White Huns Raid India Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The invasions of the White Huns, a Central Asian nomadic people, disrupted the Gupta Empire of northern and north-central India.

Summary of Event

To Western readers, the word “Huns” generally brings forth images of Attila and his nomadic raiders, sweeping westward from the Central Asian plains to ravage the Roman Empire in its latter years. However, in India, the term “Huns” or “Hūṇas” is often applied to another group of Central Asian nomads who troubled northern India during the fifth and sixth centuries, at roughly the same time as Belisarius was conquering the Western Empire for Justinian of Byzantium. Those Byzantines who knew about this invasion from Persian sources referred to them as Hephthalites, and the Chinese called them the Ye-Ta or Ye-Tai. [kw]White Huns Raid India (484) [kw]Huns Raid India, White (484) [kw]India, White Huns Raid (484) White Huns India;White Hunnic raids on India;484: White Huns Raid India[0020] Expansion and land acquisition;484: White Huns Raid India[0020] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;484: White Huns Raid India[0020] Skanda Gupta Toramana Mihirakula

It is uncertain if the Huns who raided India are related to the Huns who raided the Roman Empire. Little of either people’s language and culture has been preserved, and without the data for comparative linguistic and anthropological studies, scholars can offer only conjecture. Because both groups arose in the region of Central Asia now occupied by Kazakhstan and southern Siberia, it is possible that they sprang from a common cultural source, but the similarities between their names and their nomadic lifestyles may be pure coincidence. One particularly telling detail is the fact that the Huns who raided India are often referred to as the White Huns because their features were more European, without the strong epicanthic fold of the eye that marked many of the other Central Asian peoples. There are also references to their having unusually shaped heads, but this appears to have been the result of cradling, a practice of placing tight bands on the infant head so that it is forced to grow in a particular shape, rather than genetic differences.

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The White Huns first invaded India near the end of the Gupta Empire Gupta Empire (c. 312-c. 550) and are traditionally credited with having destroyed this empire. However, many modern historians have argued that there is ample evidence that the Gupta Empire was cracking from within as a result of factional struggle between various branches of the royal family and that the stress of the invasion only hastened an inevitable breakdown. As evidence, these historians point to the existence of various contradictory succession lists in the Gupta genealogies of the period, which suggest multiple rival claimants to the throne who may have engaged in wasteful competition or outright civil war. As a result, the invasion of the White Huns may have been more a matter of dividing and conquering than breaking a strong central state.

When the White Huns invaded Gupta-held territories, Skanda Gupta Skanda Gupta was able to rally the Gupta military forces for a time and hold the defenses. However, after his death, the situation deteriorated rapidly in the absence of strong leadership. In the manner typical of nomadic barbarians throughout the history of warfare before gunpowder, the White Huns ravaged every town and village they passed, destroying buildings and murdering or enslaving their inhabitants. The Gupta capital of Pataliputra, once a proud city, was depopulated and reduced to little more than a backwater village. By the middle of the sixth century, the Gupta kingdom had been reduced to a small area, and north and most of central India had fallen into Hunnish hands.

The kings of the White Huns are known primarily from inscriptions on monuments and from the coinage they ordered struck. The first king of the White Huns in India was Toramana Toramana , who lived during the early sixth century. Inscriptions bearing his name are found as far south as Eran (Madhya Pradesh), which indicate that his influence, if not his actual rule, was felt well into the subcontinent. His son Mihirakula Mihirakula apparently adopted some native Indian devotional practices, either alongside or in place of traditional nomadic religion. However, Buddhist traditions of the period record him as having been uncouth and cruel in his rule and warmaking habits, which indicate that he remained culturally a nomadic warrior.

By the end of the sixth century, native Indian leadership began to recover, and the White Huns were forced back north into Kashmir and Punjab. There they maintained a capital at Sakala (Sialkot, Pakistan). In time, they became assimilated and adopted sedentary agricultural patterns of life, losing their distinctive nomadic culture. Only the occasional trace of unusual religious or cultural practices among certain subcastes of the area indicated that they had descended from these invaders. However, there remained a break in the material culture of the area, and later historians would have to laboriously reconstruct the preinvasion history of the Guptas and other dynasties of the area without the aid of a continuing living tradition. Any semblance of continuity is an illusion of religious and political factors. The Brahman religious leaders had simply found it advantageous to their purposes to treat all the new aristocratic clans as though they were direct descendants of the Kḥatriyas (warrior caste) of the Vedic scriptures, whatever the truth of that particular group’s social origin. In time the neologism Rājput, literally “king’s son,” became a synonym of the Vedic Kḥatriyas.

Significance

The invasion of the White Huns put India in contact with Central Asian tribes from the area that is modern Kazakhstan. This led to cultural cross-fertilization between the two cultures as well as additional peaceful migrations of Central Asian peoples into the Indian subcontinent. For example, the Gurjaras of this period may be identified with the Khazars, a Central Asian and southern Siberian tribe that adopted a simplified form of Judaism rather than choose between Christianity and Islam. However, not all of the changes brought about by the White Huns were positive.

The invasions severely disrupted trade routes in the area and destroyed the income many northern Indian princes and merchant families had derived from it. Because of the direct and indirect effects of the invasion, many northern Indian tribes migrated Migrations;Indians to south India to safer regions to the south, taking with them tribal customs that led to further social changes among the southern Indian peoples. The Rājput families and Kḥatriyas dynasties of central India traced their ancestry from the migration of these tribal chieftains, although for religious and political purposes they claimed descent from the Vedic Kḥatriyas classes.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hiro, Dilip. India. London: Rough Guides, 2002. Although intended primarily as a travel guide, it provides excellent historical information on prominent sites, including a discussions of how history-changing events such as the invasion of the White Huns shaped the development of modern culture and society in India.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacLeod, John. The History of India. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. An overview of the history of India, including a bibliography for further research. Coverage of the period of the White Huns is primarily in terms of their effects on subsequent cultures and traditions of India.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thapar, Romila. Early India: From the Origins to A.D. 1300. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. An overview of Indian history before the Mongol invasions, including information on the Guptas and the White Huns.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watson, Francis. India: A Concise History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002. A good basic overview of Indian history, including this critical period in which the Gupta Empire gave way to the Central-Asian-influenced cultures of medieval India. Includes an excellent bibliography for further research.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Joanna Gottfried. The Art of Gupta India: Empire and Province. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. Although concentrating primarily on the art at the height of the Gupta period, it does include material on the close of the Gupta era and the influence of the White Huns.

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