The Eurasian steppe is a vast sea of grassland extending almost unbroken from the Pannonian Basin in Europe all the way to Manchuria in the East. Throughout most of history – until advanced firearms put a stop to them – the settled peoples of Eurasia would look to the North with fear as horsemen could erupt out of the steppes at any moment and lay waste to their homes and livelihood. These peoples belonged to various ethnic and racial groups, with the earliest nomadic horsemen being Iranic speakers such as the Scythians and Sarmatians. And much later came the most famous and successful of all the horse-lords, the Mongols. In between these influxes were the various Altaic tribes who poured out of the Altai mountains to threaten every great Eurasian civilization from Rome, to Persia, the Indic world and even the Chinese dynasties.
Today the Xiongnu, the European Huns of Atilla, the Göktürks and the later Islamic Turkic hordes are well documented, but another more mysterious group of proto-Turks are often overlooked: the Hephthalites or White Huns.
Until recently, scholars were unsure of the origins of the Hephthalites. These mysterious people seemingly sprouted out of nowhere and subdued the mighty Sassanid Persians (who became their vassals), wrested Punjab from the Guptas and conquered all of the great cities of Central Asia from Bukhara to Yarkand. In South Asian history, they are best known for destroying the Buddhist high civilization of Gandhara which had reached its zenith under the Kushans, an Iranic Steppe people who had become Indianised and were great patrons of Buddhism. Today, various scholars have come to the conclusion that the Hephthalites were indeed Alatic. Earlier historians had claimed that they were Iranic, but this was due to a reason that we will discuss momentarily.
The Hephthalites were masters of both the art of war and the game of politics. They admired the settled world and wished to become its masters – not simply to raid it for its abundant resources but to enjoy the bounties that urban life had to offer.
We know that the Hephthalites originated in the Altai Mountains and were ethnically related to the ancient Xiongnu, who had been expelled from the western Chinese hinterlands by the armies of the Great Han. As the Hephthalites operated mostly in Southern Central Asia, they may well have incorporated Iranic groups and along with them adopted some of their cultural and religious traits. A Southern branch of the Hephthalites, the Kidarites, became entirely Iranicized when they ruled Afghanistan and Gandhara. They reigned first as Kushan and later Sassanian vassals; and later still as kings in their own right. But they still acknowledged the overall sovereignty of the Hephthalite Khan. Previously their relationship with the Hephthalites was disputed, but they are now considered to be a part of the same horde/ethnicity.
The Hephthalite empire was a massive one, extending from Punjab and Sindh in the South to the Kazakh steppe north of the Aral Sea, although – as we will later examine – the Southern branch may not have been part of the Hephthalite ethnicity at all, but a people who were politically linked to the Hephthalites. At their peak, the Hepthalites had as a vassal the entire Sassanian Persian Empire from Iraq to Khorasan. In the east, all of what is now Xinjiang belonged to them. Like most of the steppe peoples, they operated as a loose confederation with many sub-hordes led by kings who would often act independently but who still derived their authority from the overall Hephthalite Khan. Given their originally nomadic lifestyle and the difficulties of communication over a large area in that era, this was a very successful model of government. They were known for being shrewd statesmen: used to dealing with settled peoples on a diplomatic level, unlike most of the other steppe peoples, whose favourite activity was leveling cities and making pyramids with the severed heads of their inhabitants! The Hephthalites were masters of both the art of war and the game of politics. They admired the settled world and wished to become its masters – not simply to raid it for its abundant resources but to enjoy the bounties that urban life had to offer.
The main Hephthalite horde was based in what is now northern Afghanistan and southern Uzbekistan, with their capital near Balkh. Unlike other steppe peoples, the Hephthalites readily took to urban civilization and their ruling class largely gave up the traditional nomadic pastoralism to live in cities. They also relegated their ancient Altaic tongue and started to use Bactrian written in the Greek script as their official language. Unlike other Hunnic peoples, they were known for their good looks, with a famous account by a Byzantine ambassador describing the Hephthalites as the only Huns with fair skin, tall well-built bodies and round handsome faces. They were also great patrons of art, particularly mural painting and frescoes. And they liked to wear colourful silk robes with folded collars. Their art bears a strong resemblance to that of the Tarim Basin and Dunhuang in the Gansu corridor – regions which were often under Hephthalite control in the case of the Tarim Basin and Hephthalite influence in the case of Dunhuang. Religiously they were polytheists worshiping a number of gods.
Hephthalite involvement in Persia was perhaps their greatest political accomplishment. When the Sassanian Shah Peroz I was overthrown by his brother in 458 AD, he went into exile in what is now southern Afghanistan. It is here that he came into contact with the Hephthalites. The Hephthalite Khan Akhshunwar agreed to help Peroz regain the Sassanid throne in exchange for tribute and the acceptance of Hephthalite suzerainty over the Persian Empire. This was perhaps the only time in history that the proud Persian rulers accepted foreign overlordship. Peroz regained power with the assistance of his Hunnic allies, and for a century, a portion of the Persian exchequer was sent to Central Asia as tribute. Later realizing his folly, Peroz fought a series of wars against Akhshunwar’s successors but lost each time – in the process, further denting Persian pride. All Sassanian coins from that period have a mark on them representing Hephthalite authority.
The branch of the Huns that conquered the Indus basin, pushed into Gujarat and Rajasthan and terrorized Emperor Skandagupta of the Gupta Empire were a branch of the Hephthalites known as the Alkhon Huns. Previously, scholars considered the Kidarites to be a separate entity and the Alkhons as being a branch of the main Hephthalite horde. Today that view has changed and the Kidarites are considered to be very much Hephthalite, but the Alkhons are now considered a separate but related horde under the suzerainty of the Hephthalites.
Another interesting legacy of the Hephthalites is that the Buddhas of Bamiyan were built under Hephthalite rule
As such, the Alkhons first appear on the scene in the former Kidarite stronghold of eastern Afghanistan and they swept across the Khyber Pass to lay waste to the Peshawar Valley. Under Toramana, they made Taxila their capital. It was Toramana’s son Mihirakula who crossed the Indus and conquered Punjab and Sindh from the Guptas. He moved the capital from Taxila to Sagala (modern-day Sialkot). Both Toramana and Mihirakula were followers of the Cult of Shiva. The Guptas called these people the ‘Sveta Hunnas.’ Mihirakula, in particular, only allowed the veneration of Shiva in his domains and actively persecuted Buddhists by destroying Stupas and monasteries. It is these Huns that brought an end to the Buddhist civilization of Gandhara.
There seems to be a striking difference between the Hephthalites proper and the Alkhons. Whereas their northern cousins were a cosmopolitan people fond of cities and patrons of the arts, the Alkhons sent Gandharan culture back by a thousand years. Perhaps the distinction between these two peoples is actually a significant one and the Alkhons may not have been Hephthalites at all but another Altaic tribe who happened to ally themselves with the Hephthalite banner. To simplify things the term Indo-Hephthalite is also used for the Alkhons.
Another interesting legacy of the Hephthalites is that the Buddhas of Bamiyan were built under Hephthalite rule. It was previously thought that the Bamiyan complex was built during the reign of the Kushans, who were not only Buddhist themselves but encouraged the proselytisation of this faith along the Silk Road. The Hephthalites, for the most part, were not Buddhist and their Khans and ruling classes were affirmed polytheists worshiping an array of East Iranic and Altaic deities. Why they commissioned such a grandiose example of Buddhist art is a mystery – and it is only carbon dating that has ascertained this. Perhaps they wished to placate their Buddhist subjects and show the world that they were a tolerant people? This view is completely at odds with the traditional image of the Hephthalites as the people who ended the Buddhist era in Gandhara. And it is yet another point of divergence between the main horde and the Alkhons.
In many ways the Hephthalites remain an enigma. So much about them is unknown or disputed that they seem to be more of a legendary race than an actual Altaic horde. Once seen largely as Shiva-worshipping Buddhist persecutors, it is now know that the actual Hephthalites, unlike the Alkhons, were religiously tolerant. The name they called themselves was Ebodal, and their influence lives on to the present day. Genetically the Hephthalites left a huge imprint on the peoples of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Perhaps I, the writer, and you, the reader, may also be partial heirs to the Empire of the Hephthalites!
The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk