Monday, August 31, 2009

The White (Caucasian) Huns

Gandharan-style Buddha (Asian Art Museum of San Francisco/Albill Flickr)

The White Huns (Hephthalites)
Silkroad Foundation (

The Religion
Although Sung Yun and Hui Sheng reported that the Hephthalites did not believe in Buddhism, there is ample archaeological evidence that this religion was practiced in territories under Hephthalite control. According to Liang shu, the Hephthalites worshipped heaven and fire, a clear reference to Zoroastrianism. However, burial sites seem to indicate the normal practice of disposing of the dead, which is against Zoroastrian belief.
The Origins
The few Hephthalite (Ephthalite) records provide a fragmentary picture of their civilization and empire. Their background is uncertain. They probably stemmed from a combination of the people of the Tarim basin and the Yueh-chih. There is a striking resemblance in the deformed heads of the early Yueh-chih and Hephthalite kings on their coins. According to Procopius's History of the Wars, written in the 6th century, the Hephthalites:
Depiction of "White Hun" (

"[White Huns] 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. They are the only ones among the Huns who have white bodies...."

Ephthalites was the name given to them by Byzantine historians, Hayathelaites by the Persian historian Mirkhond, and sometimes Ye-tai or Hua by Chinese historians. They are also known as the White Huns, distinct from the Huns who, led by Attila, invaded the Roman Empire.

They are described as a kindred steppe people who originally occupied the pasture-lands in the Altai mountains of southwestern Mongolia.

Toward the middle of the 5th century, they expanded west probably because of the pressure from the Juan-juan, a powerful nomadic tribe in Mongolia. Within decades, they became a great power in the Oxus basin and the most serious enemy of the Persian empire.

Gandharan style Buddha (Asian Art Museum of San Francisco/Albill Flickr)

Westward Expansion
When the Hephthalites gained power, Kushan and Gandhara were ruled by the Kidarites, a local dynasty of Hun or Chionites tribe. The Hephthalites entered Kabul and overthrew Kushan. The last Kidarites fled to Gandhara and settled in Peshawar. In about 440 A.C.E. the Hephthalites further took Sogdian (Samarkand) and then Balkh and Bactria.

The Hephthalites moved closer and closer toward Persian territory....The Hephthalites became the superpower of Middle Asia. They not only destroyed part of the Sassanian Empire in Iran but also intervened in their dynastic struggles...

Eastward Expansion into the Tarim Basin
With the stabilization at the western border, the Hephthalites extended their influence to the northwest into the Tarim Basin. From 493 to 556 A.D., they invaded Khotan, Kashgar, Kocho, and Karashahr. The relationship with Juan-juan and China were tightened. The Chinese record indicated that between 507 and 531, the Hephthalites sent thirteen embassies to Northern Wei (439-534) via a king named Ye-dai-yi-li-tuo.

The [Aryan?] Invasion of India
During the 5th century, the Gupta dynasty in India reigned in the Ganges basin and with the Kushan Empire occupied the area along the Indus River. India knew the Hephthalite as Huna by the Sanskrit name. The Hephthalites or Hunas waited until 470, right after the death of the Gupta ruler Skandagupta (455-470), to enter India from the Kabul valley after the conquest of Kushan. They continued along the Ganges and ruined every city and town.

The noble capital, Pataliputra [located by Ranajit Pal], was reduced in population to a village. They persecuted Buddhists and burned all the monasteries. Their conquest was accomplished with extreme ferocity, and the Gupta regime (414-470) was completely extinguished.

For thirty years the northwestern India was ruled by Hephthalite kings. Some of the Hephthalite kings ruling India are found on coins. The most famous ones were Toramana and Mihrakula, ruling India in the first half of the 6th century.

The Language
There are numerous debates about Hephthalite language. Most scholars believe it is Iranian [Aryan] for the Pei Shih states that the language of the Hephthalites differs from those of the Juan-juan (Mongoloid) and of the "various Hu" (Turkic); however, some think the Hephthalites spoke Mongol tongues like the Hsien-pi (3rd century) and the Juan-juan (5th century) and the Avars (6th-9th century).

According to the Buddhist pilgrims Sung Yun and Hui Sheng, who visited them in 520, they had no script, and the Liang shu specifically states that they have no letters but use tally sticks. At the same time there is numismatic and epigraphic evidence to show that a debased form of the Greek alphabet was used by the Hephthalites.

Since the Kushan was conquested by Hephthalites, it is possible they retained many aspects of Kushan culture, including the adoption of the Greek alphabet. More>>