THE BUDDHIST EMPIRE OF THE KUSHANS Ancient glazed
quartz beads from Bactria
The carved, blue and blue-greenish glazed chalcedony panel beads
displayed here are unique. They are from Balk, Mazar-e-Sharif,
in present-day Afghanistan. Interestingly, they are only found in this
small area, which means that they were never exported
along the silk routes, like so many other types of
Shapes and colors
Their original cut shapes are remarkable.
The shapes could be a
result of the craftsmanship of a primitive wheel cutting,
operated by a cutter and 'cyclist' keeping the wheel
with diamond dust spinning. This technique is as old as
the invention of the diamond drill, 600 B.C. and worked
pretty much on the same technological level as the bow
In most cases, the glaze is partly worn away, and so are
the original delicate cut shapes. In general, the beads
show a lot of wear and tear. Most probably the
were popular and used a lot and/or they are very old.
In this late stage of their bead-life, these odd quartz
turned into expressions of modern art.
Hellenistic kingdom of Bactria
When we speculate on their origin, we must not forget
that Balk was the capital in the
Greek-Buddhist state Bactria. Bactria was the
longest-lasting independent Hellenistic kingdom. Its
culture was extremely resilient as its inhabitants.
Achaemenid times, it was a Persian habit to exile rebellious
Greeks living in their empire to the furthest eastern corner,
Bactria. Later the Greeks did the same. Due to this Siberian ostracization politics, there was a strong Greek
presence in the area long before the arrival of Alexander the Great and the
Seleucid Empire. As emigrated minority
cultures often develop a much stronger will to conserve
their old customs, we in Bactria got Macedonian-Greeks
that in many ways were more Hellenistic than even in
Greece itself. Simultaneously, the strong Seleucid
cultural bonds with the, at that time, Buddhist India kept this conservative outpost culture
paradoxically open to all kinds of hybridizations with
The arrival of the Kushans
Later, with the arrival of the invading Kushans, the by now
unique Macedonian-Greek-Buddhist culture in Bactria survived
in the form of the invading
cultural adaption of the Bactrian culture. The Kuhans adopted and
even refined the culture of the people
they had defeated and in this way they became reborn as creative custodians of Hellenistic art. Hence the famous
Gandhara art is not made by
Macedonian-Greeks but by the Kushan people.
The dominance of Buddhism
The Bactrian Buddhism had, in spite of the presence of an
Islamic elite, a strong cultural presence in the Bactrian region
for several hundred years. However, this changed in 1193 A.D. when
Turkic Islamic raiders under Muhammad Khilji burnt
the famous Buddhist university-monastery in
Before this apocalyptic event, the Arab conquest and settlement
did not imply conversion to Islam but, rather, out of economic
reasons, only demanded submission. The invaders were not eager
to convert the local population due to the simple reason that
non-Muslims had to
pay an extra tax called jizya. If
everyone was converted, the ruling elite would lose an essential
source of income.
In this first long phase of eastward expansion, from the
conquest of Balk in 705 A.D. up to the end of the 12th
century, Islam was basically reserved as an exclusive religion
of the elite. The new rulers were not into caliphate
state-building and, therefore, also not propagating the ideological mind-control that always
follows such superimposed societal power-structures. Hence the local
Buddhists and other cultures were not forced into being
dhimmis, second-class citizens. The elite was satisfied to
rule the world of financial power in the area and left it to the
Buddhists to do what they wanted with the cultural landscape
outside the small circle of Islamic life.
scenario, the greatest threat for the Buddhist majority did not come from their Arab rulers but
from the growing influence of Hinduism.
(Source: Buddhism in North
western India and Eastern Afghanistan, Sixth to Ninth Century AD,
Giovanni Veradi) In fact,
the Buddhists were all too willing to cooperate with the Muslims
in order to ward off the aggressive Brahmanisation coming from
Seen in the light of the shape of Islam's Eastern face, it is
not an overstatement to claim that Bactria was a Buddhist
country under a foreign political rule up to 1193 A.D. In fact,
this geo-political configuration can be compared to the situation in Tibet since the Chinese
occupation in 1950. Would you characterize contemporary Tibet as a Communist
or a Buddhist country?
A wrong Timeline
In the book, A
Bead Timeline, the type of glazed quartz beads displayed
on this page, are categorized as Early Islamic,
excavated of Nishapur, 9th to 11th-century. Since then, these
beads have, through literary precedent, been classified as
I politely disagree with this classification, categorizing the
origin of these beads as Islamic. James Lankton has forgotten to
make the cardinal distinctions between financial, political, and
cultural power in the early days of the Islamic expansion
towards the East.
It should by now be clear why there is no reason to
automatically categorize these Bactrian beads as Islamic just
because an Islamic elite ruled the area. The beads most probably
belonged to the ancient but at that time still living heritages
already present in the area.
When taking a closer look at the glazed quartz beads in the
illustration from the timeline book above, it becomes obvious
that with such a degree of wear the beads they are
much older than the 9th to 10th-century layer they were
excavated from. Almost all the glazed quartz beads in my
collection show the same wear and tear through prolonged use.
Taken in consideration that quartz has a
hardness of 7 on the Mohs scale, it should be obvious that
these beads already at the time where they went into hybernation had lived through several generations of human life.
For that reason alone they cannot be Islamic beads. Seen in
this context, we should have a closer look at the
The glazing came later
Through a closer examination of the beads, one can
observe, through the wear and tear of time, how delicately and
precisely the beads initially were carved. This
refinement is in sharp contrast to the glazing that is very causal, almost sloppy, apart from a few
exemptions that might be a reminiscence of original
My best guess is that the beads originally were made
without color and then, were glazed much later. On several of the specimens one can observe how
the glazing was done on a surface that had been worn
for generations before the color alteration was added,
as you can observe below:
It was likely the early inhabitants of Bactria who crafted these
delicately carved quartz beads.
The white-colored and original beauty is, however,
like wearing white clothes. After hundreds years of use,
it gets a dirty and worn
Then, much later
generations, maybe even Muslim inhabitants, came up with the idea of
beautifying the beads with colorful glazing.
Below are some specimens
showing this later glazing very clearly.
Probably, also the Islamic population-segments in the area used
these beads and even reshaped them.
This carving below, depicting an Indo-Persian warrior with a
Khud helmet, demonstrates how these ancient
beads were modified to fit demands on later stages.
When we, armed with this historian outlook, look beyond the
event-horizon of Islam, we could, as
suggests, look at a possible
Sassanian origin. However, apart from the stand-alone
carving above, there is not much in the design of these beads
that associate with Sassanian culture.
There cannot be much
doubt that this milky quartz bead belongs to the Kushan
tradition. Of course, I cannot prove it, but at least I
can point at a very likely probability.
The Kushan hand gesture
is almost similar to the mano-fico, a symbol
used throughout the Roman period. However, the Kushan
talisman's thumb is not placed between the index and the middle finger as in the Roman mano-fico.
Note the placement of the thumb
In the same category of
talismans, we also
find feet as motives:
Once again, the
similarity to the glazed quartz beads below is striking.
portrayal of hands and feet one
could speculate in a possible inspiration from Buddhism.
was a Buddhist tradition to depict Buddha by a hand or a
foot. Buddhist art was before the arrival of the Greeks,
aniconic. Hence the Buddha in the oldest
traditions only was represented through his symbols like
an empty throne, the Bodhi Tree, or Buddha's hands or
There is also a resemblance to
However, both Fatima's and all of Buddha's hand
gestures, the mudras, are by nature
open and inviting. In fact, both Fatima's healing hand, the
hamsa, together with Buddha's blessing hand can
be traced back to the ancient Indus Valley culture.
Mother Goddess with the blessing hand gesture
A clenched fist is
communicating a different signal from openness. It is,
like the Roman mano-fico, a symbol suitable for a more
warrior-like or defensive attitude. However, as stated
in the book from the
British Museum, that these carved hands and feet have served
as talismans warding off evil forces.
The Kushan artifacts from Tillya Tepe are unique in
their own expression, but they also show inspiration
from the Bactrian Greek art.
Displayed below are some gold beads from the same find
from the Kushan grave in Tillya Tepe:
Again we find a great similarity with
the patterns inthe glazed quartz bead below. The gold beads
and are sized between 25 to 28 mm.
The glazed quartz beads are on average a bit smaller
And here again there is a striking resemblance
the Kushan artifacts and the glazed quartz beads:
As soon as Islam began to
build institutional state power, it tended, like Christianity, to erase
all other layers of previous religions, culture and
ideologies. Kashmir is an excellent example of this
Kashmiri Pandits know, as original Hindu inhabitants,
every waterfall, river, and mountain peak by names who
refers to all kind of religious myths and folklore
narratives. The Muslims in the area live only with and
by the Koran and pan-Islamic art and culture. In this sense,
they live in a historical and geographical vacuum. They
are not any longer deeply, and knowledgeable connected
to the particular area they live in and could as well live in Saudi Arabia. It would make no
difference seen in that perspective.
However, as stated, Islam in its eastward expansion did
not caliphate-absolutize religious, cultural and ideological expressions
before around 1200 A.D. That left the field open for
age-old art expressions to continue evolving on their
Below you can see an old Indus gold Goblet from the
same Bactrian area.
Goblet (99 mm) with
geometric motif - Tepe Fullol
2200 - 1900 B.C.
This cross motif we find
in abundance on the glazed quartz beads:
The old Indus and later
Buddhist cross-motif can also be found:
As stated, it is not within my
to prove that these glazed beads belong to
the Kushan culture. However, I would dare to say it is
likely. Even more likely is the evidence-based
hypothesis that they are
of non-Islamic origin.
like to invite you to look at these specimens as
exhibits of modern art. The ancient bead has become
interesting like an abstract painting in the crossfield
of time's wear and tear
and the casual added and worn down but still strong and
beautiful colors. I find it fascinating to look at
beads, especially broken beauties,
through this aestheticized but also story-telling
BACT 13 - 33 * 16 * 14 mm
these beads and let them tell you Greek stories about
the life of the Bactrian Buddhists from an almost
forgotten rich and powerful kingdom.