The Hephthalites (green), c. 500.
Chorasmian, Tocharian, Turkic, Saka dialects
|Political structure||Nomadic confederation|
|-||430/440 – ≈490||Khingila|
|-||490/500 – 515||Toramana|
|Historical era||Late Antiquity|
|Today part of|| Afghanistan
The Hephthalites (or Ephthalites), also known as the White Huns and known in Sanskrit as the Sveta Huna, were a nomadic confederation in Central Asia in Late Antiquity. At the height of its power in the first half of the 6th century, the Hephthalite Empire controlled territory in present-day Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, India and China.
The stronghold of the Hephthalites was Tokharistan on the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush, in what is present-day northeastern Afghanistan. By 479, the Hephthalites had conquered Sogdia and driven the Kidarites westwards, and by 493 they had captured parts of present-day Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin in what is now northwestern China.
The Hephthalites invaded India for the first time in the 5th century and were defeated by Emperor Skandagupta of the Gupta Empire. By the end of the 5th century, the Hephthalites overran the part of the Gupta Empire that was to their southeast and conquered central and northern India. Emperor Bhanugupta of the Guptas defeated the Huns under Toramana in 510 CE. Later the Hephthalites were defeated and driven out of India by the Indian kings Yasodharman and Narasimhagupta in the early 6th century.
Christopher I. Beckwith, referring to Etienne de la Vaissiere, says the Hephthalites should not be called White Huns. According to de la Vaissiere, the name of the Hephthalites was not mentioned alongside that of the White Huns.
In Chinese chronicles, the Hephthalites are called Yanda or Ye-ti-i-li-do, while older Chinese sources of c. 125 AD call them Hoa or Hoa-tun and describe them as a tribe living beyond the Great Wall in Dzungaria. Elsewhere they were called the "White Huns", known to the Greeks as Ephthalite, Abdel or Avdel, to the Indians as Sveta Huna ("white Huns"), Xionite or Turushka, to the Armenians as Haital, and to the Persians and Arabs as Haytal or Hayatila, while their Bactrian name is ηβοδαλο (Ebodalo).
According to most specialist scholars, the spoken language of the Hephthalites was an Eastern Iranian language, but different from the Bactrian language written in the Greek script that was used as their "official language" and minted on coins, as was done under the preceding Kushan Empire.
Although the Hephthalite Empire was known in China as Yanda (嚈噠), Chinese chroniclers recognized this designated the leaders of the empire. The same sources document that the main tribe called themselves Uar (滑). The modern Chinese variation Yanda has been given various Latinised renderings such as "Yeda", although the corresponding Cantonese and Korean pronunciations Yipdaat and Yeoptal (엽달) are more compatible with the Greek Hephthalite.
According to B.A. Litvinsky, the names of the Hephthalite rulers used in the Shahnameh are Iranian. According to Xavier Tremblay, one of the Hephthalite rulers was named "Khingila", which 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 "the Sun family", with kula having the same root as Pashto kul, "family". "Toramāna" (who was Mihirakula's father) is also considered to have an Iranian origin. Accordingly, in Sanskrit, mihira-kula would mean the "kul (family) of mihira (Sun)", although mihira is not purely Sanskrit but is a borrowing from Middle Iranian mihr. Janos Harmatta gives the translation "Mithra's Begotten" and also supports the Iranian theory.
For many years, scholars suggested that they were of Turkic stock. Today the Hephthalites are generally held to have been an Eastern Iranian people. Some still claim that some groups amongst the Hephthalites were Turkic-speakers. The Hephthalites enscribed their coins in the Bactrian (Iranian) script, held Iranian titles, the names of Hephthalite rulers given in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh are Iranian, and gem inscriptions and other evidence shows that the official language of the Hephthalite elite was East Iranian. In 1959, Kazuo Enoki proposed that the Hephthalites were probably Indo-European (East) Iranians as some sources indicated that they were originally from Bactria, which is known to have been inhabited by Indo-Iranian people in antiquity. Richard Frye is cautiously accepting of Enoki's hypothesis, while at the same time stressing that the Hephthalites "were probably a mixed horde". More recently Xavier Tremblay's 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.
According to the Encyclopaedia Iranica and Encyclopaedia of Islam, the Hephthalites possibly originated in what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan. 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.
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 tribesmen from the east and north. Although most probably the bulk of the people in the confederation of Chionites and then Hephhtalites spoke an Iranian language... 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.
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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... They are the only ones among the Huns who have white bodies and countenances which are not ugly. It is also true that their manner of living is unlike that of their kinsmen, nor do they live a savage life as they do; but they are ruled by one king, and since they possess a lawful constitution, they observe right and justice in their dealings both with one another and with their neighbours, in no degree less than the Romans and the Persians
Scholars believe that the name Hun is used to denote very different nomadic confederations. Ancient Chinese chroniclers, as well as Procopius, wrote various theories about the origins of the people:
- 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; or
- They were a branch of the Uar.
They were first mentioned by the Chinese, who described them as living in Dzungaria around AD 125. 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), 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 AD 425. After that, they crossed the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) River and invaded Persian lands. In Persia, they were initially held off by Bahram Gur but around AD 483–85, they succeeded in making Persia a tributary state by defeating the Sassanid forces at the Battle of Herat where they killed the Sassanid king, Peroz I. After a series of wars in the period AD 503–513, they were driven out of Persia and completely defeated in AD 557 by Khosrau I. Their polity thereafter came under the Göktürks and subsequent Western Turkic Khaganate.
The Hephthalite was a vassal state to the Rouran Khaganate until the beginning of the 5th century. Between Hephthalites and Rourans were also close contacts, although they had different languages and cultures, and Hephthalites borrowed much of their political organization from Rourans. In particular, the title “Khan“, which according to McGovern was original to the Rourans, was borrowed by the Hephthalite rulers.  The reason for the migration of the Hephthalites southeast was to avoid a pressure of the Rourans. Further, the Hephthalites defeated the Yuezhi in Bactria and their leader Kidara led the Yuezhi to the south.
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. Scholars believe that the Hephthalites constituted a second "Hunnish" wave who entered Bactria early in the fifth century AD, and who seem to have driven the Kidarites into Gandhara.
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 from Kushan times as the traditional language of administration in this region. 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.
According to Simokattes, they were Chionites who united under the Hephthalites as the "(Wusun) vultures descended on the people" around AD 460.
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (September 2007)|
The Uar (also Var or War; Chinese: 滑; pinyin: Huá) were one of the many ethnic components constituting the confederation known to the west as the Hephthalites and to the Chinese as Yanda (嚈噠) and the dominant ethnicity of Khwarezm. Peoples with similar names had been present along the Silk Road for centuries, and several Central European family names actually derive from the names of these tribes.
Theophylaktos Simokattes uses the name Uar, sometimes written as War or Var. According to the Chinese classic Liang chih-kung-t'u the name Huá was an endonym used by the Hephthalites themselves while 嚈噠 was an exonym derived from their ruling dynasty and applied to them by outsiders.
Origin and migration
Like Procopius, contemporary Chinese chroniclers had different theories about the origins of the Uar and the Hephthalites:
- That they were related in some way to the Indo-European Yuezhi. Based in Turpan and conquered by the Rouran, they were an important part of the early jade trade.
- That they were a branch of either the Kangju (believed to be Turkic, Iranian peoples|Iranian or even Tocharian in origin) or Tiele peoples, descending from the general Bahua, based in Turpan. They sided with the Southern Xiongnu of Pingyang against the Northern Xiongnu (hence the Huá clan's presence in Pingyang) but were later conquered by the Rouran.
Throughout the 5th century, it was the Uar who managed to succeed to the steppe heritage in a campaign which spread from the Tian Shan to the Carpathian Mountains. By around 460, the Uar had taken over much of Central Eurasia from Xinjiang to the Volga River, and founded a capital at the city of Badiyan or Panjakent, near what is now Khujand, though very little is known about the area from the late 5th to early 6th centuries.
According to the Book of Liang, the Yanda (Hephthalites) were an offshoot of the Yuezhi. It mentions an envoy sent in 516 by their Yandaiyilituo/Hephthalite king to the court at Nanjing. Chinese chronicles define Yanda as the name of a clan leading the Uar. In the Book of Wei they are supposed to be a variety of the Yuezhi, while the Uar, who are also described, are possibly an offshoot of the Tiele. The Book of Wei indicates, however, that the Yanda do not share a similar language with the (Tungusic) Rouran or (Turkic) Tiele. It is said that the Yanda language can be easily translated by the Tuyuhun, a group of peoples from the Koko Nor.
Uar and Hunnoi are the names associated with the two biggest tribes of Procopius's White Huns, commonly identified with the Sanskrit Sveta Huna but called Varkhon or Varkunites (OuarKhonitai) by Menander Protector. Procopius writes that these White Huns are white-skinned and have an organized kingship. According to him, their life is not wild or nomadic, and they live in cities.
The Uar and Hunnoi are supposed to have united around 460 under the rule of one of the five Yuezhi families, the Hephthal. Near the end of the 6th century they were joined by the Zabender, Tarnach and Kutrigurs. They became known as the Onogurs, from whom the name Hungary derives. The Onogurs were composed of three groups, see also Avars and Kabars. Around 670 the Bulgars under Kouber and Asparukh, who were also part of their empire, revolted. The Kouber tribes moved south to Thessaly and Asparukh lead his people south of the Danube.
Simokattes mentions the Hunnoi as the other major component under the Hephthalite ruling elite. These are identified as the "true" Avars of the east, and the political force behind what Simokattes calls the "Pseudo-Avars" who eventually settled down in Pannonia. The Göktürks also considered the Khwarezmian Uar (possibly associated with the Uyghurs) as the true Avars and encouraged the Byzantines to regard the "Avars" who entered Europe as Pseudo-Avars.
Around 630, Simokattes wrote that the European "Avars" were initially composed of two nations, the Uar and the Hunnoi tribes. He wrote that: "...the Barsilt, the Unogurs and the Sabirs were struck with horror... and honoured the newcomers with brilliant gifts..." when the Avars first arrived in their lands in 555AD.
According to Song Yun, the Chinese Buddhist monk who visited the Hephthalite territory in 540 AD and "provides accurate accounts of the people, their clothing, the empresses and court procedures and traditions of the people and he states the Hephthalites did not recognize the Buddhist religion and they preached pseudo gods, and killed animals for their meat." It is reported that some Hephthalites often destroyed Buddhist monasteries but were rebuilt by others. According to Xuanzang, the third Chinese pilgrim who visited the same areas as Song Yun about 100 years later, the capital of Chaghaniyan had five monasteries.
"Interestingly in the Hephthalite dominion Buddhism and Hinduism was predominant but there was also a religious sediment of Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism." Balkh had some 100 Buddhist monasteries and 30,000 monks. Outside the town was a large Buddhist monastery, later known as Naubahar.
White Huns in Southern Central Asia
In the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, the Hephthalites 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 province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of 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 had their capital at Badian, modern Kunduz, but the emperor lived in the capital city for just three winter months, and for the rest of the year, the government seat would move from one locality to another like a camp. The Hephthalites 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 in Pakistan, under their Emperor Mihirakula. But later the Huns were defeated and driven out of India by the Indian kings Yasodharman and Narasimhagupta in the 6th century.
"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 the beginning of the 19th century."
The Hephthalites could also have been ancestors of the Abdal tribe which has assimilated into the Turkmens and Kazakhs. In India, the Rajputs formed as a result of merging of the Hephthalites and the Gurjars with population from northwestern India, though this is disputed.
- Kushan Empire
- Kidarites (Red Huns)
- Huna people
- Historic states represented in Turkish presidential seal
- Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World: Early medieval India. André Wink, p. 110. E. J. Brill.
- Kurbanov, Aydogdy (2010). "The Hephthalites: Archaeological and historican analysis" (PDF). Retrieved 5 September 2012.
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- Enoki, Kazuo: "On the Nationality of the White Huns", Memoirs of the Research Department of the Tokyo Bunko, 1959, No. 18, p. 56. Quote: "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." here Archived February 26, 2007 at the Wayback Machine or "Hephtalites" or "On the Nationality of the Hephtalites".
- 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.» Available here Archived February 26, 2007 at the Wayback Machine or here 
- Denis Sinor, "The establishment and dissolution of the Türk empire" in Denis Sinor, "The Cambridge history of early Inner Asia, Volume 1", Cambridge University Press, 1990. p. 300:"There is no consensus concerning the Hephthalite language, though most scholars seem to think that it was Iranian."
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As a result of the merging of the Hephthalites and the Gujars with population from northwestern India, some Rajputs (from Sanskrit “rajputra” – “son of the rajah”) clans may have been formed.
- Gankovsky, Yu. V., et al. A History of Afghanistan, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982, pg 382
- Grignaschi, M. (1980). "La Chute De L'Empire Hephthalite Dans Les Sources Byzantines et Perses et Le Probleme Des Avar". Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, Tomus XXVIII (Budapest: Akademiai Kiado).
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Hephthalites.|
- "The Ethnonym Apar in the Turkish Inscriptions of the VIII. Century and Armenian Manuscripts" Dr. Mehmet Tezcan.
- The Anthropology of Yanda (Chinese) pdf
- The Silkroad Foundation
- Columbia Encyclopedia: Hephthalites
- Hephthalite coins
- Hephthalite History and Coins of the Kashmir Smast Kingdom- Waleed Ziad at the Wayback Machine (archived October 27, 2009)
- The Hephthalites of Central Asia – by Richard Heli (long article with a timeline)
- The Hephthalites at the Wayback Machine (archived February 9, 2005) Article archived from the University of Washington's Silk Road exhibition – has a slightly adapted form of the Richard Heli timeline.
- (pdf) The Ethnonym Apar in the Turkish Inscriptions of the VIII. Century and Armenian Manuscripts – Mehmet Tezcan
-  iranicaonline hephthalites