The Bactrian Camel And The Indian Bull
A.D. 45 TO A.D. 225
The device of a camel and a bull on the reverse and obverse of a coin
minted by Kadphises, the first Kushan king in India, is, Mr Vincent
Smith remarks, a singularly appropriate symbol for the conquest of
Hindustan by a horde of nomads from Central Asia.
These wanderers, ever pressed from behind, had come far; they had met
and overwhelmed by sheer numbers ma
y hostile tribes. But all this was
prior to their passage into India proper. That took place about the
year B.C. 40, when Hermaios, the last of the Indo-Greek rulers, gave
way to the first Mongolian king.
It is curious to note this transference of power viewed in the light
of our case of coins. First, we find the names of both princes
preserved in the legend, the portrait of the Greek, with his title in
Greek lettering, still adorning the obverse. After a while the legend
changes, the Mongolian's name monopolises it, though the portrait
remains. Again a while, and Hermaios' face disappears in favour of the
features of the Roman Emperor, Augustus; a piece of flattery due to
the growing fame of Rome at its zenith, even in the Far East. So,
after again a little while, the coin shows nothing but that symbol of
conquest, the Bactrian Camel dominating the Indian Bull!
A pause for consideration will show us that this was no ordinary
conquest. The domination of a highly civilised people such as the
Indians were undoubtedly, even in those far ages, by a horde of upland
wanderers, veneered with a culture picked up hastily as they
journeyed, cannot have come about without much disturbance. Yet of
this we have no record. The feet of those million or more of men,
women, children, seem to have overwhelmed even their own noise and
clamour. Still, we know that the final overthrow of the old dynasties
in the Punjab and the Indus valley was deferred until Kadphises I. had
been gathered to his fathers after a reign of forty years, and his
son, Kadphises II., reigned in his stead. As energetic, as ambitious
as his father, he was keen enough to see the advantages of propitiating
that great Western emperor of Rome, whose gold was now pouring into
India in exchange for the latter's silk, gems, dye-stuffs, and spices;
so, after conquering the whole of the North-Western Provinces, he sent
an embassy to Rome in order to acquaint the Emperor Trajan of the fact.
Probably we have here the first political connection between East and
For the rest, was this in truth, not the golden age, but the age of
gold, for in addition to the Roman Aurei, of which numberless
specimens are to be found in our Museums, we have examples of Oriental
gold coins of the same purity and weight, which must have been struck
by the Kushan kings, as these leaders of the wanderers are called.
On the death of the second Kadphises, one Kanishka came to the throne.
This is a name which still has a voice in Indian tradition, and,
beyond India, is still known in the legendary lore of Tibet, Mongolia,
Yet as to who he was, whether he came to the throne by honest
succession, or even as to the date of his reign, we have next to no
Here and there, as we dig at the grave of this dead king, our spade
and mattock turn up a coin, an inscription, perhaps an allusion in
later literature; but the point remains unsettled as to whether
Kanishka reigned in B.C. 57 or A.D. 120. The evidence of coins points
to the latter date. There is a certain quaint four-pronged symbol to
be found in most of the coins struck by Kadphises II., which is found
also in the innumerable coinage of Kanishka; for, whoever he was, he
minted much. Sure sign of a long and prosperous reign.
But there is evidence also which brings home to the enquirer the
mysterious attraction which lingers alike in the search for buried
treasure, and the search for buried history. For, close beside our
traces of Kanishka, of Kadphises, we come upon those of that nameless
King, the Great Saviour, whose unknown personality dominates for the
imaginative the two centuries of time which holds in their grip of
years the birth of Christ. A hundred years before that event, a
hundred years after, this vision of a Great King flits vaguely through
the obscure, making us say: "It cannot be, and yet--suppose it were?"
Good old Vikramaditya! Will the years, as they bring new discoveries,
bring you back from the realms of myth?
Meanwhile, "Soter Megas Basileus Basileon" remains free of the fetters
of fact, and Kanishka, the king, evades them in a fashion that is
"Strangely open to doubt," is the verdict of the historian on almost
everything concerning him.
And yet we know much.
We know that, like Asoka, he was an ardent Buddhist, though of how or
why he adopted this faith we are ignorant. We know that he ruled as
far east as Benares, as far south as the mouths of the Indus, as far
west and north as the Pamirs. His capital was Peshawur; but he had
subdued the old Indian capital of Paliputra. We know, also, that he
was a man of artistic tastes, a student and an admirer of Nature; for
his favourite holiday ground was the valley and hills of Kashmir,
where he erected many great monuments. At Peshawur itself, besides a
monastery whose ruins may still be traced outside the Lahore gate of
the modern town, he raised a great tower to cover some Buddhist
relics. The spire or pinnacle of this was in thirteen stories, made of
beautifully carved wood, and, surmounted by an iron finial, rose 400
feet in height. It is thus described by a Chinese pilgrim who visited
it in the sixth century.
But what best deserves remembrance in connection with Kanishka's name
are the wonderful sculptures which of late years have been discovered
in such quantities in the Hashtnugar district, and elsewhere. They are
known, generically, as the Gandhara sculptures, as they are supposed
to be the output of a distinct school which flourished in the district
of that name. But in conception, style, and execution, they assimulate
closely to the Graeco-Roman school, which at this period of the world's
history was nearly cosmopolitan.
Kanishka is also to be remembered for the Great Buddhist Council he
convened, in imitation, apparently, of Asoka. The story goes that
certain commentaries, being approved by this Council, were ordered to
be engraved on copper, and placed, for security, in a st'hupa or
The site of this has not yet been discovered, the copper plates remain
A find this, perchance, for the coming years! It is something to look
forward to, something which may clear up many points concerning
Kanishka now "strangely open to doubt."
The history of his successors is, likewise, doubtful. We stand,
indeed, on the threshold of one of those curious intervals in Indian
story, when the curtain comes down on the living picture of the stage,
leaving us to wonder what the next act of the drama will be, and when
it will recommence. Still more like, perhaps, is the position of the
spectator to one who, on some mountain top, watches the rolling clouds
sweep through the valleys below him. A stronger breath of wind, a
little rift in the hurrying white vapour, and a glimpse of the life
that goes on and on below the mists comes into view for a moment, and
is gone the next.
So we look back towards the beginning of the third century after
Christ. A glint of sunlight, a passing peep of something recognisable,
obliterated in an instant by the rolling clouds growing more and more
obscure as they deepen and darken.
"Then there were in this land three kings, Hushka, Jushka, and
Kanishka, who built three towns."
So runs the Kashmir chronicle.
It reads like the beginning of a fairy tale, but nothing follows
save a gold coin with the beautifully executed portrait of a
striking-looking man upon it, a man with deep-set eyes and determination
marked upon every feature. Beneath it, the legend of King Huwushka, or
Another glimpse comes to us of one Vasu-deva. Does he in truth belong
to the Mongolian princes, with their strange uncouth names? His is a
purely Indian one, and the coins which bear his name no longer bear
the Bactrian camel. The bull, too, is attendant on the Indian God
Siva, complete with his noose and trident.
Had Buddhism, then, gone by the board? Who can tell. The curtain is
finally rung down about the year A.D. 230 on the confused passing of
the Andhra dynasty in the south, the Kushan dynasty in the north, and
does not rise again, not even for a moment, until a hundred years have
And yet, before this little book is published, the grave may have
given up its dead, and out of a few dry bones, a chance coin, a
half-obliterated inscription, some new personality may have arisen to
live again through those long, empty years.
India is very wide, and she is very secretive. How can it be
otherwise, when beyond reach of the clash and welter of kings, of
courts and conquests, the great mass of the people live untouched by
change, watching their crops, ploughing, sowing, reaping,
"undisturbed" (as Megasthenes pointed out with wonder), "even when
battle is raging in their neighbourhood, by any sense of danger, since
the tillers of the soil are regarded by the Indians as a race sacred,
inviolable." To the world beyond such lives are a secret; they hold
So from behind the curtain the "Song of the Plough" rises in monotonous
chant as, in the same dress, using the same implements as he uses
to-day, the peasant drives his white oxen, and sings:--
"Bitter blue sky with no fleck of a cloud!
Ho! brother-ox drive the plough deep.
Sky-dappled grey like the partridge's breast!
Ho! brother-ox drive the plough straight.
Merry drops slanting from East to West!
Oh! brother-ox drive home the wain.
The gods give poor folk rain."