Sveta Hunas – White Huns

Sveta Hunas are said to be the Hephthalites. Believed to be Eastern Iranian in origin, they had attacked India during the period of the Gupta Empire.

Words: Priya Narayan


The White Huns or Sveta Hunas, as they were known in India, are believed to be the Hephthalites with a possibility of having an alliance with the Xionites. By the first half of the 6th century, they controlled territories in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, India and China. It is said that they were the only Huns with fair complexions, hence deriving the name Sveta Hunas.

The name Hephthalites originates from ancient Green sources and they were also known as Ephthalite, Abdel or Avdel. In India though, they were known as Sveta Hunas. The Chinese called them Yada. Older Chinese sources called them Hua or Hudun and describe them as a tribe beyond the Great Wall. Some historians disagree with the idea that the Hephthalites were the Sveta Hunas.

East Iranian Origin
While historians had at one time suggested that the Hephthalites were Turkish descendants, later beliefs state that they were from East Iran. The Hephthalites’ spoken language is said to be an East Iranian language which was different from the Bactrian language written in the Greek alphabet. This was the official language minted on coins. The names of the Hephthalites too were Iranian. After the Hephthalites lost their supremacy, it was the turn of the Central Asian nomads who spoke Turkic languages, which could have led to the belief of their Turkish descent.

It is said that they were not connected to the European Huns and may have called themselves Huns to scare their enemies. These White Huns occupied regions that were far from the European Huns, nor were they nomads.

They were settlers. Unlike the tribes of the European Huns, the White Huns were ruled by a king, they had a constitution and observed justice in their dealings within themselves and with their neighbours.

Nobles were buried rather than cremated. The White Huns also used a Turkic language and royal titles which shows the influence of the Turkic people. They did not recognise Buddhism and often destroyed Buddhist monasteries.

Chinese chronicles though state a theory that they could be the descendants of the tribes who remained behind after people fled from the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu were tribes north of the Great Wall who attacked China frequently. They are believed by some historians to be connected to the European Huns.

History of White Huns
After defeating the Scythians by 425 AD, the White Huns invaded Persian regions. By 485, Persia had become their subject with the defeat of the Sassanid king, Peroz-I. During the wars between 503 and 513, they had to leave Persia and were fully defeated in 557 by Khosrau-I.

During the first half of the 5th century, they were established in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kunduz in Afghanistan, earlier known as Badian, was their capital. Later, their emperor Mihirakula made his capital in Sialkot of Pakistan, then known as Sakala.

They entered India through the Khyber Pass and Skandagupta, son of Kumaragupta-I defeated the White Huns, in 455 AD.

Attacks by the White Hun kings Toramana and his successor Mihirakula drained the Gupta empire and the dynasty went into decline after Skandagupta’s death in 467 AD.
In 480 AD, the White Huns attacked once again from the northwest and overran most of the Gupta Empire by 500 AD, penetrating north and central India.

Although weakened, the Guptas resisted the Huns and Toramana was defeated by Bhanugupta in 510. A coalition by Narasimhagupta and the Malwa king Yashodharman drove the Huns out of India in 528 AD.

While the Huns were horse-mounted archers, leading to speed of attack, the Gupta armies were disciplined and were believed to have deployed a combination of tactics, using elephants, armoured cavalry and foot archers.

Yudhishthira, the Hun king ruled until 670 when he was replaced by the Kabul Shahi dynasty.

Modern Day
The White Huns are believed to be one of the ancestors of Pashtuns, particularly the Abdali Pashtun tribe. The Pashtun name Abdali or Durrani is said to have descended from the White Huns. It is also believed that they were the ancestors of the Abdal tribe of the Turkmens and the Kazakhs. Although disputed, it is believed that the Rajputs are a mix of the White Huns and the Gurjars.
Hunas in Literature
Kalidasa describes the prowess of Chandragupta Vikramaditya-II as a ruler who had conquered 21 kingdoms. Having conquered the eastern and western regions of India, Vikramaditya went northwards and won over the Parasikas, Hunas and the Kambojas. He then went across the Himalayas and won over the Kinnaras and Kiratas.Kshemendra’s Brihatkathamanjari describes Vikramaditya as having annihilated Mlecchas like the Sakas, Kambojas, Yavanas, Tusharas, Parasikas and the Hunas.The Mahabharata narrates the incident of Viswamitra attacking sage Vasishta’s cow. Tribes allied to Vasishta attacked Viswamitra’s armies and these include the Hunas along with the Sakas, Yavanas, Savaras, Paundras and Kiratas. There was also mention of Khasas, Chivukas, Pulindas, Chinas and other Mlechchas. This list differs from that of the Valmiki Ramayana though in which the Kambojas, Pahlavas, Haritas were mentioned too.On the second day of the Pandava-Kaurava war in Kurukshetra, it is mentioned that with Yudhishthira stood the Parachcharas, Hunas, Pauravakas, Nishadas, Pisachas, Kundavishas, Mandakas, Ladakas, Tanganas, Uddras, Saravas, Tumbhumas, Vatsas, Nakulas. They stood in the Krauncharuma position decided by Dhrishtadyumna, the Pandava general.
The Xionites, also known as Chionites, Huna, Hunni and by other names, are said to be people who spoke Iranian. They arrived from Central Asia to Iran and were influenced by the Kushans and the Bactrians. They posed a threat to the northeastern part of the Sassanid Empire. It is believed that they differed from the Hephthalites. Conjectures are made that the Hephthalites themselves may have been an important tribe of the Xionites. The Xionites followed a form of Buddhism and Shaivism while attributing a living soul to all natural phenomena including plants and inanimate objects.