top of page
  • Writer's pictureAnirudh Kanisetti

2. Buddha Goes to Afghanistan (20 mins)

Sometimes, the most beautiful art is paid for by the most brutal of conquerors. This is the story of how ancient India's most remarkably globalised art was born.

In this episode, the tale of Gandhara continues to unfold as the Indo-Greeks are uprooted by Central Asian nomads fleeing from a terrible foe. But their art stays behind, and meets a mighty new force: Buddhism, rapidly entering its heyday in the North-West of India as the great economic webs of the Silk Roads are born.

The second episode of Echoes of India continues the complex saga of ancient Indian history - hear the drums of weed-smoking conquerors, the boasts of multi-ethnic princes, and a Jain fable, as Buddhism spreads from India into Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Transcript and sources below.

Voice Credits (In Order of Appearance)

Queen Nadasi Kasa - Manasa Venkataraman

Kalakacharya's Story, Old Gandharan - Madhav Chandavarkar

Prince Indravarma - Ram Ganesh Kamatham

Script Editing - Pranav RS



Nadasi Kasa, the first queen of the Mahacchatrapa Raajula, the daughter of Yasi Kamudha, the mother of Yuvaraja Kharaosta, with the crowd of the women of the palace, has deposited in this spot of the earth, in a Stupa, a relic of the divine Shaakyamuni Buddha. It will allow eternal welfare and liberation. This stupa and this monastery are gifted to the community of Sarvaastivaada monks that belong to the four quarters of the world.

In the British museum is a red sandstone Lion Capital that sits alone, half a world away from Mathura, where it was carved 2000 years ago, in the first century CE. The workmanship is a far cry from the refined, polished carving that Indians generally associate with Lion Capitals, like the Mauryan one that is the emblem of the modern Republic of India. But it has a charm of its own. The lions on it have strangely human faces, and they must have stuck their tongues out quite rudely at whatever British archaeologist decided to ship it to London for safekeeping.

But there's more that sets this pillar apart. It is covered in the Kharosthi script of the North-Western part of the subcontinent, a script that Ashoka used to speak to his subjects in Afghanistan, a script used by the Indo-Greeks who ruled over Gandhara. Why was it being used in Mathura? For that matter, what is a maha-cchatrapa? It's not the same as a maha-raja. And what strange names are carved on it - Nadasi Kasa, Raajula, Kharaosta. Those don't like your usual Indian names like Aparajitavarman or Gautami.

The lions are too busy irritating visitors at the British museum to help solve the mystery. So let me tell you the stories of the nomadic horse-lords who defeated the Indo-Greeks and expanded all over Western India, ruling over territory from eastern Iran to Mathura in the Gangetic Plains, from Gandhara in Pakistan to Gujarat. And let me tell you how these so-called barbarians, and their patronage of Buddhism, led to the genesis of one of the most sublime art forms that the world has ever seen.

I'm Anirudh Kanisetti, and welcome to Echoes.

We're sitting around a campfire in the lush grasslands of Punjab, in late October, close to the turn of the first millennium BCE. Close by, someone is throwing handfuls of grass into the flames. They spit and crackle. Clouds of dense white smoke billow out, melding with the early morning mist. Wait.. That's not grass. That's cannabis.

But we're not the only ones getting blazed. As we look around, we see dozens, no, hundreds of campfires. At some, male warriors swig fermented mare's milk and thump on drums, creating a steady, hypnotic beat. At others, female warriors also swig alcohol and inhale lungfuls of smoke, singing and roaring in delight. Groups of fighters sway as shamans chant. Horses neigh and the pungent odour of their dung suffuses the army camp. Some wealthier warriors pass around golden implements that can be best described as bongs. It's a striking accessory that suits the glittering scales of their armour, looted perhaps by their fathers during great sackings of the Indo-Greek cities of northern Afghanistan.

The sun climbs higher and higher. In the distance, we see a silent force of Indo-Greeks, arrayed in neat, orderly lines. Their faces are pinched but confident. They've been observing this vast camp of horsemen for days, and they have the numerical advantage. It was not so long ago that their king expelled the horsemen, the Shakas, from their great city of Taxila. He only did that with the help of another nomadic tribe, but in the years since, he has strengthened his power by raising fresh, enthusiastic raw recruits to defend his territory from these barbarians. The new Shaka King thinks he can change that. The Indo-Greek King is here to show him the error of their ways.

The sun climbs higher and higher. Soon, the Indo-Greeks are broiling in their heavy armour, whereas the Shakas continue in their haze of drugs and alcohol, apparently least interested in politics and battles.

Then a deep horn blares. Once. Twice. Thrice.

In minutes, the roaring, entranced Shakas are on their horses, singing strange, violent songs of war. In a few more minutes, to the frantic beating of drums and blowing of horns, they're within range of the Indo-Greeks.

It is high afternoon. The Greeks are angry, and thirsty for blood. The King gives an impatient order, which is passed down the lines in Greek and Pali. The army is to advance until they make contact and can slaughter the fools. The Shakas retreat and they retreat. The Indo-Greek army passes by a little hillock to their left. Almost in range, now…

Suddenly, drums break out. A force of Shaka shock cavalry, heavily armoured and bearing wicked lances, appears from behind the hillock and attacks the Greeks. The Greek king orders the main force of his army to continue and engage the rest Shakas while he deals with the flankers. At no cost should the lines break. But his raw, untrained army is too impatient: they want to get their hands on the Shakas now. Some men break ranks and charge. Soon, emboldened, they are joined by their squads, running furiously, and, they think, gloriously, at their retreating enemies.

And then, the Shakas attack. Gaps have opened in the Indo-Greek lines, and that is enough for the berserk, bloodthirsty, boozy warriors. The Greek army is sown in half by mighty wedges of screaming cavalry formations, piercing them like the trident of an angry god. The Greek cavalry tries to chase them off, and each time they try, the Shakas flee, turn around on horseback while fleeing, and shoot back, killing dozens. The drumbeats grow louder and louder, as do the screams of dying and fleeing Indo-Greeks. The King is pulled off his horse and beheaded; alchohol is thrown up as offerings to the spirits of the sky, and poured into the blood-drenched ground.

This is the last that the Indian subcontinent will see of the Indo-Greeks. They’ve had a good run - about 300 years. But now a new era is dawning, the Shaka Era. And though the sun of the Shakas will set four hundred years later and they, too, will merge into the vast oceans of people of the subcontinent, the Shaka Era, which they founded, will be used for thousands of years, and is in fact still used by the Republic of India in its official documents, though perhaps in a less bloody context.

It's easy to assume that the Shakas, lovers of booze, drugs and war, are the stereotypical horse-riding savages. But the real picture is much more complex. No doubt they got a lot of bad press from their more settled and literate neighbours, especially in times of conflict, but the Shakas soon settled down and ended up defending their own territory from other nomads and pre-existing states in the subcontinent! From this point the Scythians or Shakas would be known as the Indo-Scythians. But Indian sources continue to call them Shakas, and since I am an Indian nerd, so will I.

But where did the Shakas come from, and how'd they end up in India, of all places? In the last episode of this podcast, I mentioned that the Han Dynasty of China had displaced its nomadic neighbours, who moved West in a sort of domino effect. One such domino, that reached India after years of conflict and evolution in Central Asia, were the Shakas. When they arrived in northern Afghanistan, one of the core areas of the Indo-Greeks, they seem to have agreed to serve as mercenaries or vassals. However, the Indo-Greeks were never a very unified bunch, and the Shakas must have sensed an opportunity sooner or later. Some cities in Bactria were sacked, but the Shakas weren't allowed to rest, for more and more tribes were on the way and pushed them out. The Shakas entered Afghanistan but the Indo-Greeks in Kabul pushed them out from there too, sending them west. They finally found a resting-spot in Persia, where they settled down in a region which was very creatively named Shakastan, a name that still survives as "Seistan" today. From there, it was a hop, skip and jump into the Indus River Valley, where they met more waves of Shaka migrants who had crossed the Hindu Kush and continued their wars with the Indo-Greeks in Gandhara. The scales swung for a while, but eventually the Shakas won, as the hypothetical battle above shows.

Of course, the Indians weren't just sitting around meditating while all this happened. A Jain manuscript, the Kalakacharya-kathanaka, has an interesting story to relate on this matter.

Gardabhilla, king of Ujjayini, abducted a beautiful nun who was the sister of Kalakaacharya, a celebrated Jain teacher. Kalakaacharya went to Shakastan and requested the king of the Shakas for help. Unfortunately, the Shaka king was terrified of Gardabhilla, who was protected by a demoness, whose magical voice stopped all his foes. But Kalaka convinced the king to raise an army and cross the Indus anyway. As they approached the city, the demoness opened her mouth to cast a spell on the Shakas, but Kalaka ordered the Shakas to fire their arrows into her mouth, filling it up and rendering her mute. Gardabhilla was overthrown and Kalaka's sister saved. Thus the Shakas came to Saurashtra and Malwa.

This is obviously a legend, but it tells us something very interesting about how "Indians" - and I use the term in the broadest sense to refer to residents of the subcontinent, not as a nationality - saw these supposedly "foreign" invaders. As the Mathurans and Pancalans had allied with the Indo-Greeks to attack the Shungas, so too, it seems, did other actors, religious and political, ally with new actors to achieve their own goals.

In a strange sort of karma, though, it was the rulers of Mathura who ended up losing out to invaders - the Shakas, once they had polished off the Indo-Greeks in Gandhara, turned their attention to Mathura in the Gangetic Plains. Whether they did so by invitation from other powers or just because they liked conquering, as everyone else did, isn't clear. What is clear, though, is that soon there was a Shaka who called himself the King of Kings in Gandhara, and many lesser Shaka and Indian rulers who derived their authority from him and called themselves either kings or satraps, meaning governors. Some particularly important satraps declared themselves Great Satraps, or Mahakshatrapas.

Here's an example from a reliquary commissioned by an Indian prince from Bajaur, just north-west Gandhara:

"In the year 63 of the late King of Kings Aya, on the sixteenth day of the month of Kartia, at this auspicious time, Prince Indravarma establishes these body relics of Lord Shakyamuni in a secure, deep, unestablished place, he produces brahma-merit along with his mother Rukhunakha, along with his uncles, his sister, and his wives Vaasavadatta, Mahaaveda, Nika, and Uttara. This is done in honour of his father, Vishnuvarma, king of Apraaca."

The Indravarma Reliquary, which at one point would have been held by the people mentioned in this episode.

This tells us a great deal about just how new entrants to subcontinental politics and religions behaved. First, this pattern is quite similar to the Lion Capital that we began the episode with - that one just featured a Maha-kshatrapa or Great Satrap instead of a Raja or King. Second, Indravarma and his father Vishnuvarma seem to be of Indian descent, but his mother Rukhunakha seems to be a Shaka, and he seems to owe his loyalty to the Shaka king Aya, or Azes. His wives seem also to be Indians, except for Nika, who may be an Indo-Greek. The Gandharan, and maybe the subcontinental elites, were shockingly diverse - the soldiers were fighting, but the nobles were marrying, just as in medieval Europe. Third, it tells us a great deal more about how Buddhism came to spread throughout India. In previous episodes, I've mentioned Ashoka's patronage and the convincing debates put forth by Buddhists. This vast, thriving, subcontinental Buddhism was very different from the simple religion conceived by the Buddha - a man who, despite his unquestioned brilliance, had little ambitions of spreading his teaching over such a wide area, because if he did, he'd have travelled further than just the Eastern Gangetic plains. So how did it evolve into a form of a popular religion beloved by Magadhans and Gandharans, commoners and kings, alike?

Consider what Prince Indravarma and Queen Nadasi have been telling us. There's a spin here. Yes, they are establishing stupas and the like for the community to worship at. Sure, there's a political objective to be achieved. But there's also a spiritual one. Indravarman says that he's producing Brahma Merit - he is convinced that by making the relics of Buddha more accessible to the masses, by building a stupa and spreading Buddhist worship into areas where it was not before, he is building up good karma of sorts, that will ensure that he is reborn in a Brahma world, where according to the Buddhist mythology of the day, he will live lifetimes so long that each day lasts for a kalpa, 4,320 million years. Which genius or geniuses created a set of rules that tied together devotion and politics is unknown. It may have been Ashoka Maurya, it may have been a forgotten Buddhist monk or an ancient Indian public relations expert, but it was ideal for generating incentives for subcontinental elites to spread the religion. The same game theoretic logic, we will see, emerges in the classical Hinduism espoused by the Guptas later.

If a Gandharan Buddhist were around they would probably shake a finger at me and say,

"Now, now, young man, everyone knows that Lord Buddha tamed the evil naga Apalaala, who used to cause the Swat Valley to flood. I don't see the river flooding anymore. What do you have to say to that, you impudent rascal?"

I say, respected sir, I give the credit to the Buddhist Sangha and their attempts to convince kings to follow the principles of the Buddhist dhamma and build canals and embankments to make their subjects' lives easier, though of course the Sangha also profited by spreading and gaining more donations through the deal. Technically, Buddha founded the Sangha so I'm not disagreeing with you. More importantly, I find it very interesting to see how you developed a stand-alone, local Buddhist mythology that suits the geography and culture of your land, just as the Irish made up a story of St Patrick expelling snakes from Ireland and converting it to Christianity.

To which the Gandharan Buddhist would have no reply, since they are all dead and none of them are left.

You may be wondering why on earth I'm harping on and on about how Buddhism came to Gandhara. Get to the point, I hear you say, drumming your fingers on your steering wheel. Well, this is the point: Gandharan Buddhism, not just as a religion but as a culture, was one of the most extraordinary contributions that early India made to the world. But to understand that, it is time to dive from religion back into politics!

The unfortunate Shakas had barely any breathing space after settling into Gandhara, because they were soon attacked by another tribe: the Pahlavas, or Indo-Parthians. The Parthians were a nomadic tribe who had conquered Persia from the successors of Alexander the Great, and were constantly messing with the Indo-Greeks, keeping them cut off from the emerging Greco-Roman Mediterranean world. Now that the Indo-Greeks weren't around, they started to mess with the Indo-Scythians instead. Luckily for us and for posterity, the Indo-Parthians got along wonderfully with the Perso-Parthians, so when they took Gandhara, it was once more connected to the vast, globe-spanning Silk Roads, from China to India to Persia to Rome, that were emerging. And the Indo-Parthians, like other Indo-whatevers, were very accepting of their subjects' cultures, and so went out of their way to patronise Greek culture, Indian culture, their own culture, Shaka culture, and so on.

They had the money, they had the policy, now all that was needed was a cause. And in the first century CE, the cause came. An earthquake shattered most of the Gandharan city of Taxila, the most important city in the Northwest. Now it was time for a wave of new innovation and creativity to pour in: the Gandhara school of art, in its most sublime and mature sense, was born. And the consequences of that, shall echo through any work of Indian, Central Asian, Chinese, or Japanese art that you see today. But I'll get to that when I get to that.


Notes and Sources:

  1. Whether the Shaka era was actually founded by the Shakas or the Kushanas remains a matter of much debate. Some scholars say that the Shakas actually founded the Vikrama Era, while some say the Kushanas founded the Shaka era, and others say that the Vikrama Era was founded to commemorate the defeat of the Shakas. All of these dates fall within a century of each other. I follow Chakrabarti (2016) and Falk (2001,2012) in ascribing a later date to the Kushanas and thus assuming that the Shakas began the era in 78CE.

  2. The majority of the content was developed from Volume II of the UNESCO History of Civilizations of Central Asia, available at

  3. Some interesting reads on the Scythian, warriors of both genders, and their love for weed can be found at

  4. A great deal of useful information on Gandharan Buddhism, particularly the Bajaur reliquary of Prince Indravarman, was found in Behrendt, Kurt (2007), The Art of Gandhara in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Available at

  5. The Met was also the source of the image for this episode, a depiction of the Dipankara Jataka which will be explained in detail in a later episode.

  6. Finally, a fascinating set of translations of Buddhist Gandharan literature (including the legend of Buddha and Apalala) can be found in Richard Salomon. Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhara: An Introduction with Selected Translations. Simon and Schuster, 2018.



Home: Blog2
  • facebook
  • twitter
  • linkedin
Home: GetSubscribers_Widget
bottom of page