Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Scythians - Sakas

Scythian Origins
G Singh

The Scythians inhabiting Central Asia at the time of Herodotus (5th century B.C.) consisted of 4 main
branches known as the MassaGatae, Sacae, Alani, and Sarmatians, sharing a common language, ethnicity
and culture. Ancient Greek (e.g. Herodotus, Pliny, Plotemy, Arrian) and Persian sources (Darius's
historians) from the 5th century place the MassaGatea as the most southerly group in the Central Asian
steppe. The earliest Scythians who entered the northern regions of South Asia were from this group.
Historians derive "Jat" fom "Gatae", "Ahir" from "Avar", "Saka" from "Scythii", "Gujjar" from "Khazar",
"Thakur" from "Tukharian", "Saurashtra" from "Saura Matii" or "Sarmatians", "Sessodia" (a Rajput clan)
from "Sassanian", "Madra" from "Medes", "Trigartta" from "Tyri Getae" and "Sulika" from "Seleucids".
"Massa" means "grand" or "big" in old Iranian - the language of the Scythians.

The early Sakas or Scythians are remembered by Greek (e.g. Herodotus, Megatheses, Pliny, Ptolemy)
and Persian historians of antiquity as tall, large framed and fierce warriors who were unrivalled on the
horse. Herodotus from the 5th century BC writes in an eye-witness account of the Scythians: "they were
the most manly and law-abiding of the Thracian tribes. If they could combine under one ruler, they would
be the most powerful nation on earth." According to their origin myth recorded by Herodotus, the Sakas
arose when three things fell from the sky: the i) plough, ii) sword and iii) cup. The progenitor of the Sakas
picked them up and hence the Saka race began its long history of conquering lands, releasing its bounties
and enjoying the fruits of their labor (the cup has a ceremonial-spiritual-festive symbolism). The relevance
of these symbols and codes of life and culture to the traditional Punjabi and northwest society are
tantalizingly obvious. A branch of the Sakas kown as the Alani reached regions of Europe, Asia Minor
and the Middle East. They have been connected to the Goths of France/Spain, Saxons and the Juts of

Entry into Southasia

Some of these Saka tribes entered northwest Southasia through the Khyber pass, others through the more
southerly Bolan pass which opens into Dera Ismail Khan in Sindh. From here some invading groups went north, others went south, and others further east. This explains why some Jat, Gujjar and Rajput clans claim descent from Rajasthan (Chauhan, Powar, Rathi, Sial etc.) while others from Afghanistan (e.g. Mann, Her, Bhullar, Gill, Bajwa, Sandhu, etc.). This is supported by the fact that the oldest Rajput geneologies (10th
centuries) do not extend into the northwest's Gandharan Buddhist period (400 B.C. - 900 AD).

Sir Cunningham (former Director General of Indian Archeological survey) writes:

"the different races of the Scythians which succesively appeared as conquerors in the
border provinces of Persian and India are the following in the order of arrival: Sakas or
Sacae (the Su or Sai of the Chinese - B.C. ?), Kushans (the great Yue-Chi (Yuti) of the
Chinese - B.C. 163), Kiddarite or later Kushans (the little Yue-chi of the Chinese - A.D.
450) and Epthalites or White Huns (the Yetha of the Chinese - 470 A.D.).

Cunningham further notes that

". . . the successive Scythian invasions of the Sakas, the Kushans, and the White Huns,
were followed by permanent settlements of large bodies of their countrymen . . ".

Cunningham and Tod regard the Huns to be the last Scythian wave to have entered India.

Herodotus reveals that the Scythians as far back as the 5th century B.C. had political control over Central
Asia and the northern subcontinent up to the river Ganges. Later Indo-Scythic clans and dynasties (e.g.
Mauryas, Rajputs) extended their control to other tracts of the northern subcontinent.

According to Ethnographers and historians like Cunningham, Todd, Ibbetson, Elliot, Ephilstone, Dahiya,
Dhillon, Banerjea, etc., the agrarian and artisan communities (e.g. Jats, Gujars, Ahirs, Rajputs, Lohars,
Tarkhans etc.) of the entire west are derived from the war-like Scythians who settled north-western and
western South Asia in successive waves between 500 B.C. to 500 AD. Down to this day, the very name
of the region `Gujarat' is derived from the name `Khazar', whilst `Saurashtra' denotes `Sun-worshipper', a
common term for the Scythians. The northwest Southasian region continues to be the most Scythic region in the world.

The oldest Rajputs clans arose much later from earlier Scythic groups; or are of Hun origin (5-6th century AD); and many are no doubt of mixed Scythic-Hun origin. Virtually all are of Scythic descent.


The Sakas - Indo-Scythians
Jason Neelis

Saka nomads from Central Asia migrated to the northwest of South
Asian subcontinent in the first and second centuries BCE. Herodotus
(4.1-142) describes the extent, customs, and origins of various
groups of Scythians (designation for Sakas in Western classical
sources) who inhabited large areas of the steppes of Central Asia on
the northern peripheries of the Greek world. The Sakas are also
known from Old Persian inscriptions of the Achaemenid Empire. The
Naqs-i-Rustam inscription of Darius I distinguishes three groups of

1) Saka Tigraxauda: "Sakas wearing the pointed cap" who are
portrayed in a sculpture at Behistun and described by Herodotus
(7.64) as "clad in trousers" and having "on their heads tall stiff
caps rising to a point"; these Sakas lived between the Caspian Sea
and the Jaxartes River (Syr Daria);

2) Saka Haumavarga: "hauma-drinking" or "hauma-preparing" Sakas
(hauma is a type of alcoholic beverage) identified with the Amyrgian
Scythians of Greek sources, possibly located in the southeastern
Iranian province of Drangiana, which later became known as Sakastan
or Seistan;

3) Saka Paradraya: Sakas "across the sea" who probably lived north
of the Black Sea and in the Russian steppes, although some groups
reached the Danube Valley in central Europe, Syria, and upper

Chinese historical annals refer to the movements of the Sai (Chinese
designation for Sakas) southwards into northwest of South Asia
following a period of disturbances in Central Asia during the second
century BCE. According to the History of the Former Han (Han shu),
covering the period from 206 BCE to 25 CE: "When, formerly, the
Hsiung-nu [Xiongnu] conquered the Yueh-chih [Yuezhi] the latter
moved west and established themselves as masters of Ta Hsia [Da
xia]; it was in these circumstances that the king of the Sai moved
south and established himself as master of Chi-pin [Jibin]. The Sai
tribes split and separated and repeatedly formed several states."1

The westward migrations of the Yuezhi (see Kushan essay) led to the
emigration of the Sai sometime before 128 BCE, when the Han
ambassador Zhang Qian arrived in Sogdia and Bactria to make an
alliance with the Yuezhi. Saka migrations were not led by a single
king, but were probably gradual movements of acephalous groups to
Jibin, a region apparently corresponding to Gandhara or to northwest
of South Asia in general.

At the beginning of the first century BCE, two or possibly three
groups of Sakas migrated to South Asia from Central Asia:

a) Sakas from the north (perhaps coming from Khotan) took the 'Pamir
routes' through the Karakorum Mountains to Swat and Gandhara;

b) Sakas crossed the Hindu Kush under pressure from the Yuezhi to
mountain valleys of northeastern Afghanistan;

c) Sakas coming from the southwest (Sakastan) took control of modern
Sindh in southern Pakistan.

Maues was one of the earliest Indo-Scythian rulers during the early
first century BCE. His name is preserved in bilingual Greek (Maues)
and Kharosthi (Moa) coins and a Kharosthi inscription from Taxila
(Moga). Maues' origins are obscure: he may have been connected with
the Sakas of Sakastan, or he could have belonged to another branch
of Sakas that migrated from the north through the mountains to
Gandhara and Taxila. In giving himself the title of "King of Kings"
in bilingual Greek and Kharosthi coin legends, Maues imitated
Parthian royal titles. A Kharosthi inscription on a copper plate
from Taxila dated in year 78 of an unspecified era during the reign
of "maharaja Moga the Great" records the establishment of Buddhist
relics by a donor named Patika, the son of an official (ksatrapa)
named Liaka Kusulaka. The inscription demonstrates that Liaka
Kusulaka acknowledged the authority of Maues as his overlord.
Decentralized administration continued after the period of Maues
under loosely affiliated officials who acknowledged a more powerful

Numismatic sequences and inscriptions show that Azes followed Maues
as the most powerful Indo-Scythian ruler in 58 BCE, a date
corresponding to the beginning of the so-called "Vikrama" era, which
is still used in India. Like his predecessor, Azes adopted the title
of "King of Kings" and iconography of Greek and Indic gods and
goddesses from the coins of contemporary Indo-Greeks. Indo-Greek
power in territories of central Afghanistan and eastern Punjab
rapidly diminished during the second half of the first century BCE
as Indo-Scythians predominated. Azes and his successors Azilises and
Azes II administered Taxila and other areas of Pakistan and
northwestern India through regional rulers with Iranian, Greek, and
Indian titles.

Another branch of Indo-Scythians called the "Western Ksatrapas"
ruled parts of western India from the first century BCE to the end
of the fourth century CE. The Western Ksatrapas vied with the
Satavahanas, another regional dynasty in western India, to control
trade routes between the Deccan Plateau and ports on the west coast.
This area flourished due to lucrative long-distance trade across the
Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and Mediterranean (described in the
Periplus Maris Erythraei). The Western Ksatrapas and other ruling
families and groups of merchants supported Buddhist cave monasteries
clustered along routes through the Western Ghats (see essay on
Buddhism and Trade). Ujjayini in central India was the center of the
Western Ksatrapas from the second to early fourth centuries, until
the Gupta ruler Candragupta II defeated the "Sakas" between ca. 395-
400 CE.

Sakas in control of major commercial centers along the "Northern
Route" (Uttarapatha) and "Southern Route" (Dakshinapatha) encouraged
the development of trade networks and supported religious
institutions. Inscriptions that record the establishment of Buddhist
relics and donations to monasteries in Gandhara, Taxila, Mathura,
and western South Asia show that Sakas, Parthians, and other
Iranians were active lay supporters of the Buddhist community. Saka
support of Buddhism did not preclude their patronage of other
religious traditions or imply that their old beliefs were abandoned.
Iranian elements in architecture, iconography, languages, and many
other spheres of South Asian life around the beginning of the Common
Era are easy to recognize. Concurrent with their impact in South
Asia, migrations of the Sakas during the last two centuries BCE and
the Kushans in first century CE from Central Asia to northwest of
South Asia eventually led to the transmission of Buddhism in the
other direction to Central Asia and East Asia.

(1) Translation of Anthony F.P. Hulsewe in China in Central Asia.
The Early Stage: 125 B.C. - A.D. 23 (An Annotated Translation of
Chapters 61 and 96 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty).
Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1979, pp. 104-5. Pinyin equivalents in brackets
correspond to the Wade-Giles transliterations.