Saka nomads from Central Asia migrated to the northwestern Indian subcontinent in the first and second centuries BCE. Herodotus (4.1-142) describes the extent, customs, and origins of various groups of Scythians (designation for Sakas in Western classical sources) who inhabited large areas of the steppes of Central Asia on the northern peripheries of the Greek world. The Sakas are also known from Old Persian inscriptions of the Achaemenid Empire. The Naqs-i-Rustam inscription of Darius I distinguishes three groups of Sakas:
1) Saka Tigraxauda: "Sakas wearing the pointed cap" who are portrayed in a sculpture at Behistun and described by Herodotus (7.64) as "clad in trousers" and having "on their heads tall stiff caps rising to a point"; these Sakas lived between the Caspian Sea and the Jaxartes River (Syr Daria);
2) Saka Haumavarga: "hauma-drinking" or "hauma-preparing" Sakas (hauma is a type of alcoholic beverage) identified with the Amyrgian Scythians of Greek sources, possibly located in the southeastern Iranian province of Drangiana, which later became known as Sakastan or Seistan;
3) Saka Paradraya: Sakas "across the sea" who probably lived north of the Black Sea and in the Russian steppes, although some groups reached the Danube Valley in central Europe, Syria, and upper Mesopotamia.
Chinese historical annals refer to the movements of the Sai (Chinese designation for Sakas) southwards into northwestern India following a period of disturbances in Central Asia during the second century BCE. According to the History of the Former Han (Han shu), covering the period from 206 BCE to 25 CE: "When, formerly, the Hsiung-nu [Xiongnu] conquered the Yueh-chih [Yuezhi] the latter moved west and established themselves as masters of Ta Hsia [Da xia]; it was in these circumstances that the king of the Sai moved south and established himself as master of Chi-pin [Jibin]. The Sai tribes split and separated and repeatedly formed several states."1
The westward migrations of the Yuezhi (see Kushan essay) led to the emigration of the Sai sometime before 128 BCE, when the Han ambassador Zhang Qian arrived in Sogdia and Bactria to make an alliance with the Yuezhi. Saka migrations were not led by a single king, but were probably gradual movements of acephalous groups to Jibin, a region apparently corresponding to Gandhara or to northwestern India in general.
At the beginning of the first century BCE, two or possibly three groups of Sakas migrated to India from Central Asia:
a) Sakas from the north (perhaps coming from Khotan) took the 'Pamir routes' through the Karakorum Mountains to Swat and Gandhara;
b) Sakas crossed the Hindu Kush under pressure from the Yuezhi to mountain valleys of northeastern Afghanistan;
c) Sakas coming from the southwest (Sakastan) took control of modern Sindh in southern Pakistan.
Maues was one of the earliest Indo-Scythian rulers during the early first century BCE. His name is preserved in bilingual Greek (Maues) and Kharosthi (Moa) coins and a Kharosthi inscription from Taxila (Moga). Maues' origins are obscure: he may have been connected with the Sakas of Sakastan, or he could have belonged to another branch of Sakas that migrated from the north through the mountains to Gandhara and Taxila. In giving himself the title of "King of Kings" in bilingual Greek and Kharosthi coin legends, Maues imitated Parthian royal titles. A Kharosthi inscription on a copper plate from Taxila dated in year 78 of an unspecified era during the reign of "maharaja Moga the Great" records the establishment of Buddhist relics by a donor named Patika, the son of an official (ksatrapa) named Liaka Kusulaka. The inscription demonstrates that Liaka Kusulaka acknowledged the authority of Maues as his overlord. Decentralized administration continued after the period of Maues under loosely affiliated officials who acknowledged a more powerful leader.
Numismatic sequences and inscriptions show that Azes followed Maues as the most powerful Indo-Scythian ruler in 58 BCE, a date corresponding to the beginning of the so-called "Vikrama" era, which is still used in India. Like his predecessor, Azes adopted the title of "King of Kings" and iconography of Greek and Indian gods and goddesses from the coins of contemporary Indo-Greeks. Indo-Greek power in territories of central Afghanistan and eastern Punjab rapidly diminished during the second half of the first century BCE as Indo-Scythians predominated. Azes and his successors Azilises and Azes II administered Taxila and other areas of northwestern Pakistan and India through regional rulers with Iranian, Greek, and Indian titles.
Another branch of Indo-Scythians called the "Western Ksatrapas" ruled parts of western India from the first century BCE to the end of the fourth century CE. The Western Ksatrapas vied with the Satavahanas, another regional dynasty in western India, to control trade routes between the Deccan Plateau and ports on the west coast. This area flourished due to lucrative long-distance trade across the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and Mediterranean (described in the Periplus Maris Erythraei). The Western Ksatrapas and other ruling families and groups of merchants supported Buddhist cave monasteries clustered along routes through the Western Ghats (see essay on Buddhism and Trade). Ujjayini in central India was the center of the Western Ksatrapas from the second to early fourth centuries, until the Gupta ruler Candragupta II defeated the "Sakas" between ca. 395-400 CE (see essay on Guptas).
Sakas in control of major commercial centers along the "Northern Route" (Uttarapatha) and "Southern Route" (Dakshinapatha) (see Trade Route essay) encouraged the development of trade networks and supported Indian religious institutions. Inscriptions that record the establishment of Buddhist relics and donations to monasteries in Gandhara, Taxila, Mathura, and western India show that Sakas, Parthians, and other Iranians were active lay supporters of the Buddhist community. Saka support of Buddhism did not preclude their patronage of other religious traditions or imply that their old beliefs were abandoned. Iranian elements in architecture, iconography, languages, and many other spheres of Indian life around the beginning of the Common Era are easy to recognize. Concurrent with their impact in India, migrations of the Sakas during the last two centuries BCE and the Kushans in first century CE from Central Asia to northwestern India eventually led to the transmission of Buddhism in the other direction to Central Asia and East Asia.
-- Jason Neelis
(1) Translation of Anthony F.P. Hulsewe in China in Central Asia. The Early Stage: 125 B.C. - A.D. 23 (An Annotated Translation of Chapters 61 and 96 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty). Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1979, pp. 104-5. Pinyin equivalents in brackets correspond to the Wade-Giles transliterations.