The Hephthalites, also known as the Ephthalites, were a Central Asian steppe people who rose to military fame circa 450-560 AD. They were a tribal confederation made up by both nomads and settled urban communities. They are described by others as people originating from the pasture-lands of the Altai mountains in southwestern Mongolia.
Originally based in Bactria, north of the Hindu Kush mountain range, the Hephthalites eventually expanded eastward to the Tarim Basin, westward to Sogdia, and southward through Afghanistan and northern India.
Reliable sources regarding the Hephthalites are rare, and many sources are difficult to interpret. Historians aren’t even sure about what language (or which langauges) the Hephthalites spoke.
Connection to the Huns
The Hephthalites were part of the four major states referred to collectively as Xyon. As such, they have been linked to the Huns who invated Eastern Europe, but there is not much evidence for such a connection. The Sveta Huna who invaded northern India were on the other hand most likely Hepthalites.
In his “History of the Wars” from the mid 6th century, Procopius claims that the Hephthalites “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. They are the only ones among the Huns who have white bodies….”
The Hephthalites were referred to as White Huns to distinguish them from other Huns, especially the ones who, led by Atilla, invaded the Roman Empire.
As with most things concerning the Hepthalites, we do not know much about their origins. A combination of Tarim basin peoples and the Yueh-chih has been proposed. The Yeh-chich, also known as Yuezhi, were an anceint Indo-European people that first show up in Chinese history during the 1st millenim BC. The Chinese described them a nomadic pastoralists moving around in the arid grasslands of (what we today call) western Gansu.
One of the reasons why researchers tend to link the Hepthalites with the Yeh-chich is the striking resemblance of the deformed heads of early Yueh-chih and Hephthalite kings on their coinage.
When the Hephthalites began expanding westward. This was probably a reaction to increased pressure from a powerful nomadic tribe called the Juan-Juan who lived in Mongolia.
As a part of their expansion to the west, the Hephthalites entered Kabul and overthrew the Kushan. Around the year 440, the Hephthalites conquered Samarkand (Sogdian), followed by Balkh and Bactria.
Gradually, the Hephthalites were inching nearer and nearer lands controlled by the mighty Sassanian Empire (the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam). In 484, a Hephthalite army led by Akhshunwar attacked Sassania and killed King Peroz in Khurasan. Now, the Hephthalites were in charge of lands stretching all the way to Merv and Herat, but other parts of the Sassanian Empire was still intact.
After the Sassanian royal Kavad had commenced a struggle for the throne with Balash, brother of the late Peroz, the Hephthalites formed an alliance with Kavad, and he married the niece of the Hepthalites chief. Aided by the Hephthalites, Kavad won over Balash and took the throne in 498.
The Hephthalites founded the city Piandjikent in the Zaravshan Valley, some 65 km southwest of Samarkand (Sogdia).
In the 7th century, this city became famous for its amazing mural paintings. Regretably, they were later destroyed by Arabs.
Migration between Badakshan and Bactria
Badakshan was chosen as the summer residence for the chiefs of the Hephthalites, who then migrated back to Bactria for the winter season.
With their western border stabilized, the Hephthalites could focus in expanding towards the east. Between 493 and 556 AD, they invaded Khotan, Kashgar, Kocho, and Karashahr.
Invasion of India
When the Gupta ruler Skandagupta died in 470 AB, after having reigned for 15 years, the Hephthalites seized the moment and invaded, entering from the Kabul valley. They defeated the Gupta dynasty (who knew them as the Huna, the Sanskrit name for the Hephthalites) and destroyed every city and town as they continued their travels along the Ganges. The Hephthalites also burned all Buddhist monasteries they could find, and the capital city Pataliputra suffered such massive violence in the hands of the Hephthalites that its population decreased down to that of a mere village.
After the conquest, this part of northwestern India was ruled by Hephthalite kings for three decades. Some coins depicting them have survivided into our time.
Fall of the Hephthalites
During the second half of the 500s, the murdered King Peroz’s grandson, the Persian King Chosroes, emerged as a leader with a great hatred against the Hephthalites. Between 557 and 561, he allied with another steppe people that had emerged from inner Asia, and he married the daughter of the nomadic chief.
With support from the fearsome chief Sinjibu’s many troops, Chosroes successfully attacked the Hephthalites. Ultimately, Sinjibu and his men managed to kill the Hepthalite king. Suffering from attacks from two sides simultaneously, the Hephtahlite Empire fell apart, and many Hephthalites died.
Some Hephthalites living south of Oxus managed to evade Chosroes attack, but in the following century this group was conquered by Arab invadors.
Another group of Hephthalites fled to the west, and some historians suspect that they might be the ancestors of the Avars of the Danube region.
About the Hephthalites
We do not know much about how the Hephthalites lived. Since they were a tribal confederation made up by both nomads and settled urban communities, there was probably notable difference in lifestyle and customs between various groups within the federation. Therefore, information about one group isn’t necessarily true for another.
In the year 520, the Buddhist pilgrims Sung Yun and Hui Sheng visited the Hephthalite chief at his summer residence in Badakshan, and later in Gandhara, and they wrote texts about this that have survived into our time. According to the pilgrims, the Hepthalites were nomadic and lived in tents, moving in search of water and pasture, and to avoid spending the winters in cold places and the summers in warm ones. The pilgrims note that even the Hephthalite government was a moving camp; not a town or city.
According to Chinese sources, the Hephthalites practised a form of polyandry where brothers could be married to the same woman.
There is some indication that the Hephthalites referred to themselves as Ebodalo. Some of their coins contains this name written in Bactrian script. How the became known as the Hephthalites remains unknown; it might be derived from the word *hitala which means strong in Khotanese. We do know that Byzantine historians used the name Ephthalites, while the Persian historian Mirkhond called them the Hayatheliates. Among the Chinese, they were sometimes referred to as Hua or Ye-Tai, and their name in Sanskrit was Huna.
The official language of both the Kushan and Hephtalite empires was Bactrian, an Iranian language spoken in Bactria (present-day Afghanistan and Tajikistan).
If this was also the language used by Hephthalites in non-official contexts remains unclear. Some scholars have proposed that they spoke Bactrian or some other Iranian language in private as well. They base this assumption chiefly on the Pei Shih, where it is mentioned that the language spoken by the Hepthalites is not similar to that of the Juan-Juan (Mongoloid) nor any of the various Hu (Turkic languages). Another suggestion is that they spoke Mongol languages.
The Kushans wrote Bactrian using an alphabet called Arya, which was based on the Greek alphabet. It is possible that the Hephthalites did the same.
The Buddhist pilgrims Sung Yun and Hui Sheng that visited the Hephthalites in the year 520 claimed that the Hephthalites had no script.
According to the Book of Liang (Liáng Shū), completed by Yao Silian in 635, the Hephthalites had no letters but used tally sticks. Around the same time, numismatic and epigraphic sources show that the Hephthalits used a version of the Greek alphabet.
The abovementioned Buddhist pilgrims Sung Yun and Hui Sheng reported that the Hephthalites weren’t Buddhists, although archaeological evidence from that era indicate that Buddhism was practised (possibly by non-Hephthalites) in lands within the Hephthalite Empire. According to the pilgrims, the Hephthalites themselves “served a great number of divinities”. This report is from the 520s. In the year 635, the Book of Liang says that the Hepthalites worships heaven and fire, which is probably a reference to Zoroastrianism.