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Far East Kingdoms

Central Asia

 

Turkic Tribes IndexXionites / Alchons (Hunas / Turks)

Starting in the fourth century AD, a general invasion of nomadic tribes began to overwhelm southern Central Asia and northern South Asia (a region which can be combined under the label of 'eastern Iran'). This wave of barbarian invasions is attributed to tribal confederations which originated on the Central Asian steppe. The route southwards from there was not a new one but it was the Kidarites (Red Huns) who were the first to follow it on this occasion. An examination of their origins and of those of Xionites in general is included in their introduction, the other groups being the Hephthalites, Alchons, and Nezak.

FeatureThat name - Xionites (Chionites) - is the one most associated with this fresh wave of migrant warriors and their families. It has also created the speculation that they are related to the Huns of Europe. They were certainly the Huna of India, while Chinese sources linked the Xionite groups both to the Xiongnu and to the Huns. Modern scholars also follow this lead, with current thought suggesting that the Xionites were a Turkic-Mongolian grouping which had migrated from the region around the Altai Mountains. This area seems to have formed the original homeland of the early Turks (the Göktürks), where they mingled with Indo-European Tocharians to the south and Mongolians to the north. (See feature link for an in-depth exploration of the Xionite name.)

The Alchons, shown variously as the Alkhan, Alkhon, Alxon, or even Walxon, are a relatively new introduction into the historiography of eastern Iran. The name is known through the Bactrian legend αλχαν(ν)ο, meaning 'Alkhano', on their coins. Compared with numismatic sources, textual sources about the Alchons are quite scarce, a fact that has contributed to the tendency to associate them with better-known 'Hunnic' entities such as the Hephthalites and to consider them as a branch of the Hephthalites in older historiography. More recent research, however, has allowed the history of the Alchons to be put together in a more coherent fashion, one that is independent of the Hephthalites.

Ptolemy in the second century AD is one of the first European writers to mention the Huns, with Marcellinus and Priscus also doing so. They likewise suggest that the Huns were an inner Asian people - although it appears that not all Huns were of the same stock. The Hephthalites (White Huns) especially appear to have been formed of a very different group of people. As the Alchons were heavily involved in Hephthalite efforts to conquer northern India, there is a chance that they were of the same stock. In fact, the debate about whether the Hephthalites are to be considered a separate entity from the Alchons, as promoted by numismatists, is among the most important issues surrounding the identity of the Hephthalites themselves. All Xionite groups may, to some extent, have been influenced by and had adopted the still-dominant Indo-Iranian culture and language even prior to their invasion of eastern Iran (and certainly the invasion of India).

The Hunas or Huna were recorded in Hindu texts as a group of central Asian tribes which entered India via the Khyber Pass at the end of the fifth century or early sixth. They occupied large areas of north-western India, reaching as far as Eran and Kausambi. Their constant attacks greatly weakened the Gupta empire, despite the fact that the were ultimately repelled. These Hunas are consistently linked to the 'Huns' or Xionites of eastern Iran. In India they appear to have been an amalgamation of forces from several groups of Xionites, including the Kidarites, Hephthalites, and Alchons, and probably also the Nezak. The main thrust of the invasion seems to have been led by the Alchons, with three of their best-known leaders conquering Gandhara and operating in India, but that doesn't preclude involvement by the other Xionite groups.

The Kidarites initially seemed to dominate the others, perhaps as overlords. When they were defeated, this seemingly freed up the other groups to become dominant. Once this had happened, of the Alchon kings, Khingila is the most famous of their number. He was the leader of the Alchon campaigns in Gandhara which took control of the region from the Kidarites. In the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, he is mentioned as Shengil, where he is considered the king of India. Khingila's coins show a characteristic elongated skull, perhaps an Alchon tribal custom.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from King of the Seven Climes: A History of the Ancient Iranian World (3000 BCE - 651 CE), Khodadad Rezakhani (Touraj Daryaee, Ed, Ancient Iran Series Vol IV, 2017), from Xiiaona- and Xyôn in Zoroastrian Texts, C G Cereti (Coins, Art, and Chronology II, Michael Alram & Deborah E Klimburg-Salter, Eds, 2010), from Res Gestae, Ammianus Marcellinus, from The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History, and Culture, Joseph Kitagawa (Routledge, 2013), from Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity, Anthony Kaldellis (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), from Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, Jonathan Conant (Cambridge University Press, 2012), from Journal of the Oriental Numismatic Society No 230, Robert Bracey & Karan Singh (Eds, Winter 2017), and from External Links: History of the Wars, Procopius (Wikisource), and Encyclopaedia Iranica.)

fl 430s - 460s

Khingila (I) / Shengil

Alchon leader during the conquest of Gandhara.

c.430s

Khingila is the most famous of the Alchon leaders, heading the campaigns in Gandhara which take control of the region from the Kidarites. In the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, he is mentioned as Shengil, where he is considered the king of India. References to other kings called Khingila are made in various sources, such as a garnet seal with the inscription 'Eshkingil the Lord of Rōkan'.

Map of Central Asia and India AD 500
By the late 400s the eastern sections of the Sassanid empire had been overrun and to an extent occupied by the Hephthalites (Xionites) after they had killed Shah Peroz (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The coins of Khingila shown a characteristic elongated skull which has been posited as an Alchon tribal custom. These are amongst the best known coins of eastern Iran and are a model for many later issues. Despite being classed as an Alchon himself, the style of at least some of Khingila's coins is more Kidarite. Rather than distinguishing between the two, they should be seen as an evolution from Kidarite (early coins) to Alchon (later coins). The reign of Khingila probably represents the period of the transition from 'Kidarite' to 'Alchon' identity, but not a major shift in Hun rule.

It is usually accepted that Khingila's son is Toramana, who then continues his father's campaigns to conquer India and who succeeds him in Gandhara. However, there is no evidence to suggest this, numismatic or otherwise.

fl 460s? - 493

Mehama

Alchon leader in Gandhara.

462

The presence of an Hephthalo-Alchon figure known as Meyam or Mehama is probably a good indication of the progress of Hephthalite power during and after the reign of Shah Peroz. At this point he is first mentioned in two documents (BD ea 1-2 and ed 1-2, dated to 239 and 252 in the Bactrian Era, AD 462 and 475 respectively).

He is acting as a local administrator under the Sassanid Shah Peroz, in a somewhat nebulous and hard-to-locate region known as Kadag which would appear to fall within the general bounds of Bactria. In the period in which Peroz is finally defeated and during the political vacuum which follows in and after 484, Meyam is soon raised to the position of Mahāṣāhi Mehama. The power vacuum allows various local authorities to claim independence, and the situation remains the same in Tokharistan, and farther south and east around Kabul in Gandhara and across Gandhara itself, until the destruction of Hephthalite power.

c.470

Narasimhagupta of the Guptas drives the Hephthalites from the plains of northern India, but the Kidarites sense an opportunity in the increasing fragility of the empire and begin menacing its borders. There is clearly still some life left in the Kidarites despite their authority being severely reduced, but the lack of any specific mention after this point suggests that they become indistinguishable from the population of Hephthalites or Alchons.

Kidarite coin
Shown here are both sides of a silver drachm issued under the authority of Khingila the Alchon and showing, possibly, an elongated skull - a custom which was practised by the elite members of Alchon society

492/493

While Mehama is very little known, the Talagan copper scroll mentions him as being an active ruler in AD 492/493, showing that he almost certainly continues beyond this year. The scroll's mention of him is in connection with a donation he makes to a Buddhist stupa. The scroll also lists the other Alchon leaders, including Javukha and Toramana, showing that there are several leaders who are active at the same time. The Xionite presence in and around Gandhara is not limited to a single Alchon kingdom or principality.

fl c.480 - 490

Javukha

Son of Sadavikha. Alchon leader in Gandhara.

fl c.490 - 520

Toramana

Alchon leader operating in India.

480s - 500

Toramana breaks through the Gupta defences in the north-west, and much of the empire is overrun by the Hephthalites by AD 500. This invasion of India seems largely to be an Alchon-led operation, but that does not preclude involvement by the other Xionite groups, especially the large and powerful Hephthalites, but also by the Kidarites and Nezak.

The empire disintegrates under Toramana's attacks, and those of his successor, Mihirakula. The Hephthalites conquer several provinces of the former empire, including Malwa, while Gujarat, and Thaneshwar break away under local dynasties. The surviving Guptas are forced south and east, to Jabbalpur (in modern Madhya Pradesh) and northern Bengal, where they establish minor Gupta holdings.

Toramana's name appears more than any other Alchon ruler on inscriptions from northern and central India. A famous inscription known commonly as the Eran Stone Boar Inscription is dated to the fifteenth year of the '...Maharajadhiraja Shri Toramana who is governing the earth with great fame and lustre...'. Toramana is also mentioned in the Gwalior inscription, where he is identified as Mihirakula's father.

fl c.500 - 540?

Mihirakula

Son? Alchon leader operating in India and later in Kashmir.

c.500 - 530

The coins of Mihirakula and his contemporary, Jara (see below), are usually attributed to Taxila and Punjab, although there are other issues from the Kashmir region which neighbours Taxila to the east. If the attribution to Meyam, Alchon governor of Kadag in Bactria, is correct for coins of about AD 495 then this places the coins of Mihirakula and Jara shortly afterwards, explaining the parallels between their designs.

In book one of Rajatarangini, this Mihirakula is mentioned as a cruel king. In Indian sources, the defeat of Mihirakula in Malwa is the end of the 'Huna' involvement in Indian affairs. However, there is no clear indication that the rule of the Alchons in Gandhara and further to the west actually stops with this event. It is presumably following this latest setback that the Alchons retreat back to Gandhara, and possibly even farther west to Kabul. Mihirakula later establishes a renewed power-base in Kashmir, surviving until around 540.

Post-Hephthalite Alchons, Huna, & Kidarites

FeatureThe defeat of Mihirakula in Malwa around AD 530 apparently marked the end of the 'Huna' involvement in Indian affairs. It did not prevent them from raiding far into the east of India, but no further serious attempts were made to conquer territory there. After this point Alchon, Hephthalite, and Kidarite operations in Gandhara and India become far less clear. Very occasionally Indian sources refer to the Śveta Huṇa (White Huns), while also mentioning Red Huns (Kidarites) and Black Huns (uncertain). The latter could have been true Mongolian Huns, darker skinned than the seemingly Indo-Iranian White Huns, and perhaps darker even than the Turko-Mongoloid Red Huns (but see the feature link for a more detailed look at Hunnic origins).

Interest in the Huns of the Gandhara region was greatly revived in the early twenty-first century by the discovery of a whole new series of Xionite copper coins, from the Bhimadevi/Shiva shrine at Kashmir Smast in the mountains of what is now northern Pakistan. The term 'Kidarite' is often used in connection with these coin finds, but this does not refer exclusively to Kidarites (Red Huns). In fact Gandhara seems to have been a melting pot of all sorts of Xionites - Kidarites, Hephthalites, Alchons, and even Nezak from their base around Kabulistan and Zabulistan. Indian records lump them all together as 'Huna' or 'Hunas', and it is impossible with the available evidence to break them down into their respective groups. Even so, it is coin finds that have shone an all-to-rare light on what appear to have been a series of minor Xionite principalities in the region. The collapse of the Hephthalite empire in 565 set these principalities free to operate independently, or at least independent in all but name, with them probably supplying lip service to the Sassanids, Göktürks, or Guptas, whichever of the three was dominant to the south of the Hindu Kush during the sixth century.

The distinction between Kidarite and 'Alchano' (Alchon) Huns is a modern one, being based upon their easily-distinguished coin designs. The 'Kidarite' coins use Sassanid-type portraits in profile or frontally and the 'Alchano' coins use a bold Hun-style portrait in profile. The inscriptions on the new coins and on previously-known Kidarite coins suggest that the 'Alchano' Huns were not a separate wave of Hun intrusion into the region, but were instead a continuation of the Kidarite Hun group, which simply adopted a different visual identity. The change could represent a change of dynasty or a shift in power between two Hun groups, but with continuing recognition of Kidara as the major player in the establishment of Hun power.

c.530 - 540

The defeat of Mihirakula in Malwa around 530 signals the end of the 'Huna' involvement in Indian affairs. However, there is no clear indication that the rule of the Alchons in Gandhara and further to the west actually stops with this event. It is presumably following this latest setback that the Alchons retreat back to Gandhara, and possibly even farther west to Kabul.

Map of Xionite North-Western India AD 500s-600s
Following the fall of the Hephthalite empire, Gandhara remained a key stronghold of Xionite power, with several principalities having been established and coin-producing mints springing up to provide vague clues about the existence of their rulers (click or tap on map to view full sized)

However, Xionite coin finds in the region of the Bhimadevi/Shiva shrine at Kashmir Smast in the mountains of northern Pakistan suggests that this area at least (in the southern section of Gandhara's provincial territory) remains under firm Xionite control well into the seventh century. Those of Jara can be dated to the beginning of the sixth century as they are of an issue that is similar to coins of Mihirakula. The latter's coins and those of Jara are usually attributed to Taxila and Punjab, although Punjab issues by Mihirakula have a different typology and a weight that is standard with similar coins from Kashmir.

fl c.500 - 530?

Jara

Alchon leader in Kashmir, possibly alongside Mihirakula.

500s - 600s

It has long been thought that the Toramana who operates in Kashmir at the start of the sixth century is the same as the Hun king of the same name who rules swathes of India between about 490-520. This also prompts the idea that Mehama and Meghama could be one and the same person, particularly considering the weakness of the chronology in the Rajatarngini, the one unique source for Kashmir's history.

However, there are strong reasons for separating the two Toramanas. Firstly, the Kashmir coins of Toramana are very numerous and are circulated until the ninth century, when Kashmir's King Avantivarman issues coins which copy those of the Kashmir Toramana. The context for Toramana and Meghavahana (presumably this is a Indianised form of the Hun name) in the Rajatarangini links them with the reign of Harshavardana of Thaneshwar who can be dated fairly precisely. This seventh century dating is compatible with the designs and inscription styles of their coins and gives about two centuries for the currency of Toramana's coins.

No coins of the King Toramana who rules large areas of northern India are known from Kashmir. The coins of his son, Mihirakula, are closely linked to the new coins which appear to have the name Mehama on them. Stylistically Mihirakula's coins seem to come after the coins attributed here to Mehama, which seem to have designs that are closer to fourth century Kidarite prototypes than they are to those of Mihirakula. The earlier style Brahmi inscriptions on Mehama's copper coins also separate them from the gold coins of Meghama. The coincidence of names does not present sufficient evidence to attribute the two series to the same king, but it does suggest a continuity of Hun rule in Kashmir and the reuse of earlier names in the seventh century.

Harshavardhana
Harshavardhana controlled a large empire across northern India which may have included governance of the post-Hephthalite empire Huns of Kashmir

fl 500s - 600s

Pravarasena

Alchon leader operating in Kashmir, south of Gandhara.

fl 500s - 600s

Meghama / Mehama? / Meghavahana?

Alchon leader operating in Kashmir, south of Gandhara.

fl 500s - 600s

Tuysina

Alchon leader operating in Kashmir, south of Gandhara.

fl 500s - 600s

Toramana (II)

Alchon leader operating in Kashmir, south of Gandhara.

The new coin finds throw up other fresh crops of Xionite names in the Kashmir region. On these coins the obverses show a standing figure, facing with three-quarters turned head, of either a Kushan-style standing king holding a trident (Tuysina and Toramana) or the god Shiva holding a trident, accompanied by ganas (the Alchon leader Pravarasena) or a lion (Meghama). The presence on these and all later Kashmir coins of the name Kidara, written in late Brahmi in the reverse left field, suggests that all their issuers see the great Kidarite leader Kidara as a significant originator of their authority. Even later, non-Kidarite coins issued in Kashmir carry this name.

6th century

A class of Alchon coins would seem to require classification as a separate entity. They are distinguished by the area of their influence outside north-western India. Among these, two kings named Zabokho and Adomano include a legend on their coins that reads 'the King of the East'. This is particularly interesting since this legend connects these Alchon kings both to later Turkic rulers of the region, including the 'Tegin of Khorasan' and the later division of the Sassanid empire into four distinctive (military) administrative divisions. One of these divisions indeed receives the Middle Persian name of Xwarāsān, generally shown in English texts as Khorasan, an exact parallel of the Bactrian μιιρασανο with the same meaning of 'the east'.

fl 500s

Zabokho

Alchon leader operating in 'the east'.

fl 500s

Adomano

Alchon leader operating in 'the east'.

565

The powerful Hephthalites in the north make the mistake of killing a Chinese envoy on his way to the Sassanid court with the offer of an alliance. China sends its general, recorded variously as 'Sinjibu', or 'Sizibulous' or 'Sinjibu Khan', although 'Sinjibu' is a derogatory Turkic nickname meaning 'treacherous'). In fact this general is İstemi 'Yabgu', viceroy of the western Göktürks, brother to (eastern) Göktürk Khagan Bumin who himself is brother-in-law to the Western Wei emperor.

Marco Polo on the Silk Road
Marco Polo's journey into China along the Silk Road made use of a network of east-west trade routes that had been developed since the time of Greek control of Bactria

The Hephthalites are defeated by an alliance of Göktürks and Sassanids at a great battle near Bukhara. A level of Indo-Sassanid authority is re-established in the region for the next century. The western Göktürks set up rival states in Bamiyan, Kabul, and Kapisa under the authority of the viceroy in Tokharistan, strengthening their hold on the Silk Road. Remaining independent Hephthalite activity is now confined to the southern side of the Hindu Kush.

6th century

Two more Alchon kings also issue coins that show their connection to the 'east'. The first is the extremely Indianised Rāja Lakhāna Udayāditiya, some of whose coins also bear the Bactrian 'Alkhano'. Like Pūrvāditiya, another authority who mints coins in the 'Eastern Style', the title of Udayāditiya means 'east' or, specifically, 'the rising of or the place of the sun'. Linguistically, this also corresponds to the Bactrian phrase, 'the place of the sun', and the Middle Persian 'khwarāsān', 'the place of the sun'. The occurrence of references to the east on coins of these authorities, and their later Sassanid and Turkic reflections may hint at the start of the idea of Khorasan as a region and its relation to the post-Kidarite politics of eastern Iran.

fl 500s

Raja Lakhāna Udayāditiya

Alchon leader operating in 'the east'.

fl late 500s?

Pūrvāditiya / Purvaditya

Title known, but not name. Alchon leader operating in ' the east'.

c.580

Prabhakarvardhana is an independent monarch of the recently-founded Thaneshwar kingdom in India. He establishes matrimonial relations with the Maukharis by marrying his daughter, Rajashri, to their king, Grahavarman. Along with his son, Rajyavardhana, he repels Huna attacks and comes to be known as 'the lion to the Huna deer'. Although a little late for the main thrust of Hephthalite and Alchon attacks in India, they may still be raiding deep into the north-east.

c.625 - 635

Of the territories annexed by the western Göktürk empire, Khuttal and Kapisa-Gandhara remain independent regional kingdoms after the disintegration of the Hephthalite empire (Kapisa being the city of Alexandria on the Caucasus, modern Bagram). Even so, the Göktürk viceroy in Tokharistan seems to claim Kapisa as being under his authority. Despite this, the Hephthalite or Alchon kings who bear the title xingil in Kapisa-Gandhara continue the coinage of the Hephthalite kings. Several names can be gathered together thanks to this coinage, albeit without any idea of dates or order of succession.

Late Kidarite coins
Two sides of a gold dinar issued in the seventh century by the Kidarites of Kashmir, with the obverse (left) showing a highly-stylised king standing facing, sacrificing at an altar while the reverse (right) shows Ardochsho (Lakshmi) seated (possibly standing)

fl 600s

Khingila II Narendrāditya

Hephthalite/Alchon leader in Kapisa-Gandhara.

fl 600s

Triloka

Hephthalite/Alchon leader in Kapisa-Gandhara. Indian name.

fl 600s

Narana / Narendra I

Hephthalite/Alchon leader in Kapisa-Gandhara. Indian name.

fl 600s

Narana / Narendra II

Hephthalite/Alchon leader in Kapisa-Gandhara. Indian name.

Narendra II is the last Hephthalite/Alchon king of Kapisa-Gandhara. On his coin (one example being found by this point) there is a crown decorated with a bull's head. Since the bull's head also appears on the coins of the Göktürk yabghus (viceroy) of Tokharistan, this symbol clearly implies recognition of Turkic sovereignty. The appearance of the bull's head on Göktürk coins probably dates back to the title buqa (bull) adopted by Tardu Yabgu when he had become great khagan in 599.

fl 600s

Baysara

Hephthalite/Alchon leader in Khuttal.

fl 600s

Vasyara

Hephthalite/Alchon leader in Khuttal.

All of these late Hephthalite/Alchon kings bear names that are written in the Brahmi alphabet and all of those names, other than Khingila, are Indian. This is clear evidence of the slow Indianisation of whatever remains of the Hephthalite royal dynasty during the sixth century and its absorption into Indian society in the seventh. The same is true of the Hephthalite princes of Khuttal, who also mint coins with Indian legends. Other, minor principalities continue to show a level of independence right up into the ninth century, mostly being located in the mountainous country in what is now northern Pakistan.

c.820

Devapala of the Pala kings of north-eastern India counts as his military successes the conquest of Pragjyotisha (Assam), where the king submits without a fight, and the Utkalas, whose king flees from his capital city. But he is also claimed as having routed the Hunas or Huna, seemingly late for such a victory. The raid can only have been launched by Xionite groups still operating from the Kashmir area.