The Kushan Empire spread from the Kabul River valley to defeat other Central Asian tribes that had previously conquered parts of the northern central Iranian Plateau once ruled by the Parthians. By the middle of the 1st century BC, the Kushan’s base of control became Afghanistan and their empire spanned from the north of the Pamir mountains to the Ganges river valley in India. Early in the 2nd century under Kanishka, the most powerful of the Kushan rulers, the empire reached its greatest geographic and cultural breadth to become a center of literature and art.
Kanishka extended Kushan control to the mouth of the Indus River on the Arabian Sea, into Kashmir, and into what is today the Chinese-controlled area north of Tibet. Kanishka was a patron of religion and the arts. It was during his reign that Buddhism, which was promoted in northern India earlier by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (c. 260 BC–232 BC), reached its zenith in Central Asia.
The Kushanas supported both Budhism and Hinduism, as well as the worship of various local deities. The Kushan coins and their seals has more than 30 different pictures of gods, belonging to the Hellenistic, the Iranian, and to a lesser extent the Indian world. Kanishka also retained Shiva of his predecessor’s coins under the name Oesho (Bhavesa or Havesa)and introduced the figure of Buddha with the legend Baddoor Sakamano Boddo.
In the 3rd century, Kushan control fragmented into semi-independent kingdoms that became easy targets for conquest by the rising Iranian dynasty, the Sassanians (c. 224–561) which annexed Afghanistan by 300 AD. In these far off eastern-most territories, they established vassal kings as rulers, known as the Kushanshahs. Sassanian control was tenuous at times as numerous challenges from Central Asian tribes led to instability and constant warfare in the region.
The disunited Kushan and Sassanian kingdoms were in a poor position to meet the threat of a new wave of nomadic, Indo-European invaders from the north. The Hephthalites (or White Huns) swept out of Central Asia around the 4th century into Bactria and to the south, overwhelming the last of the Kushan and Sassanian kingdoms. Some have speculated that the name Afghanistan land of the Afghans derives from which could be an adjective such as brave, chivlarious, valour, which was to use for the people in today’s Afghanistan. Historians believe that Hepthalite control continued for a century and was marked by constant warfare with the Sassanians to the west who exerted nominal control over the region.
The Turk Shahis dynasties ruled portions of the Kabul Valley (in eastern Afghanistan) and the old province of Gandhara (northern Pakistan and Kashmir) from the decline of the Kushan Empire in the 3rd century to the early 9th century. The Turkic rulers first had their capital in Kapisa (Begram), and then in Kabul as they expanded eastward.
Before the formal establishment of the Turks, the last local king of Kapisa was known in Chinese and Arab sources by the name of Ghar-ilchi (653-661 AD), and he had been formally installed as king of Jibin (former Kapisi/ Kabulistan) by the Chinese Tang Dynasty emperor in 653 CE, and again as Governor of Jibin under the newly formed Chinese Anxi Protectorate, the “Protectorate of the Western Regions”, in 661 A.D. The Turki Shahi dynasty boasted of descent from Raja Kanishka of the Kushana dynasty. It was a Hinduised or Hindu dynasty and had become part of Hindu history.
Al-Biruni in his Tārīkh al-Hind (“History of India”) describes the rule of the Turk Shahis at Kabul. The pedigree of this royal family written on silk was said to exist in the fortress Nagarkot, but Alberuni was unable to make himself acquainted with it for various reasons, one of them being that the Hindus did not pay much attention to the historical order of things and were very careless in relating the chronological succession of their kings. Conseiquently only three of the rulers are named by Alberuni in his account, viz., the founder (Barhatakin by name), one intervening monarch (called Kanik), and the last King. Barhatakin “wore Turkish dress, a short tunic open in front, a high hat, boots and arms”.
This king “brought those countries under his sway and ruled them under the title of a Shahiya of Kabul. The rule remained among his descendants for generations, the number of which is said to be about sixty”. Al-biruni then describes the rise of the Hindu Shahis after them.
When Xuanzang visited the region early in the 7th century, the Kabul region was ruled by a Kshatriya king, who is identified as the Shahi Khingal, and whose name has been found in an inscription found in Gardez. The Turk Shahis are reported as having been supporters of Buddhism and Hinduism but are generally presented as Buddhists. The Chinese pilgrim Wulong arrived in Gandhara in 753 A.D.. According to him, the country of Kapisi had its eastern capital in Gandhara during the winter, and its capital in Kapisi during the summer.
In Kashmir, which he visited from 756 to 760 CE, he explained that Buddhist temples were dedicated by the Tu-kiu (“Turk”) kings. The Korean pilgrim Hui Chao in 726 CE recorded in the Chinese language that the Turkic rulers of Kapisa (“Jibin”) followed the Triratna and dedicated many Buddhist temples.
A 5th-century marble Ganesha was found in Gardez, Afghanistan, now at Dargah Pir Rattan Nath, Kabul. The inscription says that this “great and beautiful image of Mahāvināyaka” was consecrated by the Shahi King Khingala . A famous statue of a Sun deity that is either Mitra or Surya in tunic and boots was discovered in Khair Khaneh near Kabul, as well as the statue of Ganesha from Gardez are now attributed to the Turk Shahis in the 7-8th century A.D. Archaeologically, the construction of the Khair Khaneh temple itself is now dated to 608-630 CE, at the beginning of the Turk Shahis period.
The Turkic Shahi regency was overthrown and replaced by a Mohyal Shahi dynasty of Brahmins who began the first phase of the Brahmana Hindu Shahi dynasty.
These Hindu kings of Kabul and Gandhara may have had links to some ruling families in neighboring Kashmir and other areas to the east. The Shahis were rulers of predominantly Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Hindu and Muslim populations and were thus patrons of numerous faiths, and various artifacts and coins from their rule have been found that display their multicultural domain. In 964 AD, the last Mohyal Shahi was succeeded by the Janjua overlord, Jayapala, of the Panduvanshi dynasty.
The first confirmed mention of a Hindu in Afghanistan in Persian chronicles appears in the 982 AD Hudud al-Alam, where it speaks of a king in “Ninhar” (Nangarhar), who shows a public display of conversion to Islam, even though he had over 30 wives, which are described as “Muslim, Afghan, and Hindu”