Hephthalite Huns

Asia in 500, showing the Hephthalite Khanate at its greatest extent. The peak of Hephthalite power came in 522, with territories from Dzyngaria to northern India, but the empire collapsed quickly after that. In 532 a coalition of Hindu peoples expelled them from India and the Hephthalites disappeared altogether after unsuccessful wars against the Sassanids that took place between 557 and 561.

The Hephthalite Huns were a people of shadowy origins who ruled much of Central Asia and northern India from about 450 to 550 C. E. The word Hephthalite means “valiant” or “courageous,” and the Sassanian rulers, who resisted the initial westward expansion of the Huns, rightly feared their prowess as mounted cavalry and archers. Their coins bore a Bactrian script, and they probably spoke an Iranian language. A description by the sixth-century historian Procopius of Caesarea noted that they were ruled by one king and resembled the Byzantine state in their legal system.

There is also evidence in their conflict with the Sassanian kings Yazgird II and Peroz that they had a powerful army and observed sealed treaties over fixed frontiers. They were engaged in three campaigns against the King Peroz, captured him on at least two occasions, and finally defeated and killed him in battle. Thereafter, the Sassanians paid tribute in COINAGE to the Hephthalites, largely to keep the peace on their eastern frontier, until the reign of Khusrau I in the mid-sixth century C. E. The Huns territory at this juncture included Tokharistan and much of Afghanistan. They seized SOGDIANA in 509 and extended their authority as far east as Urumqi in northeast China. Although successful in India from 520 to the mid-seventh century, the Hephthalites in Central Asia had to withstand a new threat from the northeast in the form of the Turks. The Huns’ king Gatfar was seriously defeated in 560 C. E. in the vicinity of Bukhara, and the Huns thereafter survived only in the form of small and remote principalities, whose leaders paid tribute to the Sassanians and the Turks.


As had many groups before them, the Huns then turned their imperial thoughts south into GANDHARA. By 520 they controlled this area and came up against the western frontiers of the GUPTA EMPIRE under King Bhuhagupta. Under their own king, Toramana, they seized the Punjab, Kashmir, and Rajputana, a policy continued vigorously under their next king, Mihirakula, who established his capital at Sakala (modern Sialkot in the Punjab, Pakistan). He was a Sivaite, and this was a period of devastation for the venerable Buddhist monasteries, many of which were sacked and destroyed. Sakala was visited in the seventh century by XUANZANG, the Chinese monk, who noted that the walls were dilapidated but still had strong foundations. He described the presence of an inner citadel and learned that several hundred years earlier the city had been the capital of Mihirakula, who ruled over India. Pravarasena reigned from about 530 C. E. His capital, near Srinagar in Kashmir, was named Pravarasenapura after him. He issued coins inscribed with his name. We also know the names of his successors, who formed a Hun dynasty ruling over much of northwestern India and Afghanistan until the mid-seventh century C. E. Increasingly, these rulers absorbed Indian ways, particularly in respect to religion. Thus King Gokarna founded and endowed a shrine to SIVA called Gokarnesvara. The last Hephthalite king, Yudhishthira, ruled until about 670, when he was replaced by the Turk Shahi dynasty. In Central Asia, one principality that persisted after the Turks overcame the Hephthalites was located in Chaganiyan, on the northern bank of the Surkhan Dar’ya River. Another was at Khuttal in the Vakhsh Valley. These places were described by Xuanzang, who noted the number of monasteries and monks, the system of writing, and the fact that people dressed in cot- ton and sometimes woolen clothing.


The historical sources for the Hephthalites are fragmentary and at times contradictory, but it seems that while some of the population continued the typically nomadic life on the steppes, the elite became increasingly sedentary and occupied permanent walled towns or cities. One report describes the king’s gold throne and magnificent dress. Their coinage reveals kings, but there also appear to have been regional rulers. Little archaeological research has been undertaken on the major settlements of the Hephthalite empire. BALKH (Afghanistan) is known to have been one of their centers, and Xuanzang described it as their capital. It was, he said, defended with strong walls but was not densely populated. TERMEZ, on the Amu Dar’ya River, and Budrach were other cities of this period. The latter incorporated a citadel and covered an area of about 50 hectares (125 acres).

KAFYR-KALA, in the Vaksh Valley of Tajikistan was a walled regional capital with a citadel and a palace. Kafyr-kala is one of the few sites providing evidence for the nature of a regional center of the HEPHTHALITE HUNS. The Hephthalites were a powerful Hun group who dominated Central Asia and northern India between about 450 and 550 C. E. While some segments of the community preserved their nomadic ways, the ruling elite adopted a sedentary urban life, minted coins, and administered a sophisticated system of justice. Kafyr-kala is located in the upper Vaksh Valley in Tajikistan and was surrounded by a wall incorporating defensive towers. A palace dominated the citadel, which is 360 meters square (432 sq. yds.), while the lower town included a central road flanked by residences, temples, and shops. The palace was strongly defended with two walls and towers at each corner. The Chinese pilgrim XUANZANG, who traveled through this area in the seventh century, observed monasteries and Buddhist monks in Hephthalite centers. At the palace of Kafyr-kala, a Buddhist sanctuary, the walls of which were embellished with paintings of the Buddha, has been revealed by excavation.

The life led in such centers is illustrated by the painted feasting scene at Balalyk-tepe in the upper valley of the Amu Dar’ya River in Uzbekistan, which shows aristocratic men and WOMEN shielded by servants holding umbrellas. A second elite feasting scene is depicted on a silver dish from Chilek, in which female dancers are entertaining royalty. In Afghanistan, the massive rock-cut images of the Buddha at BAMIYAN in Afghanistan, the largest such statues known before their destruction by the Taliban in 2001, probably date within the period of the Hephthalite empire.


After the war with Rome, the focus of the Sassanian Empire was forced to shift towards the east where there were invasions, first by the Kushans and then the Hephthalite Huns, for the rest of the fourth century. The first major invasion of Persian territory by the Huns occurred near the end of the century and the invaders managed to reach Mesopotamia before Sassanian forces defeated them in 395. The empire was also embroiled in several internal conflicts throughout this period, which continued to occur in the fifth century as well. The Sassanian Emperor WahrIm V (r. 420-438 AD) successfully managed to consolidate his power and end the internal strife within his empire, along with putting an end to the expansion of the new Hephthalite empire. However, when a new series of conflicts with the Huns erupted during the reign of Emperor Peroz I in the later half of the fifth century AD, the Sassanians suffered several major defeats. Accounts of these battles, as well as specific information about the wars with the Huns, is scarce, yet a possible reason for the sudden superiority of the Hunnic warriors over the Sassanians may have been due to a drastic increase in the effectiveness of their horse–archers because of the adoption of stirrups. With the revolutionary equestrian equipment, mounted archers gained a considerable amount of stability, which greatly improved the accuracy of their shots. Since their heavy armour already made them much less mobile than the Hunnic horse–archers, the protection became more of a hindrance for the elite clibanarii because the extensive armour was also unable to protect them nearly as much as it was against the archers of the Roman army. Furthermore, the ability of the horse-archers to outrun the Sassanian heavy horsemen almost completely removed the threat of their cavalry charges. Ultimately, the Sassanians were so overmatched against the superior Hunnic horsemanship and equestrian tactics that, in 484, Emperor Peroz died in combat against them. A major result of these disastrous wars, as well as other increasingly frequent conflicts with the Turko-Hunnic peoples of Central Asia, was that the Sassanian clibanarii gradually evolved into a much more composite type of cavalry with different arms and armour more influenced by Central Asian styles. At the same time, the overall preference for the lance began to decrease among the Sassanian heavy cavalrymen, as the bow became more important, even though the horsemen remained heavily armoured.

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