In a previous post, I talked about a group of people who might have migrated from Parthia (North East Iran) all the way to Southern Vietnam, leaving cultural and linguistic evidence of their passage all the way.
Today, I am going to talk about another group of people whose story I find extremely interesting. This migration had a lot to do with a very famous King of India – Kanishka.
We all learn in our history textbooks that Kanishka was a Kushan King. But very few of us in India know the origin of the word Kushan. It comes from the word Guishuang (貴霜) in Chinese.
The Guishuang (Kushan) were one of the five tribes of the Yuezhi. Sometimes called the Da Yuezhi (大月氏) or Big Yuezhi. The Yuezhi were a tribe of people who lived near Kashgar in China (called Kashi in Chinese – Kashgar in Chinese is Kāshí (喀什) which is a shortened form of Kāshígé’ěr (喀什噶爾)).
They came into conflict with a nomadic tribe who lived to the north of China called the Xiongnu 匈奴 (supposedly also pronounced Hunnu – and therefore possibly the Huns – the etymology is interesting – apparently the first character 匈 was once also pronounced ‘hong’), and were forced first West and then South.
In their first migration to India a few hundred years after Alexander, they passed through Scythia, which is the name of a vast expanse of land north of Parthia (Northern Iran) and came to be called Scythians (Saka) in Persia and India. The origin of the word Saka itself is thought to be related to an early Iranian word for nomad. From the Wikipedia article on Scythians: ‘Saka, on the other hand, Szemerényi relates to an Iranian verbal root, sak-, “go, roam”.’
By the time of the second Yuezhi migration, at around 100 AD, the Kushan tribe had became the most powerful tribe in the Yuezhi confederation and had come to dominate it.
Apparently, the Kushans continued to be referred to as Da Yuezhi in China hundreds of years later, and I quote a line from a book called the Sanguozhi (三國志, Chap. 3) “The king of the Da Yuezhi, Bodiao 波調 (Vasudeva I) [Vasudeva became Bazodeo in the Kushan language], sent his envoy to present tribute, and His Majesty (Emperor Cao Rui) granted him the title of King of the Da Yuezhi Intimate with the Wei (魏) (Ch: 親魏大月氏王, Qīn Wèi Dà Yuèzhī Wáng).”
Quick digression: There is a story about this Kushan King having returned the remains of Thomas (one of the apostles) from where he was buried in South India to Edessa. Any evidence of a connection is based on guesses about nomenclature and is very shaky. But if it is true, it would explain (to me) why I saw no body whatsoever when I took a peek into the crypt supposed to contain the relics of St. Thomas (I happened to visit the Mount church when it was closed for restoration and no one was around).
Many ethnic groups consider themselves as descended from Scythian tribes like the Yuezhi. They include the Pashtun in Afghanistan, the Jats of India, and possibly some people from Sindh (there was a Scythian tribe called the Sindi that came from a city on the Black Sea called Sinda – but whether they had anything to do with Sindh no one really knows).
But one of them is a tribe very far from Iran and India. It is the French. There is one story that the Franks were in some way related to the Scythians. Here is what the Wikipedia has to say about it: ‘The Carolingian kings of the Franks traced Merovingian ancestry to the Germanic tribe of the Sicambri. Gregory of Tours documents in his History of the Franks that when Clovis was baptised, he was referred to as a Sicamber with the words “Mitis depone colla, Sicamber, adora quod incendisti, incendi quod adorasti.”‘. The Chronicle of Fredegar in turn reveals that the Franks believed the Sicambri to be a tribe of Scythian or Cimmerian descent, who had changed their name to Franks in honour of their chieftain Franco in 11 BC.’