“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage’.”
The first verse of the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament describes the birth of Jesus Christ and mentions ‘three wise men’, or magi, who are supposed to have come from the East.
While the New Testament does not assign names to these men, it is traditionally accepted that they were: Melchior, a Persian scholar; Balthazar, a Babylonian scholar; and Caspar from India. These wise men have also been described as Balthasar, a king of Arabia; Melchior, a king of Persia; and Gaspar, a king of India, in a Greek manuscript probably composed in Alexandria around 500 CE.
While we don’t know whether ‘Caspor’ or ‘Gathaspa’ ever did visit Bethlehem, we do know that there was a Pahlava king named ‘Gondophares’, and that he was connected to his contemporary St Thomas, one of the Apostles of Christ. But we cannot be sure if he is the king from India who is said to have visited the birthplace of Jesus around the time of the birth.
Here goes the tale.
During the time of the Sakas or the Indo-Scythians, in North West India, there was another dynasty which, though it ruled for a very short period, left a lasting mark. This was the Pahlava or Indo-Parthian (Persian) kingdom founded by the Gondopharid dynasty, which ruled from 19 BCE to around 225 CE. They ruled an area covering parts of Eastern Iran, various parts of Afghanistan and the North-West regions of the Indian subcontinent, comprising of Gandhara, Sindh and Western Punjab.
The founder of the dynasty, Gondophares I, belonged to the royal House of Suren, the highest of the five premier families of the Arsacid (Parthian) empire in Iran, who were vested with the hereditary right of commanding the royal armies and placing the crown on the king’s head at coronations.
It is possible that around 129 BCE, when the Sakas attacked the eastern frontier of Parthia, the defence of the Parthian Empire was entrusted by the Arsacid emperors to the Surens. Over time, the Surens threw off the suzerainty of the Arsacid emperors and became rulers in their own right.
Around 19-20 CE, King Gondophares I (From Old Persian – ‘Vindafarnah – ‘May he find glory’) is said to have defeated the Sakas and captured much of their territories. At its greatest extent, his kingdom comprised ‘Sakasthan’ (‘Land of the Sakas’ or Northern Baluchistan), Sindh, and from the Kabul valley in Afghanistan all the way down to Mathura.
King Gondophares I thus founded the Indo-Parthian Empire with his capital at Taxila, where a number of Parthian or Pahlava monuments such as the remains of the Zoroastrian Fire Temple at Jandial have been found. Although practising Zoroastrianism, the Pahlavas patronised the Buddhist establishments here. The most spectacular remnant of Pahlava rule is the UNESCO World Heritage Buddhist monastery complex of ‘Takht-i-Bahi’ in the Mardan region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, believed to have been founded during the reign of King Gondophares. Not just this, noted Taxila historian Sir John Marshall wrote that there was a thriving Jain community with more than 500 Jain chaityas (shrines) in Taxila city at the time.
What makes King Gondophares so important not just to India but to world history is his possible Biblical connection with the birth of Christ and the visit of St Thomas, the Apostle to India. The 3rd century CE Aramaic text from Syria, The Apocryphal Acts of Thomas, mentions one King ‘Gudnaphar’, in whose court St Thomas arrived. Experts believe that ‘Gondophares’ is the Greek version of ‘Gudnaphar’ or ‘Vindafarnah’, which was translated as ‘Gastaphar’ in the Armenian language and ‘Caspar’ in Western languages.
According to Biblical beliefs, Gondophares or ‘Caspar, the King of India’, was one of the three magi or the Wise Men of the East, who visited Jesus after his birth, with gifts.11585One of the earliest-known depictions from a third-century Sarcophagus - Caspar in Parthian clothes | Wikimedia Commons
Further supporting the Gondophares-India-Biblical connection is that in many medieval Christian texts, like Historia Trium Regum (History of the Three Kings) by John of Hildesheim (1364–1375), the name of ‘King Caspar’s kingdom’ has been mentioned as ‘Egrisilla’. There is another reference to the word ‘Egrisilla’, on a globe made in Nuremberg by German Cartographer Martin Behaim in 1492. The globe is inscribed with the words ‘Egrisilla Bragmanni’ (Ergisilla of the Brahmans).
The explanatory treatise that accompanied the globe mentions: “The region of Egrisilla, in which there are Brahman; there Gaspar the Magus held dominion”. Experts believe that ‘Egrisilla’ could be a corruption of the word ‘Takshashila’ or ‘Taxila’, the capital of King Gondophares. These medieval references to Taxila are fascinating because, by the 14th century CE, the once-great city of Takshashila had long since ceased to exist in the Indian subcontinent.11586Spanish painting of St. Thomas | Wikimedia Commons
St Thomas is most often associated with South India, specifically Kerala, where he is believed to have introduced Christianity, and with Chennai, where he died on the Mount of St Thomas. But the lesser-known story of St Thomas’s Indian travels is found in The Apocryphal Acts of St Thomas. According to this text, St Thomas travelled first to North India, to the court of King Gondophares, then down the Indus River from his capital, Taxila, and then to the island of Socotra (in modern-day Yemen), from where he left for South India, landing at the port of Muziris in Kerala.
Interestingly, according to early Christian texts, St Thomas was not the only Apostle of Jesus said to have visited the Indian subcontinent; there were two others. The 3rd century CE Christian historian, ‘Eusebius of Caesarea, in his text The Apocryphal Acts of Andrew, writes of St Andrew’s mission to Central Asia in his attempt to evangelise and convert the Parthians and Scythians. He is said to have passed through what is present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan on his way to cities in Central Asia, though details are not available. But there is a reference to him visiting the desert of Gedrozia, which corresponds to the ancient Sakasthan in present-day Baluchistan. Eusebius of Caesarea and St Jerome (late 4th century CE) also talk about the mission of St Batholomew to India, although no details are available.11587Gondophares coin, with a fine portrait of him | Wikimedia Commons
For centuries, the story of St Thomas in the court of Gondophares was dismissed as a myth. But since 1834, with the emergence of numismatic evidence which shows that there was indeed a King Gondophares and there is evidence (in the form of coins) to show that he was a contemporary of St Thomas, many historians are looking at old legends and possible connections.
The accounts of another contemporary Greek philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana, who visited Gondophares’s court at Taxila in 44 CE (four years after St Thomas in 40 CE), have led experts to believe that there was active cultural exchange between Taxila and the Western world. Apollonius writes of a Greek-style city and that the king spoke fluent Greek.
This is not the only reference to the short-lived Pahlavas in legend. In fact, both the Sakas and Pahlavas interestingly make it to the Indian epics too!
Sakas and Pahlavas in Hindu Epics
It is interesting to note that while the Sakas and Pahlavas came from outside the Indian subcontinent fairly late, from the 2nd BCE onwards, they were still incorporated in Hindu texts. For the student of history and old connections, this signifies two things – first, that these ‘outsiders’ were gradually ‘Indianised’ and, second, that the epics and the Puranas have been added to well after they were written.11588Vashistha, Arundhati and Kamadhenu | Wikimedia Commons
In the Balakanda (The Book of Childhood) of Valmiki’s Ramayana, the Sakas and Pahlavas appear as allies of Rishi Vashistha in the story of ‘Vishwamitra and the wish-fulfilling cow’. According to the epic, the powerful King Vishwamitra (who later became a rishi or sage) had heard that Rishi Vashistha owned a wish-fulfilling cow called ‘Nandini’ or ‘Kamadhenu’. Hoping to use the cow for the benefit of his kingdown, King Vishwamitra went with his army to capture the holy cow from the rishi’s ashram. As the king’s men dragged the cow away, she pleaded with Rishi Vashistha to save her. A sad and teary Rishi Vashistha ordered the cow to ‘create an army that would overcome the army of the enemy’.
According to the Ramayana, this is what happened. ‘... with her bellow, She created Pahlavas (Parthians) in hundreds. As King (Vishwamitra) looked on, they destroyed his army. On seeing Vishwamitra unleash his weapons on the Pahlavas, She created a mixed and terrible force of Shakas (Scythians) and Yavanas (Indo- Greeks). She also created ‘Kambojas (who) were like the Sun in their complexion’. The Ramayana goes on to state that the ‘Pahlavas were generated from Her udder, Yavanas from her vagina, and Shakas from her rectum’.
In the Mahabharata, there is mention of a whole region inhabited by the Sakas, known as ‘Shakadwipa’, an area corresponding to Sindh and Baluchistan. During the actual Mahabharata war, King Sudakshina of Kamboja (Tarim Basin) is said to have joined Duryodhana with an army of Sakas and Pahlavas. As the Mahabharata states, ‘As endless as the cloud of locusts that there was no space left in Hastinapur for even Duryodhana’s generals’. Satyaki, the General of the Pandava army, laments, ‘I shall have to encounter the Sakas endowed with prowess equal to that of Sakra (Indra) himself, who are fierce as tire, and difficult to put out like a blazing conflagration’ and then proceeds to vanquish them.
Over time, the Pahlavas and Sakas made their way up the ladder of orthodox society. According to the Manu Smriti, the Yavanas, Sakas and Pahlavas were originally Kshatriyas but were reduced in status due to their failure to observe religious rituals. The Vayu Purana, one of the 18 major Puranas, talks of the ‘Druhyus from the Mlechha countries of the North who came to India to help the Haihayas (Yaduvamshi kings) and were called Sakas’. The Natyashastra of Bharata, the ancient India treatise on theatre, mentions that the roles of Sakas in plays must be performed by ‘fair-skinned’ actors. This shows how closely integrated the Sakas and Pahlavas were in Indian society.11589Image of an Indo-Parthian king | Wikimedia Commons
‘Gandabherunda’, the double-headed eagle, is a symbol seen everywhere in Karnataka. Once the emblem of the Vijayanagara rulers and Wodeyars of Mysore, today it is also the official emblem of the Indian state of Karnataka. It is used to widely that you can even see it on buses of the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation. But this symbol has made a long journey to Karnataka.
Through the Scythians, it found its way to imperial Germany, imperial Russia, Iran and India as a symbol of imperial power. The oldest-known double-headed eagle in India is found on the Buddhist stupa at Sirkap (near Taxila), dating to Saka times.
The Saka rulers were also known to be great patrons of the Sanskrit language. Two of the oldest known surviving Sanskrit inscriptions are the ‘Mora Wall Inscription’ of the Northern Satrap, Sodasa, at Mathura (early 1st century CE) and the ‘Girnar Inscription’ of the Western Satrap, Rudradaman, on the Girnar Mountain in Junagadh in Gujarat (around 150 CE).11590Mora Wall inscription | Wikimedia Commons
It was under the Sakas of Ujjain that many Greek astronomical principles were translated in Sanskrit. These came to be known as ‘Yavanajataka’ (Principles of the Greeks), ‘Paulisa Siddhanta’ (Scientific Treatise of Paul of Alexandria) and ‘Romaka Siddhanta’ (Scientific Treatise of the Romans).
The collapse of the Mauryan Empire in the 2nd century BCE led to a period of chaos, confusion and invasions. The turmoil within India was matched by the turmoil around it. This led to great churn and the entry of waves of people from Central Asia and Perisa into India. They came, they settled, they amalgamated and were finally absorbed, in a cycle that has played out endlessly.
This also iterates important themes that we constantly encounter in Indian history – first, how the subcontinent has been a huge draw for millennia; second, how this has led to an amazing amalgamation of ideas, cultures and nuances; and how the myriad elements of the history of the subcontinent are interconnected.
Why else would the building of a Great Wall in China find echoes in sculptures in Mathura? And how else could an Iranian noble have become a king in India, possibly with a Biblical connection?
This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.
Find all the stories from this series here.
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