Tracing the Huns in Sanskrit Kāvya Tradition

Tracing the Huns in Sanskrit Kāvya Tradition


Starting sometime shortly before 200BCE all the way down to the 7th century of the common era, there occurred a series of irruptions of Inner Asiatic peoples, who appeared to have their origins in Mongolia and the lands in the immediate vicinity of it. These people were recorded by the Chinese as the Xiongnu (Hung-no in Cantonese).

Shortly after 215 BCE, the Xiongnu in response to the expansionist policies of the first unified Chinese Empire of the Chin founded by Shi Huangdi organized themselves into a powerful, mobile fighting force along the lines of the Iranic peoples of the steppe. This lead to a series of conflicts between the Xiongnu and these Iranic people, as well as other Altaic tribes of Mongolia and Southern Siberia. In the process, the Xiongnu emerged as the dominant power and they also regained the ground ceded to the Chinese.

In China the Chin Empire collapsed and was replaced by the Han Empire, which gave the modern Chinese their core ethnic character and identity. Not surprisingly, the rising Xiongnu power in Mongolia under their leader Motun [Footnote 1] came in conflict with the nationalist and expansionist Han power in China, which had imposed trade embargoes on them.

Motun led the Xiongnu to a major victory against the first Han emperor Gao-zu around 201 BCE, where his Mongolian cavalry destroyed up to a third of the huge Han army. In the mid-170s before the CE, Motun and his son lead a series of massive attacks against the tribes to their west, which were recorded by the Chinese. The first of these were against the Iranic Yüeh-chih, the ancestral confederation of tribes from whom the Kuṣāṇa-s descended. Most were slaughtered or enslaved, while the survivors fled westwards to eventually found the KuṣāṇaEmpire in India and Central Asia.

Painting depicting Han Dynasty

Painting depicting Han Dynasty

The Tocharian groups, like the Lou-lan and Wu-sun and the probably Altaic Hu-chieh (together these were predecessors the Uighurs) were also crushed and subjugated by the Xiongu in course of these operations [Footnote 2]. By 91 CE the XiongnuEmpire was on the verge of collapse and a branch of them moved westwards to establish a short-lived kingdom near the Caspian Sea. These were recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus as the Hunnoi.

A group of foreign people from inner Asia are known in Hindu paurāṇika texts as the Huṇas or the Huns. In Central Asian Iranic sources studied by de la Vaissière, the Xiongnu were described as Huns [Footnote 3]. This suggests that the Chinese Xiongnu, Latin Hunnoi, Hindu Huṇa and Iranic Hun were probably originally inspired by the ethnonym of the same horde of people associated with the first great Altaic expansion that occurred out of Mongolia.

Centuries after these events, the Christian Roman Empire and their Germanic neighbours (starting in the late 300s of the CE) faced invasions by an inner Asiatic people, who eventually established a short-lived but vast Empire at the expense of the former. These peoples were also referred to as the Huns by the western sources. They reached the pinnacle of their power under a shrewd leader named Attila. A couple of years after Attila’s death in the west (~453 CE) there were a series of invasions of Bhārata and Iran by people who were again referred to as the Huṇas or Huns. Some Indian sources do distinguish these from the regular Huṇas as the Śveta-Huṇas or White Huns. Likewise, in some Iranic and west Asian sources, these are distinguished as Hephthalites or Hayatal.

Interventions of the Gupta Empire and later

While the Gupta Empire in Bhārata under the great rulers Kumāragupta and Skandagupta decisively defeated these Huṇa invaders [Footnote 4], in the period after the collapse of the centralized Gupta rule, the Huṇa briefly established an Empire in northern Bhārata. They were eventually defeated and overthrown by the efforts of Prakāshadharman and Yashodharman of the Aulikara dynasty and Bālāditya of the eastern Gupta kingdom.

Further invasions by the Huṇas occurred in the early 600s of the CE and these were successfully repulsed by the brothers Rājyavardhana and Harṣavardhana the emperors of the Puṣyabhūti dynasty and their ally Īśānavarman. The names of the famous

Huṇa rulers of Bhārata such as Khiṅgila, Toramāṇa and Mihirakula were clearly Iranic in origin, though they followed the Hindu religion.

Huna Temple

Huna Temple

In contrast to the Gupta, the Iranian Sassanid Empire did relatively poorly against these Huṇas in the initial period. In 484 CE, their emperor Phiroz was killed fighting the Huṇas. The Huṇas who invaded the Sassanid Empire are also recorded as having Iranic names such as Akṣuṇvār. The relationship of all these later groups of Huns to the earlier irruptions of the Empire founded by Motun and subsequent Mongolian confederations of the Xianbei Khanate and the Tuguhun Khanate has been the source of much controversy and discussion. However, the persistence of the ethnonym is something which cannot be denied.

Aparājita-rakṣita’s poem sets the tone

Against this background, we would like to bring attention to a peculiar verse composed by an obscure Sanskrit poet Aparājita-rakṣita, which in our opinion obliquely throws some light on the possible ethnicity of at least some of the people who were known as huṇas to the Hindus.

We know next to nothing of Aparājita-rakṣita and only a few verses of his survive, perhaps the earliest mention being in a citation by vāmana in the 700-800s of the CE. Thus, all we can say is that Aparājita-rakṣita lived before that time. However, as the verse below would suggest, he was likely to have been familiar in person with at least one of the group of people who were known as Huṇas to the Hindus. The verse, found in subhāṣita collections goes thus:

udgarbha-Huṇa-taruṇī-ramaṇopamarda-bhugnonnata-stana-niveśa-nibhaṃ himāṃśoḥ || bimbaṃkaṭhora-bisa-kāṇḍa-kaḍāra-gaurair-viṣṇoḥpadaṃprathamam-agra-karair-vyanakti ||
udgarbha= pregnant; Huṇa-taruṇī= young Hun woman; ramaṇa= lover; upamarda=fondled; bhugna= pressed; unnata= full; stana= breast; niveśa-nibhaṃ=as though dented; himāṃśoḥ | bimbaṃ= orb; kaṭhora=mature; bisa= lotus; kāṇḍa= stem; kaḍāra= yellowish; gaurair= white (instrumental); viṣṇoḥ= of viShNu; padaṃ= step; prathamam= first; agra-karair= with its first rays; vyanakti= to make visible ||

The icy-rayed moon looks dented as though it were the full breast of a pregnant, young Hun woman pressed while fondled by her lover; the lunar orb with its first rays, pale yellow as a mature lotus stem, makes Viṣhṇu’s first step to be visible.

Here, “Viṣhṇu’s first step” means the earth, which was spanned by the first of the famous triple steps of the god. Thus, the pale yellow, rays of the rising moon are said to make the earth visible by their illumination.The striking thing about this verse is the metaphor where the rising moon with a pale yellowish tinge is compared with the breast of a young Hun woman. This is notable because it is a very specific and unique metaphor.

The moon is commonly compared with the faces of women or on occasions their breasts in kāvya literature, but the specific use of a Hun woman’s breast as a descriptor for the rising moon, we believe, is not coincidental. Rather, we posit that it reflects the actual, distinctive, pale yellow complexion of a Hun woman. Such a complexion is not typical of Iranic people but of East Asians, suggesting that Hun woman in Aparājita-rakṣita’s metaphor was likely to have had East Asian ancestry in the least.

One may also compare this metaphor of Aparājita-rakṣita with the origin myth of the much later Chingizid Mongols (1100-1350 CE) found in the Secret History of Chingiz Khan. There, the origin of several Mongol clans is traced to their legendary ancestress Alan-qoa. Her last three sons, one of whom is presented as the direct ancestor of Chingiz Khan, were said to be born without a visible father. Hence, the first two sons wondered if their servant had fathered their half-brothers after the death of their father Dobun-mergen. Sensing their agitation, their mother Alan-qoa said the following:

“Every night, a shining yellow man came into the yurt, through the light of the smoke-hole and over the top of the door. He caressed my belly and his light sank into it. He [slunk] sheepishly away like a yellow dog by the light of the sun and moon.” (Secret History translated from the original Mongolian by U Onon)

Alan-Qoa then clarified that they were the sons of KökeMöngkeTngri the supreme god of the Mongols. It is interesting to note that in their self-account the Mongols saw their divine ancestor as coming at night to mate with Alan-qoa in the form of yellow moon beams. Indeed the yellowness is emphasized in describing him as going away as a yellow dog, and is specifically compared to the yellowness of the sun and the moon. Thus, we find that Aparājita-rakṣita’s account of the Huṇa woman’s complexion compares with the self-perception of the Mongols who are considered to be descendants of the old Huns of Mongolia.

Painting showing Mongol Warrior

Painting showing Mongol Warriors

This is not the only reference to specific aspects of the Huṇas in Sanskrit literature. The famous poet Rājaśekhara in his kāvyamīmāṃsā lists them alongside many other northern peoples, such as the Śaka-s, Kekaya-s, Kaṃbhoja-s, Bāhlika-s, Turuṣka-s (Turks) and Tuṣāra-s (Tocharians) and Mārgara-s (Magyar tribe of Huns). The great Kālidāsa also makes a specific mention of the Huns in his account of the Ikṣvāku emperor, Raghu’s digvijaya, Raghuvamsham. After his conquest of the Iranians (Pārasika), Raghu is described as heading north to invade the Hun lands:

tataḥpratasthekauberīṃbhāsvānivaraghurdiśam | śarairusrairivodīcyānuddhariṣyamrasāniva ||
From there [i.e. after defeating the Iranians] Raghu proceeded to the direction of Kubera to uproot with his arrows the northerners as the sun to vaporize the northern waters [during uttarāyaṇa]

vinītādhva-śramāstasyavaṅkṣu-tīra-viceṣṭanaiḥ | dudhuvurvājinaḥskandhāṃllagna-kuṅkuma-kesarān ||
The horses tired from the march of his cavalry rolled on the banks of the Oxus (Amu Darya) and they shook off the saffron flower stigmas adhered to their shoulders.

tatrahūṇāvarodhānāṃbhartṛśuvyakta-vikramam | kapola-pāṭalādeśibabhūvaraghu-ceṣṭitam || RAGHUVAṂŚA 4.66-68

There, Raghu’s valour directed against the husbands in his attack caused the cheeks of the [women] of the Hun harem to become crimson.

This is a very specific reference to the Hun custom of slashing their cheeks as their dead were supposed to be mourned not just with regular tears but with those of blood. This is recorded as occurring during the funeral of Attila by Latin Christian author Jordanes and is also mentioned as a custom among the Huns by the Latin poet Sidonius. It has also been recorded among the Magyar ancestors of the Hungarians. [Footnote 5].

Huns were familiar to Hindus

All of this suggests that Hindu poets had specific information about the Huns. It goes on to support our contention that Aparājita-rakṣita’s metaphor was likely based on fact. Taken together, these observations of the Hindu poets add further points to support the cultural and at least partial ethnic continuity of the Huns who invaded China, India and the West.Finally, one may ask how this squares with the Iranic names we encounter among the Huṇas associated with Bhārata and Iran. In reality the picture appears to be more complex.

We do have coins from Northwestern India with titles such as Tegin, which is of Altaic origin (meaning prince or young ruler). Moreover, a recent study of ancient DNA from the Hun royal cemetery in Northeast Mongolia revealed that in addition to people of Northeast Asian origin, there were also people of Western Eurasian origin as indicated by the Y-chromosomal R1a1 haplogroup [Footnote 6].

This suggests that as recorded by the Chinese sources, the Xiongnu had absorbed Indo-Iranic peoples early on, and some of these occupied elite status in the Hun society. Thus, it is rather likely that as the Huns expanded from Mongolia they swept up within them people with non-Turco-Mongol ancestry. These included people of Finno-Ugric, Iranic and later even those of Slavic and Germanic ancestry. Even down to the days of the Chingizid Mongols there were Finno-Ugric and Indo-Iranian groups (like the Arans or Alans) active, close to the heartland of the former.

Thus, some leaders of non-Turco-Mongol ancestry might have been the dominant elite—in particular, Hun hordes, especially as they moved away from their eastern inner Asian heartlands. For instance, the Hungarians, a Finno-Ugric people, have an origin mythology of descending from Attila’s horde in addition to including later Eurasiatic mobile groups like the Avar and Magyar. In the case of the Huns who invaded Europe, the Germanic etymology of Bleda, the Hun ruler and brother of Attila, suggests that Germanic tribes might have been incorporated into their confederation. However, it is quite possible the rank and file was probably multi-ethnic including at least some of Northeast Asian descent alongside those of Iranic or Germanic origins.

Thus, Aparājita-rakṣita’s metaphor of the Hun woman of Northeast Asiatic ancestry would be completely consistent with such a picture.


Footnote 1: Motun is likely to be derived from the old Chinese rendering of the word bāghātur a cognate of Hindi bāhādur a Turco-Mongol loan word acquired during the Islamic period.

Footnote 2: For more details refer the UNESCO volume: “History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. II: The Development of Sedentary and Nomadic Civilizations: 700 BC to AD 250”

Footnote 3: The French historian Étienne de La Vaissière has published strong evidence supporting the identity of the Huns and the Xiongnu of Chinese sources.

Footnote 4: Verse 8 of the Bhitari red sandstone pillar inscription of the great Gupta ruler

Skandagupta mentions the fierce battle with the Huṇas and his bow in that encounter is compared with the bow of the god Viṣṇu.

Footnote 5: “The world of the Huns: Studies in their history and culture” by O. J. Maenchen-Helfen.

Footnote 6: A western Eurasian male is found in 2000-year-old elite Xiongnu cemetery in Northeast Mongolia. Kim K et. al. Am J PhysAnthropol. 2010 Jul;142(3):429-40. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.21242.


Manasatarangini T

The author is a practitioner of sanAtana dharma. Student, explorer, interpreter of patterns in nature, minds and first person experience. A svacchanda.