A Mahishasuramardini from Iran



This silver rhyton has been discovered at Deylaman, Northern Iran.The inscription as well as leading art historians identify the artefact as representing “Durga mahishasuramardini”[1]

Interestingly, it gives new insights into high quality production of silver icons. Its provenance is taken to be in Eastern Afghanistan. It was looted during the Arab Muslim raids on shahi and Zunbil kingdoms of Southern eastern Afghanistan in the latter half of seventh century[2]. Its provenance  beyond the Hindu Kush is not surprising  as archaeology attests to the presence of Durga Icons and worship  in pre Islamic Afghanistan. Arabs referred to the land beyond river Helmand in western Afghanistan as “Al-hind”. Arab Chronicles refer to the ruler of Helmand as “the king of  Al-Hind, who bore the title Zunbil”[3]. Many other Durga Mahishamardini figurines(of primarily marble) dating from c.400CE  to c.800CE  have been discovered from South-Eastern Afghanistan[4] Kabul valley was strongly Hindu in religion during the Pre Islamic age. In the city of Kapisa alone, Xuanzang(c.630) talks about 10 Brahmanical temples and around a 1000 aesthetics


Xuanzang(c.630) relates that Kabul Shahis made donations of 18 foot silver images of buddha[5]. The source of Shahi silver was the mines of panjshir[6] . Our silver rhyton  bears an imprint of “Hadda classicism” collated with a “Gupta sensuousness”[7]. The crescent motive (chandrabindu/aad chand) on forehead is reminiscent of shaivite signs found elsewhere. Our silver rhyton could  be compared to a figurine discovered under Khona Masjid in Surkh kotal[8] The figurine is dated to early Post-Kushana period and provides an iconographical model khona




It is remarkable that in the Surkh Kotal inscription, Kushan emperor Kanishka explicitly identified Durga(Uma) with their native goddess Nana[9].

Kanishka’s worship and identification of Durga with Nana is apparent in these lines of the inscription

Then King Kanishka gave orders to Shafar the karalrang [8] *at this . . . to make the sanctuary which is called B . . . ab, in the *plain of Ka . . ., for these [9] gods, (of) whom the glorious Umma leads the *service here, (namely:) the *lady Nana and the [10] lady Umma, Aurmuzd, the gracious one, Sroshard, Narasa, (and) Mihr.

Such  synthesis and fusion lasted well into our times. The Goddess referred to as “Hingla devi” by Indic speakers is referred to as “bibi Nani(Nana)” by  Iranic speakers of Balochistan and Afghanistan[10]. Thus, it seems that kushans played a prominent role in sprouting up the trade routes, facilitating cultural as well as material contacts and dispersing the worship of Indic gods into  the heartlands of  Afghanistan

It is striking that these minor kingdoms of Shahis and zunbils were able to provide stiff resistance to invading Islamic armies of saffarids and Arabs. It took the Islamic armies just 20 years to conquer all of Iran. By contrast, these kingdoms of Afghanistan resisted Islamic onslaught until Ghazni’s father Subutegin wrested Laghman(Afghanistan) from Shahi ruler Jayapala during c.990 CE. Not only that the Hindu Kabul Shahis withstood onslaughts by mighty Arab empire(which extended from Spain to Talas in china) for over three centuries , the zunbils managed to raid westwards deep into Arab territory of Nimruz[11]
It has been argued by historians that the Hindu kingdoms of Kabul valley offered the best resistance to Islamic kingdom because these mountain tribes and militant chieftains were harder to be conquered in comparison to the dehqani farmers of Iran[12]
Whatever the reason, it is certain that Kabul Shahis by withstanding mighty Arab and Turkish onslaughts at the gateways of Al-Hind delayed an Islamic conquest of mainland India for a few centuries


1)Martha L. Carter  Artibus Asiae, Vol. 41, No. 4

2)Ibid pp.325

3)Wink, Andre Al-hind: The Making of the Indo-islamic World V.1

4)Collections of Kabul museum

5)Beal, op. cit Vol 1 p.551

6)Walker, A catalogue of Arab-Byzantine and post reform Umayyad coins, London 1956 PP.3

7)Martha L. Carter  Artibus Asiae, Vol. 41, No. 4 (1979)

8)D Schlumberger “De rhyton de Khona Masjid”(1971) PP.3

9) Kanishka Inscription at Rabatak(Surkh Kotal) 10-11. Translation by Bactrian linguist Nicholas Sims williams

10) DT Potts “Nana in Bactria”(2001) PP.23

11)Wink, Andre Al-hind: The Making of the Indo-islamic World V.1

12)R Frye, The Golden age of Persia PP.95-96










By trueindology

History| Indology | Linguistics| Archaeology

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