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The Aśvaka (Sanskrit: अश्वक), also known as the Ashvakan, Aśvakayana, or Asvayana and sometimes Latinised as Assacenii, Assacani, or Aspasioi, were a people who lived in what is now eastern Afghanistan and the Peshawar Valley in present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. The region in which they lived was also called Aśvaka.[1]

According to some scholars, the name Aśvakan or Aspasioi is preserved in the modern ethnonym Afghan (historically used for Pashtuns; also used in Afghanistan), and the tribal name Esapzai (whose Arabized form is Yusufzai). The ethnonym Afghan (Pashto/Persian: افغان) has been used historically to refer to a member of the Pashtuns[citation needed]


The Sanskrit term aśva, Avestan aspa, and Prakrit assa means horse. The name Aśvaka/Aśvakan or Assaka is derived from the Sanskrit Aśva or Prakrit Assa and it denotes someone connected with the horses, hence a horseman, or a cavalryman[2][3][4] or horse breeder.[5] The Aśvakas were especially engaged in the occupation of breeding, raising and training war horses, as also in providing expert cavalry services.[citation needed]

The name of the Aśvakan or Assakan has been preserved in that of the modern Afghān.[6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13]

According to philologist J.W. McCrindle, the name Aśvaka is also "distinctly preserved" in the name of the Esapzai (or Yusufzai) tribe of Pashtuns. McCrindle noted: "The name of the Aśvaka indicates that their country was renowned in primitive times, as it is at the present day, for its superior breed of horses. The fact that the Greeks translated their name into "Hippasioi" (from ἵππος, a horse) shows that they must have been aware of its etymological signification."[14]


Ancient Greek historians who documented the exploits of Alexander the Great refer to the Aspasioi and Assakenoi (Ἀσσακηνοί) tribes among his opponents. The historian Ramesh Chandra Majumdar has said that these words are probably corruptions of Aśvaka.[15] It is possible that the corruption of the names occurred due to regional differences in pronunciation.[16] Rama Shankar Tripathi thinks it possible that the Assakenoi were either allied to or a branch of the Aspasioi.[17] The Greeks recorded the two groups as inhabiting different areas, with the Aspasioi in either the Alishang or Kunar Valley and the Assakenoi in the Swat Valley.[16]

The Aśvaka may have been a sub-group of the Kamboja tribe that is referenced in ancient Sanskrit and Pali literature, such as the Mahabharata and Puranas, and which were partitioned into eastern and western Aśvakas.[18] Barbara West treats the ethnonyms Kamboja, Aśvaka, Aspasioi, Assakenoi and Asvakayana as synonyms.[19]


The Assakenoi fielded 2,000 cavalry, 30 elephants and 30,000 infantry[a] against Alexander during his campaign in India, which began in 327 BCE, but they eventually had to surrender after losses at places such as Beira, Massaga and Ora. The Aspasioi chose to flee into the hills but destroyed their city of Arigaion before doing so; 40,000 of them were captured, along with 230,000 oxen.[20] Diodorus recorded the strength of the Aśvaka opposition, noting that the women took up arms along with the men, preferring "a glorious death to a life of dishonour".[21]

The Asvayanas have been attested to be good cattle breeders and agriculturists by classical writers. Arrian said that, during the time of Alexander, there were a large number of bullocks - 230,000 - of a size and shape superior to what the Macedonians had known, which Alexander captured from them and decided to send to Macedonia for agriculture.[22]



  1. ^ The statistics for the Assakenoi forces that fought Alexander vary. For example, Barbara West says there were 30,000 cavalry, 20,000 infantry and at least 30 elephants.[19]


  1. ^ Gupta, Parmanand (1989). Geography from Ancient Indian Coins & Seals. Concept Publishing Company. pp. 17–18. ISBN 978-8-17022-248-4.
  2. ^ Chaudhuri, Sashi Bhusan (1955). Ethnic Settlements in Ancient India: A Study on the Puranic Lists of the Peoples of Bharatavarsa. General Printers and Publishers. p. 51.
  3. ^ Lamotte, Etienne (1988). History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Saka Era. Trans. Webb-Boin, Sara. Université Catholique de Louvain. p. 100. ISBN 978-9-06831-100-6.
  4. ^ Majumdar, Ramesh Chandra; Pusalker, Achut Dattatrya; Bhavan, Bharatiya Vidya; Majumdar, A. K.; Ghose, Dilip Kumar; Dighe, Vishvanath Govind (1977). The History and Culture of the Indian People. Vol. 2. p. 45.
  5. ^ Forlong, J. G. R. (1906). Faiths of Man: A Cyclopaedia of Religions. Vol. 1. p. 554.
  6. ^ "The name Afghan has evidently been derived from Asvakan, the Assakenoi of Arrian... " (Megasthenes and Arrian, p 180. See also: Alexander's Invasion of India, p 38; J.W. McCrindle).
  7. ^ Indische Alterthumskunde, Vol I, fn 6; also Vol II, p 129, et al.
  8. ^ Etude Sur la Geog Grecque & c, pp 39-47, M. V. de Saint Martin.
  9. ^ The Earth and Its Inhabitants, 1891, p 83, Élisée Reclus - Geography.
  10. ^ "Even the name Afghan is Aryan being derived from Asvakayana, an important clan of the Asvakas or horsemen who must have derived this title from their handling of celebrated breeds of horses" (See: Imprints of Indian Thought and Culture abroad, p 124, Vivekananda Kendra Prakashan).
  11. ^ cf: "Their name (Afghan) means "cavalier" being derived from the Sanskrit, Asva, or Asvaka, a horse, and shows that their country must have been noted in ancient times, as it is at the present day, for its superior breed of horses. Asvaka was an important tribe settled north to Kabul river, which offered a gallant resistance but ineffectual resistance to the arms of Alexander "(Ref: Scottish Geographical Magazine, 1999, p 275, Royal Scottish Geographical Society).
  12. ^ "Afghans are Assakani of the Greeks; this word being the Sanskrit Ashvaka meaning 'horsemen' " (Ref: Sva, 1915, p 113, Christopher Molesworth Birdwood).
  13. ^ Cf: "The name represents Sanskrit Asvaka in the sense of a cavalier, and this reappears scarcely modified in the Assakani or Assakeni of the historians of the expedition of Alexander" (Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological..by Henry Yule, AD Burnell).
  14. ^ John Watson McCrindle (1896). The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great: As Described by Arrian, Q. Curtius, Diodoros, Plutarch and Justin. University of Michigan: A. Constable. pp. 333–334.
  15. ^ Majumdar, Ramesh Chandra (1977) [1952]. Ancient India (Reprinted ed.). Motilal Banarsidass. p. 99. ISBN 978-8-12080-436-4.
  16. ^ a b Bevan, E. R. (1955). "Alexander the Great". In Rapson, Edward James (ed.). The Cambridge History of India. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press. p. 352.
  17. ^ Tripathi, Rama Shankar (1992) [1942]. History of Ancient India (Reprinted ed.). Motilal Banarsidass. p. 119. ISBN 978-8-12080-018-2.
  18. ^ Majumdar, Ramesh Chandra; Bhavan, Bharatiya Vidya (1968). The History and Culture of the Indian People. Vol. 2. p. 49.
  19. ^ a b West, Barbara A. (2009). Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania. Infobase Publishing. p. 359. ISBN 978-1-43811-913-7.
  20. ^ Heckel, Waldemar (2010) [2006]. "The Conquests of Alexander the Great". In Kinzl, Konrad H. (ed.). A Companion to the Classical Greek World (Reprinted ed.). John Wiley & Sons. p. 577. ISBN 978-1-44433-412-8.
  21. ^ Dani, Ahmad Hasan; Masson, Vadim Mikhaĭlovich; Harmatta, János; Litvinovskiĭ, Boris Abramovich; Bosworth, Clifford Edmund (1999). History of Civilizations of Central Asia (PDF). UNESCO. p. 76.
  22. ^ Achaya, K. T. (2001). cf: A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food. Oxford India Paperbacks. p. 91.

Further reading[edit]

  • Codrington, K. de B. (July–August 1944). "A Geographical Introduction to the History of Central Asia". The Geographical Journal. 104 (1/2): 27–40. doi:10.2307/1790027. JSTOR 1790027.
  • Gupta, Kalyan Kumar Das (March–June 1972). "The Aśvakas: an Early Indian Tribe". East and West. 22 (1/2): 33–40. JSTOR 29755742.
  • Tucci, Giuseppe (December 1977). "On Swāt. The Dards and Connected Problems". East and West. 27 (1/4): 9–103. JSTOR 29756375.
  • Geographical Data in Early Puranas, A Critical Study, 1972, p 179 Dr M. R. Singh
  • Dictionary of Greek & Roman Geography, Vol-I, 1966, William Smith, Phillip Smith
  • Geographical Dictionary of ancient and Medieval India, Dr Nundo Lal Dey
  • Itihaas Parvesh (Hindi), 1948, Dr Jaychandra Vidyalankar
  • Historie du bouddhisme Indien, p 110, Dr E. Lammotte
  • Raja Poros, 1990, Publication Buareau, Punjabi University, Patiala
  • History of Poros, 1967, pp 12,39, Dr Buddha Prakash