They came from the north-east corner of Asia, 11,000 years ago . Their lands were the vast steppes between the high Altai mountains bordering Mongolia , the Tianshan mountains bordering the Taklamakan desert and the Pamir mountain range of Kyrgistan. They were the original inhabitants of the country now called Kazakhstan . Some call them ‘ the Cossacks.’
image : National Geographic society
They were the first to domesticate the horse. And the first to invent mounted warfare. They were nomads . Yet their equestrian skills took them far and wide .
central asian horse : Akal Teke breed
Over a period of 8000 years the western arm of the Scythian people had crossed the Carpathian and Caucasus mountains , occupied vast lands surrounding the Caspian and Black seas, and ventured into Turkey, Syria and western Iran .
This blog tracks the migration of the eastern arm of the scythian people ( known to greek historians as the Sakas ), and the history of their eventual occupation of the lands of western India—the region where I live. This land is western Maharashtra , its people are Indo-scythians, and its calendar is the Saka calendar , commencing 78 A.D. when the Sakas in India were at the height of their power.
The scythians of the east Kazakh steppes were displaced from their homelands south of the Syr Darya ( Jaxartes ) river, by the Yueh-chi tribes of north-west China , about 2200 years ago. They migrated south to the lands between the Amur Darya ( Oxus ) river of Uzbekistan and the foot-hills of the Hindu Kush mountain range — a region now called Afghanistan , thus extinguishing the last embers of Alexander’s fiery conquest of the region . They spoke a language which is the predecessor of a family of indo-european languages . It was called ‘ Arya’ , and those who spoke these languages were called Aryans.
But the scythians were not to be left in peace. The Yueh-chi tribes had congealed into a single powerful kingdom called the Kouei Chouang ( Kushan ). If the Scythians were to migrate further south , they had to slip between the kingdom of the Kushans , the kingdom of Parthia ( eastern Iran ) and the remnants of the Greek kingdom in the Kabul valley. This they successfully did. And got lucky.
Greek descendant — Kalash kafir girl : Brumboret valley , Afghanistan
Once the Scythians moved out of the north-west provinces of today’s Pakistan and into the fertile lands of the river valley bordering the mountains of Baluchistan, they eventually reached the Indus river delta, they encountered a civilisation that had occupied the territory for over 2000 years. This was the Indus valley civilization .
Image : National Geographic society
These people , more correctly described today as the Indo-Sarasvati valley civilization, called the Scythians the ‘ari ’ or ‘newcomers’. And the term ’arya’ was coined. In the language of these people , it meant ‘favourably disposed to the newcomers’.
village of the Indo-sarasvati civilisation
The Indo-Sarasvati peoples ranged from the western borders of Iran to the Indo-gangetic plains of India. But the land occupied by the ‘newcomers’ was the land known today as Sind in southern Pakistan. This became ‘Indo-scythia’ or ‘Saka’ to the geographers of that time . It is one of the ironies of history that a vigorously active people co-existed with a vigorously cerebral people . The interaction was short-lived .
merchant’s seal : circa 1500 B.C.
In just over a century the Sakas moved on . Around 2000 years ago, they moved eastwards from the Indus valley through the salt marshes of the Rann of Kutch and into that part of India known today as Saurashtra (Gujarat ). Here the indo-scythians settled . They soon occupied parts of eastern Punjab , Rajasthan , Gujarat and northern Maharashtra – the regions that were spared the depredations of the Persian , Greek and Kushan invasions of north-west India.
In the region where I live in northern Maharashtra, many of the people have features very different from those of the northwest regions of India. Their language is a mix of the Iranian language and the Sanskritic languages of North India.
There are numerous cave temples in this region, built over a century around the start of the common era . These were also the dwellings of monks of whichever religion prevailed at the time. The Saka kings thought it fit to make donations to these monasteries , no matter what their religious persuasion.
Saka period rock-cut monastery with pillasters of central asian origin : Nasik , W.India
The Scythians in India were, however, far removed from the open steppes from where they originally came . Much of their new territory was densely forested. There was little scope for their equestrian skills in war. Within a century of their arrival in India , they lost the southern parts of their kingdom to the eastern Indian kingdom of the Satvahanas . And within 300 years thereafter, they lost the rest of their kingdom to the imperial Gupta kingdom of north india. The great eastern scythian surge had run its course.
( Far to the east and south of the indo-scythian territories , indians of the Gupta and Pallava kingdoms went on to colonise other lands — across the sea . They came not as coquerors but as traders . My next blog relates to one of these lands — Malaysia . Stay posted )