Who Broke Kanishka’s Head?


Image source: Wikipedia

In a story published in Bengali magazine Anandamela, a child used to boast about the various precious items in his grandfather’s house. His friend remarked, ‘Who knows, if he searches carefully, he may even find Kanishka’s head!’

Kanishka’s head — one of the several unsolved problems in Indian history. I hesitate in calling it a ‘mystery’ because there is no mysterious element or secrecy as such. So if you are expecting something sensational, you might be disappointed. The problem is a very simple one, and is most probably due to missing links and lost history. Some day someone may find valuable information that would bring the missing pieces together and complete the picture. Till then, we would have to wait.

Who was Kanishka?

During the period between the decline of Mauryan empire and the rise of Gupta empire, several dynasties came into existence in north India e.g., Indo-Greek, Saka, Parthian and Kushan. Kanishka was the most powerful emperor of the Kushan dynasty and one of the most eminent personalities in Indian history. In addition to being a strong warrior and capable ruler, he was also a patron of art and literature. He provided patronage to surgeon Charak, and brought Sanskrit scholar Asvaghosh to his capital. Ram Sharan Sharma attributes his significance in Indian history to his two major contributions — first, he started the Saka era in 78 AD, the one used by the Government of India; second, he encouraged Buddhism.

The headless statue at Mathura

A statue of Kanishka was found in the village Mat, near Mathura by Pandit Radha Krishna in 1911. At first glance, the statue appears very ordinary without much details which are usually present in Indian art. However, it is interesting to note that nearly every scholar of ancient Indian history has commented on this piece of art. According to Romila Thapar, the statue represents “the king as an impressive figure in boots and coat.” The boots and the coat are mentioned in most of the commentaries on this sculpture. For example, Edith Tömöry notes that they were inappropriate to the hot climate of Mathura and were most probably brought from their native place and worn during ceremonies. Regarding his dress, Edith Tömöry says “. . . folds of the garment are represented in a primitive way by undulating lines incised on the tunic and by straight radiating lines on the mantle.” She also notes that the statue has an “impression of power and authority.” Indeed!

There are other features in addition to the boots and the coat. A.L. Basham draws our attention to his “grasping in one hand a sword and in the other its sheath, the king stands with legs apart, in an attitude of authority.”

Stella Kramrisch brings to our notice further details of the statue and wonders about the artist. She describes it in the words “Stern economy confines the main effect . . . to the surface, to harsh angles and to lines incised as if with the stroke of the sword . . . an upright posture weighs on the ground with the firmness of will. The angles of Kanishka’s coat, the enormous horizontal bar of his boots, the inscription of his name across the surface of his vestments, indicate that the artist was of the same race as his patron.” On the other hand, A. L. Basham points out the absence of depth, which gives the statue a flat look. According to A. L. Basham, the artist was working on a theme that was outside his area of specialization.

But above all these details, there is one feature which cannot be ignored by even the most casual observer — the statue has no head. Or, to use an old-fashioned phrase, it is conspicuous by its absence! It is not that we do not know how Kanishka looked like; in fact, several coins with engraving of his head have been found. Still, a statue with broken head does seem incomplete and lacking.

The most surprising thing is that only the head and hands are missing while the remaining statue is intact. According to A. L. Basham it was destroyed by the succeeding rulers. But then, why only head? Unfortunately, there is no authentic material to throw light on that question.

Whenever there is no definite knowledge, several stories are cooked up, and myths and folklore are born. Interestingly, in this case, we don’t even have any myths or folklore! Why this silence?

Sunil’s story

The only historical fiction on this subject that I have come across is by noted Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay. How far is it correct, I cannot say, because Sunil did not give references that might support his hypothesis. This is interesting, as Sunil’s works are often written after exhaustive research work, and mostly he gives reference list of all the books and sources that he had consulted. In the absence of any references, I would only call his story as a fiction.

After gaining victory over one kingdom after another, Kanishka had grown into a formidable emperor. One day someone presented him two pieces of cloth. Kanishka was so impressed with the quality of fabric that he kept one for himself and sent the other to his wife. The queen wore the garment and came in front of the emperor. Kanishka was shocked to see a print of a hand in ocher colour over her bosom. He thought that the person had gifted him with a second-hand item. The person was summoned, but he knew nothing of the matter. He had purchased it from a merchant and finding it very good, decided to gift it to the emperor. It turned out that all the clothes with the merchant had this mark of a hand on them. Merchant told him that he had got these clothes from a southern kingdom of Satavahan. After these clothes had been manufactured, they were brought to the king who imprinted his hand mark on them. The mark was made in such a way that if a man wore the cloth, the mark came over his back, whereas if a woman wore it, the mark fell over her bosom. The claim was checked and found to be correct.

Offended as he was, Kanishka ordered that he wanted to see that hand chopped off. Satavahan king was given two options — either to lose his hand or face war. Satavahan ministers loved their king so much that they hid him somewhere. Then they told Kanishka that their king was so innocent that he didn’t know how to run an empire. Hence, they themselves ran the affairs on his name. They offered to chop off their own hands, if it served the purpose. Well, it didn’t serve the purpose and Kanishka declared war.

Ministers hid their king in a cave and in his place erected a statue. When Kanishka arrested the king, he realized that he had been tricked. He possessed magical powers, and used them on this occasion. He chopped the hands of the statue, and it was found later that the hands of the king hiding in the cave were cut off.

At this point, Sunil presents another version of the story purportedly based on Al Beruni’s account. In this version, instead of Satavahan, there is mention of Kannauj and in place of hand it was the mark of foot. This story tells us how one of the ministers hid his king in a cave and went to Kanishka, told him that he had switched his loyalty, and misled him to a desert. There Kanishka’s army suffered immense miseries due to heat and lack of water. Kanishka realized that he had been cheated. He invoked his magical powers, hit his weapon into the sand with such a force that a stream of water came out from the land. Then he turned to the minister and asked him to go and check the welfare of his king. The king was found in the same condition as in the other version. Anyway, let us return to the first version.

After the death of their king, some Satavahan loyalists united and vowed to take revenge by killing Kanishka by hook or crook. The task was difficult mainly because of Kanishka’s security and bodyguards. In the meantime, Kanishka was drunk with the pride of his supernatural abilities and strengths, and started creating and installing his own statues in his lifetime itself. His plan was to engrave all the stories of his adventures inside the heads of his statues because his head was the source of all his natural and supernatural strengths. Satavahan warriors, unable to reach Kanishka, broke the heads of the statues instead. Their idea was to present them to the queen who would kick them and assuage her anger to some extent.

My analysis and criticism of Sunil’s story

Success of a work of fiction rests on how far is the writer able to explain all the fine details of the problem at hand, and how far is the writer able to create an illusion that makes the work of fiction appear as a historical fact. You know what I mean if you have read masterpieces like Tungabhadrar Tirey (By The Bank Of The Tungabhadra) by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, or Mriganayani by Vrindavanlal Verma.

Hence, it is pertinent to examine this story on these grounds. The primary objection to the second version is that the region around Kannauj was within the Kushan empire itself; and the neighbouring Saka empire was an ally, or rather subjugated empire. Of course, such alliances do not help pacify an offended powerful emperor. It is also unlikely that Kanishka was not aware of such strange customs within his kingdom or that of his ally. In fact, exchange of gifts and trade must have already been in place. Besides, though one can understand the marking with hand by an emperor as a kind of blessing, it would be too arrogant and insulting to mark one’s foot on garments to be worn by others. I find it very unlikely.

Now coming to the first version, the biggest drawback is that Sunil does not name any of the characters other than Kanishka. It is fine if the person who brought the garment and the merchant who sold it are not named. But the name of the queen who was the centre of the whole plot is not named, though it could have been found out. Secondly, even the name of the Satavahan king is not given. I could not find any instance of any Satavahan king in conflict with Kushan kings or Kanishka in particular. Though they fought regular wars with neighbouring Saka empire, there were no such battles with Kushans. Notable names in Satavahan dynasty are Gautamiputra Satakarni, Vasishthiputra Pulumavi, Vashishtiputra Satakarni, Shivaskanda Satakarni, Yajna Sri Satakarni, out of whom only the first two had their tenures overlapping with Kanishka. Gautamiputra had died within few years or perhaps by the time Kanishka ascended the throne. Besides, he himself was such a powerful and formidable ruler that certainly his ministers would not have to hide him for protection! Thus we are left with Vasishthiputra Pulumavi. Here comes the problem. There are two dates for his rule : 110–138 CE or 130–159 CE. The second date makes his rule extend several years after Kanishka’s death that happened around 150 AD. Hence, Vasishthiputra Pulumavi also seems to be unlikely, unless his rule extended during 110–138 CE.

Now the biggest objection to this story. Would the emperor, who felt insulted and waged war against a king who marked his hand on a cloth, would leave the people unpunished who broke his statues, especially when he himself had installed his statues to glorify himself, and engraved his adventures in their heads? No Sir, not in Kanishka’s lifetime! Then after his death? If so, then why would his successors leave them in that state instead of taking the trouble to renovate them? Well perhaps after all, A. L. Basham was correct — his successor rulers might have broken them. I do not know how was the emperor seen by his successors, whether there were any conflicts in ideologies or thoughts, which stretched to the extent of intense hatred and dislike. The only difference that I could notice was that Kanishka followed Buddhism, his son worshipped Shiva, and the last Kushan emperor was called Vasudeva, so you can guess his faith. However, given that all faiths co-existed peacefully during Kushans, it is an unlikely motivation for the iconoclasts.

However nicely written the story might be, I find it very difficult to accept. True, the story is not the prime focus of Sunil’s novel, which is in fact an adventure story. Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that such liberties are in general not taken in contemporary Bengali literature, where even very short pieces are written after very careful and meticulous research.

So, I leave you here, with all the details and findings on this subject. That is all I could find from my studies. If you get any information, please do share with others. Who knows one day you may even find Kanishka’s head! If so, please take it to the archeological department. In the words of Sunil Gangopadhyay, when the script engraved inside it would be deciphered, so many unknown historical facts would be known. For ordinary person, it may not mean much, but the value it has in human history cannot be assessed in terms of money.


  1. Indian Sculpture by Stella Kramrisch, YMCA Publishing House Calcutta, 1933.
  2. Ancient India by Ram Sharan Sharma, NCERT, 1981.
  3. The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 by Romila Thapar, Penguin Books, 2002.
  4. The Wonder that was India by A. L. Basham, Picador, 2004.
  5. A History of Fine Arts in India and the West by Edith Tömöry, Orient Longman, 2007.
  6. Bhayankar Sundar by Sunil Gangopadhyay, Ananda Publishers.
  7. The King with no face by Devika Cariapa, Deccan Herald, 24 November, 2011.

35 thoughts on “Who Broke Kanishka’s Head?

  1. abhiray59

    Very exhaustive post. It is true we have not read much about Kanishka and Kushana empire in school history text books. After 8th standard history vanished from curriculum of science students. So many know very little of Kanishka. Now Sunil Gangopadhyay is a novelist. He builds story around established facts and spices up history with his imagination. So, Sunil babu cannot be treated as a gospel truth on Kanishka. Now coming to your post, if Kanishka had magical power, why did he not use it to find the rival king who was in hiding? I think because of paucity of correct information many distortions emerge. Still min question remains. Who broke Kanishka’s head? By the way have you met many people with name Kanishka? I think I heard one big businessman or ministers son named after the late emperor.

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Sir, in CBSE schools, Kushan empire was taught in 7th standard and then 11th standard.

      Traditionally historians take literature into account while producing their records, and do not entirely junk it. Writers and poets, on their part, base their compositions on historical backgrounds. In other words, though they may add spices, they cannot play with historical facts. Readers are also better informed these days. Problem with this story is that Sunil does not even give historical facts. This is something unusual for him (considering for example Sei Somoy).

      Yes, your comment on magical powers is another issue. There is no mention of the nature of those magical powers; that is, what could or could not be accomplished with them. I would check in Al Beruni’s account.

      Kanishka is a common name today, though personally I have not met any. You may have a look at this article by one Kanishk.

      1. abhiray59

        Sei Samay is based on history not more than 200 years earlier. Many things were well documented. Kasnishka’s time is less well documented. May be these days, history books cover more about Kanishka. In my time, it was hardly a paragraph. If you take science after 10, do you read history? I am not sure. Novelists cannot play with historical facts, but a lot of information has to be available for someone to build a credible story. But I have not read Sunil Gandopadhyay’s story on Kanishka. So I should not comment. Where did I hear the name Kanishka Singh? Is the name really that common?

      2. Amit Misra Post author

        Sir, the reference to Sei Somoy was regarding Sunil’s style.

        Though Kanishka’s era (127–150 AD) is ancient history, it is not that distant past as compared to Bimbisara (544 – 492 BC) or Ashoka (268 –  232 BC). If historical records are not available, writers use hypothetical names for their characters. This is the difference between historical fiction and fictional history (a remark made by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay). You may have a look at the foreword by Jaishankar Prasad to his drama Ajatashatru. This is the type of research that is done by historical fiction writers. This is something that young writers of today should learn.

        I would not say that Kushan era is any less documented. There are just few missing links. By the time of Kushan empire, several travelers had already been visiting India. Besides, there are are several archeological records. You may browse through the website http://www.kushan.org .

      3. abhiray59

        I am not disputing any of your points. When Sunil Gandopadhyay wrote his novel on Kanishka, (I admit I have not read it) it was probably not in the era of internet. What can be at the finger tip now, may not be there. Regarding Ajatshatru, he was more famous because of Buddhist movement. To be honest, during my childhood, i have not read many novels, historical and otherwise, on Kanishka. I have read Tungabhadrar Teere. But nothing on Kanishka. That does not mean anything on Kanishka was not available. I have not read it in Bengali.

      4. Amit Misra Post author

        Just a few clarifications. I had sent you the link to the website as I thought it would be easier for you to access. All good libraries have sufficient material on the subject. First volume of The History and Culture of the Indian People was published in 1951, several decades before the internet era.

        In the same way, I had mentioned Ajatashatru as an example to show what do I mean by ‘background study’, and Ashoka to show that Kanishka’s time is not inaccessible distant past.

        I greatly appreciate your valuable input 🙂

  2. yvsmadhav

    I liked the post.It is very good. It very difficult to imagine that a king as powerful as Kanishka would have ordered only one statue of himself. It becomes even more difficult to assume that there is only one with the missing head. What about the other statues? It is most likely that the statue with the missing head is not of Kanishka in the first place.

    Many years ago, a student of class 12 wrote about the existence of two kinds of Kanishka-one having a head and the second kind without any head at all!

    In many instances, history of the king’s and the queens is a strange concoction of a little truth and a large amount of fiction.

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Thank you so much Sir!

      Besides Kanishka, there are statues of his predecessor Vima Kadphises and of Chastana, satrap of Sind, all broken. I am not sure about other statues of Kanishka; I would check and let you know.

      I very much liked your closing remark ‘history of kings and queens . . . large amount of fiction’.

    2. Amit Misra Post author

      Sorry Sir, I forgot to reply to your comment on identity of the statue’s subject. It is Kanishka only, as there is an inscription in Brahmi script – ‘Maharaja Rajadhiraja devaputro Kanisko’. Please have a look at the bottom of his skirt in this image.

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Not exactly. They were not seen as outsiders. R.S. Sharma notes “. . . Kushans ultimately lost their identity in India. They became completely Indianized in course of time. . .”

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      This is a nice observation and remark. Yes, it cannot be ruled out, considering how far the admirers and followers usually go to establish the greatness of their king.

  3. Harish

    I do not accept the assertion that religions peacefully coexisted in Kushan era or in any era. Imagining religions coexisted peacefully would be like imagining poisoning didn’t use to kill. Even shaivites and vaishnavaite use to fight and destroy each others temple. However, one need not invoke religion for beheading of kanishka’s statue. Average Indian’s imagination of father son relationship is shaped by Ramayana. But in palaces that was seldom the case. King had many wives who were daughters and/or widows of defeated king. Their sons more often than not inherited hatred toward father, desire to revenge injustice to mother and ambition to acquire father’s kingdom. They went often extra length to destroy father’s legacy.

  4. Kushal Banerjee

    Good bro par terko ye kaha se pata chala merko bhi batana fir me bhi teri tarh ye likhega chal good going bro next time oorja ke uper history ka ek chapter likhna ok proud or puru and poruv rashtra also good bro

    1. Pradyot Post author

      I also have a colleague with the same name in a neighbouring lab. The book is a novel, but not a masterpiece. The Kanishka story is a part of the novel. It is in Bengali. No translation into any language is available.

  5. Pingback: How To Watch A Movie Scene — Look For The Basic Rules Of Photography! | Pradyot

  6. Dr. Maniruzzaman

    Amar bhalo lagata atriptir moddhye ese-i goralo> Itihas ki chirodin-i ajana kahinir Suru matro ? Maniruzzaman, Dhaka.

  7. Pingback: Book Review: ‘Khela’ By Sunil Gangopadhyay | Pradyot

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