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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. 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.


Migrations from Central Asian into India

Migration of peoples and tribes from Central Asia into India, and expansion of Central Asian empires into India, is a recurring theme in the history of the region, from the theorised 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. However, this is disputed and is postulated as the reasserting of Hindu/Vedic authority in the political scenario of India.

The Shakas were 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 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.

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

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

The 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.

Sama Veda

The Vamsa Brahmana 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 natural because they were close neighbours in the north-west.


Manusmriti asserts that the Kambojas, Sakas, Yavanas, Paradas, Pahlavas, etc., had been 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.

This statement of Manu is designed to accommodate these foreign hordes into the social set-up of the Hindus. The foreigners were expected to practice same normal pieties as the Hindus and the later, in return, regarded them henceforth as belonging to their own social organisation.


The Haihaya Yadavas are the first known invaders in the recorded history of the sub-continent. Described in the Puranas as allying with four other groups, the invaders were eventually assimilated into the local community as Kshatriyas. Alberuni refers to this description, saying that the "five hordes" belonged to his own people, i.e. Central Asia.

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

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.

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.
  • References

    Central Asians in Ancient Indian literature Wikipedia