- This is about the historical calendar era. For the "Śaka calendar" of 1957, see Indian national calendar.
The origin of the Shaka era is highly controversial. In ancient Sanskrit literature, the word "Shaka" refers to foreigners who invaded and ruled north-western India. One theory is that the era was started by a Shaka ruler; later legends state that it was started by an Indian king to mark the defeat of the Shakas.
The beginning of the Shaka era is now widely equated to the ascension of the Shaka Western Satrap ruler Chashtana in 78 CE. His inscriptions, dated to the years 11 and 52, have been found at Andhau in Kutch region. These years are interpreted as Shaka years 11 (89 CE) and 52 (130 CE).
A previously more common view was that the beginning of the Shaka era corresponds to the ascension of Kanishka I in 78 CE. However, the latest research by Henry Falk indicates that Kanishka ascended the throne in 127 CE. Moreover, Kanishka was not a Shaka, but a Kushana ruler. Other historical candidates have included rulers such as Vima Kadphises, Vonones and Nahapana.
During medieval period, Indians created legends to whitewash the foreign association of the name "Shaka". One such legend stated that the era marked the defeat of the Shakas by the legendary emperor Shalivahana. According to Dineshchandra Sircar, this historically inaccurate notion of the "Shalivahana era" appears to based on the victory of the Satavahana ruler Gautamiputra Satakarni over some Shaka (Western Kshatrapa) kings. Sircar also suggests that the association of the northern king Vikramaditya with Vikrama era (also historically inaccurate) might have led the southern scholars to fabricate a similar legend of their own. Another similar account claims that the legendary emperor Vikramaditya defeated the Shakas in 78 CE, and the Shaka era marks the day of this conquest. This legend has been mentioned in the writings of Brahmagupta (7th century CE), Al-Biruni (973-1048 CE) and others. However, this is an obvious fabrication. Over time, the word "Shaka" became generic, and came to be mean "an era"; the era thus came to be known as "Shalivahana Shaka".
Some of the early use of the calendar are, the Western Satraps, the Shaka (Indo-Scythian) rulers of Ujjain, from the reign of Rudrasimha I (178–197) recorded the date of minting of their coins in the Shaka era, usually written on the obverse behind the king's head in Brahmi numerals. This is a rather uncommon case in Indian numismatics. Some, such as the numismat R.C. Senior considered that these dates might correspond to the Azes era instead.
The use of the calendar era survived into the Gupta period and became part of Hindu tradition following the decline of Buddhism in India. It was in widespread use by the 6th to 7th centuries, e.g. in the works of Varāhamihira and Brahmagupta, and by the 7th century also appears in epigraphy in Hindu Southeast Asia.
The calendar era remained in use in India and Southeast Asia throughout the medieval period, the main alternative era in traditional Hindu timekeeping being the Vikram Samvat era (56 BC). It was used by Javanese courts until 1633, when it was replaced by Anno Javanico, a hybrid Javanese-Islamic system. It was adopted as the era of the Indian national calendar (also known as "Śaka calendar") in 1957. The Shaka era also remains in use in Java and Bali, Indonesia.
The Shaka era is the vernal equinox of the year AD 78. The year of the modern Shaka Calendar is tied to the Gregorian date of 22 March every year, except in Gregorian leap years when it starts on 23 March.
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- Ricklefs (1993), pages 5 and 46.