The Huns

Unlike previous invaders who added to established kingdoms, the Huns who swept into the subcontinent from Central Asia through the northwest mountain passes were nomads who are recorded as having enjoyed barbarity and bloodshed. These were Ephthalite, or White Huns, part of the same nomadic group that invaded Europe under the leadership of Attila (d. 453). With their ferocious assaults and terrifying reputations, the Huns quickly conquered Bactria, Kabul, and Gandhara. Their conquest of Kashmir, the Punjab, and Malwa soon followed.

The invasion of the Huns turned a new page in Pakistan’s and the subcontinent’s history. All the traditions of previous empires, of the Guptas, Kushans, Sakas, and Mauryas, would be forgotten, and from this time forward new traditions would evolve. As had happened with all previous invaders, the Huns changed as they became inevitably assimilated into the culture. The Huns and their brethren invaders eventually became Hindus. But fi rst they wrought a complete reorder-ing of the existing clan structures; some clans were stripped of all they had, while others that possessed nothing were elevated to positions of power under the new rulers.

The remnants of the high caste assisted in the transformation. The Brahmans invested in the new ruling class the same qualities and spiritual purity they had previously applied to their traditional warrior-king caste, the Kshatriya of the Vedic scriptures. Mirroring this transference, the term Raja-putra, king’s son, later short-ened to Rajput, the designation for the members of the ruling clans and families, became the equivalent of the term Kshatriya. The Rajputs would found kingdoms of their own.

Malwa, taken by the Huns under the leadership of Toramana (ca. 448–510) in about 500, served as their headquarters. The rule of Toramana and his son Mihiragula (or Mihirakula; r. ca. 510–542) was so brutal and inept that it fi nally triggered a revolt. The prince of Malwa, Yasodharman (r. 520–530), and the Gupta king of Magadha, Baladitya, the son of Skandagupta, organized the Hindu rajas to rise up against Mihiragula. They met in battle around 532, and Mihiragula was defeated. Exiled from his former kingdom, Mihiragula settled in Kashmir, where he deposed the reigning king and ruled the area until his death a few years later.

The victory over Mihiragula thrust Yasodharman to the forefront of regional rulers. He conquered all the former Gupta lands and took the title vishnuvardhan. He also, like other Hindu kings before and after, took the title vikramaditya. A patron of the arts and literature, Yasodharman reigned over a court that, according to contemporary accounts, possessed “nine gems,” the famed scholars and experts in his retinue, evoking the “nine gems” of Hindu mysticism; each of the latter was thought to possess astrological powers and could be worn individually or combined in a necklace or amulet for their powers at appropriate times.

Magadha, which had regularly served as a power center for regional rulers going back centuries, again became a dominant kingdom. Following Yasodharman’s reign a dynasty of kings whose names were suffi xed with gupta ruled from here for several decades, though their connection to the imperial Guptas is unclear.