EPHTHALITES, or White Huns. This many-named and enigmatical tribe was of considerable importance in the history of India and Persia in the 5th and 6th centuries, and was known to the Byzantine writers, who call them or . The last of these is an independent attempt to render the original name, which was probably something like Aptal or Haptal, but the initial Ν of the third is believed to be a clerical error. They were also called or , White (that is fair-skinned) Huns. In Arabic and Persian they are known as Haital and in Armenian as Haithal, Idal or Hepthal. The Chinese name Yetha seems an attempt to represent the same sound. In India they were called Hunas. Ephthalite is the usual orthography, but Hephthalite is perhaps more correct.
Our earliest information about the Ephthalites comes from the Chinese chronicles, in which it is stated that they were originally a tribe of the great Yue-Chi (q.v.), living to the north of the Great Wall, and in subjection to the Jwen-Jwen, as were also the Turks at one time. Their original name was Hoa or Hoa-tun; subsequently they styled themselves Ye-tha-i-li-to after the name of their royal family, or more briefly Ye-tha. Before the 5th century A.D. they began to move westwards, for about 420 we find them in Transoxiana, and for the next 130 years they were a menace to Persia, which they continually and successfully invaded, though they never held it as a conquest. The Sassanid king, Bahram V., fought several campaigns with them and succeeded in keeping them at bay, but they defeated and killed Peroz (Firuz), A.D. 484. His son Kavadh I. (Kobad), being driven out of Persia, took refuge with the Ephthalites, and recovered his throne with the assistance of their khan, whose daughter he had married, but subsequently he engaged in prolonged hostilities with them. The Persians were not quit of the Ephthalites until 557 when Chosroes Anushirwan destroyed their power with the assistance of the Turks, who now make their first appearance in western Asia.
The Huns who invaded India appear to have belonged to the same stock as those who molested Persia. The headquarters of the horde were at Bamian and at Balkh, and from these points they raided south-east and south-west. Skandagupta repelled an invasion in 455, but the defeat of the Persians in 484 probably stimulated their activity, and at the end of the 5th century their chief Toromana penetrated to Malwa in central India and succeeded in holding it for some time. His son Mihiragula (c.510-540) made Sakala in the Punjab his Indian capital, but the cruelty of his rule provoked the Indian princes to form a confederation and revolt against him about 528. He was not, however, killed, but took refuge in Kashmir, where after a few years he seized the throne and then attacked the neighbouring kingdom of Gandhara, perpetrating terrible massacres. About a year after this he died (c.540), and shortly afterwards the Ephthalites collapsed under the attacks of the Turks. They do not appear to have moved on to another Sphere, as these nomadic tribes often did when defeated, and were probably gradually absorbed in the surrounding populations. Their political power perhaps continued in the Gurjara empire, which at one time extended to Bengal in the east and the Nerbudda in the south, and continued in a diminished form until A.D. 1040. These Gurjaras appear to have entered India in connexion with the Hunnish invasions.
Our knowledge of the Indian Hunas is chiefly derived from coins, from a few inscriptions distributed from the Punjab to central India, and from the account of the Chinese pilgrim Hsùan Tsang, who visited the country just a century after the death of Mihiragula. The Greek monk Cosmas Indicopleustes, who visited India about 530, describes the ruler of the country, whom he calls Gollas, as a White Hun king, who exacted an oppressive tribute with the help of a large army of cavalry and war elephants. Gollas no doubt represents the last part of the name Mihiragula or Mihirakula.
The accounts of the Ephthalites, especially those of the Indian Hunas, dwell on their ferocity and cruelty. They are represented as delighting in massacres and torture, and it is said that popular tradition in India still retains the story that Mihiragula used to amuse himself by rolling elephants down a precipice and watching their agonies. Their invasions shook Indian society and institutions to the foundations, but, unlike the earlier Kushans, they do not seem to have introduced new ideas into India or have acted as other than a destructive force, although they may perhaps have kept up some communication between India and Persia. The first part of Mihiragula seems to be the name of the Persian deity Mithra, but his patron deity was Śiva, and he left behind him the reputation of a ferocious persecutor of Buddhism. Many of his coins bear the Nandi bull (Śiva's emblem), and the king's name is preceded by the title śahi (shah), which had previously been used by the Kushan dynasty. Toramana's coins are found plentifully in Kashmir, which, therefore, probably formed part of the Huna dominions before Mihiragula's time, so that when he fled there after his defeat he was taking refuge, if not with his own subjects, at least with a kindred clan.
Greek writers give a more flattering account of the Ephthalites, which may perhaps be due to the fact that they were useful to the East Roman empire as enemies of Persia and also not dangerously near. Procopius says that they were far more civilized than the Huns of Attila, and the Turkish ambassador who was received by Justin is said to have described them as , which may merely mean that they lived in the cities which they conquered. The Chinese writers say that their customs were like those of the Turks; that they had no cities, lived in felt tents, were ignorant of writing and practised polyandry. Nothing whatever is known of their language, but some scholars explain the names Toramana and Jauvla as Turkish.
For the possible connexion between the Ephthalites and the European Huns see Huns. The Chinese statement that the Hoa or Ye-tha were a section of the great Yue-Chi, and that their customs resembled those of the Turks (Tu-Kiue), is probably correct, but does not amount to much, for the relationship did not prevent them from fighting with the Yue-Chi and Turks, and means little more than that they belonged to the warlike and energetic section of central Asian nomads, which is in any case certain. They appear to have been more ferocious and less assimilative than the other conquering tribes. This may, however, be due to the fact that their contact with civilization was so short; the Yue-Chi and Turks had had some commerce with more advanced races before they played any part in political history, but the Ephthalites appear as raw barbarians, and were annihilated as a nation in little more than a hundred years. Like the Yue-Chi they have probably contributed to form some of the physical types of the Indian population, and it is noticeable that polyandry is a recognized institution among many Himalayan tribes, and is also said to be practised secretly by the Jats and other races of the plains.
Among original authorities may be consulted Procopius, Menander Protector, Cosmas Indicopleustes (trans. McCrindle, Hakluyt Society, 1897), the Kashmir chronicle Rajataranginî (trans. Stein, 1900, and Yüan Chwang). See also A. Stein, White Huns and Kindred Tribes (1905); O. Franke, Beiträge aus chinesischen Quellen zur Kenntnis der Türkvölker und Skythen (1904); Ujfalvy, Mémoire sur les Huns Blancs (1898); Drouin, Mémoire sur les Huns Ephthalites (1895); and various articles by Vincent Smith, Specht, Drouin, and E.H. Parker in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Journal asiatique, Revue numismatique, Asiatic Quarterly, etc.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)