Although the Hephthalites dominated much of Central Asia and Northern India at the height of their power (approximately 460 to 570), little information about their civilization is available to us. Their name derives from the Byzantine "Ephthalites," and they were alternatively known as Ye-Ta to the Wei dynasty and Hunas to the Gupta Empire. They are also referred to as "White Huns" in some histories, a term derived from a quotation from Procopius' History of the Wars, in which he writes, "The Ephthalites 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 and countenances which are not ugly." We do not know what name these people used to refer to themselves.
Historians tend to fall into two camps when discussing Hephthalite origins. One theory is that the Hephthalites were once part of the Juan-juan confederacy of Turkic nomadic peoples; similarities in portraiture found on Hephthalite and Yuezhi coins is sometimes offered as evidence of a common Western China homeland for both these cultures. An alternate explanation put forth by Kazuo Enoki in the 1950s is that the Hephthalites were an Iranian group who settled in the Altai region, from whence they began their military expansion south into the Bactrian region. But whatever their origins might have been, by the year 500 branch empires of the Hephthalites controlled an area stretching south from Transoxiana to the Arabian Sea, and as far west as Khurasan (the eastern-most part of the Sassanian empire), and all of northern India to the east.
The most complete accounts of Hephthalite civilization come from Wei-era Chinese travelers who documented their impressions of Hephthalite-controlled areas. Song Yun, who served as official Wei envoy, and Buddhist pilgrim Huisheng wrote that Hephthalites had no script of their own, and that their language differs from that of the Juan-juan and the "Hu" (Turkic peoples who lived in what is now western China). Coins offer evidence that they adopted Bactrian and Pahlavi writing systems (both based on the Greek alphabet), and it is possible that many other cultural aspects of the Graeco-Bactrian kingdoms were also absorbed by the Hephthalites. Yet they also seemed to have retained their nomadic ways to some extent. Their government seat moved from locality to locality, like a camp, rather than staying fixed in their ostensible capital city of Piandjikent, which they located 65 kilometers south-west of Samarkand.
The Hephthalites have been portrayed as virulently anti-Buddhist, a claim based primarily on a description of a Hephthalite ruler of Gandhara recorded by Song Yun and Huisheng: "The nature of the king is violent and cruel, very often conducting massacres. He does not believe in the Buddhist faith, but well worships [his] own heathen gods. As all the inhabitants in the country are Brahmans who respect Buddhism by reading the sutras, so it is deeply against their wishes that they suddenly have such a king."(1) Yet other evidence depicts a different situation. One of the coins included in this exhibit was found along with thirteen other Hephthalite examples among the relics found in the Tope Kulan stupa. If the Hephthalite rulers were hostile to Buddhism, it seems doubtful that believers would have interred coins bearing portraits of their rulers. It is more probably that, once their power base had been secured, they at least tolerated Buddhist practice within their realm. They may even have offered the religion a degree of royal patronage; one inscription records donations to a Buddhist monastery in the name of the Hephthalite ruler Toramana.
As to the exact nature of Hephthalite religious practice, once again, we do not know for certain. Sung Yun and Hui Shen record that "they have no belief in the Buddhist law and they serve a great number of divinities" (though as we have discovered, this is anti-Buddhist portrait is not entirely accurate). Other Wei-era documentation records that the Hephthalites worshiped Heaven and also fire, also mentioned by Procopius. This would point to the practice of Zoroastrianism, except for the fact that they did not leave their deceased exposed to the elements, a funerary tradition associated with this religion. Instead, the Hephthalites buried their dead either in graves or in stone tombs. Most likely, their religion was an amalgamation of a number of different faiths, as well as animistic beliefs.
In order to help visualize the impressive albeit brief dominance of the Hephthalites in Central Asia, Richard Heli has created a detailed chronology. This chronology is reproduced here in a slightly adapted form; some historical names and spellings have been substituted with their equivalents to make them consistent with those used elsewhere in this exhibition.420-427: Hephthalites raid the Sassanian Empire as far west as modern Tehran.
(1) Translation adapted from Shoshin Kuwayama, "The Hephthalites in Tokharistan and Gandhara - Part 1," Lahore Museum Bulletin 5.1 (1992), p. 4.