The Sakas, also known as the Indo-Scythians, were a nomadic people of Central Asian origin who migrated into various parts of South Asia, including northwestern India, during ancient times. They established their rule in different regions, and several Sakas dynasties emerged in the Indian subcontinent. Read here to learn more about them.
The Sakas are believed to have originated in the Eurasian steppes, particularly the region around the Black Sea.
They gradually migrated southward and entered the Indian subcontinent, primarily during the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE.
Between 40-80 CE, the Saka’s dominance grew at the cost of the Satavahans, with Nahapana serving as their greatest conquistador.
The Sakas were a group of Indo-European nomads who are believed to have originated in the region of modern-day Kazakhstan and parts of southern Siberia. They were known for their equestrian skills and mastery of the horse-riding culture.
The first Saka king of India was Maues/Moga (1st century BCE) who established Saka power in Gandhara, Indus Valley, and other regions in today’s Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North India.
In the 2nd century BCE, the Sakas began migrating westward. They crossed the Jaxartes River (Syr Darya) and entered regions of Central Asia and the Iranian plateau.
The Sakas came into contact with and sometimes ruled over the Parthian and Seleucid empires in the Middle East.
They established their kingdom, known as the Indo-Scythian kingdom, in areas of modern-day Iran and Afghanistan during the 2nd century BCE.
In India, the Sakas established several dynasties in different regions.
- The Indo-Scythians are believed to have migrated southward into the Indian subcontinent in waves of invasions, possibly driven by factors such as pressure from the Xiongnu in Central Asia or a desire for new territories.
- They established several independent kingdoms in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent. Prominent among these were the Western Satraps, and the Indo-Parthian Kingdom.
Some prominent rulers were:
- Maues (85-60 BCE): Maues is considered one of the earliest Indo-Scythian rulers. He established the Indo-Scythian rule in northwestern India and is often associated with the first coins bearing the name “Azilises” (a local title) in Brahmi script.
- Azilises (60-20 BCE): Azilises succeeded Maues and continued the Indo-Scythian rule in the northwest. His coins feature Greek and Brahmi inscriptions.
- Gondophares (20-50 CE): Gondophares is among the most famous Indo-Parthian rulers. He is believed to have embraced Buddhism and is associated with the famous Taxila copper plate inscription that mentions his support for the religion.
Various rulers succeeded Gondophares, including Abdagases and Orthagnes. Their reigns were marked by interactions with Greek and Indian culture, and they issued coins with both Greek and Brahmi inscriptions.
- Kharahostes (10-45 CE): Kharahostes was another notable Indo-Parthian ruler. He is known for his coinage and inscriptions, including one that mentions the Buddhist deity Sarvāstivādin.
- Hagamasha (50-60 CE): Hagamasha was a successor to Gondophares and continued the Indo-Parthian rule. He issued coins featuring Shiva as the primary deity.
- Vijayamitra (2nd century CE): Vijayamitra is known for his association with the Mathura School of Art and his patronage of Buddhism. His rule saw the flourishing of Buddhist art and culture in the Mathura region.
- Vasudeva I (2nd century CE): Vasudeva I was one of the last Indo-Scythian rulers. He is associated with the beginning of the Kushan Empire’s expansion into the Indian subcontinent.
The Indo-Scythian rule in India gradually declined, primarily due to conflicts with other regional powers, including the Kushans and the Satavahanas. By the 4th century CE, they had largely disappeared from the Indian subcontinent.
The Western Kshatrapas were one of the most significant Saka dynasties in India. They ruled in the western part of India, including present-day Gujarat, Maharashtra, and parts of Rajasthan.
Their rule began around the 1st century CE and continued for several centuries.
The major rulers were:
- Rudradaman I: One of the most famous Western Kshatrapa rulers, he is known for his extensive inscriptions, particularly the Junagadh rock inscription, which provides valuable historical information.
- Nahapana: Another notable Western Kshatrapa ruler, Nahapana is known for his coinage and inscriptions. He played the main role in growing Saka’s dominance at the cost of Satavahans.
- Chastana: He ruled during a period of conflict with the Satavahanas and the expansion of the Kshatrapa.
The Western Kshatrapas maintained a centralized administrative system with a governor (Kshatrapa) ruling the provinces on behalf of the central authority.
- They issued coins, many of which featured the ruler’s likeness, often in a helmet or with a halo, on the obverse side and various symbols on the reverse side.
Some Western Kshatrapa rulers, such as Rudradaman I, were known for their patronage of Buddhism and Jainism. They sponsored the construction of Buddhist stupas and the carving of Jain cave temples.
The Western Kshatrapa dynasty eventually declined due to various factors, including internal conflicts, external invasions, and the rise of other regional powers.
The Gupta Empire, which emerged in the 4th century CE, played a role in the decline of the Western Kshatrapas, as they extended their influence into western India.
- Indo-Scythian rule in the northwestern subcontinent ceased when the last Western Satrap Rudrasimha III was defeated by the Gupta emperor Chandragupta II in 395 CE.
The Northern Satraps ruled over parts of modern-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, and northern India. Their territories included regions such as Gandhara (northwestern Pakistan), Mathura, and Sindh (southern Pakistan).
The Sakas of Northern Satraps were involved in trade along the Silk Road, facilitating cultural exchanges between India, Central Asia, and the Mediterranean.
- This period saw the flourishing of art, especially Gandhara art, which was characterized by the blending of Hellenistic, Indian, and Persian influences.
Important rulers of northern satraps were:
- Rajuvula: He was a Great Satrap (Mahakshatrapa) who ruled in the area of Mathura in northern India in the years around 10 CE, under the authority of the Indo-Scythian king Azilises.
- Sodasa, son of Rajuvula, seems to have replaced his father in Mathura, while Bhadayasa ruled as Basileus in Eastern Punjab.
The Indo-Parthians, another branch of the Sakas, established their rule in northwestern India, particularly in the regions of Gandhara and Mathura. Their rule overlapped with the Indo-Scythians, and they existed from the 1st century BCE to the 3rd century CE.
- The Parthians, known for their skilled cavalry and archery, had established the Parthian Empire in the western part of the Iranian Plateau before extending their influence eastward into parts of present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.
- The Indo-Parthians, led by Gondophares, were among the first Parthian rulers to expand their rule into the northwestern regions of the Indian subcontinent.
The Indo-Parthians had conflicts and alliances with the neighboring Kushan Empire, another significant power in northern India during the same period.
Cultural, art, and Architecture of Sakas
The Sakas dynasties in India were known for their contributions to art and culture. They blended their Central Asian heritage with Indian traditions, resulting in unique artistic styles. They also patronized Buddhism and contributed to the construction of Buddhist stupas and monasteries.
They adopted various aspects of Indian culture, including Buddhism and Hinduism.
- They produced coins with bilingual inscriptions, featuring Greek and Brahmi scripts, which reflect their cultural fusion. Some Indo-Scythian kings also issued coins with Buddhist symbolism.
- Indo-Scythian art is characterized by its unique blend of Greco-Buddhist and Indian styles.
- It often features depictions of deities and scenes from Buddhist narratives. The Gandhara region, in particular, is famous for its Indo-Scythian Buddhist art.
The Northern Satraps were known for their religious tolerance and supported a mix of religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism. Many coins from their era feature deities from different faiths.
- In Mathura, Rajuvula established the famous Mathura lion capital, now in the British Museum, which confirms the presence of Northern Satraps in Mathura.
Sakas played a role in the development of Gandhara architecture, which combined elements of Greek, Roman, and Indian architectural styles. Notable examples include stupas (Buddhist religious monuments) and monastic complexes with Greco-Roman columns and facades.
Decline of the Sakas dynasties
Over time, the Sakas dynasties faced various challenges, including conflicts with other regional powers, such as the Satavahanas and the Gupta Empire. Additionally, internal strife and invasions by other foreign groups contributed to their decline.
The Sakas dynasties left an indelible mark on the history and culture of India. Their artistic and architectural contributions, as well as their role in the spread of Buddhism, are part of India’s historical heritage.
It’s important to note that the history of the Sakas in India is intertwined with the broader history of the subcontinent, marked by a series of dynastic changes and cultural interactions. The Sakas’ presence in India is a testament to the dynamic and diverse history of the region.
-Article by Swathi Satish