Hephthalite Empire

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Hephthalite Empire
Nomadic empire
The Hephthalites (green), c. 500.
Capital Kunduz (Walwalij, Drapsaka, or Badian)
Balkh (Pakhlo)
Languages Turkic
Gandhari (Gandhara)
Sogdian (Sogdiana)
Religion Buddhism[1]
Nestorianism[citation needed]
Tengrism[citation needed]
Political structure Nomadic empire
 •  430/440 – ≈490 Khingila
 •  490/500 – 515 Toramana
 •  515–528 Mihirakula
Historical era Late Antiquity
 •  Established 408
 •  Disestablished 670
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Kushan Empire
Sassanid Empire
Gupta Empire
Kabul Shahi
Göktürk Empire
Principality of Chaghaniyan
Today part of  Afghanistan

The Hephthalites, Ephthalites, or Ye-tai were a confederation of nomadic and settled[5] people in Central Asia who expanded their domain westward in the 5th century.[6] It is not clear whether the Hephthalites or a related people, the Xionites, were synonymous with the White Huns (Sanskrit Sveta Huna).

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.[7][8]

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 Northwest China.

India was invaded during the 5th Century by a people known in South Asia as the Hunas – possibly an alliance broader than the Hephthalites and/or Xionites. The Hunas were initially defeated by Emperor Skandagupta of the Gupta Empire.[9] By the end of the 5th century, however, the Hunas had overrun the part of the Gupta Empire that was to their southeast and had conquered Central and North India.[3] Gupta Emperor Bhanugupta defeated the Hunas under Toramana in 510 A.D.[10][11] The Hunas were driven out of India by the kings Yasodharman and Narasimhagupta, during the early 6th century.[12][13]


The name Hephthalites originated with Ancient Greek sources, which also referred to them as Ephthalite, Abdel or Avdel.

In Ancient India, names such as Hephthalite were unknown. The Hephthalites were apparently part of, or offshoots of, people known in India as Hunas or Turushkas,[14] although these names may have referred to broader groups or neighbouring peoples. To the Armenians the Hephthalites were Haital, to the Persians and Arabs they were Haytal or Hayatila, while their Bactrian name was ηβοδαλο Ebodalo.[3]

In Chinese chronicles, the Hephthalites are called Yanda or Yediyiliduo or "Bikova", while older Chinese sources (c. 125) call them Hua or Hudun and describe them as a tribe living beyond the Great Wall in Dzungaria.[15] Although the Hephthalite Empire was known in China as Yàdā (嚈噠), Chinese chroniclers recognized this designated the leaders of the empire. The same sources document that the main tribe called themselves huá (滑).[16] The modern Chinese variation Yanda has been given various Latinised renderings such as "Yeda", although the corresponding Cantonese and Korean pronunciations Yipdaat and Yeoptal (Korean: 엽달) are more compatible with the Greek Hephthalite. Historians such as Christopher I. Beckwith, referring to Étienne de la Vaissière, say that the Hephthalites were not necessarily one and the same as the White Huns (Sveta Huna).[17] According to de la Vaissiere, the Hephthalites are not directly identified in classical sources alongside that of the White Huns.[18]


Hephthalite coin of King Khingila, 5th century, legend: "Khiggilo Alchono".

There are several theories regarding the origins of the White Huns, with the Turkic[19][20] and Iranian[21][22][23] theories being the most prominent.

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 alphabet that was used as their "official language" and minted on coins, as was done under the preceding Kushan Empire.[24][25][26]

According to B.A. Litvinsky, the names of the Hephthalite rulers used in the Shahnameh are Iranian.[27] 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, Mihirakula's father, is also considered to have an Iranian origin. 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.[28] Janos Harmatta gives the translation "Mithra's Begotten" and also supports the Iranian theory.[29]

For many years, however, scholars suggested that they were of Turkic stock.[20] Some have claimed that some groups amongst the Hephthalites were Turkic-speakers.[19] Today the Hephthalites are generally held to have been an Eastern Iranian people speaking an East Iranian language.[8] The Hephthalites enscribed their coins in the Bactrian (Iranian) script,[7] held Iranian titles,[7] the names of Hephthalite rulers given in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh are Iranian,[7] and gem inscriptions and other evidence shows that the official language of the Hephthalite elite was East Iranian.[7] 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.[24] Richard Frye is cautiously accepting of Enoki's hypothesis, while at the same time stressing that the Hephthalites "were probably a mixed horde".[30] 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.[25]

Asia in 500, showing the Hephthalite Khanate at its greatest extent.

According to the Encyclopaedia Iranica and Encyclopaedia of Islam, the Hephthalites possibly originated in what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan.[31][32] They apparently had no direct connection with the European Huns, but may have been causally related with their movement. The tribes in question deliberately called themselves "Huns" in order to frighten their enemies.[33]

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 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.[34]


Hephthalite ruler.
Hephthalite silver coin copying Gupta Empire horse type, 5th century.

The 6th-century Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea (Book I. ch. 3), related 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... 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[35]

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 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),[36] 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 Persian lands. In Persia, they were initially held off by Bahram Gur but around 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.[37] After a series of wars in the period 503–513, they were driven out of Persia and completely defeated in 557 by Khosrau I. Their polity thereafter came under the Göktürks and subsequent Western Turkic Khaganate.

The Hephthalites also invaded the regions Afghanistan and present-day Pakistan, succeeding in extending their domain to the Punjab region.

The Hephthalite was a vassal state to the Rouran Khaganate until the beginning of the 5th century.[38] 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.[3] In particular, the title "Khan", which according to McGovern was original to the Rourans, was borrowed by the Hephthalite rulers.[3] 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.[3]

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 5th century, and who seem to have driven the Kidarites into Gandhara.[32]

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.[32]

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


According to Song Yun, the Chinese Buddhist monk who visited the Hephthalite territory in 540 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."[1] 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.[7]

According to historian André Wink "...in the Hephthalite dominion Buddhism was predominant but there was also a religious sediment of Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism."[4] Balkh had some 100 Buddhist monasteries and 30,000 monks. Outside the town was a large Buddhist monastery, later known as Naubahar.[7]

White Huns in Southern Central Asia[edit]

Hephthalite successor kingdoms in 600.
Main article: Hunas

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 5th 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.[3] The Hephthalites continued the pressure on ancient India's northwest frontier and broke east by the end of the 5th 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 last Hephthalite King, Yudhishthira, ruled until about 670, when he was replaced by the Kabul Shahi dynasty.[39]

Hephthalites are believed to be among the ancestors of modern-day Pashtuns and in particular of the Abdali Pashtun tribe.[40] According to the 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 the beginning of the 19th century.[41]

The Hephthalites could also have been ancestors of the Abdal tribe which has assimilated into the Turkmens and Kazakhs.[3] 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.[40]

In popular culture[edit]

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

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

The White Huns is a playable faction in Total War: Attila. Somewhat anachronistically, they are portrayed as being led by Khingila in 396 CE. The game alludes to their conquest in India.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Chinese Travelers in Afghanistan". Abdul Hai Habibi. alamahabibi.com. 1969. Retrieved August 9, 2012. 
  2. ^ Sardonyx seal
  4. ^ a b Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World: Early medieval India. André Wink, p. 110. E. J. Brill.
  5. ^ Prokopios, Historien I 3,2-7.
  6. ^ Grousset, Rene (1970). The Empire of the Steppes. Rutgers University Press. pp. 67–72. ISBN 0-8135-1304-9. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Unesco Staff 1996, pp. 135–163
  8. ^ a b West 2009, pp. 274–277
  9. ^ Ancient India: History and Culture by Balkrishna Govind Gokhale, p.69
  10. ^ Ancient Indian History and Civilization by Sailendra Nath Sen, p.220
  11. ^ Encyclopaedia of Indian Events and Dates by S. B. Bhattacherje, p.A15
  12. ^ India: A History by John Keay, p.158
  13. ^ History of India, in Nine Volumes: Vol. II by Vincent A. Smith, p.290
  14. ^ History of Buddhism in Afghanistan, Alexander Berzin, Study Buddhism
  15. ^ Columbia Encyclopedia
  16. ^ 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
  17. ^ Empires of the Silk Road. 2009. p. 406. 
  18. ^ de la Vaissiere, Etienne. "Huns et Xiongnu". Central Asiatic Journal (49): 3–26. 
  19. ^ a b David Christian A History of Russia, Inner Asia and Mongolia (Oxford: Basil Blackwell) 1998 p248
  20. ^ a b "White Huns", Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ "The White Huns – The Hephthalites", Silk Road
  23. ^ Enoki Kazuo, "On the nationality of White Huns", 1955
  24. ^ a b 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".
  25. ^ 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.» Available here Archived February 26, 2007, at the Wayback Machine. or here [1]
  26. ^ 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."
  27. ^ B.A. Litvinsky, "The Hephthalite Empire", in History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. 3. South Asia Books; 1 edition (March 1999). pg 135
  28. ^ Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin, Congrès International d&Etud. Études mithriaques: actes du 2e Congrès International, Téhéran, du 1er au 8 september 1975. p 293. Retrieved 2012-9-5.
  29. ^ Janos Harmatta, "The Rise of the Old Persian Empire: Cyrus the Great," AAASH (Acta Antiqua Acadamie Scientiarum Hungaricae 19, 197, pp. 4–15.
  30. ^ R. Frye, "Central Asia in pre-Islamic Times", Encyclopaedia Iranica
  31. ^ G. Ambros/P.A. Andrews/L. Bazin/A. Gökalp/B. Flemming and others, "Turks", in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Online Edition 2006
  32. ^ a b c A.D.H. Bivar, "Hephthalites", in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition.
  33. ^ M. Schottky, "Iranian Huns", in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition
  34. ^ Robert L. Canfield, Turko-Persia in Historical Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 49
  35. ^ Procopius, History of the Wars. Book I, Ch. III, "The Persian War"
  36. ^ "Ephtalites", Classic Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911
  37. ^ David Christian (1998). A history of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 0-631-20814-3.
  38. ^ Grousset (1970), p. 67.
  39. ^ Encyclopedia of ancient Asian civilizations, by Charles Higham, p. 141
  40. ^ a b Kurbanov, Aydogdy (2010). "The Hephthalites: Archaeological and Historical Analysis" (PDF). p. 243. Retrieved 11 January 2013. 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. 
  41. ^ Gankovsky, Yu. V., et al. A History of Afghanistan, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982, pg 382


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