Saturday, 28 April 2018

Y for Yavana

References to the ‘Yavanas’ are abound in various texts and literature of ancient India. From the Ramayana to the Mahabharata, the Puranas and later Buddhist and classical Sanskrit compositions, all have referred to the ‘Yavanas’ over the ages. However, it is interesting that the ‘Yavanas’ have always been portrayed as the enemies of the ‘Aryavarta’ kingdoms. Mythology refers to the ‘Yavanas’ as a tribe residing in the further western sphere beyond the reach of the Indian kingdoms, while later history refers to them as barbaric people of foreign origin who are uncouth in their ways, speak an incomprehensible language and are unruly in their behaviour.

Thus far, in this series of Ancient Cities of India, we have seen glorified kingdoms, imperial cities, exemplary rulers and magnificent cities. As we draw to the end of the series, it would certainly be interesting to know about the ‘Yavanas’, who were considered the enemies of ancient Indian kingdoms! Were they truly enemies of the ancient Indian kingdoms and caused damage and destruction, or were they just another race of people whom the ancient Indians failed to comprehend? Mythology and history have many theories and counter-theories on the subject, but we will attempt to understand the most logical of them.

Etymology of the ‘Yavanas’

The usage of the term ‘Yavana’ has been particularly linked with the Greeks and ‘Yavana kingdom’ with the Greek kingdoms which neighboured and sometimes occupied territories of the north-western region of ancient India.

The Greeks are known to have worshipped Ion, the son of Apollo. Ion was once a peaceful worshipper at Delphi but later turned into a warlord and won great battles. The Greek tribe of Ionians who resided in the (ancient) kingdom of Ionia were famous as the Eastern Greeks. Ionia was the region of Anatolia in present day eastern Turkey. The Ionians were always in strife with the Persians who were their neighbours. Many of the Ionian Greeks migrated further east and came to reside in the north-western region of ancient India. The Ionians thus had interactions and often wars with the ancient Indian kingdoms.

The terms ‘Yona’ and ‘Yavana’ are transliterations of the Greek word ‘Ionian’ in Pali and Sanskrit respectively, and were the first Greeks to be known in the East. This theory has been established in many ancient mythological and historical texts in India. Thus we may understand that ‘Yavana’ originally meant and referred to the Greeks who settled in their tribes in the north-western neighbourhood of ancient India.

It is interesting to note that the Eastern Greeks were referred to by similar sounding names by other races of people as well. The Egyptians called them ‘j-w-n-n’ while the Assyrians referred to them as Iawanu. The Persians called them Yaunas while the Babylonians called them Yaman or Yamanaya. In Biblical Hebrew, the Greeks are called Yavan, while in Arabic they are referred to as Yunan. In Indian Sanskrit they are called the ‘Yavana’ tribe.

References of Yavanas in ancient India.

The Mahabharata classifies the Yavanas with other tribes who stayed ‘beyond Uttarpatha’, viz., the Kambojas (Indo-Iranians), Pahlavas (Parthians), Shakas, and Bahlikas. The Yavanas were the Greeks and the Indo-Greeks. Their kingdoms were situated beyond Gandhara, which was considered to be the outer-limit of the north-western frontier. These five tribes together were called the ‘Mlechchas’ in ancient Hindu terminology, meaning people of foreign extraction.

We also find references of ‘Yavana’ invasion of Majjhidesa (central India of the time) mentioned in the Mahabharata. Ancient texts also cite strong prophesies and warnings against wars and destruction to be caused to Indian cities and traditions by the ‘Yavanas’ and ‘Mlechchas’ in due course of time in the Kaliyug.

Buddhist texts of 2nd century BC and later also cite strong references and mentions of Yavanas. The Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa and Milindapanha, all mention detailed interaction with the Greek kings and subjects while spreading Buddhism. The Greco-Buddhist monasticism is also said to have taken shape during this period. Tales of the Yona (Greek) monk Dharmarakshita are also found in detail in the Buddhist texts written in Pali language.

During the rule of Emperor Ashoka (250 BC), his Rock Edict nos. V and XIII found in ancient Gandhara region, mention the Yonas along with Gandhara and Kamboja people as his subjects in the frontier towns of the north-west. The inscriptions also attest that Ashoka had regular links with the Greek kings of the west and sent emissaries to their courts. “Amtiyoko nama Yonaraja… (The Greek king by the name of Antiochus)” quotes one inscription, which unambiguously establishes Yonas as the Greeks.

Gradual expansion of the term ‘Yavanas’

With time, the term ‘Yavana’ began to acquire a much broader meaning and scope. While the Greeks left the neighbouring kingdoms of the north-western border and retreated, interaction with them also diminished. Their erstwhile kingdoms came to be occupied by newer tribes who still remained foreign to the Indian kingdoms. The term ‘Yavana’ therefore stuck to them and grew to include in its meaning and reference, people of foreign origin with a different language and way of life. As most of the tribes occupying that region continued to have wars and skirmishes with the Indian kingdoms, their behaviour were always referred to as barbaric and damaging.

Thus by the 3rd century AD, the name ‘Yavana’ had grown to mean uncultured, barbaric people of foreign origin who were always out to wage war, destroy and loot the Indian kingdoms. In one word, ‘Yavana’ therefore meant a barbaric enemy. The ‘Yavanas’ would come in hordes (armies), attack and kill people mercilessly, pillage and plunder the cities and destroy its life, culture and architecture and go back with a wealth of loot.

In later history (of the period 4th till 13th century) accounts and literary compositions, everywhere such enemies and invaders are thus called ‘Yavanas’. The term has got so entrenched in its latter meaning, that even till date ‘Yavana’ find its use as referring to barbaric plundering people, in phrases and folklore.

The later Yavanas in Indian history

Given the expanded meaning, scope and application of the term ‘Yavana’ in the later Vedic and medieval period of Indian history (600 – 1300 AD), the term almost became synonymous with the Turkic and Islamic invaders who launched repeated attacks on the Indian kingdoms 1000 AD onward.

The first of such ‘Yavanas’ mentioned in many historical texts, was Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni who attacked the Indian kingdoms and ancient cities and ransacked them during his seventeen invasions of the country. The next famous Yavana whose mention we find in historical texts is Muhammad Sihabuddin Ghori who also attacked India multiple times.

There is also historical evidence in the description of the battles of Muhammad Ghori with Jayachandra the King of Kannauj in 1194 AD, where the former is addressed as “Yavaneswar Sihabuddin” (The Yavana king Sihabuddin).

Later historians in Sanskrit have continued to address any invader and oppressor thereafter as ‘Yavana’, as we find in ample instances during the wars and annexations done by the Delhi Sultanate rulers. In some much later instances we find even the British being referred to as ‘Yavanas’.

While Yavanas do not exist as a tribe neither does their kingdom within any ambit of modern India, the name which started as a reference to the first Greeks of the north-west frontier, lives on in mythological and historical references forever attaching the epithet ‘Yavana’ to the sworn enemies of the ancient kingdoms of India.


Photo: The first Yavanas – the Greek invaders

Photo credit and source: Wikimedia Commons

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘Y’.


  1. Another fascinating post, Sayan. I've heard of the terms Yavanas and Mlechchas in various books, but never knew the entire back story. Excellent entry for Y. Nice thinking out of the box here.

    1. Thank you Varad for your appreciative comments. Glad that you liked reading about the Yavanas. Having spoken of so much about the glory of Ancient Cities of India, I thought it fit to devote one post to the 'villains' or the 'enemies' !

  2. Good to know the story of Yavana. have heard about them in Mahabharata and History. But, didn't such detail about them. Very nice post.

    1. Thank you Sayanti for reading and your appreciative comments! Glad that you liked reading the post and found it informative :)


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