The Attack of the Hunas (4th – 6th century CE)

The Attack of the Hunas (4th – 6th century CE)

Crossing the Pir Panjal Pass near Srinagar, just beyond the old village of Aliabad Sarai, there’s a precipitous cliff locally known as ‘Hastivanj’ or  ‘Hasti Watar’, which roughly translates to ‘the place where the elephants died’ in Sanskrit and Persian, respectively. While visitors may be surprised to find a reference to elephants so high up in Kashmir’s mountains, the story of this cliff and the elephants who died here goes back over 1,500 years. Now shrouded in legend, this is a dark tale of brutality, referred to not just in 12th century CE Kashmiri historian Pandit Kalhana’s text Rajatarangini but also Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari written in the 16th century CE.

The story goes that there was once a King who was crossing the Pir Panjal pass with his mighty army. One day, he heard the terrifying cry of an elephant who had fallen off the cliff here. The cruel King loved the sound of the screeching elephant in the throes of death so much that he is said to have ordered a hundred elephants to be pushed off this cliff. 

The King in this story was the Huna ruler Mihirakula (515 – 540 CE). In a fitting description in the Rajatarangini, Kalhana provides a vivid take on Mihirakula, describing him as “another God of Death and rival to Yama”. He writes how people knew when he was approaching “by noticing the vultures, crows and other birds which were flying ahead, eager to feed on those who were being slain by his armies”.

Coin of Mihirakula of the Alchn Huns | Wikimedia Commons

While the story may have been embellished over the centuries, it reflects the fear that the Hunas once struck in the hearts of men as they led raids deep into the Indian subcontinent. They were so powerful and so dreaded that there are inscriptions scattered across Central India in praise of the kings who managed to push them back.

Like the waves of invaders from Central Asia, such as the Kushanas and the Shakas, the Hunas began making their way into the subcontinent between the 2nd and the 6th centuries CE. During the same period, the Huns, under Attila the Hun, had invaded Europe, destroying all that they found. 

By the 6th century CE, during the declining years of the Gupta Empire, the Hunas had managed to drive deep into India, controlling a vast empire and leaving a mark, from Bamiyan (in Afghanistan) in the North, to Sanjeli in present-day Godhra district of Gujarat in the South. 

They were not only fearsome, these strange looking fighters with artificially deformed, elongated skulls inspired awe as well. Such was their formidable reputation, that from Varanasi in the East to Gujarat in the West, Indian kings prided themselves on recording their victories over the terrifying Hunas.

The Origins of the Hunas 

‘Huna’ is undoubtedly the Sanskritised form of the Western term ‘Hun’. But the Hun people comprised a great variety of racial types, with prominent ethnic differences and can be identified as numerous distinctive hordes. The Xiongnu of China, the Hyon of Persia, the Huns of Europe, the Hephthalites or Chionites of Persia, the Xun and the Hwn of Central Asia, and the ‘Ion’ of Armenia were all known as ‘Huns’, even though they differed considerably from each other.

The story of the Huna invasions is a part of the battle for control in Central Asia that had an impact on India for 400-500 years.

The Steppes of Central Asia were known to be home to numerous nomadic tribes, whom the Chinese referred to as ‘Barbarians’. The competition for scarce resources and grazing lands meant that each of these nomadic tribes were pushed by their rivals, first into the Tarim Basin (in Eastern China), then Gandhara and then into India; in turn, the rival tribe too would be pushed down this same path. This (Steppes – Tarim Basin – Gandhara – India) sort of ‘musical chairs’ for control determined the path taken by the Shakas (Indo-Scythians), the Kushanas and then the Hunas, from the 1st century BCE to the 6th century CE. 

Portrait of Alchon king (circa 450 CE) and, an an elongated skull excavated in Samarkand (dated 600-800 CE) | Wikimedia Commons

Hunas in Ancient Indian Literature

The Hunas, who invaded India between the 4th and 6th centuries CE, are broadly divided into the Kidarites, Hepthalites, Alchon and Nezak Huns. Interestingly, even ancient Indian texts make a distinction between different categories of Hunas, describing them as ‘Sveta Hunas’ or ‘Hala Hunas’. We find an example of this in 6th century Indian astrologer Varahamihira’s encyclopaedic text  Brihat Samhita.

While commenting on the influence of the comets in Brihat Samhita, Varahamihira refers to the ‘Sveta Hunas’, who, he says, will be unhappy if the tails of the comets are crossed by a fall of the meteors. Later, while describing the “countries of the Earth, beginning from the centre of Bharatavarsa and going round’, he refers to the ‘Hara Hunas’ in north India. 

We also find a reference to the Hara Hunas in the Indian epic the Mahabharata, when Duryodhana returning from the Pandavas’ capital Indraprastha, talks of the Hara Hunas and other tribal people waiting at Yudhishthira’s door and being denied permission to enter. Renowned Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, in his Raghuvamsa, a tale of the ancestors of Lord Ram, talks of the conquest of the Huna Kingdom on the banks of river ‘Vanksu’ (Oxus) by King Raghu (the ancestor of Ram). Interestingly, the region of Gandhara was conquered by the White Huns or the Hephthalites from the Kushanas in around 360 CE. So the description of Kalidasa of Raghu’s conquest of the Hunas’ kingdom reflects the political situation of the period around this date.

Coin of Kidara. Brahmi legend around the head: Ki-da-ra Ku-ṣa-ṇa-ṣa/ Fire altar flanked by attendants | Wikimedia Commons

The Early Huna Invasions

The earliest Hunas to invade India were the ‘Kidarities, named after their King Kidara I (350-390 CE). They were a nomadic tribe that originated in the Altai mountains of Siberia and moved into the Gandhara region in the early 5th century. We find a mention of this in the 6th century Chinese annals of the Wei dynasty Wei Shu or The Book of Wei

According to the Wei Shu, due to frequent troubles from the rival Jouan-jouan tribe, the Huna tribe migrated west and established themselves in Polo (Balkh in Afghanistan). Then their king Ki-to-lo (Kidara) who was brave, raised an army and led it to the south of the Great Mountain (Hindukush) and attacked the north of India. He occupied Kant’olo (Gandhara) and five other adjacent kingdoms.  We do know that by 390 CE, the Kidarities had established their kingdom in Gandhara after pushing out the Kushanas. 

Interestingly, it is deep in the Gangetic plains, in the Bhitari village of Ghazipur district of Uttar Pradesh, that we find a reference to the first Huna invasion of India. Found in this village is a Gupta era pillar with an inscription dating to the reign of Gupta ruler Skandagupta (c. 455 – c. 467 CE). The inscription states:

Hunnairyyasya samagatasya samare dorbhyam dhara kampita bhimavartta-Karasya’

“By whose two arms the earth was shaken, when he, the creator of a terrible whirlpool, joined in conflict with the Hunas.”

Bhitari pillar and inscription | Wikimedia Commons

The fact that Skandagupta fought the Hunas in the very beginning of his reign is corroborated by another inscription found in Junagadh in Gujarat. It refers to the vast conquests of Skandagupta over all his enemies, including the Mlecchas (a reference to the Hunas). The earliest possible date in this long inscription is 457-488 CE.

After this first Huna invasion, recorded in the Bhitari pillar inscription, we do not possess any source material, except coins, which may help us to frame the history of this period. This first Huna inroad in India (c. 454-465) is marked by their coins, which continue to imitate the Sassanian style. These coins lack crowns on the portraits. The headdresses are in the form of helmets and are sometimes decorated with a crescent in front. It seems the absence of a crown represents the changing political status of the chiefs who struck these coins.

The House of Toramana

The next Huna power to make a foray into India were the Alchon Huns. The most comprehensive work on the foray of Alchon Huns in India and great rulers is by historian Aitreya Ray Biswas in his book Hunas in India (1965). Biswas quotes the account of Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Sung Yun, who visited India between 515 and 520 CE, which says that two generations had passed since the Ye-thas (Hunas) had conquered Gandhara and set up ‘Tigin’ to be a King over the country. 

Biswas also finds a cross-reference to this in Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, which mentions ‘Tunjina’ as the grandfather of Mihirakula. But, apparently, as Biswas points out, ‘Thujin’ was a common Central Asian term for a ‘governor’, and the Alchon Hun dynasty might have begun their rule as governors to another kingdom. 

In the absence of surviving material evidence, Kalhana’s Rajatarangini is the most reliable account relating to the early days of the Alchon Hun kingdom. Kalhana gives Tunjina two other names – Sresthasena and Pravarasena. The most interesting point in Kalhana’s account of him is that we realize how ‘Indianised’ the Hunas had become. 

Kalhana gives Tunjina credit for the construction of the shrine of Pravaresvara together with other holy shrines at Puranadhisthana, today’s Pandrethan town in Kashmir.

The adoption of Brahmi letters in Tunjina’s coins supports the assumption that the Hunas made an effort to adopt Indian culture.

Tunjina was succeeded by his son Toramana, who strengthened and extended the Huna kingdom deep into the heart of India. ‘Toramana’ is originally derived from the Central Asian ‘Turaman’ or ‘Toreman’, meaning ‘rebel’ or ‘insurgent’.

Eran boar | LHI

Evidence of the expansion of Huna rule deep into India can be found in the small village of Eran near Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh. On the throat of an enormous Gupta Era Varaha is an inscription which reads: 

Varse prathame prithivi prithu-kirttau prithu-dyutau maharajadhiraja-sri-Toramane prasasati” .

“In the first year, while the Maharajadhiraja Sri Toramana, of great fame and of great lustre is governing the earth.”

Eran, located on an important trade route, was one of the most important cities in the Gupta Empire. The presence of this inscription tells us how deep the Huna kingdom had penetrated in India. In 1974,  a set of copper plates dating to the time of Toramana was found in a field in Sanjeli in the Dahod district of Gujarat. It talks of Toramana’s conquest of Gujarat and Malwa. 

Another inscription engraved during the reign of Toramana is found in Kura in (Pakistani), in Punjab.  It records his title as:

Maharajadhiraja Toramana Shahi Jauvala. 

An inscription found at Kura in the Salt Range in Pakistani Punjab records the building of a Buddhist monastery by a person named Rotta Siddhavriddhi during the reign of the Huna ruler Toramana. The date of the inscription is lost, but contrary to the commonly held perception that the Hunas persecuted the Buddhists, the donor expresses the wish that the religious merit gained by his gift be shared by him with the king and his family members.

Silver coin of Toramana in Western Gupta Empire style, with the Gupta peacock and Brahmi legend | http://coinindia.com/

On establishing control over the region of Central India, the Hunas encountered Gupta culture and were influenced by it. Just as earlier Hunas had imitated the Kushana coins, the coins of Toramana imitate the Gupta coins. All these coins show the face of the King on the obverse and a fantail peacock on the reverse, with the legend ‘Vijitavaniravanipati s’ri Toramana deva jayati’. This same type of coin was issued by Gupta Emperors Kumaragupta, Skandagupta and Budhagupta.

The Rule of Mihirakula 

King Toramana was succeeded by his son Mihirakula, the most powerful of all the Huna kings in India. The picture we are given of him is of an arrogant king, persecuting the people, oppressing Buddhists and destroying their shrines and monasteries, subduing neighbouring Kings and leading his army to distant lands. But historians believe that these accounts are probably greatly exaggerated. 

The kingdom that Mihirakula inherited was probably restricted to Kashmir and its surrounding areas. Toraman’s conquests of Central India had probably been lost at the time, as we find no references to the Hunas in Eran after Toramana. 

Chinese Pilgrim Sung Yun, who visited Mihirakula’s court, writes that the Indus and Peshawar were the frontiers of his kingdom, and that Mihirakula had a formidable army of war elephants. According to him, the king possessed 700 war elephants, each of which carried ten men armed with swords and spears, and the elephants were themselves armed with swords attached to their trunks, with which they fought when at close quarters. This is interesting as it shows how the Central Asian Hunas, known for their swift cavalry, began adopting Indian war practices. 

Kalhana in Rajatarangini writes of how Mihirakula conquered kingdoms as far as Sinhala (Sri Lanka), Cola (Tamil Nadu), Karnata (Karnataka) and Lata (Gujarat) but these are probably exaggerations and were probably lightning raids deep into India. Mihirakula’s expansion of the Huna kingdom is corroborated by the account of Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang, who writes of King ‘Mo-hi-lo-kiu-lo’ who fought great wars and conquered a vast country. 

But the kingdom collapsed as spectacularly as it rose. The Mandsaur inscription of King Yashovarman (r. 515-545 CE) proudly boasts of his victory over the Hunas.

Similar inscriptions of the Gupta ruler Narasimhagupta Baladitya speak of his own victories over the Hunas. 

The defeat of Mihirakula by Yashovarman | Robert Ambrose Dudley (1867-1951), British painter and illustrator

The defeat of Mihirakula at the hands of Yashovarman and Baladitya has been corroborated by Hiuen Tsang in his account. According to Hiuen Tsang,  after his defeat, Mihirakula retired to the north-western regions of his empire, and once again established his supremacy over there and in Kashmir. But he was not destined to live long and died in Kashmir.

Kalhana writes: “This terror of the earth became afflicted in his body with many diseases and immolated himself in the flames.”

While Mihirakula was reviled by Buddhists and accused of great cruelty, he was a great patron of Shaivism. Kalhana tells us that Mihirakula bestowed a thousand araharas on the Brahmins of Gandhara. Besides this, he built a temple of Mihireshwara at Srinagar and a large town called ‘Mihirapura’.

Mihirakula’s Shaivism is reflected in his coins, which depict the Nandi. The Mandusar pillar refers to Mihirkula as someone “who had never been brought before the humility of obeisance for anyone except Shiva”.

Coin of Pravarasena | Wikimedia Commons

The Rule of Pravarasena 

According to Kalhana, Mihirakula was succeeded by his younger brother Pravarasena, who because of the fear of his elder brother, was kept in a potter’s house by his uncle Jayendra and mother Anjana. It is only a few years after his brother’s death that Pravarasena revealed himself and took the throne. 

While the story may seem melodramatic, Aitreya Ray Biswas believes it may be true as there is corroborative evidence of the existence of the ‘uncle’ Jayendra. When Hiuen Tsang came to Kashmir, he stayed for two years in a Buddhist monastery called ‘Jayendra Vihara’, which is also mentioned in Rajatarangini as being built by the King’s uncle. 

Pravarasena is said to have been benevolent and he undertook construction works and established a new city called ‘Pravarasenapura’, which historians believe was at the site of today’s Srinagar. He also built numerous Shiva temples and other great buildings. Such was the fame of the city that it even found mention in Chinese texts as the city of ‘Po-lo-ou-lo-po-lo’ (Pravarasenapura). 

After the death of Pravarasena, the account of the Huna kings again disappears till an archaeological find was made in the 1950s. 

Ganesha from Gardez in Afghanistan | Wikimedia Commons

The ‘Gardez Ganesha’ and the End of Huna Rule

In 1956, the Indian archaeological delegation to Afghanistan came across a large idol of a Ganesha in the Pir Ratan Nath dargah near Kabul. It had originally come from the town of Gardez, around 70 km from Kabul. A short inscription at the bottom of this idol states that the ‘image of the Maha Vinayaka was installed by Maharajadhiraja Sahi Khingala in his eight regnal year’.

Cross-referencing it with Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, this ‘Khingala’ was probably the Huna ruler of Kashmir, Narendraditya Khingala (597-633 CE), son of Gokarna and grandson of Pravarasena. Not much is known of his rule except that like other Huna kings, he too was a great devotee of Shiva. 

Alchon Huns king Khingila | Wikimedia Commons

Historians believe that the Huna kingdom expanded eastwards during this time, from Kashmir towards Kabul, Bamiyan and Gardez. The Bamiyan cave paintings, which were made during this period, depict distinct Huna figures. Khingala was succeeded by his son Yudhishthira (c. 630-670 CE), who was in turn deposed by Pratapaditya, founder of the Karkota dynasty.  With this, the rule of the Hunas came to an end. 

Like numerous other invaders from Central Asia, while the Hunas wreaked havoc when they first arrived, they adopted local customs and traditions and amalgamated with Indian society, losing this identity, not just in India but even in Europe.

This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.

This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.

Find all the stories from this series here.

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