Abdurrahman Khan


The Ashvakas or Ashvayanas, classically called the Asenes are a very ancient people of north-east Afghanistan (Nuristan) and the entire Peshawar-Valley up to Punjab, Pakistan. They are/were a sub-group of the Greater Kamboja tribe profusely referenced in ancient Sanskrit/Pali literature and were partitioned into eastern and western Ashvakas . They find mention in the Puranas, Mahabharata and numerous other ancient Sanskrit and Pali texts. Today, their descendants are mostly heterogeneous people.

The Sanskrit term ashva , Iranian aspa and Prakrit assa means horse. The name Ashvaka/Ashvakan or Assaka is said to be derived from Sanskrit Ashva or Prakrit Assa and it literally denotes someone connected with the horses---hence: a horseman, or a cavalryman or "breeder of horses" . The Ashvakas were especially engaged in the occupation of breeding, raising and training war horses, as also in providing expert cavalry services to outside nations, hence they also constituted an excellent class of Kshatriyas (warriors). Like tribal term Kamboja, the tribal term Ashvaka is also interpreted as "land or home of horses".

Panini styles the Aspas and the Ashvakas of modern Nuristan - formerly known as Kafirstan and Gandhara valleys, which included north-western Punjab, as Ashvayanas and Ashvakayanas respectively . Classical writers use the respective equivalents Aspasioi or Aspasii (Hippasii) and Assakenoi (or Assaceni/Assacani). Based on evidence from Indika of Megasthenes (c. 350 BC-290 BC), Pliny (Gaius Plinius Secundus) (23 AD–79 AD) also refers to a clan of Asenes in his Historia Naturalis and locates them all mainly on northern part of modern Pakistan. Bucephala was the capital of Aseni which stood on Hydaspes (Jhelum) . Alexander had named this city after his horse Becephalus when it had died sometime in June of 326 BC after being fatally wounded at the Battle of Hydaspes with king Porus (Paurava) of Punjab. The clan names like Osii, Asioi, and Aseni obviously equate to Asii referred to by Strabo and Asiani as referred to in Historiae Philippicae by Trogue Pompey (all in all, the Osians) and further, they also equate to the Aspasioi (Aspasii, Hipasii) and Assakenoi (Assacenii/Assacani) clans of upper Indus referred to as Ashvayana and Ashvakayana in Panini's Ashtadhyayi.

Geographical location

The Ashvakas were resident in the eastern parts of modern Afghanistan, south of Hindukush and their population reached up to the Indus River and to parts of Punjab in Pakistan. Their metropolitan areas were in the area of Swat (near modern Kalash-Valley and Pakistani side of Nuristan) and in some part regions of Gandhara (today Peshawar), again in Pakistan.

Ancient Sanskrit literature also refers to another clan called Ashmaka or Assaka (Asvakas) which represented an Indo-Aryan Janapada located on river Godavari in south-west India. Ashmaka literally means land of stone. Some scholars believe that the south-western Asmakas/Assakas were also an offshoot from the North-west Ashvakas.

Ashvakas: a branch of Kambojas

Buddhist Texts evidence

Aruppa-Niddesa of Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa describes the Kamboja land as the base of horses.

Buddhist texts like Manorathapurni, Kunala Jataka, and Samangalavilasini speak of Kamboja land as the land of horses e.g:

Kambojo assa.nam ayata.nam... or Kambojo asvdnda ayatanam... .

Kamboja, "the land/home of horses" (assa) .

The cluster assa in the above expression of Sumangavilasini means horse , which on adding suffix -ka gives the Prakrit Assaka which term when considered in the context of the above expression denotes the following:

  • Assaka = The Kambojas connected with horses; horsemen; cavalry.
  • Assaka = The Kamboja land or Janapada.

Similarly, the Sanskrit Ashvaka can be derived from Sanskrit Ashva meaning horse , which, likewise, denote the following:

  • Ashvaka = The Kambojas connected with horses; horsemen; cavalry.
  • Ashvaka = The Kamboja land or Janapada.

From the above statement, it is quite obvious that term Assaka or Ashvaka stood for the Kamboja land, Kamboja people, Kamboja horsemen or the Kamboja cavalry.

The formation of clannish name Ashvaka or Assaka from the Sanskrit "Ashva" or the Prakrit "Assa" has exactly a similar formation as followed by tribal terms such as Kambojika/Kambojaka (from Kamboja), Madaraka (from Madra) and Yonaka (from Yona), Lichchhivika (from Lichchhivi), Vrijika (from Vriji), Mallaka (from Malla), Jartaka (from Jarta = modern Jat) etc etc.

For obvious reasons, the name Ashvaka has also been interpreted by scholars as the "Land of Horses" . Thus, based on the meaning and the geographical location of Ashvaka tribe, the scholars have rightly concluded that the Ashvakas were a sub-branch of the more general tribal name Kamboja. Kamboja has also invariably been spoken in ancient Buddhist and Brahmanical texts as the "Land or home of horses".

Mahabharata evidence

In the Anushasnaparava section of Mahabharata, the Kambojas are specifically designated as ashava.yuddha.kushalah (expert cavalry).

Commenting on the above verse of Mahabharta, noted scholars like Dr K. P. Jayswal observe that "Since the Kambojas were famous for their horses (ashva) and as a cavalry-men (Ashva-yudhah kushalah), hence the Ashvakas i.e. horsemen was the term popularly applied to them".

Vishnudharmotra Purana/Agni Purana evidence

Vishnudharmotra Purana too specifically attests that the Kambojas and Gandharas were proficient in cavalry warfare i.e. in Ashva-Yuddha. . A similar information is also provided in the Agni Purana .

Shakti Sangham Tantra evidence

Shatt.panchashad.desha.vibhaga of Shakti Sangama Tantra also testifies that the Kamboja was not only famous for its fine horses but also for its excellent horsemen .

Ashvaka coins and Arthashastra evidence

The coins of Ashsvakas refer to themselves as vatasvaka (vata.asvaka), which in Sanskrit, equals varta-ashvaka i.e Ashvakas engaged in varta profession.

The use of prikritic vata (Sanskrit varta) appellation by the Ashvakas in their coins reminds one of the Varta.shastr.opajivin descriptions of the Kambojas as attested by Kautiliya in his Arthashastra.

The above view is further reinforced by Brahtsamhita of Varaha Mihira which also says that the Kambojas lived by shastr and varta.

The Asvayanas (Kambojas) have been attested to be good cattle breeders and agricuturists by classical writers. This is clear from big number of the bullocks, 230,000 according to Arrian, of a size and shape superior to what the Macedonians had not known, which Alexander captured from them and decided to send them to Macedonia for agriculture.

The Ashvaka Kambojas are also attested to have fielded 30,000 strong cavalry, 30 elephants and 20,000 infantry against Alexander.

These above staggering figures about agricultural cattle and the war horses of the Ashvakas sufficiently prove the correctness of Kautiliya's statement on the Kambojas which portrays the Kambojas as living both by warfare (shastr.opajivin) as well as by agriculture/cattle-culture (varta.opajivin).

The above facts, when viewed in the light of time and space propinquity, evidently connect the Ashvakas with the varta.shastr.opajivin Kambojas of the Arthashastra.

More opinions from scholars

Sir Thomas H. Holdich, in the his classic book, The Gates of India, writes that the Aspasians (Aspasioi) represent the modern Kafirs. But the modern Kafirs, especially the Siyah-Posh Kafirs (Kamoz/Camoje, Kamtoz) etc are considered to be modern representatives of the ancient Kambojas , this shows that the Aspasioi (Aspas), who were the western branch of the Assakenoi (Ashvakas) of classical writings, represented a section of the Sanskrit Kambojas.

French scholars Dr E. Lamotte has also identified the Ashvakas with the Kambojas of ancient Sanskrit literature. "Par ailleurs le Kamboja est régulièrement mentionné comme la "patrie des chevaux" (Asvanam ayatanam), et cette reputation bien etablie valnut peut-etre aux eleveurs de chevaux du Bajaur et du Swat l'appellation d'Aspasioi (du v.-p. aspa) et d’assakenoi (du skt asva “cheval”)"

While discussing Aspasioi and Assakenoi tribes living west of Indus and north of river Kabul in the valleys of Alishang, Kunar, Swat and Panjkora, in context of Alexander's invasion of India, Paul Goukowsky observes: "Pour les sources Indiennes, ce pays est celui des Kamboja eleveurs de chevaux. De fait, les tribus signalées dans cette région par les historiens d'Alexandre portent des noms tirés de celui du cheval (iranien aspa, sanscrit asva...). Panini connait deux peuplades les Asvayana (vallees de l'Alishang et du Kunar) et les Asvakayana (habitat l'Udyana, cest-a-dire le Swat le Buner et la vallee de la Panjkora. Les premiers paraissent correspondre aux Aspasiens/Hipasiens (par l'intermediate d'une forme Iranienne en Aspa); les seconds aux Assakeniens (la forme pracrite en Assa etant celle de la langue parlee a l'epoque le d'Alexandre). Il semble donc que la langue Iranienne predominait au nord du Kunar le pracrit au sud" . Thus, Paul considers the Assakenoi and Aspasioi as sections of the Kambojas.

Cf: "Kamboja is regularly mentioned as the "homeland of horses" and it was this well-established reputation which possibly earned the horse-breeders of Bajaur and Swat the epithet of Aspasioi (from Old Pers Aspa) and Assakenoi (from Sanskrit Asva “horse”)" .

While referring to a certain Sakya legend connected with Udyana locale (north-west frontiers province of Pakistan), James Fergusson connects the Udyana country with the Kambojas of the Hindu texts . But the territories of Kunar, Udyana, Swat and Varana (Aorna of classical writers) etc were the very habitats of the Asvaka Kambojas since remote antiquity...thus proving that the Asvakas were same as the Kambojas.

J. W. McCrindle says that the modern Afghanistan -- the Kaofue (Kambu) of Hiun Tsang was ancient Kamboja, and further says that the name Afghan evidently derives from the Ashavakan, the Assakenoi of Arrian. Thus it can be seen that Dr McCrindle clearly identifies the classical Assakenoi/Aspasioi with the Sanskrit Kambojas.

While discussing Kambojas, Dr H. C. Raychayudhury, Dr B. N. Mukerjee write: "With the expression Assa.nam Ayata.nam---land of horses used by Pali texts in reference to the Kambojas, may be compared the names Aspasioi and Assakenoi given by classical writers to the sturdy people living in the Alishang and Swat valleys in the days of Alexander ".

Istituto italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente has also identified the Aspasioi-Asvayanas, Assakenoi-Asvakayanas with the Kambojas of Eastern Afghanistan, who were noted for their horses .

According to John Muir, the Kambojas had inhabited north-west of India from river Indus to as far as Hindukush. They had the same Aryan origin as the Indians however, they were afterwards reckoned to be barbarians because their manners became changed afterwards and they were justly called Indians and barbarians by the Chinese and the Greeks . The same therefore, happened to the Kambojas although in a less marked manner as took place between the Zend people and the Indians in a more remote period". Since Fah-hien's Indians were people of Swat/Udyana, Hiuen Tsang's Indians were the people of Kapisa to Rajapura (Rajauri) and Arrian's Indians were the Assakenoi, Aspasio and Asteknoi localised in Kapisa/Swat/Kunar/Aornos regions of Paropamisadae in the west of Indus and north of Kabol as far as upto the Hindukush, hence, Johm Muir's Kambojas are exactly the same as the Aspasio, Guraeus, Assakenoi and Astekenoi of Arrian, or the people from Kapisa to Udyana/Swat territories, stated to be rude frontier Indians by Chinese pilgrims Hiuen Tsang and Fa-hien. Dr S. M. Ali has identified the ancient Kambojas of the Puranic literature with the inhabitants of the Kafir valleys, who, as we know from classical writings, were none else than the Aspasioi off-shoot of the Ashvakan Kambojas.

"History of Panjab" by Dr L. M. Joshi and Dr Fauja Singh (Ed) also identifies the Assakenoi and Aspasioi of the classical writings with the clans of the Kambojas..

Dr R. C. Majumdar, Romila Thappar, noted historians of India also take the Ashvakas to be same people as the Kambojas and they all connect them with the people of Kafirstan.

Dr Buddha Parkash notes: "The Macedonian conqueror made short shrifts of the arrangements of Darius and over-running Achaemenian empire, dashed into modern Pakistan (achemenid satrapen) and encountered stiff residstence of the Kamboja tribes called Aspasioi and Assakenoi known in the Indian texts as Ashvayana and Ashvakayana " .

These Asvayana and Asvakayana clans had fought the invader to a man. When worst came to worst, even the Asvakayana Kamboj women had taken up arms and joined their fighting husbands, thus preferring "a glorious death to a life of dishonor". Diodorus gives a detailed graphic picture as to how the Ashvakayanas (Kambojs) had conducted themselves when faced with the sudden treacherous onslaught from Alexander.

Commenting on the heroic resistance and courage displayed by the Ashvakayanas (Kambojas) in the face of treacerous onslaught of Alexander, Dr Buddha Prakash remarks: "Hardly could any Thermopylae be more glorious !"

Afghan and Ashvakan relationship

Numerous scholars of note now believe that the name Afghan has been derived from Sanskrit Ashvaka or Ashvakan (q.v), the Assakenoi of Arrian. This view was propounded by scholars like Dr Christian Lassen , Dr J. W. McCrindle , M. V. de Saint Martin etc, and has been supported by numerous modern scholars . In Sanskrit, word ashva (Iranian aspa, Prakrit assa) means "horse", and ashvaka (Prakrit assaka) means "horseman" , "horse people" , "land of horses"

See article: Origins of the name Afghan

The Aryan ancestral-line of modern Afghans (modern Pashtuns are descandants of different people with different origine, including Turkic and Mongolic), should correspondingly have belonged to the southern Ashvakans of part of modern Pashtunwa and parts of Baluchistan who immigrated as nomads first from the north to the Sulaiman Mountains and in the second Millennium A.D to eastward to north India until Bengal. In Peshawar and its surrounding regions and valleys they replaced the indigenous population of Gakhars and other ethnic Indians slowly but for certain and their settled areas Babur mentioned in his Baburnamah as Afghanistan and the people as Afghans. The Afghans as a united nation started their career in the 18th century after killing the Iranian-Khurasanian ruler Nader Khan Afshar. After his death on of his Qezilbash commander, Ahmad Khan Abdali, declared himself as king of Khorasan and based the first fundaments of modern Afghanistan that became developed under Abdurrahman Khan. Some ancestors of Pashtuns (mostly of Turkic origine) began making career in army of the Persian Ghurids. Their Turkic slave under Persian general Aybak established the Indo-Ghurid empire of India which also give the birth for the Delhi-Sultanat and Mamluk-Dynasties of India. The Mamluk-Dynasty is further known as Slave-Dynasty known also as Mamluk dynasty of Delhi. See: Lodhi dynasty and Suri dynasty .

Kamboja Cavalry in ancient wars

The Kambojas had been famous throughout all periods of history for their excellent breed of horses as well as as famous horsemen or cavalry troopers . They repeatedly appear in the characteristic Iranian roles of splendid horsemen and breeders of notable horses . The epic, the Puranic and numerous other ancient literature profusely attest the Kambojas among the finest horsemen . They were constituted into Military Sanghas and Corporations to manage their political affairs, as Kautiliya and Mahabharata amply attest for us. They are also attested to have been living as Ayuddha-jivi or Shastr-opajivis, which means that the Kamboja cavalry offered their military services to other nations as well. There are numerous references to Kambojas being requistioned as cavalry troopers in ancient wars by outside nations.

Greek historiographers

Herodotus attests that the Gandarian mercenaries (Gandharans/Kambojans) from the twentieth strapy of the Achaemenids were recruited in the army of emperor Xerxes I (486-465 BCE) which he led against the Hellas.

Similarly, the men of the Mountain Land (Akaufaka), from north of Kabol-River equivalent to medieval Kohistan (Pakistan), figure in the army of Darius III against Alexander at Arbela with a cavalry and fifteen elephants.

These mercenaries were the well known parvatiya Ayuddhajivins of Panini's Ashtadhyayi located on either side of the Hindukush and who belonged to Kamboja/Gandhara group of a warrior caste.

Sanskrit epics

General Sudakshina of the Kambojas was invited by Duryodhana, the Kuru king of Hastinapura to help him in the Mahabharata war against the Pandavas. Sudakshina Kamboj came to his side with one Akshauhini powerful army of ferocious Central Asian warriors which also included the Shakas and Yavanas, besides the Kambojas. Of the ten distinguished Generals appointed by Duryodhana to efficiently manage his vast host of army, Sudakshina Kamboja was one such distinguished General.

Bala Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana refers to a battle between sage Vasishtha and king Vishwamitra of Kanauj. Sage Visishtha had sought the military assistance of the Kambojas, Shakas, Yavanas, Pahlavas, Kiratas and other Mlechchas from the north-west. King Vishwamitra had lost all his sons in the battle. In remorse, he renounced the world and turned into an ascetic after the war.

Mauryan period

The ancient Sanskrit drama Mudra-rakashas by Vishakhadatta and the Jaina work Parisishtaparvan refer to Chandragupta's alliance with Himalayan king Parvataka. The Himalayan alliance gave Chandragupta a formidable composite army made up of the Shakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Kiratas, Parasikas and Bahlikas as attested by Mudra-Rakashas (Mudra-Rakshasa 2).

With the help of these frontier martial tribes from Central Asia, Chandragupta was able to defeat the Greek successors of Alexander the Great and the Nanda/Nandin rulers of Magadha so as to found the powerful Maurya empire in northern India, at least for a short time till the Kushans and other ruler conquered north-west India.

The Kalika Purana, one of the eighteen Upa-Puranas of the Hindus, refers to a war between Brahmanical king Kalika (supposed to be Pusyamitra Sunga) and Buddhist king Kali (supposed to be Maurya king Brihadratha (187-180 BCE)) and notes the Shakas, Kambojas, Khasas etc as a powerful military allies of king Kali. The Purana further notes these Barbarians as taking orders from their women, which culture was typical of tribes located on Oxus/north-west.


Patanjali around 150 BCE and Yuga Purana chapter of Gargi-Samhita refer to second century BCE Yavana attack on Saketa, Panchala, Mathura and Pataliputra located in Majjhima-desa or Mid India. Anushasnaparava of Mahabharata attests that Mathura country in Mid India was under the joint control of the Yavanas and the Kambojas (12.101.05). The Kamboja royal family at Mathura is also attested from Mathura Lion Capitol inscriptions of Saka Strap (Kshatrapa) Rajuvula. Vanaparava of Mahabharata woefully deplores that the sacred earth (Indo-Aryan land), in Kaliyuga, would be ruled un-righteously by Mlechchha kings of the Yavanas, Kambojas, Sakas etc. These references show that the Kamboja cavalry from north-west in conjunction with the Yavanas had invaded Mid India and ruled over it prior to Christian era


According to numerous Puranas, the military Corporations of the Shakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Pahlavas and Paradas, known as pānca-ganah (five hordes) as well as foremost of the Kshatriya or warrior clans (Kshatriya-ganah & Ksatriya pungvah), had militarily supported the Haihaya and Talajunga Kshatriyas in depriving Ikshvaku king Bahu (the 7th king in descent from Harishchandra), of his Ayodhya kingdom.

A generation later, Bahu's son, Sagara recaptured Ayodhya after totally destroying the Haihaya and Talajangha Kshatriyas in the battle. Story goes that king Sagara had punished these foreign hordes by changing their hair-styles and turning them into degraded Kshatriyas.

Bhagavata Purana refers to a war between Jarasandha and Yadavas led by Sri Krshna. The Kambojas came as military allies of Jarasandha, king of Magadha. There is reference to the siege of Gomant Parvata where the Kamboja army was positioned on its east flank. Bhagavata Purana speaks of the Kamboja General as a powerfully armed mighty warrior (samiti-salina atta-capah Kamboja).

Pala Empire

The Palas employed mercenary forces and certainly recruited horses from Kambojas as is clear from their own Inscriptions. According to Dr N. G. Majumdar, if horses could be brought from Kamboja, it is also perfectly reasonable to suppose that for trade and other purposes, some adventurers (from Kamboja) could also have found their way into that province. Scholars like Dr R. C. Majumdar observe that the armed forces of Pala Dynasty of Bengal had included foreigners like the Khasas, Hunas, Kambojas, Kulitas, Karnatas, Latas and Malavas etc. Writes Dr R. C. Majumdar: "Mercenary soldiers (Specially cavalry) might have been recruited from the Kambojas and some of them might have been influential chiefs". According Dr Majumdar and many other scholars, some courageous military General of the Kambojas had later captured north-western parts of Bengal from the Palas and founded the Kamboja dynasty in Bengal.

Scholars also state that the Kamboja cavalry had also formed part of the Gurjara-Pratihara armed forces in 8th/10th centuries AD. They had come to Bengal with the Pratiharas when the latter conquered part of the province. In fact, there is stated to have been a separate regiment of the Kambojas in the army of the Pratiharas which was given the responsibility to defend the northern-eastern parts of their empire adjoining with the Palas of Bengal. When the fortunes of the Palas sagged low after the death of Narayanapala in early tenth century, these Kambojas, the military associates of the Pratiharas had seized Gauda from Pala king Rajyapala and laid the foundation of the Kamboja empire in north-west Bengal.


See also

Books and Articles

  • Geographical Data in Early Puranas, A Critical Study, 1972, p 179 Dr M. R. Singh
  • Dictionary of Greek & Roman Geography, Vol-I, 1966, William Smith, Phillip Smith
  • Geographical Dictionary of ancient and Medieval India, Dr Nundo Lal Dey
  • Itihaas Parvesh (Hindi), 1948, Dr Jaychandra Vidyalankar
  • Ancient India as Described in Megasthenes and Arrian, 1960, J. W. McCrindle
  • The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great, 1896, J. W. McCrindle
  • The Gates of India, Sir Thomas H. Holdich
  • Ancient Kamboja, People and the Country, 1981, Dr J. L. Kamboj
  • The Geographical Data in Early Purana, 1972, Dr M. R. Singh
  • Hindu Polity, Part I & II, 1978, Dr K. P. Jayswal
  • Panjab Past and Present, Dr Buddha Parkash
  • Historie du bouddhisme Indien, p 110, Dr E. Lammotte
  • East and West, 1950, pp 28, 157-58, Istituto italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, Editor, Prof Giuseppe Tucci, Co-editors Prof Mario Bussagli, Prof Lionello Lanciotti.
  • History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Saka Era, 1988, p 100 - History
  • Raja Poros, 1990, Publication Buareau, Punjabi University, Patiala
  • History of Poros, 1967, pp 12,39, Dr Buddha Prakash
  • Journal of Bihar and Orissa Research Society, Vol XX
  • Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, 1900
  • History and Culture of Indian People, Age of Imperial Unity, Vol II, Dr A. D. Pusalkar, Dr R. C. Majumdar
  • History of Panjab, Vol I, Dr Fauja Singh, Dr L. M. Joshi.
  • The Kambojas Through the Ages, 2005, Kirpal Singh.

[Category:Pre-Islamic heritage of Pakistan]]

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