Hephthalite Empire

Map by: Thomas Lessman

The Hephthalites (sometimes called “White Huns”, also known as Hoa or Hoa-tun by the Chinese, Ephthalites by the Greeks, and Hunas by the Indians) were a confederation of nomadic peoples in Central Asian during the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Their precise origins and composition remain obscure. They were likely of Iranian or Turkish descent (or a mixture of both). According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, they had no cities or system of writing, lived in felt tents, and practiced polyandry, while very little is known of their language.

Hephthalites Timeline

c. 125 – Chinese sources first document the Hephthalites as a tribe called the Hoa, living in Dzungaria (north of the Great Wall.

420 – Hephthalites subjugate Transoxiana and invade Persia.

427 – Sassanids win a major victory over Hephthalites and drive them out of Persia.

454 – Hephthalites defeat the Sassanids and revenge for their earlier loss.

470 – Hephthalites conquer the Kidarite Kingdom of Gandhara.  Tegin (Toramana) becomes the Viceroy of this new realm, known in India as the Hunas.

475 – Sassanids are again defeated by the Hephthalites and forced to pay tribute.

479 – Hephthalites conquer Sogdiana to the north, and Kashgar and Khotan to the east.

480 – Hunas under Tegin (Toramana) invade the Gupta Empire.

493 – Hephthalites defeat the Turgesh Khaganate and extend their power to Dzungaria.

500 – Hephthalite armies restore the Sassanid Emperor Kubad to the Persian throne. Meanwhile in India, the Gupta Empire has collapsed and Huna armies have overrun much of Northern India.

508 – Hephthalites conquer Turfan and Karashar, giving them control over most of the Tarim Basin.

522 – Hephthalites are at the height of their power.  The majority of central Asia either is under direct Hephthalite control, or pays tribute.

528 – The Hunas are defeated in Malwa by Yasodvarman.

532 – A coalition of Indian kingdoms drives the Hunas from the plains of North India.

557 – The Hephthalite Khaganate in Central Asia has destroyed an alliance of Persians and Göktürks.

562 – An Avar invasion of Thuringia is repulsed by the Franks.

565 – The Sassanids ally with the Gokturks to destroy the Hephthalite Empire. Smaller Hephthalite principalities maintain their independence in Zabul, Kapisa, Tocharistan, and other areas. A Hephthalite Khanate is re-established in Afghanistan (first at Kapisa).

570 – In Chinese chronicles they were originally known as Hoa or Hoa-tun and lived north of the Great Wall, in Dzungaria. Around 420 they subjugated Transoxiana, then invaded Persia but were overwhelmingly defeated by the Sassanids in 427.  They returned in the 450s and defeated the Sassanids, reducing Persia to tributary status for a time. At their height in the early 500s, most of central Asia was either ruled directly by the Hephthalites or paid tribute to their rulers, while a separate Hephthalite Empire (the Hunas) ruled much of northern India.


During the 5th century, the Gupta dynasty in India reigned in the Ganges basin with the Kushan empire occupied the area along the Indus. Huns invaded India. This is the saying that goes on in History, let us analyse the facts.

White Huns

The paucity of record in Hephthalites or Ephthalites provides us fragmentary picture of their civilization and empire. Their background is uncertain. They probably stemmed from a combination of the Tarim basin peoples and the Yueh-chih. There is a striking resemblance in the deformed heads of the early Yueh-chih and Hephthalite kings on their coinage. According to Procopius’s History of the Wars, written in the mid 6th century – the Hephthalites
“are of the stock of the Huns in fact as well as in name: however they do not mingle with any of the Huns known to us. They are the only ones among the Huns who have white bodies….”

Ephthalites was the name given by Byzantine historians and Hayathelaites by the Persian historian Mirkhond, and sometimes Ye-tai or Hua by Chinese historians. They are also known as the White Huns, different from the Hun who led by Attila invading the Roman Empire. They are described as a kindred steppe people who originally occupied the pasture-lands in the Altai mountain of southwestern Mongolia.

Toward the middle of the 5th century, they expanded westward probably because of the pressure from the Juan-juan, a powerful nomadic tribe in Mongolia. Within decades, they became a great power in the Oxus basin and the most serious enemy of the Persian empire.

The Westward Expansion and War with Sassanian Empire

At the time when the Hephthalites gained power, Kushan and Gandhara were ruled by the Kidarites, a local dynasty of Hun or Chionites tribe. The Hephthalites entered Kabul and overthrew Kushan. The last Kidarites fled to Gandhara and settled at Peshawar. Around 440 the Hephthalites further took Sogdian (Samarkand) and then Balkh and Bactria.

The Hephthalites moved closer and closer toward Persian territory. In 484 the Hephthalite chief Akhshunwar led his army to attack the Sassanian King Peroz (459-484) and the king was defeated and killed in Khurasan. After the victory, the Hephthalite empire extended to Merv and Herat, which had been the regions of the Sassanid Empire.

The Hephthalites, at the time, became the superpower of Middle Asia. They not only destroyed part of Sassanian Empire in Iran but also intervened in their dynastic struggles when the Sassanid royal, Kavad (488-496), was fighting for the throne with Balash, brother of Peroz. Kavad married the niece of the Hephthalites chief and the Hephthalites aided him to regain his crown in 498AD.

The Eastward Expansion to the Tarim Basin

With the stabilization at the western border, the Hephthalites extended their influence to the northwest into the Tarim Basin. From 493 to 556 A.D., they invaded Khotan, Kashgar, Kocho, and Karashahr. The relationship between Juan-juan and China was tightened. The Chinese record indicated that between 507 and 531, the Hephthalites sent thirteen embassies to Northern Wei (439-534) by the king named Ye-dai-yi-li-tuo.

Invasion to India

During the 5th century, the Gupta dynasty in India reigned in the Ganges basin with the Kushan empire occupied the area along the Indus.

Huna in Sanskrit

India knew the Hephthalite as Huna by the Sanskrit name. The Hephthalites or Hunas waited till 470 right after the death of Gupta ruler, Skandagupta (455-470), and entered the Inda from the Kabul valley after the conquest of Kushan. They kept on invading India until Skanda Gupta repulsed them. After their defeat they assimilated into Indian population without any trace, which shows they are not very different from the local population.

Pahua, Hua , Hun?

Japanese researcher Kazuo Enoki takes on the theories of both the ancient and the modern writers, including the redoubtable Stein, knocking the legs out from one after another. Theories which are based on a coincidence of name, e.g. Pahua and Hua, are unlikely in this part of the world which exhibits so many languages and so much linguistic adaptation and orthographic variation, he points out, and should not be upheld if other sorts of evidence do not support the reasoning. Stein’s contention that the Ephthalites were of the Hunnish tribe and therefore of Turkish origin is dismissed largely on this basis. On the other hand, J. Marquart finds similarities between the terms for the Ephthalites in India and words in the Mongolian language, but this theory requires so many leaps between tongues that it remains quite unconvincing. Finally, there is a whole school of researchers attempting to prove this tribe a Turkish, albeit non-Hun, one. These too must rely only on flimsy name evidence. Instead, Enoki makes a convincing case that the Ephthalites are actually an Iranian group. His theory, it must be admitted, does not explain all, but there seems little against it. More importantly, it relies first on data that is generally agreed upon, namely, ancient observations of Ephthalite geographical movements and culture.


For Enoki, Ephthalite origins may be determined by considering where they were not, as well as by where their conquests drove their enemies. They were not previously north of the Tien Shan, thus they did not stem from that region. They drove the Kidarites out of Balkh to the west, thus they came originally from the east. By such reasoning, the Ephthalites are thought to have originated at Hsi-mo-ta-lo (southwest of Badakhshan and near the Hindu Kush), which tantalizingly, stands for Himtala, “snow plain”, which may be the Sanskritized form of Hephthal.

Chinese Account

To the Chinese, they were the Ye-ti-i-li-do or Yeda, even though the Chinese chroniclers seem to realize that the people called themselves the people of Hua (the similarity to Hun may help explain the origin of “White Hun”) and that the Chinese terms came actually from the name of the Hua leader. Like Procopius, contemporary Chinese chroniclers had their own theories about Ephthalite origins. One thought that were related in some way to the Visha (Indo-Europeans is known to the Chinese as the “Yueh Chih” (Yuezhi)), another, a branch of the Kao-ch`ê, a third, descendants of the general Pahua, fourth descendants of Kang Chu and a fifth admits that he cannot make clear their origins at all.

Iranian Decent

Turning to the elements of Ephthalite culture, Enoki notes that Procopius’ comments on their appearance while not decisive, are in favor of an Iranian theory. Similarly, the seventh-century travels of Hsuan Chwang show that he found no physical difference between the descendants of the Ephthalites and their known Iranian neighbors. As for their language, commentators made clear that it was neither Turkish nor Mongol, which also seems to support an Iranian origin.

Iranian customs also are common in the Ephthalite world. For example, the practice of several husbands to one wife, or polyandry, was always the rule, which is agreed on by all commentators. That this was plain was evidenced by the custom among the women of wearing a hat containing a number of horns, one for each of the subsequent husbands, all of whom were also brothers to the husband. Indeed, if a husband had no natural brothers, he would adopt another man to be his brother so that he would be allowed to marry. Conjugal rights were traded off and children were assigned in turn with the oldest husband receiving the first and so on. Tellingly, polyandry has never been associated with any Hun tribe, but is known of several Central Asian ones.

In their religious beliefs, the Ephthalites are said to have worshipped fire and sun gods. While either one is not unusual in any early culture around the world, both together is likely to indicate a Persian origin. In Persia, such beliefs were later to culminate in Zoroastrianism.

As part of their religious observance, the Ephthalites did not cremate, but as is reported by all commentators including Procopius, always buried their dead, either by constructing a tomb or under the ground. This is not consistent with the Zoroastrian practice of leaving the body in the open, but is clearly at odds with Turkish nomadic groups. The practice of inhumation then may simply indicate an Iranian group that had been sundered from the main branch at an early date and had adopted local Central Asian burial customs.

Arabic persian Accounts

Arabic/Persian name for the Hephthalites/Ephtalites was Haytal or Hayatila, and they are so mentioned by Firdausi in his Shahnameh. In his commentary on the Hudud al Alam, the late Russian Professor Minorsky quotes two early passages from Arab chroniclers that link the Khalaj with the Hayatilas aka Ephtalites.
From the Mafatih al Ulum of Al-Khwarezmi written in 975 AD (H. 365): The Hayatila are a tribe of men who had enjoyed grandeur and possessed the country of Tukharistan; the Turks called Khalukh, or Khalaj, are their descendants.

From the Kitab al Masalik of Istakhri, written in 933 AD (H. 321): The Khalaj are a kind of Turks who in the days of old came to the country between Hind and the districts of Sijistan (Sakastan/Sistan) behind Ghor. They are catle-breeders of Turkish appearance, dress, language.

Takharistan is what is now north-eastern Afghanistan, around Baghlan. Takharistan was actually one of the major strongholds of the Hephthalites during their dominant period in history, so it correlates well to the 2 passages above. Both passages take the Khalaj back some five centuries before the Ghuzz migrations, making their ancestors the White Huns.

As their empire shows, the central focal spot of their empire is the Hindu Kush. Regardless of their origins, by the end of the 6th century AD, there emerges a group of tribes with an Iranian background and language, but not fire-worshippers, rather sun-worshippers made up of successive hordes overlaid at the last by a Hunnish conquest, and with a center of historical attraction towards the Gandhara Valley.

So white Huns are of Decendents of Iranian and Central Asian tribe, and they are no way connected with Huns of Attila fame.

Let us see other Huns

European Huns

In 370, nomads arrived north of the Black Sea. These nomads were given the name “Huns” by Greco-Roman historians. One theory for the origin of these people is that in 160, Fragments of the Xiong Nu settle around the Ural sea for 200 years, before moving west. However, an association of the Xiong Nu and the Huns is now more of a “classic speculation” without enough evidence. Most realistically, the Huns in Europe could’ve contained some fragments of the Xiong Nu, but also fragments of other steppe groups, along with more local european barbarians. In any case, the Huns moved and destroyed the cultures north of the Pontus including the Sarmatians and the Goths. The Goths then migrated into the Eastern Roman empire, who after rebelling against the Empire, defeated the Romans at Adrianople. The Hun gradually expanded their realms incorporating many local barbarian groups. The height of the empire marked the Reign of Attila, who made repeated invasion against the Romans. Although the Huns did not penetrate very deeply compared to other barbarians, they were instrumental in causing migrations of other barbarians against Rome. After Attila died, the empire rapidly fell apart. Germanic tribes rebelled and defeated Attila’s sons, forcing whatever was of the Huns to move back into the steppes, where they faced away.

Red Huns (Chionites)

In 350, the Chionites came to power in Sogdia and invaded the Sassanid Empire of Persia. Latin sources relate them to “Huns” but ethnical relations is far beyond what names can say. Most probable, they were driven out of the Mongolian Steppes by the Juan Juan. (this pattern of groups migrating away from strong nomadic empires is a constant theme in history) The Chionites declined with the Invasion of the White Huns. The last record of Chionites was in 558 AD, when their last remnant was destroyed by the Western Turks.

Author: Thomas Lessman


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