Bodhisattva (he is the Buddha of the future). This may indicate a limited knowledge of Buddhist cosmology on the part of the Kushans.

The iconography of these three types is very different from that of the other deities depicted in Kanishka's coinage. Whether Kanishka's deities are all shown from the side, the Buddhas only are shown frontally, indicating that they were copied from contemporary frontal representations of the standing and seated Buddhas in statuary.[14] Both representations of the Buddha and Shakyamuni have both shoulders covered by their monastic gown, indicating that the statues used as models were from the Gandhara school of art, rather than Mathura.

Kanishka casket[edit]

Kanishka casket

The "Kanishka casket" or "Kanishka reliquary", dated to the first year of Kanishka's reign in 127 CE, was discovered in a deposit chamber under Kanishka's stupa, during the archaeological excavations in 1908–1909 in Shah-Ji-Ki-Dheri on the outskirts of Peshawar.[15][16] It is today at the Peshawar Museum, and a copy is in the British Museum. It is said to have contained three bone fragments of the Buddha, which are now housed in Mandalay, Burma.

The casket is dedicated in Kharoshthi. The inscription reads:

"(*mahara)jasa kanishkasa kanishka-pure nagare aya gadha-karae deya-dharme sarva-satvana hita-suhartha bhavatu mahasenasa sagharaki dasa agisala nava-karmi ana*kanishkasa vihare mahasenasa sangharame"

The text is signed by the maker, a Greek artist named Agesilas, who oversaw work at Kanishka's stupas (caitya), confirming the direct involvement of Greeks with Buddhist realisations at such a late date: "The servant Agisalaos, the superintendent of works at the vihara of Kanishka in the monastery of Mahasena" ("dasa agisala nava-karmi ana*kaniskasa vihara mahasenasa sangharame").

The lid of the casket shows the Buddha on a lotus pedestal, and worshipped by Brahma and Indra. The edge of the lid is decorated by a frieze of flying geese. The body of the casket represents a Kushan monarch, probably Kanishka in person, with the Iranian sun and moon gods on his side. On the sides are two images of a seated Buddha, worshiped by royal figures. A garland, supported by cherubs goes around the scene in typical Hellenistic style.

The attribution of the casket to Kanishka has been recently disputed, essentially on stylistic ground (for example the ruler shown on the casket is not bearded, to the contrary of Kanishka). Instead, the casket is often attributed to Kanishka's successor Huvishka.

Kanishka in Buddhist tradition[edit]


In Buddhist tradition, Kanishka is often described as a violent, faithless ruler before his conversion to Buddhism, as in the Sri-dharma-pitaka-nidana sutra:

"At this time the King of Ngan-si (Pahlava) was very stupid and of a violent nature….There was a bhikshu (monk) arhat who seeing the evil deeds done by the king wished to make him repent. So by his supernatural force he caused the king to see the torments of hell. The king was terrified and repented." Śri-dharma-piṭaka-nidāna sūtra[17]

Additionally, the arrival of Kanishka was reportedly foretold by the Buddha, as well as the construction of his stupa:

". . . the Buddha, pointing to a small boy making a mud tope….[said] that on that spot Kaṇiṣka would erect a tope by his name." Vinaya sutra[18]
Coin of Kanishka with the Bodhisattva Maitreya "Metrago Boudo".

The same story is repeated in a Khotanese scroll found at Dunhuang, which first described how Kanishka would arrive 400 years after the death of the Buddha. The account also describes how Kanishka came to raise his stupa:

"A desire thus arose in [Kanishka to build a vast stupa]….at that time the four world-regents learnt the mind of the king. So for his sake they took the form of young boys….[and] began a stūpa of mud....the boys said to [Kanishka] ‘We are making the Kaṇiṣka-stūpa.’….At that time the boys changed their form....[and] said to him, ‘Great king, by you according to the Buddha's prophecy is a Saṅghārāma to be built wholly (?) with a large stūpa and hither relics must be invited which the meritorious good beings...will bring."[19]

Chinese pilgrims to India, such as Xuanzang, who travelled there around 630 CE also relays the story:

"Kaṇiṣka became sovereign of all Jambudvīpa (Indian subcontinent) but he did not believe in Karma, and he treated Buddhism with contumely. When he was hunting in the wild country a white hare appeared; the king gave a chase and the hare suddenly disappeared at [the site of the future stupa]….[when the construction of the stūpa was not going as planned] the king now lost patience and threw the [project] up….[but] the king became alarmed, as he [realised] he was evidently contending with supernatural powers, so he confessed his errors and made submission. These two topes are still in existence and were resorted to for cures by people afflicted with diseases."[20]

Transmission of Buddhism to China[edit]

Kanishka's expansion into the Tarim Basin probably initiated the transmission of Buddhism to China.

Buddhist monks from the region of Gandhara played a key role in the development and the transmission of Buddhist ideas in the direction of northern Asia from the middle of the 2nd century CE. The Kushan monk, Lokaksema (c. 178 CE), became the first translators of Mahayana Buddhist scriptures into Chinese and established a translation bureau at the Chinese capital Loyang. Central Asian and East Asian Buddhist monks appear to have maintained strong exchanges for the following centuries.

Kanishka was probably succeeded by Huvishka. How and when this came about is still uncertain. The fact that there were other Kushana kings called Kanishka is just another complicating factor.The inscription on The Sacred Rock of Hunza also shows the signs of Kanishka.

In fiction[edit]

In the manga series, Berserk, the Emperor Ganishka working as Griffith's enemy in Berserk was based on King Kanishka. In the manga, he is also a profound Buddhist and adorned his empire with its respective figures and promoted it vigorously. Like his real-life counterpart, Ganishka also decorates his palace with famous Buddhist figures, but has demonised them to suit his nature. In the story he takes many forms such as an Apostle creature who can control the elements, namely wind and lightning as well as later transforming into a beastly form of himself referred to as "Shiva" by his followers, named after one of the forms of the Hindu God. In this final form he reaches such a heightened sense of euphoria that the denizens of the planet mean little to him as he crushes them with his giant stature in what is perceived by those of the planet as mindless. In his final moments before his defeat at the hands of his enemy, Griffith, he witnesses a bright light and is transformed into a new kingdom for Griffith and his followers.

"Kanishka" is also one of the most popular songs by Argentine rock band Los Brujos, referring to the Kushan King and his wife, released in the album Fin de semana Salvaje (Wild Weekend).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gnoli (2002), pp. 84–90.
  2. ^ Sims-Williams and Cribb (1995/6), pp.75–142.
  3. ^ Sims-Williams (1998), pp. 79–83.
  4. ^ Sims-Williams and Cribb (1995/6), p. 80.
  5. ^ Falk (2001), pp. 121–136.
  6. ^ Falk (2004), pp. 167–176.
  7. ^ "The Rabatak inscription claims that in the year 1 Kanishka I's authority was proclaimed in India, in all the satrapies and in different cities like Koonadeano (Kundina), Ozeno (Ujjain), Kozambo (Kausambi), Zagedo (Saketa), Palabotro (Pataliputra) and Ziri-Tambo (Janjgir-Champa). These cities lay to the east and south of Mathura, up to which locality Wima had already carried his victorious arm. Therefore they must have been captured or subdued by Kanishka I himself." Ancient Indian Inscriptions, S. R. Goyal, p. 93. See also the analysis of Sims-Williams and J. Cribb, who had a central role in the decipherment: "A new Bactrian inscription of Kanishka the Great", in Silk Road Art and Archaeology No. 4, 1995–1996. Also see, Mukherjee, B. N. "The Great Kushanan Testament", Indian Museum Bulletin.
  8. ^ Chavannes, (1906), p. 232 and note 3.
  9. ^ Hill (2009), p. 11.
  10. ^ Wood (2002), illus. p. 39.
  11. ^ Sims-Williams (online) Encyclopedia Iranica.
  12. ^ H. Humbach, 1975, p.402-408. K. Tanabe, 1997, p.277, M. Carter, 1995, p. 152. J. Cribb, 1997, p. 40. References cited in De l'Indus à l'Oxus.
  13. ^ Dobbins (1971).
  14. ^ The Crossroads of Asia, p. 201. (Full[citation needed] here.)
  15. ^ Hargreaves (1910–11), pp. 25–32.
  16. ^ Spooner, (1908–9), pp. 38–59.
  17. ^ Kumar (1973), p. 95.
  18. ^ Kumar (1973), p. 91.
  19. ^ Kumar (1973). p. 89.
  20. ^ Xuanzang, quoted in: Kumar (1973), p. 93.


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External links[edit]

Preceded by:
Vima Kadphises
Kushan Ruler Succeeded by: