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Kabul Shahi

The Shahi (Devanagari शाही), Sahi, also called Shahiya  dynasties ruled one of the Middle kingdoms of India which included portions of the Kabulistan and the old province of Gandhara (now in northern Pakistan), from the decline of the Kushan Empire in the third century to the early ninth century. The kingdom was known as "Kabul Shahi" (Kabul-shāhān or Ratbél-shāhān in Persian کابلشاهان یا رتبیل شاهان) between 565 and 879 CE when they had Kapisa and Kabul as their capitals, and later as "Hindu Shahi" when they moved their capital to Hund.

The Shahis of Kabul/Gandhara are generally divided according to two eras into the so-called Buddhist-Shahis and the so-called Hindu-Shahis, with the change-over thought to have occurred sometime around AD 870.

The Kabul Shahi
Coin of Shahi Kings of Kabul & Gandhara : Spalapati Deva, circa AD 750-900.

The confused accounts of 11th century Persian Muslim scholar Alberuni, ("which bear the impress of folklore for the early history of the Kabul Shahi rulers") state that:

  • Hindu kings residing in Kabul were Turks
  • they were said to be of Tibetan origin
  • first of them was a Barahatakin, (founder of the dynasty) who came (from Tibet) into the country (Kabul), entered a cave and after few days, started to creep out of it in the presence of people who looked upon him as a "new born baby", clothed in Turkish dress. People honored him as a being of miraculous birth, destined to be a king. And he brought those countries under his sway and ruled under the title of Shahiya of Kabul
  • the rule remained among his descendants the number of which is said to be about sixty generations till it was supplanted by a Brahmana minister and
  • in this series of his descendant rulers, one was Kanik (Kanishaka?) who is said to have built Vihara in Purushapura which is called Kanika Caitya.

·         Thus the folklore accounts recorded by Alberuni connect the earlier Shahis of Kabul/Kapisa to Turkish extraction and also claim their descent from Kanik (or Kanishaka of Kushana lineage). At the same time it is also claimed that 'their first king Barahatigin (Vrahitigin?) had originally come from Tibet and concealed in a narrow cave in Kabul area (and here is given a strange legend which we omit). One can easily see the above account of Shahi origin as totally fanciful and fairy tale-like. These statements taken together are very confusing, inconsistent and bear the express marks of a folklore and vulgar tradition, hence unworthy of inspiring any confidence in the early history of Shahis. The allegation that the first dynasty of Kabul was Turki is plainly based on the vulgar tradition which Alberuni himself remarked was clearly absurd.

·         Based on Alberuni's accounts, V. A. Smith speculates that the earlier Shahis were a cadet branch of the Kushanas who ruled both over Kabul and Gandhara until the rise of Saffarids. H. M. Elliot relates the early Kabul Shahis to the Kators and further connects the Kators with the Kushanas. Charles Fredrick Oldham also traces the Kabul Shahi lineage to the Kators—whom he identifies with the Kathas or Takkhas—Naga worshipping collective groups of solar (Sun-worshiping) lineage. He further speaks of the Urasas, Abhisaras, Daradas, Gandharas, Kambojas, et al. as allied tribal groups of the Takkhas belonging to the Sun-worshiping races of the north-west frontier. D. B. Pandey traces the affinities of the early Kabul Shahis to the Hunas.

·         The accounts recorded by Alberuni are indeed confusing but other numerous accounts prove the Kshatriya Punjabi origins of the Shahi dynasty. The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang knew well enough what a Turk was since he had come to Kabul through their country.... Against the contemporary evidence of Hiuen Tsang, an absurd tradition related by Alberuni after 400 years and with evident reluctance and disbelief in it cannot, therefore, be taken for history.... Hiuen Tsang clearly describes the ruler of Kapisa/Kabul, whom he had personally met, as a devout Buddhist and a Kshatriya and not a Tu-kiue/Tu-kue (Turk). The fact that Chinese pilgrim Hieun Tsang (AD 644) specifically describes the ruler of Kapisa as Ksatriya, and that of Zabul at this time being known as Shahi casts serious doubt about the speculated connections of the first Shahis of Kabul/Kapisa to the Kushanas or the Hephthalites. Neither the Kushanas nor the Hunas/Hephthalites nor the Turks (or Turushakas) have ever been designated or classified as Ksatriyas in any ancient Indian tradition. Therefore, the identification of the first line of Shahi kings of Kapisa/Kabul with the Kushanas, Hunas, or Turks obviously seems to be in gross error.

·         It is very interesting that Alberuni calls the early Shahi rulers Turks but this should be interpreted to mean Turkised rather than Turkic.

·         The Shahi rulers of Kapisa/Kabul who ruled Afghanistan from early 4th century till AD 870 were Hindu Kshatriyas or Khatri from the Punjab. The Shahis of Afghanistan have specifically been connected to the Kamboja race by E. Vesey Westmacott.

·         E. Vesey Westmacott  Bishan Singh, K. S. Dardi, et al. connect the Kabul Shahis to the ancient Ksatriya clans of the Kambojas/Gandharas. George Scott Robertson writes that the Kators/Katirs of Kafiristan belong to the well known Siyaposh tribal group of the Kams, Kamoz and Kamtoz tribes. But numerous scholars now also agree that the Siyaposh tribes of Hindukush are the modern representatives of the ancient Kambojas.

·         The powerful evidence from Hiuen Tsang (AD 644) attesting that the ruler of Kabul/Kapisa was a devout Buddhist and belonged to Ksatriya caste would rather connect this ruling dynasty either to the erstwhile Gandharas or more probably to Ashvaka clan of the Kambojas, the eminent Ksatriya clan of the Mauryan times from this very region.

·         The name (Katorman or Lagaturman) of the last king of the so-called first Shahi line of Kabul/Kapisa simply reveals a trace of Tukhara cultural influence in the Kamboja (Kapisa) region, as hinted in above discussion. Thus, the first ruling dynasty of Kapisa and Kabul, designated as Ksatriya dynasty by Hiuen Tsang, may indeed have been a Kamboja dynasty.

·         It is also a known fact of history that from second century BCE onwards (much prior to the Huna ascendancy), the Tukharas had settled in considerable numbers in the ancient Kamboja land and thus the culture of the Kambojas undoubtedly underwent some changes and due to the interaction of two cultures, the Kambojas of Kapisa were also substantially influenced by Tukharas who remained for quite a time the ruling power in this region.

This fact is also verified by Hiuen Tsang who records that the literature, customary rules, and currency of Bamiyan were same as those of Tukhara; the spoken language is only little different and in personal appearance the people closely resembled those of the Tukhara country. On the other hand, the literature and written language of Kapisa (=Kamboja) was like that of Tukharas but the social customs, colloquial idiom, rules of behavior (and their personal resemblance) differed somewhat from those of Tukhara country which means that the original and dominant community of Kapisa had imbibed the Tukharan culture and customs but to a limited extent and the penetration of the Tukharas in the Kapisa territory appears to have therefore been also limited. 

The Kabul Shahi
Abbasid Shahi-inspired coin, Iraq 908-930. British Museum.

·         The Kambojas and the Tukharas (Turks) are mentioned as immediate neighbors in north-west as late as 8th century AD as Rajatarangini of Kalhana demonstrates.

·         Evidence also exists that some medieval Muslim writers have confused the Kamboja clans of Pamirs/Hindukush with the Turks and invested the former with Turkic ethnicity. For example, 10th century Arab geographer Al-Muqaddasi, refers to the Kumiji (=Kamoji/Kamboja) tribesmen of Buttaman mountains (Tajikstan), on upper Oxus, and calls them of Turkic race. Song Yun, the Chinese Ambassador to the Huna kingdom of Gandhara, in AD 520 writes that the Yethas (Hephthalites) had invaded Gandhara two generations prior to him and had completely destroyed this country. The then Yetha ruler was extremely cruel, vindictive, and anti-Buddhist and had engaged in a three years border war with the king of Ki-pin (Cophene or Kapisa), disputing the boundaries of that country. The Yetha king referred to by Song Yun may have been Mihirakula (AD 515-540/547) or his governor. This evidence also proves that the Kapisa kingdom was well-established prior to the Huna/Hephthalite invasion of Gandhara (~ AD 477) and that it did not submit to the Yethas but had survived and continued to maintain its independence.

·         Once the political clout of the invaders like the Kushanas or the Hephthalites had declined, some native chieftain from the original dominant clans of this region seems to have attained ascendancy in political power and established an independent kingdom on the ruins of the Kushana and/or the Hephthalite empire.

·         Commenting on the rise of Shahi dynasty in Kabul/Kapisa, Charles Frederick Oldham observes: "Kabulistan must have passed through many vicissitudes during the troublous times which followed the overthrow of the great Persian empire by the Alexander. It no doubt fell for a time under the sway of foreign rulers (Yavanas, Kushanas, Hunas etc). The great mass of the population, however, remained Hindu. And probably too, the native chiefs retained great shadow of authority, and asserted themselves when the opportunity arose."

·         Barhatigin is said to be the founder of the dynasty which is said to have ruled for 60 generations until AD 870. This, if true, would take Barhatigin and the founding of the early Shahi dynasty back about 20x60=1200 years, i.e., to about fourth century BCE if we take the average generation of 20 years; and to seventh century BCE if average generation is taken as 25 years. It is well nigh impossible that a single dynasty could have ruled for 1200 (or 1500) years at a stretch. Moreover, king Kanik (if Kanishaka) ruled (AD 78-101) not over Kabul but over Purushapura/Gandhara and his descendants could not have ruled for almost 900 years as a single dynasty over Kapisa/Kabul especially in a frontier region called the gateway of India. Pre Islamic Hindu and Buddhist heritage of Afghanistan is well established in the Shahi coinage from Kabul of this period.

·         Based on fragmentary evidence of coins, there was one king named Vrahitigin (Barhatigin?) who belonged to pre-Christian times as Alberuni's accounts would tend to establish. If Kanik is same as Kanishaka of Kushana race as is often claimed, then the second claim that the ancestors of the early Shahis came from Tibet (which incidentally is the Kamboja-desa of the Nepali Traditions) becomes incompatible to known facts of history.

·         According to Olaf Caroe, "the earlier Kabul Shahis in some sense were the inheritors of the Kushana chancery tradition and were staunch Hindus in character. The affinities of the early Shahis of Kapisa/Kabul are still speculative, and the inheritance of the Kushan-Hephthalite chancery tradition and political institutions by Kabul Shahis do not necessarily connect them to the preceding dynasty (i.e. the Kushanas or Hephthalites).

·         It appears that from start of 5th century till AD 793-94, the capital of the Kabul Shahis was Kapisa. As early as AD 424, the prince of Kapisa (Ki-pin of the Chinese) was known as Guna Varman. The name ending "Varman" is used after the name of a Ksahriya only. Thus the line of rulers whom Hiuen Tsang refers to in his chronicles appears to be an extension of the Ksatriya dynasty whom this Guna Varman of Ki-pin or Kapisa (AD 424) belonged. Thus this Ksatriya dynasty was already established prior to AD 424 and it was neither a Kushana nor a Hephthalite dynasty by any means.


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