Hephthalite: Wikis


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Nomadic confederation

The Hephthalites or White Huns (green), c. 500.
Capital Hua, Sakkala
Political structure Nomadic confederation
White Huns Khans
 - 515-528 Toramana
 - 528-542 Mihirakula
 - Established 420
 - Disestablished 567

The Hephthalites were a Central Asian nomadic confederation whose precise origins and composition remain obscure. According to Chinese chronicles they were originally a tribe living to the north of the Great Wall and were known as Hoa or Hoa-tun.[1] Elsewhere they were called White Huns. According to some sources, they had no cities or system of writing, and lived in felt tents.[2] Likely, their language was a Turkic language.[3][4]



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Hephthalites (410-557)
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Billon drachm of the Indo-Hephthalite King Napki Malka (Afghanistan/ Gandhara, c. 475-576).

Although the Hephtalite empire was known in China as Yanda (嚈噠), Chinese chroniclers recognized this designates the leaders of the empire. The main tribe are documented as having called themselves Uar (滑) in the same sources.[6] The modern Chinese variation Yanda has been given various Latinised renderings such as "Yeda", although the more archaic Korean pronunciation "Yeoptal" 엽달 is more compatible with the Greek Hephthal and is certainly a more archaic form. The name of the Hephthalite ruling elite seems to have applied to one of the 5 Yuezhi families from the Kushan Empire according to some sources.[citation needed]

According to B.A. Litvinsky, the names of the Hephtalite rulers used in the Shahnameh are Iranian.[7] According to Xavier Tremblay, one of the Hephthalite ruler's name, Khingila, has the same root as the Sogdian word xnγr and the Wakhi word xiŋgār, meaning "sword". The name Mihirakula is thought to be derived from Mithra-kula which is Iranian for "Relier upon Mithra", and Toramāna is also considered to have an Iranian origin. Accordingly, in Sanskrit, "Mihirakula" would mean from the "Kul (family or race) of Mihir (Mithra or Sun)". Janos Harmatta gives the translation "Mithra's Begotten" and also supports the Iranian theory.[8]


Asia in 500 AD, showing the Hepthalite Khanate at its greatest extent.
Hepthalite coin of King Lakhana of Udyana, legend "Raja Lakhana (udaya) ditya".

Many theories have been discussed regarding the origins of the White Huns, with the "Turkic"[9][10] and "Indo-European"[11][12][13] theories being the most prominent ones.

For many years, scholars suggested that they were possibly of Turkic stock,[10] and it seems likely that at least some groups amongst the Hephthalites were Turkic-speakers.[9] In 1959, Kazuo Enoki put forward the hypothesis that they were probably East Indo-Iranians as some sources indicated that they were originally from Tokharestan, which is known to have been inhabited by Indo-Iranian people in antiquity.[3] Richard Frye is cautiously accepting of Enoki's hypothesis, while at the same time stressing that the Hephthalites "were probably a mixed horde".[14] More recently Xavier Tremblay's very detailed examination of surviving Hephthalite personal names has indicated that Enoki's hypothesis that they were East Iranian may well be correct, but the matter remains unresolved in academic circles.[4]

According to the Encyclopaedia Iranica and Encyclopaedia of Islam, the Hephthalites possibly originated in northeastern Iran and northwestern India.[15][16] They apparently had no direct connection with the European Huns, but may have been causally related with their movement. It is noteworthy that the tribes in question deliberately called themselves "Huns" in order to frighten their enemies.[17]

Some White Huns may have been a prominent tribe or clan of the Chionites. According to Richard Nelson Frye:

Just as later nomadic empires were confederations of many peoples, we may tentatively propose that the ruling groups of these invaders were, or at least included, Turkic-speaking tribesman from the east and north. Although most probably the bulk of the people in the confederation of Chionites and then Hephtalites spoke an Iranian language and this was the last time in the history of Central Asia that Iranian-speaking nomads played any role; hereafter all nomads would speak Turkic languages.[18]


Procopius of Caesarea (Book I. ch. 3), relates them to the Huns in Europe:

The Ephthalitae Huns, who are called White Huns [...] The Ephthalitae are of the stock of the Huns in fact as well as in name, however they do not mingle with any of the Huns known to us, for they occupy a land neither adjoining nor even very near to them; but their territory lies immediately to the north of Persia [...] They are not nomads like the other Hunnic peoples, but for a long period have been established in a goodly land.[19]

Actually it is thought that the name Hun is used to denote very different nomadic confederations.

There were various theories about their origins documented by the ancient Chinese chroniclers, as well as by Procopius:

  • They were descendants of the Yuezhi or Tocharian tribes who remained behind after the rest of the people fled the Xiongnu.
  • They were descendants of the Kangju
  • They were a branch of the Tiele
  • They were a branch of the Uar

They were first mentioned by the Chinese, who described them as living in Dzungaria around AD 125[citation needed]. Chinese chronicles state that they were originally a tribe of the Yuezhi, living to the north of the Great Wall, and subject to the Rouran (Jwen-Jwen), as were some Turkic peoples at the time. Their original name was Hoa or Hoa-tun; subsequently they named themselves Ye-tha-i-li-to (厌带夷栗陁, or more briefly Ye-tha 嚈噠)[20], after their royal family, which descended from one of the five Yuezhi families which also included the Kushan.

They displaced the Scythians and conquered Sogdiana and Khorasan before 425. After that, they crossed the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) River and invaded Persia. In Persia, they were initially held off by Bahram Gur but later around AD 483–85, they succeeded in making Persia a tributary state. After a series of wars in the period AD 503-513, they were driven out of Persia and completely defeated in AD 557 by Khosru I though their polity thereafter came under the Göktürks.

The Hephtalites also invaded the regions of Afghanistan continuing deep into Northern India and succeeded in extending their domain to include the Indo-Gangetic Plain. They threatened the Gupta empire but were eventually driven out of India in 528 by a Hindu coalition.[1]

Procopius claims that the White Huns lived in a prosperous territory, and that they were the only Huns with fair complexions. According to him, they did not live as nomads, did acknowledge a single king, observed a well-regulated constitution, and behaved justly towards neighboring states. He also describes the burial of their nobles in tumuli, accompanied by their closest associates. This practice contrasts with evidence of cremation among the Chionites in Ammianus and with remains found by excavators of the European Huns and remains in some deposits ascribed to the Chionites in Central Asia. It is therefore assumed that the Hephthalites constituted a second "Hunnish" wave which entered Bactria early in the fifth century AD, and who seem to have driven the Kidarites into Gandhara.[16]

Newly-discovered ancient writings found in Afghanistan reveal that the Middle Iranian Bactrian language written in Greek script was not brought there by the Hephthalites, but was already present as the traditional language of administration in this region from Kushan times. There is also evidence of the use of a Turkic language under the White Huns. The Bactrian documents also attest several Turkic royal titles (such as Khagan), indicating an important influence of Turkic people on White Huns, although these could also be explained by later Turkic infiltration south of the Oxus.[16]

According to Simokattes, they were Chionites who united under the Hephthalites as the "(Wusun) vultures descended on the people" around AD 460.

Hephthalite Religion

In the Hephthalite dominion Buddhism was predominant [21]
Although very little is known about the town in the fifth and sixth centuries , it has been established that one of the largest towns was Balkh, where exploratory excavations have been undertaken. Hsuan Tsang (writing in 629) describes Po-Ho (Balkh) as the Hephthalite capital , with a circumference of approximately 20 li. He continues this city though well fortified, is thinly populated Balkh had about 100 Buddhist Viharas (monasteries) and 3000 monks .Outside the town was a large Buddhist monastery, later known as Naubahar[22]
Some of the Buddhist buildings were extremely large such as the new sangharama near Balkh which contained a magnificent statue of the Buddha [23]
Termez had 10 sangharamas (monasteries) and perhaps 1000 monks [24]

According to Xuanzang the capital of Chaghaniyan had five Buddhist monasteries [25]

White Huns in South Asia

Hephthalite successor kingdoms in 600 AD

In the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, the Hephtalites were not distinguished from their immediate Chionite predecessors and are known by the same name as Huna (Sanskrit: Sveta-Hūna, White Huns). The Huna had already established themselves in Afghanistan and the modern North-West Frontier Province of present day Pakistan by the first half of the fifth century, and the Gupta emperor Skandagupta had repelled a Hūna invasion in 455 before the Hephthalite clan came along.

The Hephthalites with their capital at Bamiyan continued the pressure on ancient India's northwest frontier and broke east by the end of the fifth century, hastening the disintegration of the Gupta Empire. They made their capital at the city of Sakala, modern Sialkot under their Emperor Mihirakula.

After the sixth century, little is recorded in ancient India about the Hephthalites, and what happened to them is unclear. Some historians surmise that the remaining Hephthalites were assimilated into the population of northwest India and Pakistan.

White Huns in contemporary literature

Umberto Eco's novel Baudolino makes reference to the 'White Huns' who are portrayed as a fearsome warrior race.

Eric Flint's Belisarius series makes frequent reference to Ye Tai warriors.

Descendants of the Hephthalites

Hephthalites are among the ancestors of modern-day Pashtuns. According to academic Yu. V. Gankovsky,

[The Pashtuns began as a] union of largely East-Iranian tribes which became the initial ethnic stratum of the Pashtun ethnogenesis, dates from the middle of the first millennium CE and is connected with the dissolution of the Epthalite (White Huns) confederacy. [...] Of the contribution of the Epthalites (White Huns) to the ethnogenesis of the Pashtuns we find evidence in the ethnonym of the largest of the Pashtun tribe unions, the Abdali (Durrani after 1747) associated with the ethnic name of the Epthalites — Abdal. The Siah-posh, the Kafirs (Nuristanis) of the Hindu Kush, called all Pashtuns by a general name of Abdal still at sing of the 19th century.[26]

Some Hephthalite tribes also participated in the formation of Johals, as well as Turkmens and Uzbeks.

See also


  1. ^ a b Columbia Encyclopedia
  2. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. ^ a b Enoki, Kazuo: "On the Nationality of the White Huns" Memoirs of the Research Department of the Tokyo Bunko, 1959, No. 18, p56 - "Let me recapitulate the foregoing. The grounds upon which the White Huns are assigned an Iranian tribe are : (1) that their original home was on the east frontier of Tokharestan ; and (2) that their culture contained some Iranian elements. Naturally, the White Huns were sometimes regarded as another branch of the Kao-ch’e tribe by their contemporaries, and their manners and customs are represented as identical with those of the T’u-chueh, and it is a fact that they had several cultural elements in common with those of the nomadic Turkish tribes. Nevertheless, such similarity of manners and customs is an inevitable phenomenon arising from similarity of their environments. The White Huns could not be assigned as a Turkish tribe on account of this. The White Huns were considered by some scholars as an Aryanized tribe, but I would like to go further and acknowledge them as an Iranian tribe. Though my grounds, as stated above, are rather scarce, it is expected that the historical and linguistic materials concerning the White Huns are to be increased in the future and most of the newly-discovered materials seem to confirm my Iranian-tribe theory." Available here or here or here.
  4. ^ a b Xavier Tremblay Pour une histore de la Sérinde. Le manichéisme parmi les peoples et religions d’Asie Centrale d’aprés les sources primaire, Vienna, 2001, Appendix D «Notes Sur L'Origine Des Hephtalites” , pp. 183-88 «Malgré tous les auteurs qui, depuis KLAPROTH jusqu’ ALTHEIM in SuC, p113 sq et HAUSSIG, Die Geschichte Zentralasiens und der Seidenstrasse in vorislamischer Zeit, Darmstadt, 1983 (cf. n.7), ont vu dans les White Huns des Turcs, l’explication de leurs noms par le turc ne s’impose jamais, est parfois impossible et n’est appuyée par aucun fait historique (aucune trace de la religion turque ancienne), celle par l’iranien est toujours possible, parfois évidente, surtout dans les noms longs comme Mihirakula, Toramana ou γοβοζοκο qui sont bien plus probants qu’ αλ- en Αλχαννο. Or l’iranien des noms des White Huns n’est pas du bactrien et n’est donc pas imputable à leur installation en Bactriane […] Une telle accumulation de probabilités suffit à conclure que, jusqu’à preuve du contraire, les Hepthalites étaient des Iraniens orientaux, mais non des Sogdiens.» Availablehere or here
  5. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica
  6. ^ Enoki, K. "The Liang shih-kung-t'u on the origin and migration of the Hua or Ephthalites," Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia 7:1-2 (December 1970):37-45
  7. ^ B.A. Livinsky, "The Hephthalites" in History of Civilizations of Central Asia - Vol. 3. South Asia Books; 1 edition (March 1999). pg 135
  8. ^ Janos Harmatta, "The Rise of the Old Persian Empire: Cyrus the Great," AAASH (Acta Antiqua Acadamie Scientiarum Hungaricae 19, 197, pp. 4-15.
  9. ^ a b David Christian A History of Russia, Inner Asia and Mongolia (Oxford: Basil Blackwell) 1998 p248
  10. ^ a b Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia
  11. ^ M. A. Shaban, "Khurasan at the Time of the Arab Conquest", in Iran and Islam, in memory of Vlademir Minorsky, Edinburgh University Press, (1971), p481; ISBN 0 85224 200 x.
  12. ^ The White Huns - The Hephthalites
  13. ^ Enoki Kazuo, "On the nationality of White Huns", 1955
  14. ^ Encyclopaedia Iranica: Central Asia in pre-Islamic Times (R. Frye)
  15. ^ G. Ambros/P.A. Andrews/L. Bazin/A. Gökalp/B. Flemming and others, "Turks", in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Online Edition 2006
  16. ^ a b c A.D.H. Bivar, "Hephthalites", in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition.
  17. ^ M. Schottky, "Iranian Huns", in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition.
  18. ^ Robert L. Canfield, Turko-Persia in historical perspective, Cambridge University Press, 1991. pg 49.
  19. ^ Procopius: History of the Wars. Book I. The Persian War Ch. III. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/History_of_the_Wars/Book_I
  20. ^ Classic Encyclopedia
  21. ^ Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World: Early medieval India. André Wink, p. 110. E. J. Brill.
  22. ^ History of civilizations of Central Asia, Volume 3 By Boris Abramovich Litvinovskiĭ, p. 149 Copyright UNESCO; published by Motilal Banarsidass
  23. ^ History of civilizations of Central Asia, Volume 3 By Boris Abramovich Litvinovskiĭ, p. 150 Copyright UNESCO; published by Motilal Banarsidass
  24. ^ History of civilizations of Central Asia, Volume 3 By Boris Abramovich Litvinovskiĭ, p. 149. Copyright UNESCO; published by Motilal Banarsidass
  25. ^ History of civilizations of Central Asia, Volume 3 By Boris Abramovich Litvinovskiĭ, p. 149. Copyright UNESCO; published by Motilal Banarsidass
  26. ^ Gankovsky, Yu. V., et al. A History of Afghanistan, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982, pg 382

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