Dialogue January-March, 2012, Volume 13 No. 3


Afghanistan : a brief Historical Sketch

B.B. Kumar

Present day Afghanistan is an ancient country which constituted the main kingdoms of Gandhara and Bactria. Gandhara since ancient days extended on both sides of the Khaibar pass. Some times, the Gandhara territory to the east and west of the Khaibar pass were known as Gandhara and Nagarahara respectively. Thus the region to the east of Khaibar pass towards Punjab side was Gandhara, and that between Khaibar pass and Kabul Valley was known as Nagarahara. Bactria, extending northwards from the Kabul Valley, extended inside present day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The region to the north of Bactria was known as Sogdia. The southern part of Bactria, just north of Kabul was also known as Kapisha (modern Begram); while its northern part was subsquently known as Tocharistan. Mazar-i-Sharif, earlier known as Balkh, is the principal town of northern Afghanistan today. Afghanistan was also known as Khurasan by the Persians, which means (the country of the sun-rise. However, Old name of the country was: Aryana and its capital for long was Balkh. According to Rahman Pajwak, the oldest name of Afghanistan was ‘Aryana. In Avesta, the name given to the country was: Aryanam/Areta Bijon and Arya Barsh (barsha means grazing ground)

Afghanistan formed important link between India and Central Asia since ancient days. Takshashila (Texila) and Purushpur (Peshawar) on either side of the Sindhu River were connected with Indian trade routes towards the Indian side and Central Asian trade routes on the other side. Takshashila, the strategically located capital city of Gandhar, was the terminus of several major trade routes on its both sides. The route, towards the west, passed through Pushkalavati, Purushpur and Kapisha to Bactria. The route from Kapisha to Bactria ran through Bamiyan and a number of passes – Robat, Dandan, Shikan, and Karakotal; followed Dana Yousouf route to reach Mazar-i-Sharif and then Bactria. This route was the oldest and the most frequented one. Hiuen Tsang reached Bactria from Samarkand and then followed this route to reach Bamiyan, Kapisha and Purushpur through Khaibar pass The route towards the north passed through Kashmir Valley to Gilgit, and then to Yarkand and Kashgarh in today’s Chinese Turkistan. Like Takshashila, Bactria was an eminent centre of the trade routes in Central Asia, known as Silk Roads.1

The region from India, through Afghanistan to Central Asia was well-connected even during pre-historic days. The leading pre-historians of Russia have discovered large remains of Sohan Culture across the difficult mountain terrains of the Hindukush and the Pamirs in the valleys of Oxus and its tributaries. The discoveries of V. Ranov, Kh. A. Alphasayev and others provide enough light on the subject. The first stage of Old Stone Age or Palaeolithic culture of Central Asia, named Borykazghan culture was named Soan culture of Central Asia by Ranov. Diffusion of culture from India to Central Asia via Afghanistan continued in the Neolithic stage and in Bronze Age culture also. The similarity between Kangra valley neolithic culture and Gissan (Hissar) culture of Central Asia has also been discovered.2

Early Rigvedic literature mentions the name of Paktha Pakhtoons) or Afghan along with various Iranian tribes– Prthu (Parthians), the Parsu (Persians), the Bhalana (Baluch), etc participating in the ‘Ten Kings’ battle (Dasarajña Yuddha). The other three tribes were the Elina (Hellene, Greeks), Bhrgu (Phrygians, Armenians) and Simyu (Sirmiyo, Albanians). This war took place in Punjab. The tribes mentioned above moved to Afghanistan, where Avesta was written, and then spread westwards to Iran and elsewhere.3 The geographical horizon of the Avesta, as per Shrikant G. Talageri "extends from Afghanistan and southern Central Asia in the west to the Punjab in the east, and that of the Rigveda from (at least) western Uttar Pradesh in the east to southern Afghanistan in the west.. The common ground therefore lies in the area stretching from Punjab to Afghanistan".4

It is pertinent to mention that certain geographical data pertaining to Western region, stretching from Sindhu to Afghanistan and Southern Central Asia is found in Rgveda. It follows5:

River names: Tstrama, Susartu, Anitabha, Rasa, Svetya, Kubha, Krumu, Gomati, Sarayu, Mehatnu, Svetyavari, Suvastu, Gauri, Sindhu, Susoma, Arjikiya.

Place names : Gandhari (indirectly Gandharva)

Mountain names : Susoma, Arjika, Mujavat

Lake names: Saryanavat(i)

Animal names : ustra (Bactrian camel), mathra (Afghan horse), Chaga (mountain goat), mesa (mountain sheep), vrsni (ram), ura (lamb), varah/varahu (also found in Avesta).

Certain Iranian names are found in Early {Rgveda in Books 6 and 7, which are: Usana6 , Kavi Bhargava7, Abhyavartin Cayamana8 and Prthu/Parthava9 in Book 6 and that of Paktha10, Bhalanas11, Kavi Cayamana, (Avestan name of Kavi, the king of the Anu coalition and the name of the dynasty which included Vistaspa, is Kauui)12, Kavasa (Avestan —Kaosa)13; Prthu and Parsu/Parsava14 in Book 7. It needs mention that {RV:7:18 and ] RV:7:83, in which these names appear are Dasarajña (Ten Kings’ battle) hymns. In Dasarajña battle, in which ten kings fought against the king Sudas, the latter won the war with the help of Indra. It was a battle between the Puru-Bharata tribe (ancestors of Indo-Aryans) and the combination of Anu tribe (ancestors of Pathans, Iranian, Armenian/Phrygian, Greek and Albanian branches) and Druhyus tribe (ancestors of other IE branches, Hittite, Tocharian, Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, Slavic) The battle was fought on the banks of Parusni river in Central Punjab. It is only later on that the Anus and Druhyus moved westward that the Indo-Iranian culture emerged. The similarity only exists between the Late Books of the Rigveda and the Avesta. It needs mention that books 6, 3 and 7 are considered to be ‘Early Books’; books 4 and 2 as ‘Middle Books’ and books 5, 1, and 8-10 as the ‘Late Books’ of the Rgveda.’ The names of the persons, geographical places, plants and animals of Afghan/Iranian region start appearing in Late Rigveda Books. As mentioned above. Haptahandu (RV —Saptasindhavah) is mentioned as an Iranian land in the Avesta. The words in Rigveda and Avesta undergo phonetic change. Atharvan (fire-priest) is athrauuan in Avesta; kasyapa (tortoise) is kasiiapa; sepa, in Sunahsepa (Avesta: xsuuaepa) and Parucchepa is ‘tail’.

It is interesting to mention that Druhyus, Anus and Purus, mentioned above, who fought ‘Ten Kings’ battle’ descended from three brothers named Druhyu, Anu and Puru. All three were the sons of the king Ayati. Their mother, Sharmishtha was the daughter of the Asura king Vrishaparva. Ayati has two more sons – Yadu and Turvasu – from another queen Devayani, daughter of the Asura priest Sukracharya, also known as Ushana and Kavya. Among the five sons of Ayati, Puru inherited his kingdom; His descendants were Bharatas. Turvasu and Yadu ruled in the East and West India respectively. Druhyu and Anu migrated towards West and North-West. The ancient history of Ayati and his sons have been detailed in the Mahabharata’s Adi Parva and the Puranas. Ayati made Puru the king of the territory between Ganga and Yamuna.15 In this connection, it needs mention that Druhyus is mentioned only in one hymn of the Rigveda, figuring as the enemies.16 The Anus are named in four hymns; in two of them figuring as enemies.17

Rahman Pajwak, the Afghan scholar, in his history book, has mentioned that Yama, the first king of Afghanistan, developed irrigation system. He has also mentioned the name of Bahlik, a king of Gandhara, who participated in Mahabharata war. He was son of Prateep of Kuru dynasty.18 It needs mention that the names of both, Yama and Bahlic, is mentioned in the early Indian literature. Yama, the son of Vivaswan and brother of Manu, was the rishi of Rigveda and hymn 10.14 of Rigveda is attributed to him. Prateep of Kuru dynasty had three sons – Bahlik, Shantanu and Devapi. Devapi left home and accepted Vanprasthya at very young age; Bahlik went to his maternal uncle’s home and therefore, Shantanu was made the king by his father.19 Mahabharata War was fought between the descendants of Shantanu. Nagnajit’s family was ruling Gandhar at the time of Mahabharata War. Gandhari, wife of Dhritarashtra and mother of Duryodhan, was the daughter of Subal and grand-daughter of Nagnajit. Shakuni, the brother of Gandhari, fought the Mahabharata War and was killed in the same. Nagnajit was also a scholar of medicine (Ayurveda)20 and archaeologist (Vastu-shastra-vid)21

Gandhar, a descendant of Druhyu, settled a country on other side of the Sindhu River. It was a vast country.22 According to the Ramayana of Valmiki, it was settled on both sides of Sindhu.23 Taksha and Pushkar, the sons of Bharat, brother of Rama, settled Takshashila and Pushkarawati, near Gandhar.24 As is natural, the boundary of Gandhar must have been shifting from time to time. Panini gives the impression that Takshashila was not in Gandhar.25 Ptolemy includes it in Urasa.26

Afghanistan, with ancient history and civilization, was conquered by Persian king Darius (c.500B.C.) and then Alexander (329-327 B.C.) and was ruled by Selucus after latter’s death. Soon after, Bactria became independent and Southern Afghanistan became part of Mauryan Empire; Chandragupta, Bimbisar and Ashoka ruled the same. For some time, Bactria expanded southwards, but fell during mid-2nd century B.C. to the Parthians and the Shakas and other rebellious tribes. Kushanas (Tushara, Tukharas, Yueh-chis) dynasty was established during early 2nd century B.C. Kanishka, the most prominent Kushana monarch ruled a vast empire incorporating parts of Central Asia, Afghanistan and India. His capital city was Purushpur (Peshawar). The western capital was Kapisha. He, like his predecessor Asoka, promoted Buddhism in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

It is a well-known fact that India and Afghanistan formed intimate parts of the same politico-religious-cultural continuum for long. The Vedas and Avesta were like two sides of the same coin. Even the wars mentioned in the Rigveda and Avesta were intra-familial wars

The role of Asoka and Kanishka in the spread of Buddhism is well-known. Earlier Hinayana biographies of Lord Buddha, Sarvastivada text Lalitavistara Sutra (The Sutra of Extensive Play) for example, takes the Afghanistan’s contact with Buddhism earlier in time-frame. According to that, Tapassu and Bhallika, two merchant brothers from Bactria, were the first to receive layman’s vows just eight weeks after Shakyamuni’s enlightenment during 537 BCE. Later on, Ballika became a monk and built a monastery in his home city Balkh, near present day Mazar-i-sharif. He brought eight hairs of Buddha and built a stupa monument. Balkh, precisely at that time, became part of the Achaemenid Empire of Iran. Several years after the Second Buddhist Council, in 349 BC, the Mahasanghika tradition of Hinayana split off from the Theravada, when many Mahasanghikas moved to Gandhara. At Hadda, which is the main city on Afghan side near present-day Jalalabad, they brought a skull relic of Lord Buddha and then founded Nagara Vihara monastery. Sambhuta Sanavasi, a Theravada elder, soon after, tried to establish his tradition in Kapisha, but failed. Thus Mahasanghika became the main tradition of Buddhism in Afghanistan. However, Mahasanghika also split into five schools and Lokottarvada, one of the five and the main school in Afghanistan, later established itself in the Bamiyan Valley in the Hindu Kush Mountains. Lokottaravadins, in keeping with their assertion of Buddha as a transcendant, superhuman figure, built world’s largest Buddha statues at bamiyan during 3rd-5th centuries AD, which Taliban destroyed in 2001 AD.

Ashoka, in later part of his reign, sent a Theravadan mission to Kandahar under the leadership of Maharakkhita, who erected "Ashoka pillars" there with Buddhist edicts. After Third Buddhist Council, towards the end of Ashoka’s reign, Sarvastivada School also split out of the Theravada. When Graeco-Bactrian rule was established in Bactria in 239 BC and then they conquered Gandhara from Mauryans in 197 BC, Sarvastivada was made popular in Afghanistan by Kashmiri monks. Of course, Menandros (Milinda of Milindapanho; Questions of Milinda) continued to favour Theravada under the influence of visiting Indian monk Nagasena. Later on, Graeco-Bactrians developed link with Shri Lanka which also influenced the course of Buddhism in Afghanistan. Graeco-Bactrian rule was also instrumental in bringing Helenic influence on Gandharan Buddhist art.

Fourth Buddhist Council was held by Kanishka during his rule (78-102 AD), in which Ghoshak, a Tokharian monk and one of the compilers of Vaibhashika commentaries on abhidharma (special topic of knowledge), propounded it in the same. After his return to Tukharistan, he founded the western Vaibhashika (Balhika School). Nava Vihara, which was the main monastery of Balkh at that time, soon developed into the centre of higher Buddhist study, comparable to Nalanda monastery, for the Central Asia. The monastery, housing a tooth relic of Lord Buddha, also developed as a pilgrimage centre along the Silk Route.

Kanishka, like his predecessor Graeco Bactrian and successor Persian Sassanid kings, was a tolerant king. Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, especially Shiva worship, co-existed side by side.27 Balkh was the birth-place of Zarathustra/Zoroaster and therefore, the Iranian religion Zoroastrianism, and a pilgrimage centre. Buddhism and Zoroastrianism not only peacefully co-existed there, but even influenced each other. As for example, a wall painting of Buddha with aura of flames and inscriptions calling them Buddha-Mazda shows the amalgam of Buddha and Ahur Mazda, the Supreme God of Zoroastrianism. It needs mention that paintings of Buddha with auspicious Vaishnavite symbols also abound in Central Asia, especially in Chinese Turkistan.

Sanskrit was the language of Sarvastivad Buddhism. Inscriptions of Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit in Kharoshthi and Brahmi scripts have been discovered in Afghanistan and in East and West Central Asia. In the context of Afghanistan, it needs mention that Panini, the Sanskrit Grammarian and author of Ashtadhyayi was a Pathan. Pushtu language abounds in Sanskrit lexemes.28

After the decline of the Kushanas during 3rd century A.D., the Sassanides, the Ephthalites and the Turkish Tu-Kule came to power in Afghanistan. Buddhist Turk Ratbeel/Ratnapal ruled that country in 7th century. Brahmin minister Karar killed king Laktorman of that dynasty; established Brahman Shahi, which is variously termed Kabul Shahi, Hindu Shahi and Rajate Kabul. Yakub, king of Seistan attacked Kabul in 871 and occupied it after several years of war. King Samanta Dev shifted his capital to Ohind (modern Und or Ohind; Waihind, Al-Beruni; Udbhand, Rajatarangini; Udakabhanda, Hiuen Tsang), north of Atak on the north bank of Sindhu river. His descendants, however, recaptured Kabul afterwards.

Mahmud of Ghazna conquered Afghanistan in the 11th century. It was then subsequently conquered by Changhiz Khan (c. 1220), Timur (late 14th century) and Babur, a descendant of Timur. Part of Afghanistan was ruled for longer period by the Moghul dynasty of India. The Lodis and Sher Shah were Pathans, who ruled parts of India. Nadir Shah, a Persian ruler (18th century) extended his rule upto north of Hindu Kush. After his death in 1747, his lieutenant, Ahmad Shah Durrani came to power in Afghanistan. Durrani dynasty, of Afghan origin, united entire present day Afghanistan. The dynasty ruled upto 1818. After that, Dost Muhammad became the emir in 1826. He died in 1863 and was succeeded by his third son, Sher Ali, after familial fight. Sher Ali, after his death in 1879, was succeeded by Yakub Khan. Afghanistan became the scene of Great Colonial Game between Russia and Britain during the rule of Dost Muhammad. Both countries wanted to control Afghanistan. Two Afghan Wars were fought with British during 1838-42 and 1878. Yakub Khan ceded Khaibar Pass and other areas to the British. Kabul was occupied by the British when their envoy was murdered and then Abd ar-Rahman Khan was recognized as emir in 1880. The country’s borders were properly demarcated and defined following Border agreements with Russia (1885-95), British India (1893; the Durand Agreement) and Persia (1905). Independence of Afghanistan under British influence in foreign affairs was guaranteed under the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907. Habibullah succeeded his father Abd ar-Rahman Khan after his death in 1901. The country, despite pressure from the British, remained neutral during World War I. Amanullah succeeded his father, Habibullah was assassinated in 1919. He invaded India in the same year leading to the Third Afghan War. The Treaty of Rawalpindi gave the country full control over its foreign policy. Amanullah, who declared himself king; was deposed in 1929 due to stiff opposition due to his attempted move of modernization of Afghanistan. Curtailment of the power of the Islamic clergy and increasing freedom to the women provoked reaction against him. Kabul was held captive by a tribal leader, Bacha-i-Saqao, for few months. He was, however, defeated by Muhammad Nadir Khan, Amanullah’s cousin, who became king Nadir Shah. Despite his cautious steps towards modernization, he was assassinated in 1933 and was succeeded by his son, Muhammad Zahir Shah. Afghanistan remained neutral during World War II also. It became member of the UNO in 1948.

During the Indian Freedom struggle, Pathans of North-West Frontier of India living in the Indian side of the Durand Line also participated in the struggle under the leadership of Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, popularly known as ‘Simant Gandhi. In 1947, when India was partitioned, North-West Frontier Province went to Pakistan. Afghanistan wanted three options for them: either to join Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or to remain independent. They were, however, given the option to join either India or Pakistan, and they joined Pakistan. The demand for autonomous Pashtunistan (Pakhtunistan), however, has not completely died out and is heard from either side of the Durand Line.

Afghanistan remained neutral during the Cold War uptil the late 1970s; it received aid from both the US and USSR. The country faced serious economic problems during late 1970s due to severe draught condition in the central and northern parts of the country. A group of young military officers under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Sardar Muhammad Daud Khan, the cousin of the king, Muhammad Zahir Shah, deposed the king in 1973, blaming him for mishandling the economic crisis and stifling the political reforms. A republic was proclaimed and Daud became president and prime-minister. He was also deposed in 1978 by a group led by Noor Mohammad Taraki. Taraki instituted Marxist reforms; aligned the country more closely with the USSR. Taraki was killed soon after in September 1979; Hafizullah Amin took over the reigns of the country. This led to Soviet intervention; Soviet troops entered Afghanistan; Amin was executed, Barbak Karmal became president. Popular opposition to Karmal’s government started soon after by the guerilla opposition forces called Mujahideen (Islamic Warriors). They received massive financial and arms and ammunition support from US and Saudi Arabia. USA and Pakistan joined hands to dislodge the Soviet troops. ISI and Pakistan’s military’s help to the Mujahideen created enormous difficulty for the Soviet forces and Soviet-backed Afghan government. Karmal resigned in 1986; he was replaced by Mohammad Najibullah. With the Soviet troops’ withdrawal, Afghanistan War (1979-89) ended. This, however, did not bring end to the sufferings of the war-devastated country. The government lost ground; guerrilla forces captured Kabul in 1992; they installed a 50-member ruling council with Burhanuddin Rabbani as interim president.

As the guerrillas did not remain united, the fighting among the factions, controlling their own independent zones, continued; the guerrilla faction of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar started attacking the government. This led to signing of power-sharing accord between Rabbani and Hekmatyar, making the latter the prime-minister in early 1996. In the meantime, Taliban (a militia of Pashtun Islamic fundamentalist students, formed in late 1994 in Pakistan) emerged as an important player in the political arena of Afghanistan. It captured Kabul in September 1996 and installed ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’. Taliban imposed puritanical form of Islamic law. Accordingly, following edict was issued on 26th February 2001 for the destructions of all statues and non-Islamic shrines in Afghanistan:

"On the basis of consultations between the religious leaders of the IEA, religious judgments of the Umma and rulings of the Supreme Court of IEA, all statues and non-islamic shrines located in different parts of the IEA must be destroyed (broken). These statues have been and remain shrines of infidels and these infidels continue to worship and respect these icons (statues). Allah (God) Almighty is the only real shrine and all false shrines (symbols) must be smashed (destroyed).

Therefore, the supreme leader of the IEA has ordered all the representatives of the Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice and to the Ministries of Information and Culture to smash (destroy) all the statues (shrines). As ordered by the Ulama and the Supreme Court of the IEA all the statues must be annihilated (destroyed) so that no one can worship or respect them in the future."29

As per the edict, the Taliban militia destroyed all the statues in the Afghanistan, including world famous giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan and Asoka’s pillar (Minar-i-chakri). This shocking action was condemned world over, including the Islamic ones.

US intervention in Afghanistan affairs ultimately brought an end to Taliban rule in that country just when Taliban was about to control the entire country. There was US missile attack which destroyed an extensive terrorist training complex near Kabul run by Osama bin-Laden, a Saudi-born militant and al-Qaeda outfit’s founder and leader, who was the mastermind behind 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The UN brokered peace agreement reached between the Taliban and the forces of the Northern alliance, led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, a former mujahideen ethnic Tajik leader, in March 1999 could not last long and fighting broke out again in July 1999. Therefore, the UN imposed sanction on Afghanistan in November 1999. The US missile attack of 1998 and UN sanctions were necessitated due to Taliban government’s refusal to turn over bin-Laden. In the mean time, a further UN sanction was imposed in December 2000, which banned arms sale to Taliban. Massoud died in a suicide bomb attack on 9 Saptember 2001. Two days after that, there was attack on World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in USA, in which bin-Laden was involved. Taliban government’s refusal to hand over bin-Laden led to US military intervention and defeat of Mullah Muhammad Omar’s Taliban government and bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda by January 2002. The war still continues. Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun with ties to the former king, Muhammad Zahir Shah, was elected interim leader by a pan-Afghan Conference held in Bonn, Germany in December 2001 and later on, he became president. His government continues with almost non-existent government control outside Kabul and big towns.


1. Kumar, B.B., India and Central Asia: Links and Interactions, in India and Central Asia: Classical to Contemporary Periods’ by J.N.    
    Roy and B.B. Kumar; Astha Bharati, Delhi and Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi 2007; p. 9.
2. Ibid, p. 4.
3. Talageri, Shrikant G., The Rigveda and The Avesta: The Final Evidence; New Delhi (2010); pp.: 256.
4. Ibid, p. 81.
5. Ibid, p. 83
6. RV.6.20
7. RV 6.20.11
8. RV 6.27.5, 8
9. RV 6.27.8
10. RV 7.18.7
11. RV 7.18.7
12. RV.VI:7.18.8
13. RV 7.18.12
14. RV 7.83.1
15. Mahabharata, Adi Parva, 82:5.
16. RV. VII: 18:6, 12,14 in Dasrajna hymn
17. RV. VI: 62:9; RV. VII: 18:13, 14.
18. Akhtar, Jamnadas, Afghanistan (Hindi), pp. 18-19
19. Mahabharata, Adi Parva: 92:23
20. Charak Samhita: Sutra Sthan: chapters 12 and 25.
21. Matsya Puran 252"2-4.
22. Vayu Puran, 99:9.
23. Ramayana, Uttar Kand 113:10.
24. Vayu Puran 88:189-90; Brahmand Puran 3:63:190-91.
25. Panini, Ashtadhyayi : 4:3:93.
26. Ptolemy, Ancient India, Calcutta (1927), p. 118.
27. See Banerjee, P. and R.C. Agrawala, Hindu Sculptures in Ancient Afghanistanin in India’s Contribution to World Thought and Culture, Lokesh Chandra, et. Al., Chennai, 1970.
28. Raghu Vira, Prof. Dr., Bharatiya Bhashaon men Pashto Shabda (Hindi), in India and Asia: A Cultural Symphony, New Delhi, 1978; pp. 228-29.

             29. Source: Radio Sharia 27/2/2001

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