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The Pahlavas are a people mentioned in ancient Indian texts like the Manu Smriti, various Puranas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Brihatsamhita. According to P. Carnegy,[1] the Pahlava are probably those people who spoke Paluvi or Pehlvi, that is the Parthian language. Buhler similarly suggests Pahlava is an Indic form of Parthava meaning 'Parthian'.[2] In the 4th century BCE, Vartika of Katyayana mentions the Sakah-Parthavah demonstrating an awareness of these Saka-Parthians, probably by way of commerce.[3]

Literary references[edit]

In Puranic texts[edit]

Pahlavas are referenced in various Puranic texts like Vayu Purana, Brahmanda Purana, Markendeya Purana, Matsya Purana, Vamana Purana etc.

Kirfel's list of Uttarapatha countries of the Bhuvanakosha locates the Pahlavas along with the Tusharas, Chinas, Angalaukikas, Barbaras, Kambojas, Daradas, Bahlikas and other countries of the Udichya division of ancient India. e.g.:

ete desha udichyastu
Kambojashchaiva Dardashchaiva Barbarashcha Angaukikah ||
Chinashchaiva Tusharashcha Pahlavadhayata narah ||.[4]

The Vayu Purana, Brahamanda Purana and several other Puranas mention the Pahlavas with the tribes of Uttarapatha or north-west. The 6th century CE text Markendeya Purana [5] lists the Pahlavas, Kambojas, Daradas, Bahlikas, Barbaras, Tusharas, Daradas, Paradas, Chinas, Lampakas etc. as the countries of Udichya division i.e. Uttarapatha, but 58th chapter of the Markendeya Purana also refers to yet other settlements of the Pahlavas and the Kambojas and locates them both specifically in the south-west of India as neighbors to the Sindhu, Sauvira and Anarta (north Saurashtra) countries. Further the 6th century Brhatsamhita of Varaha Mihira also locates the Pahlavas and Kamboja kingdoms in south-west India i.e. around Gujarat/Saurashtra.[6]

Puranas like Vayu also state that the Udichyas including the Pahlavas, Paradas, Gandharas, Sakas, Yavanas, Tusharas, Kambojas, Khasas, Lampakas, Madhyadesis, Vindhyas, Aprantas, Dakshinatyas, Dravidas, Pulindas, Simhalas etc. would be proceeded against and annihilated by Kalki in Kaliyuga. And they are stated to have been annihilated by king modi at the end of Kali age as per Puranic evidence.

According to Vayu Purana and Matsya Purana, river Chakshu (Oxus or Amu Darya) flowed through the countries of Pahlavas, Tusharas, Lampakas, Paradas and the Sakas etc.[7]

Pānca Ganahas or Five Hordes[edit]

Puranas associate the Pahlavas with the Kambojas, Sakas, Yavanas and Paradas and brands them together as Panca-ganah (fiver-hordes). These five hordes were military allies of the Haihaya or Taljunga Kshatriyas of Yadava line and were chiefly responsible for dethroning king Bahu of Kosala. Later, king Sagara, son of king Bahu, was able to defeat the Haihayas or Taljungas together with these five-hordes. According to Puranic accounts, king Sagara had divested the Paradas and other members of the well-known Pānca-gana (i.e. the Sakas, Yavanas, Kambojas and Pahlavas) of their Kshatriyahood and turned them into the Mlechchas. Before their defeat at the hands of king Sagara, these five-hordes were called Kshatriya-pungava (i.e. foremost among the Kshatriyas).

In the Ramayana[edit]

The Balakanda of the Ramayana groups the Pahlavas with the Sakas, Kambojas, Yavanas, Mlechhas and the Kiratas and refers to them as military allies of sage Vasishtha against Vedic sage king Vishwamitra.[8]

The Kiskindha Kanda of Ramayana associates the Pahlavas with the Yavanas, Shakas, Kambojas, Paradas (Varadas), Rishikas and the Uttarakurus etc. and locates them all in the trans-Himalayan territories i.e. in the Sakadvipa.[9]

In the Mahabharata[edit]

In the Uttarapatha[edit]

Mahabharata attests that Pandava-putra Nakula had defeated the Pahlavas in the course of his western expedition. The kings of Pahlava were also present at the Rajasuya sacrifice of king Yudhishtra.

The Mahabharata also associates the Pahlavas with the Sakas, Yavanas, Gandharas, Kambojas, Tusharas, Sabaras, Barbaras, etc. and addresses them all as the barbaric tribes of Uttarapatha.

In the Udyoga-Parva[edit]

But the Udyoga-Parva of Mahabharata groups the Pahlavas with the Sakas, Paradas and the Kambojas-Rishikas and locates them all in/around Anupa region in western India.

Mahabharata[10] reads: These kings of the Shakas, Pahlavas and Daradas (i.e. the Paradas) and the Kamboja Rshikas, these are in the western riverine (Anupa) area.

This epic reference implies that sections of the Pahlavas, Sakas, Paradas, Kambojas were also located in western India near Saurashtra/Maharashtra.

In Kurukshetra War[edit]

The Pahlavas along with the Sakas, Kiratas, Yavanas etc. joined Saradwat’s son Kripacharya, the high-souled and mighty bowman, and took up their positions at the northern point of the army.[11][12]

In the Manusmriti[edit]

Manusmriti [13] states that the Pahlavas and several other tribes like the Sakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Paradas, Daradas, Khasas, etc. were originally noble Kshatriyas, but later, due to their non-observance of valorous Kshatriya codes and neglect of chivalry, they had gradually sunken to the status of Mlechchas.

In the Mudrarakshas Drama[edit]

The Buddhist drama Mudrarakshas by Visakhadutta and the Jaina works Parishishtaparvan refer to Chandragupta's alliance with Himalayan king Parvatka. This Himalayan alliance gave Chandragupta a powerful composite army made up of the frontier martial tribes of the Shakas, Kambojas, Yavanas, Parasikas (Pahlavas), Bahlikas etc. (predominantly an Iranian army) which he utilised to defeat the Greek successors of Alexander and the Nanda rulers of Magadha, and thus establishing his Mauryan Empire in northern India.[14]

In the Brihat-Katha-Manjari[edit]

The Brihat-Katha-Manjari of the Kshmendra [15] relates that around 400, the Gupta king Vikramaditya (Chandragupta II) had "unburdened the sacred earth of the barbarians" like the Shakas, Mlecchas, Kambojas, Yavanas, Tusharas, Parasikas, Hunas, etc. by annihilating these "unrighteous people" completely.

In the Kavyamimamsa[edit]

The 10th century Kavyamimamsa[16] of Pt Raj Shekhar still lists the Sakas, Tusharas, Vokanas, Hunas, Kambojas, Bahlikas, Pahlavas, Tangana, Turukshas, etc. together and states them as the tribes located in the Uttarapatha division.


  1. ^ See: Notes on the Races, Tribes, and Castes inhabiting the Province of Oudh, Lucknow, Oudh Government Press 1868, p 4; The Geographical Data in Early Puranas, a Critical Studies, 1972, p 135, Dr M. R. Singh; Sacred Books of the East, XXV, Intr. p cxv, Rapson, Coins of Ancient India, p 37, n.2.
  2. ^ The Geographical Data in Early Puranas, a Critical Studies, 1972, p 135, Dr M. R. Singh; Sacred Books of the East, XXV, Intr. p cxv; Rapson, Coins of Ancient India, p 37, n.2.
  3. ^ India as Known to Panini, 1954, p 444, Dr V. S. Agarwala.
  4. ^
    (From Kirfel's Text of Bhuvanakosha ).
  5. ^ Markendeya Purana 57.35.
  6. ^ See also: Geographical Data in the Early Puranas, 1972, p 134-135, Dr M. R. Singh.
  7. ^ Vayu Purana I.58.78-83.
  8. ^ Ramayana, 55/2-3
  9. ^ Ramayana Kisk. Kanda, 43-12.
  10. ^ Mahabharata 5.4.15.
  11. ^ Mahabharata Bhishma Parva, Ch. 20.
  12. ^ Since the armies of the Sakas, Yavanas, Tukharas, Khasas, Daradas had fought under the supreme command of Sudakshin Kamboja (See ref: The Nations of India at the Battle Between the Pandavas and Kauravas, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1908, pp 313, 331, Dr F. E. Pargiter, (Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland), it is highly likely that the Pahlavas too fought under Sudakshina Kamboj.
  13. ^ Manu Samhita, X.43-44.
  14. ^ Mudrarakshas, II.
  15. ^ Brihat-Katha-Manjari 10/1/285-86.
  16. ^ Chapter 17.