The largest empire in Ancient India was that of the Mauryas. However, beginning 200 BC there were many smaller kingdoms that took shape due to contact between Central Asia and India. Most of these dynasties ruled in north-western India, now part of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Let us look at these dynasties, their rulers, and significance.
First let us look at the map of north-western India during the period 200 BC to 300 AD when these kingdoms flourished.
The image has been scanned from Ancient India NCERT by RS Sharma. Although it is out of print, you can get the book India’s Ancient Past by RS Sharma which contains even more information than the NCERT.
The first of Central Asian contacts to invade India were the Greeks who were pushed from their homeland of Bactria by the Scythians. For this reason they are also called Bactrian Greeks. You should not confuse this development with Alexander’s invasion that took place in 326 BC. The later greeks invaded India beginning with 200 BC, after Ashoka’s death when the Mauryan empire had become too weak to stop the invasions.
The most famous Indo-Greek ruler was Menander (165-145 BC). He is also known by the name of Milinda. His capital was at Sakala (modern day Sialkot) in Punjab. The monk Nagasena (also known as Nagarjuna) converted Menander to Buddhism. The questions posed by Menander to Nagasena and the latter’s replies are recorded in the form of a book known as Milinda Panha (Pali text) or The Questions of Milinda.
The Greeks were followed by the Shakas, who controlled a much larger part of India than the Greeks did. There were five branches of the Shakas spread in Afghanistan and India. These were in Afghanistan, Punjab (capital at Taxila), Mathura, Western India and fifth branch in Upper Deccan.
The most famous Shaka ruler was Rudradaman I (130-150 AD). His popularity arises from the repairs he undertook to improve the Sudarshana lake in the semi-arid zone of Kathiawar.
The Shakas were followed by the Parthians who came from Iran. The Parthian territorial extent was quite small as compared with the Shakas. The most famous Parthian ruler was Gondophernes, in whose reign St. Thomas visited India for the spread of Christianity.
The Parthians were followed by the Kushans who are also called Yuechis or Tocharians. They came from Central Asia. Their empire extended from Khorasan in Central Asia to Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.
There are two notable Kushan dynasties. The first was the house of Kadphises and who ruled till AD 50. Their rulers were Kadphises I and Kadphises II. Kadphises I minted copper coins in imitation of Roman coins.
The Kushan dynasty followed the Kadphises rulers. The most popular Kushan ruler was Kanishka. He started an era in AD 78, which is now known as the Shaka era and is used by the Government of India. He was stout follower of Buddhism and held the fourth Buddhist council in Kashmir in AD 72.
The Kushans had two capitals. The first was at Peshawar and the second was Mathura. The Kushan rule was ended by the Sassanid empire that arose in Iran in mid-third century AD but Kushan principalities continued to exist in India for about a century.
I hope you found this short description of the Central Asian dynasties useful. Your feedback on this post is most welcome.