Tillya Tepe, Persian for “Golden Mound”- an archaeological site in northern Afghanistan, which upon excavation shook the world of archaeology. How, you ask?
To answer this, we must go back to the year 1978 when a Soviet-Afghan team took upon themselves to dig up the remains of a prehistoric temple in search for traces of the famous Silk Road. While carting away the earth, they stumbled upon a gold disk which sparked their curiosity. As they dug deeper, skeletons surrounded by jewellery slowly started revealing themselves. Further excavating the ruins, they realized these were graves- six of them to be precise- filled with extraordinary artifacts that exhibit an exquisite blend of aesthetic cultural influences from various parts of the world. This hoard is often referred to as the Bactrian Gold consisting of a plethora of gold, silver and ivory ornaments, coins and various other artifacts. The jewellery suggested that these people were extremely rich, dating to around the 1st century B.C. Archaeologists speculated that these people belonged to a ruling family of nomads that had migrated from Central Asia which pointed them to the direction of the Sakas.
The Sakas, better known as Scythians, were one of the four great populations in the world, as said by the Greek historian, Herodotus. The Scythians were a group of nomads from, what is now, southern Siberia, who are thought to have originated in Iran. The core of their culture was to lead a free-riding lifestyle. There are limited resources to learn about Scythians as they did not have a writing system or any documentation of their early achievements and invasions. In fact, most information about their life comes from the documents of ancient civilizations who had associated with the Scythian regions, mainly Greeks, Indians, Romans and Persians. However, what is fascinating is that they founded one of the most successful dynasties in northern India and ruled several parts of the subcontinent for 600 years! But how did they get there?
During the 3rd century B.C, northern China was constantly raided by a group of nomads known as the Xiongnu tribe, who inhabited the Mongolian Steppe. They were barbaric fighters with no aim to hold back, so the Chinese region was under regular threats. Tired of putting up endless fights against these nomads, some kingdoms decided to build fortifications to block them out. Over the years, these walls evolved into the Great Wall of China. This is when the Xiongnu ruler formed an alliance with a few other such tribes and attacked the Greater Yeuzhis who lived near the Kazkh Steppe and forced them to move westward. The Chinese were successful in protecting themselves completely but the pushbacks ended up in a domino effect on the rest of the Central Asian regions.
During the early 1st century B.C, while the Scythians occupied the eastern Kazakh Steppe, they were defeated in a battle with the Greater Yeuzhi and forced to evacuate the land. They moved further south to Bactria, but again, as the Greater Yeuzhi were displaced, the Scythians could not stay put either. It was a ripple effect and the Indian subcontinent, Indo-Greeks, Romans, Iranians, were all affected in the process. By that time, the Maurya dynasty had declined and the Indo-Greeks had also split into smaller kingdoms with weakened forces. The Scythians eventually moved west towards the Parthian kingdom, who ruled Iran, to escape the torture. They easily dominated the Parthians, defeating their king. They eventually settled in northern Balochistan, present day Sakastan, or Sistan, where they began to be widely known as the Sakas. The Sakas entered India in two ways. One group moved towards northern India through Taxila in Punjab while the other further went into south-west India through the lower Indus Valley.
One of the Sakas, Maues, defeated the Indo-Greek king, Apollodotus II, and took control of the region around Gandhara, establishing a capital at Taxila. Gandhara is part of an area that stretches into Parthian territories and is still known as Sakastan or Sistan today. Following the death of Maues, who ruled for 30 years, the Indo-Greeks regained control of some of the Saka regions for some time but that did not last long as the Sakas managed to expel them once again. Around this period, the Sakas appeared to have taken control of Mathura in northern India. As a result of their earlier interactions with the Greeks, they had been using the Greek system of government and appointed satraps, or governors, to control each province, including one in charge of Mathura. Saka control already extended across a large portion of what is now southern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northwestern India, and the title Indo-Scythian could be ascribed to the Sakas from this point onwards. The Saka satraps of the east and north continued to leave their mark on history through their coins and interactions with neighboring nations, but Western Satraps led far more secluded lives in the Saka Indian territories.
Azes I was the new king who consolidated the Saka territory and ruled for 20 years. This Saka king left his mark in the history of the Indian subcontinent by establishing a new calendar known as the Azes Era. The fact that this calendar, which corresponds to the Hindu calendar, is still used in North India and Nepal shows the impact this ruler had in establishing the subcontinent. Another legacy associated with Azes I is the Bimaran Casket which is a small gold container that had Buddhist relics and a figure of Buddha which was found in a stupa. It is significant because Buddhism that was practiced earlier in India had no depiction of Buddha. It was not until the Kushana period that the first depiction of Buddha was introduced to the culture. Therefore, the discovery added an important attribute to the historical practice of Buddhism in the subcontinent.
After the death of Azes I, the Saka kings slowly began to decline. Even though the Kushanas overthrew the last Saka king, Mujatria, the satraps, who had become semi-independent rulers by then, continued their reign for over a century. The Indo-Scythians ruled over Seistan until Bahram II's reign (AD 276–293), and they ruled over certain portions of India long into the first millennium: Kathiawar and Gujarat were ruled by them until the 5th century as Western satraps. Rudradaman I was a renowned ruler, and his accomplishments have been recorded in the Rudradaman rock inscription at Junagadh. He conquered the Yaudheyas and vanquished the Satavahana Empire during his expeditions. Chandragupta II, the Gupta ruler, eventually conquered the western satrap.
Among the regions under the satrap government, the Mathura Lion Capital was the most prominent, ruled by the great satrap Rajuvula, who put an end to Indo-Greek rule in the subcontinent by invading the last kingdom. His son, Sodasa, was the last Saka governor to have minted his own coins. Sodasa was found to be a great patron of Buddhism who built several temples/stupas and brought people together. However, Buddhism was not the only belief that flourished during his time; archaeologists have discovered remains that indicate Jainism thrived equally under the Saka rule. Another significant historical aspect from the Sodasa rule was an inscription containing images of an ancient Indian clan, including Vasudeva and Krishna. The reason why this inscription is held to such importance is because it was the oldest surviving Sanskrit inscription found in India. The end of Sodasa's rule was also the end of the 600 year Saka rule in the subcontinent.
We now know the history and significance of the Scythian/Sakas in the Indian subcontinent. So it is only fair for us to learn about who they really were.
One of the most promising descriptions of the Scythians till date was given by the Greek historian, Herodotus, in the 4th century B.C, who did not actually visit Scythia but his ideas matched several modern archaeological finds. He even said that the Scythians along with the Celts were one of the four great populations in the world. Most people have heard of the Celts in history, however, only a handful are aware of the Scythians. Recently, an exhibition in the British museum has shed light on the Scythians so knowledge about them is slowly emerging.
The Scythians spread across a vast land and were known by various names, from the classical Persian, Greek and other sources. The Greeks called them Scythians while the Persians used Sakas. Different tribal names were given to these nomads along the steppe, with different yet similar meanings referring to their predatory culture. Since they did not practice documenting their history, some of the depictions from Persian encounters with the Sakas helped to get an insight of their lives. One such picture from the Persian capital, Persepolis, portrayed the warrior nomads in pointy helmets, taking offerings- horses, gold armlets, horse blankets- to the Persian king. We also know about the Scythians from the Greeks. A number of them settled near the Black sea where the Greeks had colonies. Some also settled in North Caucasus, Southern Russia which gave them easy access to raid Asia Minor, where they would take part in ongoing wars. These fierce fighters were often asked to take part in different battles by the kings of those regions simply because of their effective techniques and weapons. They even captured skilled craftsmen from Armenia and Georgia who made weapons symbolic to the Scythian culture. The journeys to these raids were not always short; some took longer than others so the warriors would choose which war to take part in depending on the weather or season. They were also an integral part of the Silk Road, a massive trading network that connected Greece, Persia, India, and China, and may have contributed to the development of those cultures and civilizations.
Scythians were described as horse riders who wore baggy trousers and pleated long coats, and had long hair and beards. They were mostly depicted in relation to their horses- hunting wild animals with their help, taming and training them. One of the main weapons the Scythians were adept at using was the bow and arrow, and it was the recurve bow. These bows were made of strips of wood, sometimes bone, glued together and were short to enable efficient attack from their horses. To string it, the bows had to be bent which added to the power in the string. The arrowheads, again, were beautifully designed to be very effective. The heads were curved and nearly always poisoned, so, if one of them got stuck and one had to pull it out, it would rip the wound apart. They collected blood from wild animals and added venom from female snakes about to give birth, and would leave the mixture for several weeks. They would then smear the arrowheads with this poisonous mixture and prepare them for battles.
Since they were nomads, they did not leave much behind in terms of a civilization. As a matter of fact, they did not even have houses. They had wagons which they employed like houses to make it easier for them to move from place to place. Putting archaeological finds together helps us understand what their culture is really about. There are vessels with pictures of two men talking, helping with wounds and caring for each other, which clearly portrays their brotherhood.
Scythians have been credited by early scholars for widely spreading the knowledge of cannabis, which was an integral part of their life. Cannabis was used to pay homage to their departed leaders. During funerals, the Scythians would toss hemp seeds on red-hot stones and indulge in the fumes. They would shout in delight and satisfaction and chant their mantras. The ritual was meant to be a form of purification for the soul of the dead and the people themselves. The smoke induced an effect on the body and mind that helped them overcome their sorrow and loss. They would even create small tents to enjoy the smoke, similar to a sauna. Like other ancient cultures, Scythians also use hemp to make fabric but they managed to find joy out of it as well.
These wonderful details were a vital element of the Scythian society. A society that left a huge impact on the life of our subcontinent.
This is just one of the many parts of the 5000 year history series of the Indian subcontinent.
-Riffat Ahmed is the Chairperson of Siddiqui's International School, Treasurer of Bangladesh English Medium School Forum and a Psychology graduate from the University of Dhaka