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Kushan Period [130B.C. - A.D. 185]

The Kushans established their empire in the first century AD...

Author: Roshen Alkazi

Last Updated On: 8/31/2010


History and Social Life
kushan empire mapThe Kushans established their empire in the first century AD and were contemporaneous with the Satavahana (Andhra) and western Satraps (Sakas) kingdoms during part of the second century AD.

Unlike the politician stability of the Mauryan empire, this period was marked by continuous changes in the boundaries of power and immense cultural and linguistic differences. The only cohesive factor was trade, which has been initiated in the Mauryan Period, as a stable government ensured communication between various parts of the empire and encouraged active internal trade. Contact was established with many parts of western Asia and the Mediterranean by means of envoys. This naturally helped foreign trade, and the influx of foreigners, Kushans, Sakas, and Indo-Greeks, gave even more impetus to trade relations with these areas.

There are two completely distinct styles in Kushan art. Gandhara, in the northern part of the empire, was built by craftsmen from eastern Rome who were employed by patrons of Buddhism. These craftsmen brought with them the Graeco-Roman style, particularly in the drapery of the sculpture, so that the Buddhists represented there were dressed in the classical Greek and Roman garments, the chiton, rimation, stola, tunica, chlamys, etc.

The second style in Kushan art was that which arose in Mathura, the southern capital of the empire. This style was a direct continuation of the native Indian schools of Bharut and Sanchi. But a clearer picture of the actual Kushan costume is seen in the sculpture at Surkh Kotal in Afganistan, the influence on style there being Parthian (eastern Iranian). The Parthians themselves were of scythic stock like the Kushans, and their costume is much the same and resembles closely the portrait of Kanishka, the great Kushan king, found at Mathura. The latter wears, in addition to his tunic and trousers, a fur-lined coat or pustin which is also seen at Surkh Kotal.

As mentioned earlier, there was no uniformity in this period and the dress of the people too varied with each region. The ordinary dress consisted as usual of an antariya, uttariya and kayabandh, with a turban for men. With the advent of the Kushans this was extended, and the fashion of wearing sewn garments of central Asiatic pattern seems to have made headway with all classes of Indians in north India. The cut-and –sewn garments, which are rarely visible in the sculptures of the previous periods, are more commonly found in this period.

Kushan costumes may be divided into five types: the costume worn by (I) indigenous people-the antariya, uttariya, and kayabandh, (ii) guardians and attendants of the harem-usually the indigenous and sewn kancuka, red-brown in color, (iii) foreign Kushan rulers and their entourage, and (iv) other foreigners such as grooms, traders, etc. There are fifth category- a mixture of foreign and indigenous garments. This last category is of great interest as it shows how clothes changed and evolved, how some of the purely draped garments of the Indians were replaced by cut-and –sewn garments, especially in north and north-west where influences were felt more keenly, and where climatically sewn garments were more suitable.

The Kushan (Indo-scythian) dress had evolved from a nomad culture based on the use of the horse. It is seen at Mathura, Taxila, Begram, and Surkh Kotal in Afghanistan. The dress was worn by most of Scythian and Iranian races and resembled particularly that of the Parthians. It consisted of a ruched long-sleeves tunic with a slit for the neck opening, simple or elaborately decorated. The close-fitting knee-length tunic was sometimes made of leather, and with it could be worn a short cloak or a calf-length woolen coat or caftan, worn loose or crossed over from right to left and secured by a belt of leather or metal. Besides these two upper garments, occasionally a third garment the chugha was used. The chugha was coat-like and decorated with a border down the chest and hemline, and had slits to facilitate movement. The trousers could be of linen, silk or muslin in summer but were woolen or quilted in winter. These loose or close-fitting trousers, chalana, were tucked into soft padded boots with leather trappings, khapusa. Along with this was worn the scythian pointed cap of felt, bashylk, or peaked helmet or head band with two long ends tied at the back.

Although, the clothes were simple, they were often adorned with stamped gold or metal plates, square, rectangular, circular, or triangular sewn in lines or at the central seams of the tunic. Their purpose was not only decorative but functional as well, as they helped lift the tunic in the middle for riding, by gathering the cloth along the seams. This helped to give the distinctive draped effect with four sharp pointed ends at the hemline. The drape of trousers too was held in place by means of these gold or metal plates stitched down the centre front. It is interesting to note that elaborate embroidered panels later replaced these gold or metal plates. An earlier version was used by the Saka warriors, where the tunic was simply picked up and tucked into the belt on two sides at centre front, to free the spread of knees when riding a horse.

Clothes for women were varied. At Gandhara there are figures wearing a sari-like garment which seems to have evolved from palmyrene (Graeco-Roman) or pure Roman dress. This is the palla (draped – over garment worn over a long gown with ruched sleeves, which was typical of the Roman matron) pinned at the left shoulder. The difference in some of the Gandhara female figures is that they wear, in addition, an antariya, which is extended in length. This long antariya is worn in the kachcha style but one end continues over the left shoulder and is broached there like the palla.

The total ensemble looks very much like the Deccani sari of today. The long ruched sleeves are visible underneath and could be shortened version of Roman long gown (stola) worn as covering for the breasts. In addition, the typical Indian uttariya is worn across the back and over both arms, and Indian jewellery completes the ensemble. The wearing of an uttariya with the sari is still seen in the fisher-folk of Maharashtra.

These Gandhara figures are some of the most intriguing sculptures of the Kushan period, and may well show the beginning of the sari and one of the earlier attempts to create a garment to cover the breasts. This would fall under the category of a mixture of foreign and indigenous garments. In yet another female figure we find a Persian-influenced knee or mid-thigh length tunic, stanamsuka, worn with the antariya. The latter is not passed between the legs as the kachcha style, but is worn crossed-over in the lehnga style. Simple stitched skirts, ghagri, with a side seam and nada or string to hold them up at the waist are also seen. They are gathered in folds from lengths about 6-8 feet, and have a decorative border at the hem and at the centre front seam. The tunic, stanamsuka, is form-fitting with long sleeves, a simple round neckline, and flaring at the hemline. Besides the above mentioned, the lehnga style antariya and uttariya is sometimes worn. But very little in the way of elaborate jewellery is used.

There are also some figures of women wearing close fitting ruched trousers with a long-sleeved jacket and an uttariya. In the earlier period, trousers were worn by Greek and Persian women. It is said the Amazons wearing trousers formed the royal guards of the king. These females guards adapted their own phygian costume to a tight mid-thigh length jacket with crossover at the neck and a gathered or pleated skirt worn with the antariya, along with a crossed vaikaksha with metal buckle shield and sword. Servants and dancers from many parts of the world were brought into the country from a very early period in Indian history. The pravara or chaddar, a large shawl, continued to be worn by both sexes as protection against the cold and it was known to have been perfumed with bakul, jasmine and other scents. The purely indigenous antariya, uttariys and kayabandh continued to be the main costumes of Indians with slight modifications. The kayabandh became a more loosely worn informal piece of attire, and was a wide twisted sash used mainly by women in many delightful ways to enhance the suppleness of the waist.

Headgear and Hairstyles : Women
The wearing of the uttariya on the head seems to have almost disappeared in this period and most of the women in indigenous costume are seen bare-headed. They wear their hair in a tuft at the forehead, which covers the line of parting. This tuft is in the form of a ball or disc; the rest of the hair is drawn back, folded in and held with a brooch at the nape or worn in chignon which protrudes at right angle to the neck or almost vertically upwards. Sometimes a bow of cloth is placed saucily on top of the head, and sometimes a ‘relic’ or box containing scented sandal or some other perfume paste is secured to the bun by a ribbon. At other times, a band of diadem, or twisted cord or scarf is tied around the head and over the bun.

Ratnavali, a jewelled net, and brooches and decorative hairpins continued to be worn. Turbans wound around the foreign pointed scythic cap made of striped fabrics and decorated with rows of pearls or a diadem were frequently used. A sprig of the mimosa tree tucked into the turban was said to give protection against the evil eye. If one from the asoka tree was worn, it was said to symbolize love. There is little evidence of long hair being worn loose, but when arranged it was usually in one or two plaits, sometimes joined at the tips at the back, or hanging to one side. The commoner would probably wear hers in a simple knot at the nape as is worn today.

Flowers were used to decorate the hair and chaplets of leaves are frequently seen around the high topknot of hair, especially in northwestern India. The chaplet of leaves, made of nard leaves on fabric, or else of silk of many colors and steeped in unguents, was even exported to Rome. But srajas or flower garlands were the most popular and could be of many kinds, worn at the waist, neck, or in the hair. They were sometimes supported by munja grass, reeds or cotton-plant stalks. Apart from flowers, peacock feathers, horn and bone ornaments, shells, leaves, and fruit and berries were woven together to form decorative ornaments.

Headgear and Hairstyles : Men
Men continued to wear the turban, now called mauli, as in the Mauryan-Sunga period. However, a simpler line of twisted rolls of the fabric itself is more in evidence with hardly any of the complications of intertwining the hair with the turban cloth. The knob at the centre or side of the head, around which the turban was wound to form a large protuberance, slowly disappeared. When bareheaded, the hair was worn in a topknot or in the shape of a bow, often softened by curls on the forehead or at the nape especially in the northwest. Fillets or bands tied on the forehead were common. Young men had begun to cut their hair short and adopted a short-skirted tunic with their antariya. The Scythian pointed cap was frequently used as was the crown or mukuta. The common man moved around bare-headed or used his kayabandh or uttariya to form a casual turban on the head against the sun in almost the same way as is seen today in India.

In relation to the Mauryan-Sunga period, we noticed a tendency towards greater refinement and simplicity in this period. Gold was much in use and was called hiranya and suvarana, silver was known as rupya, and copper as tamra, and these continued to be for making jewellery. Gold and silver were often encrusted with ratna or jewels. These included carnelians’s, agates, lapis lazuli, amethysts, garnets, coral, and pearls. Sapphires, topaz, diamonds and cat’s - eyes were embedded or sometimes strung in various ways and worn as ornaments.

Besides this, the art of enameling was known, as well as inlay work in shell and mother-of-pearl. Gold beads were beautifully filigreed or filled with lac, while others had cores of jasper and turquoise paste and were strung on thread or wire to be worn as necklaces called kantha, or long ones worn between the breasts known as hara. Stringing coins to be worn as necklaces, called nishka, was in vogue. Foreigners wore the torque, a simple necklace of gold wire. It was a characteristic ornament of the Scythian and Celtic people and was worn as a mark of distinction by the Persian and parthians, all of whom were of the same stock, as were the Sakas and Kushans. Shell and terra-cotta beads continued to be strung and worn by the poorer classes.

The earrings, kundala, were of three types and most often of gold though there is evidence of ivory ones as well. The pendant type often had decorative rosettes and granulation. The ring type, scythian in origin, could be simple with a gold wire wound around or mixture of both types, that is, a ring elaborately decorated with beads as well as bud-like pendants. Of these, the simpler kind was used by men, except for foreigners who are depicted as wearing none. Armlets were known as keyura and bracelets as valaya. Both men and women wore these. Those for women were often made thick or thin sheets of gold with hinged clasps, and elaborately ornamented and inlaid. Simple bangles of glass, shell, or ivory were also used. Head ornaments were varied. As the turban and head veils of women went out of fashion they were replaced by a bejewelled diadem or crown called mukuta, or a simple fillet or headband called opasa. These were used in addition to the garlands of flowers, sraja, which remained popular. Gold or silver hairpins with attractively ornamented heads held up hair. Men continued to wear the mauli (turban). The mekhala or girdle was mainly of beads and along with nupura or anklet, was worn only by women. This was simpler and lighter than that in the previous period. There is an absence of forehead ornaments like the sitara and bindi of the Mauryan-Sunga period.

Finger rings were of solid god, some plain, others incised with tiny fingers. Ivory was used extensively to make combs, brooches, hairpins, boxes and other objects.

Military Costume
It is in the military dress of the Mauryan-Sunga period we find the earliest traces of foreign influence on indigenous garments. At the Ghandhara site of Kushans is a soldier of Mara’s (Apollo’s) army wearing the Indian antariya and turban with a Graeco-Roman style of breastplate or coat of mail. Coats of mail are said to have been, made indigenously of metallic wires, probably iron, woven into a gauze known as jalaka. But the soldier’s coat of mail appears to be made of metal scales, attached to a backing, rather than woven wire. This could be a foreign-influenced improvement on the indigenous equipment for soldiers. Another soldier is seen wearing full foreign garments in the same army. His coat of mail is worn over a short tunic, which is visible at the hem and sleeves, and his bare legs are encased in greaves. On his head is a three-cornered helmet, which suggests the well-known whitish grey felt cap of the Tibetans and Khorezmians.

Khorez, Bactria, and Sogdiania in Central Asia, had at one time been some of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. They were later taken over by the Persians, Greeks and then the Kushans. The third soldier in this army of Mara wears the purely Indian antariya and has his uttariya wound around his waist. All three soldiers carried shields and equipment’s of various kinds. Foot soldiers are said to have used six-foot bows with very long arrows, tall shields made of undresses ox hide, and board swords three men carried smaller shields and were equipped with two lances each, but rode without saddles.

Religious Persons
Brahmin hermits or ascetics continued to wear garments made of bark leaves, or animal skins, and live austere lives in forests or other isolated places. The clothes of the bhikshu continued to be yellow or red in color and consisted of same antaravasaka, uttarasanga, samghati and kushalaka as before, along with a buckled belt or samkaksika. Only now the cloth of their garments was most probably donated to the monastery by wealthy merchants, and was not made of rags. The sign of physical and spiritual perfection in the Buddha figures is the protuberance or ushnisa on the head, which evolved from the top knot worn by Brahmins. Another symbol is the urna or tuft of hair between the eyebrows, representing the third eye. The elongated ear lobes are yet another sign of perfection.

Textiles and Dyes
For the first time trade with China was directly established through the ancient silk route. Indian traders settled down in Chinese Turkestan, which was annexed by Kanishka, the Kushan King. This included Kashgar, Khotan, and Yarkhand. Buddhists missions too were sent to china. In Rome, Augustus encouraged trade with India and exports increased resulting in a flourishing merchant class. In the northwestern is coarse cotton and wool were used for making tunics and trousers for horsemen, hunters, foreigners, and doorkeepers. In central India textiles were of lightweight cotton, tulapansi. Both indigenous and foreign skills were plentiful but still very expensive.

Antariya were very rarely decorated and when they were, they appear to have been either embroidered, woven, or printed in diagonal check designs enclosing small circles. Turban cloth for rich women were often diagonally striped with every third line made of pearls. This bejewelled material was also used to cover beds and seats. Many other geometric patterns of checks, stripes and triangles were also printed and woven. It is only from literary sources that we know of the textiles and dyes available in the earlier period. There is no evidence of actual fabrics being made in India before the twelfth or thirteenth century. But a large variety of fabrics were recovered from the burial grounds along the silk route, which can be dated to between the first century BC and the second century AD (Han Period in China). Based on this evidence we may presume that the dyes and textiles of Chinese origin available along this route would surely have found their way into India. Hence, it is possible to maintain that many of the patterns and colors would be similar, or had influenced indigenous fabrics. We know for a fact that the beautiful ultra-marine and lapis lazuli blue were sent along the trade route from the famous mines at Badakshan in Central Asia. There is, in addition, much literary evidence of sophistication of Indian textiles from the earliest times.

In a list compiled of fabrics recovered from the ancient silk route, fabrics in the following color were found: bright blue, light blue, dark blue-copper, dull gold buff, bronze-brown, dark bronze-green, crimson, pink, crimson brown, rich red, yellow, yellow-brown, yellow-green, rich dark yellow-brown. These are all variants and mixtures of the colors in dyes that were available in India in this period.

The Kushan influence was felt in what developed into the Gandhara art and the art of Mathura which, while retaining the massive scale of Bharut and Sanchi, had carvings more sophisticated and images more flamboyant and sensuous than had been seen before. It is an if in the provocative display of courtesans with their sinuous bodies in the tribhanga pose and the delicate flower-like gesture of the hands, the foreigners had found aspects of the Indian experience that fired their imagination.

In the same period, however there are the wall paintings at Kizil in Afghanistan, where the wiry line of the drawing with its flat brilliant colors dominated by lapis-lazuli gives a heraldic appearance, static and frozen, like the group of portrait statues found at Mathura. The latter have the still, formal depiction of the Kushan Kings, showing in complete detail the kind of heavy garments they wore. The Kushans were not originally an artistic people. Of Scythian origin, their only expression had been the metal work displayed in their horse trappings, hunting gear, and in the ornamental plaques, which they stitched on their garments.

But they had lived for many years in Bactria before entering India and this prepared them for the role they were to play as great patrons of the arts, as seen in the development of the Gandhara art and the evolution of the indigenous art of Mathura. Later, both these styles fused to create the Renaissance of Gupta Art.


Antariya : worn extremely short in kaccha style; the end that is passed between the legs has been tucked in at the back; the other piece is looped to mid-thigh in front and the end tucked in a small looped frill at the centre

Kayabandh : there are two : one is a wide sash tied in a loop on both sides to the knees with steamers at each side of the hips hanging to floor length; the other is kakshyabandha, a thick jewelled roll worn aslant which has a large clasp at the left hip

Mekhala : five-stringed pearl or jewelled hip belt, it holds the antariya and cloth kayabandh in place
Kushan court lady
Hara : necklace of pearls, probably strung on thread or wire and worn between the breasts

Kantha : Short necklace of beads with central pendant and looped chains

Keyura : simple armlets, of looped design in gold or silver

Valaya : bracelets of two kinds : the central one consists of a series of rings like a wrist band; on both sides are larger rigid bracelets

Kundala : square earrings decorated with a flower motif and with pearls suspended

Nupura : anklets-wide rings with an elaborate design

Anguliya : finger rings of solid gold

Mukuta : bejewelled crown on the head and a head band

Hairstyle : small symmetrical curls at the forehead, hair tied in a looped knot projecting vertically at the back


kushan_empire_yakshi_female_doorkeeperAntariya : worn in lehnga style, simply wrapped around and tucked in at the left

Uttariya : thrown casually over the shoulders

Tunic : with front opening, held at the neck by button; long ruched sleeves have ruching held by jewelled bands or buttons; tunic is form-fitting

Mekhala : four-stringed girdle with clasp and decorative leaf at the centre

Hara : one long pearl necklace worn between the breasts and one short one with a pendant

Kundala : large ring-type earrings

Head-dress : chaplet of leaves or turban with a central flower worn around the top knot of hair

Sitara : round ornament on the forehead

Mixture of foreign and indigenous costume.


kushan_empire_donorfigureAntariya : sari-like, tied in front, while one end is passed between the legs, pleated and tucked in at the back, the other end is partly pleated and tucked in at the front, then wound around and worn over the left shoulder

Tunic : Kushan style

Belt : with granulated pattern worn higher than antariya or worn short to waist

Valaya : one bangle on each wrist

Nupura : simple ring-type anklets

Kundala : twisted or suspended disc earrings

Hairstyle : centre parting with long hair looped on one side

Mixture of foreign and indigenous costume. This early form of kachcha-style sari is still used in Maharashtra and parts of South India.


kushan_empire_donor_figureAntariya : kachcha style, only the pleated end hanging at the back has been shortened

Uttariya : worn over the left shoulder across the back and under the right arm, then across the chest and taken again over the left shoulder

Kantha : short necklace

Hairstyle : in a double knot at the centre of the head

Purely indigenous style.


kushan_empire_soldierAntariya : worn in kachcha style

Armour : chain armour made of scale or rhombus-patterned plaques, fastened together with strings (like a Japanese or Tibetan armour); the end of the sleeves, waist and hem are strengthened with cording; the skirt portion is made of parallel rows of rectangular plaques

Mauli : turban made of twisted roll of cloth

Equipment : round shield and spear

This is a mixture of foreign and indigenous costume. The armour is Graeco-Roman.


kushan_empire_guardAntariya : worn in kachcha style up to the ankles

Tunic : knee-length, a fully quilted garment with thick cording at the waist, neck and hem.

Quilted upper garments are still worn in north India in winter. Mixture of foreign and indigenous costume.


kushan_empire_female_court_attendantthis simple hairstyle is made by parting the hair at the centre, drawing it to the right side and allowing it to hang in a loop at the right shoulder


kushan_empire_court_ladyhair is worn in a tuft at the centre as in the figure of Court Lady (Mathura), curls frame the face; rest of the hair is drawn into a knot which is vertically placed at back centre; a turban has been twisted and wound casually around the hair


kushan_empire_necklaceKantha : short necklace of gold in the spearhead and drop' design

MILK MAID[Mathura]

kushan_empire_milkmaidGhagri : simple narrow calf-length skirt stitched at the centre-front border, it has either a drawstring through it to is rolled over a string; this is an example of the earliest form of a stitched lower garment for women

kantha : short flat necklace with decorative design

Keyura : armlets of same decorative design as for kantha

Valaya : simple ring-type bangles

Kundala :simple ring-type earrings

She rests her pitcher on a head-rest probably of cane, like an inverted basket.


kushan_empire_female_guardTunic : Kushan type with long ruched sleeves

Antariya : could be chalana-Kushan loose trousers

Kayabandh : twisted sash

Hara : long necklet worn between the breasts

Valaya : three bangles are visible on the right hand

Nupura : heavy ring-type anklets

Hairstyle : hair at the front is divided into three portions, the central one is made into roll, the two at the side are combed downwards with tassels suspended

She carries a long spear and round embossed shield. A mixture of foreign and indigenous costume.


kushan_empire_femaleAnatriya : sari-like, worn in the kachcha style, the other end being taken across the body and over the left shoulder

Kayabandh : simple sash, twisted in parts

Uttariya : worn across the back and over both shoulders, the left end is loosely tucked in at the waist

Valaya : four bangles on left wrist

Hara : pearl necklace worn between the breasts

Kundala : simple disc-like earrings

Nupura : heavy double rings on the ankles

Hairstyle : chaplet of leaves

Mixture of foreign and indigenous costume.


kushan_empire_king_kanishkaTunic : calf-length and heavy quilted, with braid at the bottom edge

Chugha : a coat which is longer than the tunic, worn open at centre front; it has a decorative braid at the centre front and hem with probably long gathered-up sleeves

Belt : of metallic decorative plaques

Boots : padded, with straps around ankle and under the boot held together by a decorative clasp; either the boots are calf length or baggy trousers (chalana) have been inserted into short boots

This is the dress of Kushan for foreigner of Saka-Parthian origin. He holds two swords in decorative scabbards.


kushan_empire_kushan_kingChugha : calf-length with a wide richly embroidered border down the centre-front opening, hem and edge of long sleeves (probably ruched); the material of the coat has small rosettes and a V-neck and there is a round motif on the right sleeve

Tunic : Kurta-like undergarment visible at the neck

Chalana : baggy trousers tucked into calf-length padded boots; there is a wide band of vine pattern at the centre from toe to top (not visible in drawing); straps around the ankle and instep

Kantha : short necklace with pendant

Purely foreign costume of Scythic origin.


Antariya : transparent calf-length and worn in the lehnga style

Armour : scale armour with V-neck and short sleeves; the skirt portion is of square-linked design and of mid-thigh length

Tunic : Visible at the hem and sleeves

Equipment : sword belt with flat, short sword; strap across the chest, probably for quiver; round shield with patterned design

Mauli : turban wound several times and tied at the right side

Mixture of foreign and indigenous costume


kushan_empire_female_court_ladya tuft of hair covers the line of parting; it has been to form a ball; rest of the hair is drawn back, looped and held in position by a clip or brooch


Mauli : turban worn simpler than in the previous period: no intertwining of the hair with the cloth; decorated with some clasps in front;there is also a decorative ring at the top through which a string of pearls is passed and attached to the sides


Kundala : of gold 'leech and pendant' type; the ring or leech attaches itself to ear and the pendant bud is suspended by a movable ring with granulation's.

kushan_empire_donor_figureDONOR FIGURE[Mathura]

Mauli : turban of rich material is surmounted by twisted rolls of cloth from the centre of which the pleated end is visible in a decorative fan shape; a band is used crosswise to give shape to the turban

Glossary: Find the actual meaning to the Hindi words used in above document [Shown in Italic Format]


Kushan Period History, Kushan Period Social Life, Kushan Period Costume, Headgear and Hairstyles Kushan Period, Kushan Period Jewellery, Kushan Period Military Costume, Kushan Period Religious Persons, Kushan Period Textiles and Dyes, Kushan Period Style