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Central Asians in Ancient Indian literature

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Central Asians in Ancient Indian literature

Central Asia and Ancient India have long traditions of social-cultural, religious, political and economic contact since remote antiquity.[1] The two regions have common and contiguous borders, climatic continuity, similar geographical features and geo-cultural affinity. There has always been uninterrupted flow of people, material and the ideas between the two.

Physical map of Central Asia from the Caspian Sea to the west, to Inner Mongolia in the east.

Archaeological excavations

The archaeological excavations in the Amu valley in Southern Uzbekistan, in Afrasiab on north-eastern edge of Samarkand and some other places in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Tak-mak in Kirghizstan add further evidence of the existence of links between ancient India and Central Asia since remote antiquity.

Further, extensive excavations have been carried out with remarkable results at Kara Tepa, Fayaz Tepa, Dalverzin Tepa, Yer Kurgan, Ak-Beshin, Kranayerezka and Isyk-Ata. The discovery of manuscripts in Xinjiang (China) and many other valuable excavational finds substantively establish that India and eastern Central Asian region of Xinjiang were also in extensive political, cultural and religious intercourse with each other.

Dynasties of India came from Central Asia as invaders and dynasties of Indian origin also ruled in Khotan and other places in Central Asia.

Migrations from Central Asian into India

the 2nd century Kushan Empire.

Immigration peoples and tribes from Central Asia into India, as well as expansion of Central Asian empires into India, is a recurring theme in the history of the region, from the theorized Bronze Age Indo-Aryan migration, to the Iron Age Kushan Empire, the Indo-Scythians, the Indo-Greeks (via Bactria) and the medieval Islamic conquest of the Indian subcontinent. Intrusion is typically across the Hindukush, and influence of the intrusive population is first established in the Punjab and the Indus Valley, and sometimes further expanded into the Ganges Plain. This view of migration and the tribes as immigrants is subject to dispute as being historical corruption, and are regarded as invasions.

In classical Indian tradition clans of the Shakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Pahlavas, Paradas etc. are also attested to have been coming as invaders from Central Asia to India in pre-Christian times. They were all finally absorbed into the community of Kshatriyas of Indian society.[2] However, this is disputed and is postulated as the reasserting of Hindu/Vedic authority in the political scenario of India.[3][4][5][6]

The Shakas were formerly the inhabitants of trans-Hemodos region---the Shakadvipa of the Puranas or the Scythia of the classical writings. Later evidence attests them in Drangiana i.e. Shakasthana (modern Seistan) located south of Herat. 1st century CE Periplus of the Erythraean Sea as well as 2nd century CE Ptolemy evidence also attest Indo-Scythia situated in lower Indus in western India.

The Paradas, the former inhabitants of Oxus and Sailoda (eastern Xinjiang), are noted by Ptolemy as Paradane and are attested to be living in western India in Sindhu or Gedrosia, during 2nd century CE.

The Kambojas and Pahlavas are known to have their original settlements in the east Iranian regions in Central Asia. Some allege the existence some of their settlements in post-Christian times in South-west/Southern India also.[7]

The Rishikas are formerly attested as living in Sakadvipa as neighbors to the Parama-Kambojas of Transoxiana region.[8] But later evidence also locates their section as neighbors to Ashmakas and Vidarbhas in south-west India. This Rishika settlement was located between Godavari and Tapti rivers, east of Nasika, north of Mulaka and west of Vidarbha.

The facts presented above show that the so-called 2nd century BCE Saka invasion of western India was probably carried out jointly by the Sakas, Pahlavas, Kambojas, Paradas, Rishikas and other allied tribes from the north-west (.[9]

Thomas observes: " It would seem probable that the tribes from eastern Iran who invaded India included diverse elements mingled indistinguishably together, so that, it is not possible to assert that one dynasty was Parthian while another was Saka..." etc.[10]

"The nomenclature of the early Sakas in India shows an admixture of Scythian, Parthian and Iranian elements..".[11]

According to James Tod and other western scholars, all Central Asian tribes connected with horse-culture like the Assaceni/Aspasios, Assacanus/Assakenois (the famous Ashvaka Kambojas....i.e. the Ashvayanas/Ashvakayanas of Pāṇini), the Ari-aspi and the Asii/Asio of the classical writings etc. belonged to the Scythic or Saka races.[12] Asii/Asio appears to be Parama Kambojas living in Shakadvipa of Mahabharata/Puranas or the Scythia of classical writings.

The Common Era saw more invaders such as the Kushanas, Hunas, Turks, Mongols and Pashtuns coming to the subcontinent. They all have been absorbed into various South Asian communities, leaving in some cases, no sign of clear-cut identification.

Central Asian People in Indian Classical Literature

There are extensive references to people of Central Asia in Indian literature like Atharvaveda, Vamsa Brahmana of Samveda, Aitareya Brahmana, Satapatha Brahmana, Puranas, Manusmiriti, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Raghuvamsa, Brihat-Katha -Manjari, Katha-Saritsagara, Rajaratrangini, Mudra-rakshasa, Kavymimansa and host of other old Sanskrit literature. A brief outline is given below:


Atharvaveda makes references to Gandhari, Mujavat and Bahlika from north-west (Central Asia). Gandharis are Gandharas, the Bahlikas are Bactrians, Mujavat (land of Soma) refer to Hindukush–Pamirs (the Kamboja region).

Post-Vedic Atharvaveda-Parisista (Ed Bolling & Negelein) makes first direct reference to the Kambojas (verse 57.2.5). It also juxtaposes the Kambojas, Bahlikas and Gandharas.[13] At another place, it juxtaposes the Shakas, Yavanas, Tusharas and Bahlikas (Saka. Yavana. Tushara. Bahlikashcha). This shows the Kambojas, Shakas, Tusharas, Bahlikas and Gandharas at this time were all located as neighbors in the Uttarapatha.

Sama Veda

The Vamsa Brahmana[14][15] of the Sama Veda refers to Madrakara Shaungayani as the teacher of Aupamanyava Kamboja. Sage Shangayani Madrakara, as his name itself shows, and as the scholars have rightly pointed out, belonged to the Madra people.

Prof Jean Przylusky has shown that Bahlika (Balkh) was an Iranian settlement of the Madras who were known as Bahlika-Uttaramadras i.e. the northern Madras, living in Bahlika or Bactria country. These Bahlika Uttara Madras are the Uttara Madras of the Aitareya Brahamana.

This connection between the Uttara Madras and the Kambojas is said to be but natural, as they were close neighbors in the north-west.[16]

The Kambojas as neighbors of the Uttara Madras here obviously refers to the trans-Himalayan branch of the Kambojas who became known as Parama-Kambojas in epic times. Both these nations belonged to Central Asia.

Aitareya Brahmana

Aitareya Brahmana refers to some ancient nations lying beyond Trans-Himalaya boundaries. As an illustration, the name of Uttara Kuru and Uttara Madra are given.[17] But other literature affirms that, besides Uttara Kuru and Uttara Madra, the janapadas of Parama Kambojas, Rshikas and the Lohas etc. were also located beyond Himalaya boundaries into Central Asia. These Central Asian people were undoubtedly in intensive intercourse with ancient Indian people.

Indian epics

The vast area across the Himalayas and Hindukush from Pamirs up to Arctic (Somagiri) is stated by some to form ancient Uttara Kuru. There is picturesque mention of this region in the epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata. There are also numerous references to the people forming part of this vast region.

Valmiki Ramayana

The Valmiki Ramayana portrays the topography of the whole land of Central Asia in very details and in some cases, very picturesquely. It gives very vivid account of Uttarapatha and several countries located in that direction. It mentions the lands and towns of the Kambojas, Shakas, Yavanas, Varadas (=Paradas: according to Dr Jayswal, Dr Singh and others) along with Himavanta. After this mentions is made of Uttara Kuru and Somagiri (Arctica). The region is described as without the sun and yet very much lighted. There are said to be no National boundaries there.[18]

The Bala Kanda section (1.55/2-3) of Ramayana refers to a joint mythical creation of the Central Asian tribes of the Kambojas, Yavanas, Shakas, Paradas and Mlechchas by sage Vasishatha through the divine powers of his Kamdhenu.[19]

Bala Kanda[20] of Ramayana also refers to the famed horses imported by princes of Ayodhya of Mid India from the Central Asian nations of Kamboja and Bahlika (Bactria).


According to Mahabharata, the kings of the Kambojas and the Tusharas were present in the Rajasuya Yajna of Yudhisthira. They had later participated in Mahabharata war from the Kaurava side. They were very ferocious warriors.

The Shakas, Hunas, Paradas and Tusharas had paid tribute to Yudhishtra. The epic also mentions that Pandava Nakula had defeated the Hunas, Pahalvas, Yavanas and Shakas in the western horizon.

Mahabharata mentions that Arjuna had brought tributes from the Daradas, Kambojas, Lohas, Rishikas, Parama Kambojas and the Uttara Kurus of trans-Himalyan regions.

Mahabharata attests that the northern Rishikas and the Lohas were close neighbors and allied to Parama-Kambojas i.e. Trans-Hindukush Kambojas of the Trans-Himalyan territories.[21]

At other places (5.4.18) in Mahabharata also, the Rishikas are shown as very intimitately connected with the Kambojas.[22]

The Rishikas are said to be same as the Yuezhis (Dr V. S. Aggarwala). The Kushanas or Kanishkas are also the same people (Dr J. C. Vidyalnkara). Prof Stein says that the Tukharas were a branch of the Yue-chi or Yuezhi. Tusharas/Tukharas (Tokharois/Tokarais) and the Yuezhi are stated to be same people (Dr P.C. Bagchi).

According to Vayu Purana and Matsya Purana, river Chakshu (Oxus) flowed through the countries of Tusharas (Rishikas?), Lampakas, Pahlavas, Paradas and Shakas etc.

The above references indicate that the countries of Rishikas (=Tusharas?), Parama-Kambojas, Lohas, Pahlavas, Paradas, Shakas etc. were close geographical neighbors and were all located in Central Asia.

King Drapupada of Panchala had advised Yudhishtra to invite the Kambojas, Shakas, Pahlavas, Rishikas and the Daradas (Paradas?) in the Mahabharata war on Pandava's side. But it was too late for Yudhishtra.

General Sudakshina of the Kambojas had joined the Mahabharata war on Kurus' side leading one Akshauhini army of ferocious Central Asian warriors which included Shakas, and Yavanas, besides the Kambojas.[23] Of the ten distinguished military Generals appointed by Duryodhana to efficiently manage his vast host of army, Suadakshin Kamboj was one of such distinguished Generals.[24]

This ancient epic evidence shows that there was an intensive political and military intercourse between the Mid Indians and the Central Asians.

Mahabharata brackets the Kambojas, Shakas and the Khashas together and styles them as tribes of Udichya or Uttarapatha, which obviously means Central Asia.

The Bhishamaparava and Shantiparavas of Mahabharata repeatedly assert that beyond the Uttara (north) are located the Mlechcha Janas (tribes) like the Yavanas, Kambojas, Darunas, Kiratas and other Mlechchas/Barbarians.[25]

These above references also obviously point to Central Asian fringe of people located on the north of Bharatavarsa.

However, the Anusasanaparva of Mahabharata also asserts that the clans of the Kambojas, Yavanas, Shakas, Pahlavas were formerly noble Kshatriyas, but in later time had turned into degraded Kshatriyas due to the wrath of the Brahminas.[26]


Manusmriti asserts that the Kambojas, Sakas, Yavanas, Paradas, Pahlavas etc. were originally Kshatriyas of good birth but were gradually degraded to the barbaric status due to their not following the Brahmanas and the Brahmanical code of conduct.[27]

This statement of Manu is designed to accommodate these foreign hordes into the social set-up of the [28]

According to James Tod, this ancient testimony from Manu presents a conclusive proof of a perfect intercourse which had existed between the people of Oxus (Central Asia) and those of the Ganges region in remote antiquity.[29]


According to Bahu-Sagara legend, the Shakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Paradas and Pahlavas, the so-called five hordes (panca-ganah), from north-west were invited by the Haihaya Yadavas for military support against king Bahu of Ayodhya. Bahu was defeated and ran off Ayodhya. A generation later, Bahu's son, Sagara regained Ayodhya after totally destroying the Haihaya and Talajangha Kshatriyas in the battle. He was about to annihilate the five assisting hordes, but Sagara's priest Vashishta intervened and persuaded him to save their lives by subjecting them to lighter punishments. Story says that King Sagara consented to the advice of his spiritual guide but punished these foreigners by changing their hair-styles and turning them into degraded Kshatriyas.[30]

These are the first known invaders in the recorded history of the sub-continent. The invaders were eventually assimilated into the local community as Kshatriyas.[31]

Alberuni refers to this Puranic story in his classic book Alberuni's India and testifies that the above referred to five hordes belonged to his own people i.e. Central Asia.[32]

Puranic traditions (Bhagavata Purana) say that Budha, the patriarchic figure the Yadu, Turvasa, Druhyu, Anu and Puru clans had come from Central Asia to Bharatkhand to perform penitential rites and he espoused Ella, the daughter of Manu, by whom was born Pururavas. Pururavas had six sons, one of whom is said to be Ayu. This Ayu or Ay is said to be the patriarch figure of the Tartars of Central Asia as well as of the first race of the kings of China.[33]

Whatever may be value of these conjectures, this literary tradition definitely alludes to intimate relations which existed, since antiquity, between the Indian people and the Central Asians.

Puranic cosmography divides our earth into seven concentric islands, viz. Jambudvipa, Plakasadvipa, Salmalidvipa, Kushadvipa, Krounchadvipa, Shakadvipa, and Pushkaradvipa, separated by seven encircling seas. Insular continent Jambudvipa forms the innermost concentric island in the above scheme of continents. Jambudvipa includes nine varsa and nine mountains. Varsa of Illa-vrta lies at the center of Jambudivipa at whose center is located Mount Meru (Plateau of Pamir). The varsa of Uttara Kuru lies to the north of Mount Meru and extending beyond north-wards.[34] The varsa of Illa Vrta includes parts of Central Asia.

The Puranic Bhuvanakosha attests that the boundaries of Bharata varsa extended in the Uttarapatha as far as the Vamkshu or Oxus in Central Asia. The Oxus to be the northmost limit of the geographical territories once included in the Bharata varsa was a real fact in political history of ancient India. It was the most well-defined geographical feature delimiting the boundaries of Bharata Varsa in the north.

The Puranic Bhuvanakosha attests that Bahlika or Bactria was the northern-most Puranic Janapada of ancient India and was located in Udichya or Uttarapatha division of Indian sub-continent.[35]

The Uttarapatha or northern division of Jambudvipa comprised very vast area of Central Asia, as far as the Urals and the Caspian Sea to the Yenisei and from Turkistan and Tien Shan ranges to as far as the Arctic (Dr S. M. Ali).

Mudra-Rakashasa drama

The Buddhist drama Mudra-rakshas by Visakha Dutta as also the Jaina work Parisishtaparvan refer to Chandragupta's alliance with Himalayan king Parvatka. The Himalayan alliance gave Chandragupta a composite formidable army made up of the Shakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Kiratas, Parasikas and Bahlikas as attested by Mudra-rakashas.[36]

With the help of these frontier martial tribes from Central Asia, Chandragupta was able to defeat the Greek successors of Alexander the Great and the Nanda/Nandin rulers of Magadha so as to found the powerful Maurya empire in northern India.


Poet Kalidasa provides graphic picture of northern mountainous region of India. This is especially so in the case of his works like Meghdoota, Vikramorvashiam and Raghuvamsha. He also brings refreshing reference of the Uttara Kuru.

Raghuvamsha tells of a war expedition of king Raghu (Chandragupta Vikramaditya) against the Parasikas (Sassanians), Hunas and the Kambojas located in northern division or Uttarapatha. The encounters with the Hunas and the Kambojas had occurred around river Oxus, right in Central Asia.[37]


Rajatarangini of Kalhana makes king Lalitaditya Mukatapida of Kashmir undertake a war expedition against his neighboring countries. He launched onto the region of north (from Kashmir) against the Kambojas, Tusharas, Bhauttas, Daradas, Valukambudhi, Strirajya and Uttarakurus (mythical or not).[38] There is also a reference to the humiliation of the Hunas by Lalitaditva in the Rajataramgini.[39] The nations named above are all located in Central Asia.

Brahata Katha of Kshmendra

Brahata Katha indicates that king Vikramaditya of Ujjaini (60 c BC) had mobilised his forces against the invading hordes of the Mlechchas from north west. He had ridded the mother earth off the sinfuls by completely destroying the Mlechcha hordes of the Sakas, Kambojas, Yavanas, Parasikas etc.[40]

Katha Sarit Sagara of Somadeva

The Katha Sarit Sagara of Somadeva also refers to the subjugation of numerous kings and the destruction of the Sanghas (republics) of the Mlechchas by king Vikramditiya. Those who survived paid tributes to him or joined him militarily.[41] The reference to the Sanghas of the Mlechchas, undoubtedly alludes to the Sanghas of the Kambojas, Yavavans, Abhiras as well as of the Vahikas etc.

This, again affirms the ongoing inter-action between the Indian-mainland and the people of Central Asia.

Kavyamimamsa of Rajashekhara

The 10th century CE Kavyamimamsa of Pandit Rajashekhara knows about the existence of several Central Asian tribes. He furnishes an exhaustive list of the extant tribes of his times and places the Shakas, Tusharas, Vokanas, Hunas, Kambojas, Vahlika, Vahlava, Tangana, Limpaka, Turukshas etc. together, styling them all as the tribes from Uttarapatha or north division.[42]

See also


  1. ^ Alberuni's India, 2001, p 19-21, Edward C. Sachau - History; Dates of the Buddha, 1987, p 126, Shriram Sathe; Foundations of Indian Culture, 1984, p 20 sqq, Dr Govind Chandra Pande - History; India & Russia: Linguistic & Cultural Affinity, 1982, Weer Rajendra Rishi; Geographical and Economic Studies in the Mahābhārata: Upāyana Parva, 1945, Dr Moti Chandra - India; Linguistic & Cultural Affinity, 1982, Weer Rajendra Rishi; Racial Affinities of Early North Indian Tribes 1973, Myths of the Dog-Man, 1991, David Gordon White - Social Science; Sudhakar Chattopadhyaya - Ethnic Groups.
  2. ^ History and Culture of Indian People, The Vedic Age, pp 286-87, 313-14.
  3. ^ "Studies In Indian History: Rajasthan Through The Ages The Heritage Of Rajputs By R.K. Gupta, S.R. Bakshi". 
  4. ^ "Saturday, July 08, 2006 Rajput rule of India is described. Rajput battles against Islamic invaders are covered in depth.". Digvijay. 
  5. ^ "RAJPUT HISTORY". Hina. 
  6. ^ "Rajputs—Aliens or Indigenous ?". Dr. Gopal Singh Rathore. 
  7. ^ Migration of Kambojas#The Kambojas in West.2FSouthwest India
  8. ^ Mahabharata II.27.25
  9. ^ cf: Interaction Between India and Western World, pp 75-93, H. G. Rawlinson.
  10. ^ Journal of Royal Asoiatic Society, 1906, p 215.
  11. ^ Hist & Culture of Indian People, The Age of Imperial Unity, p 121
  12. ^ Annals and Antiquities of Rajashthan, pp 53-54, 64.
  13. ^ AV-Par, 57.2.5; cf Persica-9, 1980, p 106, Dr Michael Witzel.
  14. ^ Vamsa Brahmana 1/18.
  15. ^
  16. ^ Vedic Index, 138; Some Kshatriya Tribes of Ancient India, 1924, p 230-231; Dr B. C. Law.
  17. ^ Aitreya Brahmana, VIII.14.
  18. ^ Valmiki Ramayana, Kisikindhi Kanda 4.43.
  19. ^ Valmiki Ramayana, 1.55/2-3.
  20. ^ Valmiki Ramayana, Bala Kanda 1.6.22
  21. ^
    Lohan. Parama. Kambojan. Rishikan.uttaranapi ||II.27.25||.
  22. ^
    Shakanam Pahlavana.n cha Daradanam cha ye nripah |
    KambojaRishika ye cha pashchim.anupakash cha ye ||5.4.18||.
  23. ^ MBH 5/19/21-22.
  24. ^ MBH 5/155/30-33.
  25. ^
    Uttarashchapare mlechchha jana bharatasattama
    Yavanashcha sa Kamboja Daruna Mlechchha jatayah
    (MBH 6/11/63-64)
    Uttarapatha janmanah kirtayishyami tanapi
    Yauna Kamboja Gandharah Kirata Barbaraih saha
    (MBH 12/201/40).
  26. ^ MBH 13/33/20-21.
  27. ^ Manusmriti (X.43-44).
  28. ^ Cultural Heritage of India, I, p 612.
  29. ^ Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, p171-72.
  30. ^ Harivamsa 14.1-19.
  31. ^
  32. ^ Alberuni's India, Trans. Sachau, p 20-21.
  33. ^ Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, p 172, James Tod.
  34. ^ Vishnu Purana, H. H. Wilson.
  35. ^ Kirfel's list of the Uttarapatha countries of Bhuvanakosa.
  36. ^
    asti tava Shaka-Yavana-Kirata-Kamboja-Parasika-Bahlika parbhutibhih
    Chankyamatipragrahittaishcha Chandergupta Parvateshvara
    balairudidhibhiriva parchalitsalilaih samantaad uprudham Kusumpurama
    (See: Mudra-Rakshasa 2).
  37. ^ Raghuvamsa 4.66-70.
  38. ^ Rajatrangini 4.164-174
  39. ^ Rajatrangini 4.178-80
  40. ^ Brahata Katha, 10/1/285-86, Kshmendra.
  41. ^ Katha-Saritsagara, 18.1.76-78.
  42. ^ Kavyamimamsa Ed. Gaekwad's Oriental Series, I (1916) Chapter 17; Introd., xxvi. Rajashekhara is dated c 880 AD - 920 AD.

Books and periodicals

  • Mahabharata
  • Valmiki Ramayana
  • Puranas
  • Manusmriti
  • Aitareya Brahmana
  • Raghuvamsa by Kalidasa
  • Brahata Katha, by Kshmendra
  • Rajatrangini by Kalhana
  • Ancient Kamboja, People and the Country, 1981, Dr Kamboj
  • Political History of Ancient India, 1996, Dr H. C. Raychaudhury
  • India and Central Asia, 1955, Dr P. C., Bagchi.
  • Myths of the Dog-Man, 1991, David Gordon White.
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