Canberra, 3 March 2014

Soon after Pushyamitra’s uprising in Malwa against Kumara Gupta (ruled 415-455) had been put down, the ‘Hunas’ appeared at the border of the Empire. There is scant information available regarding the Pushyamitra rebellion. The only reference to the revolt is an obscure inscription, which states that it ‘ruined the fortunes of the Gupta family’. Since the episode is only mentioned in passing in the long 40-year rule of the Emperor, this statement somehow rings false. However, considering the flow of later events it cannot be also be completely discounted. Pushyamitra’s rebellion and the statement remain unexplained and unsubstantiated by any other thread of evidence.

The Indians referred to the Hunas as ‘mlecchas’, an all-encompassing term that conveyed the meaning of ‘incomprehensible foreigners’. Their origins are obscure and mysterious. It is thought that they are a branch of the Hiung-nu of Chinese history who came to be known as the Huns in European history.

The European Huns

A major part of the Huns that came out of the steppes formed the branch that moved westwards towards the Volga River. In 375 they poured into Eastern Europe and forced the Goths residing in those areas to move to the plains south of the River Danube. This migration caused the Gothic Wars in which Emperor Valen was killed in 378. The Huns then spread across the entire lands between the Rivers Volga and Danube. They were powerful and ruthless warriors who subjugated all other tribes that came in their path. However, they were disunited and could not take advantage of their victories and consolidate their conquests. One tribal chief, Attila, united the group and became powerful enough to defy all the empires that existed at that time. He is renowned in history as ‘Attila the Hun’ for his ferocity and ruthless treatment of captured cities and their population. Attila died in 453, and a mere 20 years later the Hunnic Empire in Europe ceased to exist.

There is a high probability that the White Huns of Indian history were an Iranian nomadic tribe residing in the fringes of the steppes who intermingled with the Huns, but moved southward in large numbers to ravage the more advanced civilisations, rather than go westwards in to Europe. Irrespective of their origin, it is certain that these were the last group of Mongol origin to follow the traditional route south and then east to pillage the wealth of the Southern kingdoms of the large Asian landmass. The next group was those of the Turkic nomads, with distinctly different ethnicity and language, who would go on to dominate the Middle East and India in later centuries.

At the time of the White Hun movement south, Iranian tribes controlled Sogdiana and Bactria and regularly conducted raids into Persia and the border territories of the Indian Empire. The White Huns were a border tribe and the eastern most Iranian nomads and not an offshoot of the Turkic Huns who harassed the Romans.  However, the White Huns came is definite to have come into contact with the Turkic Huns and could have been instrumental in pushing them west. This intermingling is sure to have created a noticeable amount of cultural affinity, similarity in dress and ornaments, and even commonality in warfighting techniques. There is also certainty regarding the similarity in their fearsome warlike qualities. This relative similarity could have confused the observers of the time and made it difficult to distinguish the Iranian tribe from the Turkic Huns. The term White Hun is obviously the result of this confusion, and refers to the white skin colour of the Iranian tribe as opposed to the darker shade of the Turkic Huns.

Physical Appearance of the White Huns

In order to appear ferocious in battle, the Huns cut deep gashes on the face of young boys so that they would grow up scarred and look frightening to their opponents. Further, they practised a weird custom of binding the head of male children. In infancy, the skull was tightly wrapped around the side, which forced the head to grow in length much more than normal. These two practices produced adults with slim towering heads with scarred faces. The gashed and cone-headed look must have given these warriors an alien and terrifying appearance.

This appearance was normal for the White Huns and is borne out by the portraits on coins that are available. The vision of self-inflicted violence must have left no doubts in anybody’s mind about their willingness to inflict even greater harm on others.

The White Huns while being successful warriors were however lesser evolved in the more aesthetic part of life—and perhaps this is not surprising. There are no metal decorations associated with them and nor had they developed any sophisticated animal symbolism to proclaim their presence. Both these types of development was fairly common amongst other contemporary tribes.

The White Huns in Iran

Clashes between the Iranian rulers and the White Huns started during the reign of the Sasanian king Yazdagird I (ruled 399-420). These clashes were sporadic and inconclusive, but by 425 the Huns had infiltrated Bactria and overthrown the Chioniles, thereafter striking deep into the Iranian Empire. By 427, during the reign of the legendary hunter-king Bahram V, the White Huns reached Teheran and forced the Persian Emperor to pay tribute. However, the great king was not to be outdone. The Huns were returning home when Bahram ambushed and destroyed their army, killing their king and capturing the queen. Bahram erected a pillar at the border of his Empire to commemorate this victory and also as a point of reference beyond which no Hun was permitted to travel into Persia, on punishment of death. There were no more noteworthy invasions until Bahram’s death in 438.

Bahram’s successor Yazdagird II maintained the existing peace with the Huns. However, on his death there was a succession struggle between his sons and one of them, Piroz, fled to the Huns for support. He came to power in 459 at the head of a large White Hun army. There was continuing intermittent revolts and rebellions in the kingdom and Piroz was dependent on the White Hun army to stay in power. In 470, Piroz pledged his daughter in marriage to the White Hun king, but baulked at sending his daughter to the court of the ‘barbarian’. Instead, he send a slave girl to the Hun king, a ruse that was discovered and led to the Huns once again invading Persia. In the ensuing battle Piroz was captured and subsequently ransomed. On his return Piroz continued the war, being killed in battle in 484. Piroz’s death augmented the power of the White Huns and they essayed considerable influence in Sasannian affairs for a number of years thereafter. In 465, the Huns had conquered the province of Gandhara, and subsequently captured the Khyber Pass. Then they marched into India.

Invasion of India

In the late 460s, the White Huns turned towards India and invaded the Gupta Empire. In the initial phases of the long drawn conflict, the Guptas were able to hold back the onslaught. Skanda Gupta, who was ruling at that time, was an experienced king and campaigner and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Huns. He erected a victory pillar to commemorate this battle, which still stands at Bhitari in Ghazipur district, bearing silent testimony to the Gupta victory that made India safe for a few more years. However, this victory could not be followed up by any action to evict the invaders conclusively. The reason for such incomplete action on the part of Skanda Gupta is not traceable. The story of the Pushyamitra revolt breaking the power of the Guptas comes back to haunt the recounting of history. After this initial victory, the Guptas suffered a long series of defeats that eventually destroyed their once glorious Empire. Although the Gupta dynasty managed to survive to the 6th century, it was only as rulers of a minor and at times vassal kingdom around Magadha—one of many such principalities that have existed throughout Indian history. A proud dynasty that had produced a series of sophisticated and cultured warrior-monarchs was laid low by the war making capabilities and ruthlessness of an uncouth and uncultured tribe of indeterminate origin. The vicissitudes of history are difficult to fathom.

The White Huns celebrated their success in vanquishing the Guptas by the appointment of a Tegin—Viceroy—to rule Gandhara and the conquered Indian territories, under the suzerainty of the great king of Bactria. The first Tegin was Toramana, who became more famous than his own king over a period of time. By 500, he had established himself as the ruler of Malwa and assumed the grandiose title of ‘Sovereign of Maharajas’. He was principally responsible for smashing Gupta power in the north-west and destroying the well-established ‘Gupta Peace’ that had led to unrivalled prosperity in the sub-continent. Coins of Toramana show him with a severely elongated skull, heavily arched eyebrows, flattened nose, and a pinched mouth with fleshy lips. By no stretch of imagination can this person be considered ‘normal’ in appearance. His picture is a clear demonstration of the extreme and disturbing deformation to which the White Huns subjected their children. Shortly after achieving unquestioned dominance over the territories under his control, Toramana died, with the actual date of his death being speculated to be between 502 and 510.

Toramana was succeeded as Tegin by his son Mihiragula, the name is a Sanskritised version of the Hun ‘Mihrakula’. He was the epitome of tyrannical ruthlessness and excess. Numerous coins minted during his rule have been found in Chiniot and Shahakot in Jhang and Gujranwala districts of the Punjab. The Hun domain was sufficiently consolidated by this time and Mihiragula ruled from his capital at Sakala, modern day Sialkot in Punjab. The larger Hun Empire at this time was headquartered in Bamiyan in Badhagis in Herat with a secondary capital at Balkh. In 519, Song-Yun a Chinese pilgrim-envoy paid his respects to the powerful Hun monarch, reporting that he levied tribute from 40 countries and that his kingdom extended from Persia in the west to Khotan in the border of China in the east. This is indeed a large stretch of land and the Hun’s primacy over it indicates the power and stature of the monarchy.

Song-Yun records that he met the local Hun king of Gandhara, who would have been Mihiragula, in 520. He further states that this king had by then been at war with the king of Kashmir (Ki-pin as Kashmir was referred to in Chinese at that time) for the previous three years. A Christian monk, Cosmas Indicopleustes, in a book written in 547 mentions a White Hun king ‘Golla’ who was extracting tribute in India through extreme oppression. This is certainly a reference to Mihiragula. All available sources are unanimous in accepting that Mihiragula was a bloodthirsty tyrant and some historians have even titled him ‘Attila of India’. Historians also agree that implacable cruelty was a fundamental characteristic of the Huns. By all accounts Mihiragula was cruel even by the standards of the Huns.

‘The numbers, the strength, the rapid motions and the implacable cruelty of the Huns were felt, and dreaded, and magnified by the astonished Goths; who beheld their fields and villages consumed with flames, and deluged with indiscriminate slaughter. To these real terrors, they added the surprise and abhorrence which were excited by the shrill voice, the uncouth gestures, and the strange deformity of the Huns…. They were distinguished from the rest of the human species by their brad shoulders, flat noses, and small black eyes deeply buried in the head; and as they were almost destitute of beards, they never enjoyed the manly graces of youth or the venerable aspect of age.’

Edward Gibbon,

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter xxvi.

Nothing was sacred to the Huns. For the Indians, fastidious in their religious practices, wedded to an unassailable hierarchy of status and power, the unmitigated savagery of the Huns must have been a miserable imposition to bear and experience. The uncouth behaviour and lack of culture of the Huns must have created in them a sense of disgust. When Mihiragula’s cruelty became unbearable, two local princes—Baladitya Narasimha Gupta, the king of Magadha and the scion of the once powerful Gupta dynasty and Yasodharman, a minor king from an unknown Central Indian principality—formed an alliance to oppose Mihiragula. Around 528, they attacked and defeated Mihiragula who was captured. Instead of killing the tyrant, Baladitya’s innate sense of magnanimity ensured that he was merely banished from the Indian domains and send north. Hieun Tsang who travelled across the country a century later and wrote extensively about his travels does not mention Yasodharman and credits only Baladitya with the victory over Mihiragula. Yasodharman, whose ancestry and successors are unknown in history, erected two victory columns in celebration. The identity of Yasodharman, the kingdom he ruled, as well as the dynasty he belonged to remain enigmas in the historical narrative. However, this is not the first such case nor the last in the extensive spread of Indian history, wherein there is certainty of a particular event having occurred and even the names of the principal personalities involved are known, but further details are obscure or even non-existent. [Perhaps the victory columns were erected to claim and establish a lasting legacy by an otherwise unknown king to lift his dynasty from obscurity. Analysing the event after so many years it is certain, that if that was the intention, it did not work!]

Even as Mihiragula was being exiled, his younger brother usurped the throne of Sakala. Therefore, Mihiragula took refuge in Kashmir where the king received him kindly, although they had been at war for more than four years by then, and placed him in charge of a small territory. Mihiragula, true to the Hun ethos, repaid the Kashmir king’s kindness by seizing his throne after a few years. Thereafter he attacked the neighbouring kingdom of Gandhara, slaying the Hun king and exterminating the entire Royal family. By this time Mihiragula had been sufficiently ‘Indianised’ enough to adopt Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction, as his patron deity and wreaked havoc on the conquered territories. In addition the Gandhara region was full of rich Buddhist monasteries ripe for the plucking which the Huns under Mihiragula plundered and destroyed with gusto. Mihiragula died about a year or so after the sacking of the Gandhara monasteries, around 540, leaving behind legends of his extreme cruelty and enjoyment in inflicting it embedded in the folklore of the Kashmir valley. Some of these stories survive to this day in the valley.

The White Hun domination of North-West India did not last for much longer after the death of Mihiragula. By the middle of the 6th century the Turks started to make their presence felt in the western borders of the sub-continent. The Turks had vanquished a rival horde called the Joan-joan and forged an alliance with Khusru Anushirvan, the king of Persia and grandson of Piroz killed by the Huns in 484. In a series of battles and campaigns between 563 and 567, the Turk-Persian combine destroyed the Huns completely and annexed the entire Hun dominion. In dividing the captured territories, the Turks acquired Sogdiana, while Khusru took over the ancient Persian provinces of Bactria and Gandhara. The Iranian Empire once again bordered the Oxus River and the Persians recovered their status and standing as a great power.

The term Huna that is used in Indian languages to denote this group of marauders can be considered to mean a foreigner from the north-west in a generic manner. It should be considered as similar to the way in which the word Yavana was used in earlier times to indicate any person who came from the west and the later-day term Wilayati that indicated any European. It is certain that all these terms carried an inherent but undeclared indication of contempt from the Hindus of the time. In medieval India there was a Royal Rajput clan titled Huna, perhaps a reference to some connection with the White Huns in earlier times. There is also the probability that the border tribes that Harsha of Thanesar and before him, his father had fought could have been people from the outlying Hun colonies. The Gujaras, ancestors of the modern-day Gujars, were originally foreign migrants and almost certainly had some blood connection with the Huns. Although their interlude in India lasted a mere six decades, the Huns did not fade away from history, but left an indelible mark on the Indian continent, their successors still roam the same areas over which Toramana and Mihiragula reigned supreme. In true Indian style, they were assimilated into the mainstream of the peoples that populate the sub-continent.

The Fate of Buddhism

While the Gupta dynasty was avowedly secular in their rule, they were followers of the orthodox Vedic religion which was the precursor of Hinduism. They surreptitiously contributed to the rise of their own religion at the cost of others. Royal patronage was essential for the growth of any idea, belief, or religion. Further, any demonstrated Royal support for a particular religion would have a cascading effect of eliciting support from the common people as well. This was the case during the Gupta rule with Hinduism benefitting from the largesse of the whole nation. When the Huns arrived on the scene, Buddhism was already under pressure from these developments and on the back foot in terms of its popularity. Buddhism fared badly under Hun domination in North-West India and Afghanistan. The Huns, functioning within in a simplistic concept of behaviour pattern, did not consider that any attention should be paid to people who could not or did not want to defend themselves. Many Buddhist communities were destroyed and an unknown number of monks and their followers put to the sword. The destruction of monasteries and the persecution of religious leaders was a blow that accentuated the already evident decline in the religion’s standing.

Buddhist fortunes declined rapidly during this period of Hun domination with only a few communities surviving in an acceptable state of tranquillity. Prominent amongst these was the community based in and around Bamiyan who carved the 170 feet tall Buddha images on the side of a cliff, almost as a defiant gesture to the persecution that they were facing. These colossal statues were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. [This only goes to show that religious intolerance is not something of the past, but a phenomenon that is perhaps more virulent in today’s world.] Buddhism never again became a religious force to reckon with in the land of its origin. The elimination of Buddhism from India could perhaps be considered the only lasting impression left behind by the White Huns. While they were instrumental in the final fall of the Guptas, the dynasty was already in decline with the incumbent kings becoming increasingly incapable of ruling such a grand empire. The Huns drove the last nails in the Gupta coffin, and if they had not, the oncoming Turks would have done the honours. The fall of the Gupta dynasty was almost preordained. In the broad sweep of Indian history therefor, the domination of the Huns remain an insignificant episode—just a flash in the pan.


© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

2 Responses to “INDIAN HISTORY Part 26: THE WHITE HUNS”

  1. Dr. Indra deo singh Reply December 2, 2017 at 01:26

    Nice description sir..
    While teachings to Huns and Gupta dynasty ,, always it lacks testimonials ,,and co relation ,,lucky you mentioned records between story …That is actual taste of history

  2. Dr. Indra deo singh Reply December 2, 2017 at 01:28

    .. Regards
    Dr indra deo singh
    V professor .
    Whatapp 919305586683

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