Language and ethnicity of Kambojas

Language and ethnicity of Kambojas

The Kambojas of Indian literature have been speculated to have been an Iranian people, perhaps cognate with the later Indo-Scythians or Sakas.

History of the hypothesis

Based on Yaska's Nirukta and a "gatha" from Buddhist "Bhuridatta Jataka", one German scholar, Dr Ernst Kuhn had opined in 1904 that the Kambojas spoke a language embodying specialities of both the Sanskrit as well as Iranian language, and further as a part of their religious practice, the Kambojas considered it a religious duty to kill snakes and other poisonous insects [Das Volk Der Kamboja bei Yaska, First Series of Avesta, Pahlavi and Ancient Persian Studies in honour of the late Shams-ul-ulama Dastur Peshotanji Behramji Sanjana, Strassberg & Leipzig, 1904, pp 213 ff, Dr Ernst Kuhn.] . Based on same Nirukta, Dr G. A. Grierson commented in 1911: "The Kambojas, a barbarous tribe of north-western India, either spoke Sanskrit with an infusion of Iranian words to which they gave Indian inflexions or else they spoke a language partly Indo-Aryan and partly Iranian" [The Language of the Kambojas, Journal of Royal Asiatic Society 1911, pp 801-02.] . Following Dr Grierson's investigations on the Kambojas, Dr Kuhn published a summary of his article ("Das Volk Der Kamboja bei Yaska") in English, in Dr Grierson's support in the 1912 issue of the "Journal of Royal Asiatic Society", which included Dr Grierson's comments as well. It was pointed out that killing of some lower animals is indeed a Zoroastrian religious practice which is also attested from the passages in Mazdean books like the Videvad [XIV.5-6.] as well as from the remarks of Herodotus [ Book I.140.] about the Persian religion.

The above disclosures from Bhuridatta Jataka completely changed scholars' views including those of Dr Grierson on the Kambojas. Thence-afterwards, the scholar community, in general, started considering the Kambojas to be an undoubted tribe of the Iranians. Dr Grierson had to re-write: "This gatha, by itself, establishes a close connections between the ancient Kambojas and the ancient Iranians with whom the destruction of noxious or ahramanic creatures was a duty...Beyond any reasonable doubt that the Kambojas were a tribe of the Iranians " [Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, 1912, p 256.] .

Literary evidence for the Iranian hypothesis


Mahabharata speaks of the Yavanas, Kambojas, Darunas etc as the fierce barbarians from Uttarapatha [

:Sanskrit::uttarashchapare mlechchha jana bharatasattama. || 63 || :Yavanashcha sa Kamboja Daruna mlechchha jatayah. | :— " (MBH 6.11.63-64)".] and further reckons them among the sinful people, characterised by practices similar to those of chandalas and vultures i.e avaricious and greedy [

:Sanskrit::uttara pathajanmanah kirtayishyami tanapi. | :Yauna Kamboja Gandharah Kirata barbaraih saha. || 43 |
:ete papakritastata charanti prithivimimam. | :shvakakabalagridhrana.n sadharmano naradhipa. || 44 |
:— "(MBH 12/207/43-44)".
] . Moreover, along with numerous other "non-Vedic" tribes of north-west, the Kambojas are branded as fallen rogues, leading sinful lives like those of the Dasyus [MBH 12.65.13-15.] .

The above Mahabharata evidence reinforces Jataka's views that the Kambojas, in culture and customs, were different from the Indo-Aryans or Vedic people.

Majjhima Nikaya

"Assalayanasutta" [Majjhima Nikaya II.149.] of Majjhima Nikaya attests that, in the lands of Yavanas, Kambojas and some other frontier nations, there were only two classes of people...Aryas and Dasas...the masters and slaves. The Arya could become Dasa and vice versa [

:Yona-Kambojesu annesu cha panchchantimesu janapadesu dvau vanna,:ayyo ceva daaso ca, ayyo hutva daaso hoti, daaso hutva ayyo hoti ti.:— "(Majjhima Nikaya 43.1.3)" .] . This is also confirmed from Vishnu Purana which affirms the absence of "chatur-varna system" among the Kiratas in the east and the Yavanas, Kambojas etc in the pashchima or western people. [Vishnu Purana, 2.37.] .

Apparently, this "two-class" social organization of the Kambojas and Yonas was completely alien to Aryan India [History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Saka Era, 1988, p 106, Etienne Lamotte - History .] where Brahmanical "varnasharma.dharma" was rather prevalent and the Indians were accustomed to practice chatur-varna or "four-class" social system instead.

Panini and Patanjali

"Ganapatha 178 on Panini's rule [ Ganapatha II.1.72"-"Mayuravyamsakadi".] differentiates the Kambojas from the Indo-Aryans saying that Kambojas and Yavanas practiced wearing short head-hair ("Kamboja-mundah Yavana-mundah") where as the Indo-Aryans usually wore long hair or else supported only a top knot on their head. This fact is also attested from Mahabharata [ Mahabharata 7.119.23.] as well as from numerous Puranas which affirms that the Kambojas's dress mode varied from the Vedic people.Patanjali (Introduction) quotes a sentence also found in Yaska's Nirukta that states that among the Kambojas the verb 'to go' is not expressed by Sanskrit gacchati but by shavati (śavati). This corresponds exactly, down to the palatal sound [ś/š'] , to Late Avestan shavati (š'auuaiti, from older śyavati, *c'yavati), clearly indicating the Iranian language of the Kambojas.


The Commentary [Majjhima Commentary, II, p.784] .] says that if a Brahmin goes to Kamboja or Yavana with his wife for purpose of trade and dies there, his wife would be compelled to work for her living and her children would become slaves. This shows that, in contrast to Indo-Aryans, there was no place for Brahmins in the land of Kambojas and Yavanas. Ashoka's Rock Edict XIII also alludes to the fact that in the lands of Yonas and Kambojas, the "Brahmanas" and "Shramanas" were not entertained. Manusmriti [Manusmriti X.43-44.] and Mahabharata [ Mahabharata 12.65.13-15.] etc. also affirm that the Kambojas, Yavanas, Sakas etc. had ignored the Brahmins and the Brahmanical rituals, which had formed the very basis of the Indo-Aryan society. "Kamboja.sutta" of Anguttara Nikaya as well as the ("Manorathapurani" Commentary [II, p 523.] forewarns that, in spite of their desire, the women from other countries not to visit Kamboja, This implies that the Kamboja society was incompatible with that of the Indo-Aryans.

The foregoing numerous evidence amply attests that the language, culture, social customs and manners of the Kambojas were different from those of the Indo-Aryans.


In Markandeya Purana [ Markendeya 8.1-6.] as well as in Srimad Devi Bhagawatam [Devi Bhagawatam 5.28.1-12.] ["Devibhagavata Purana refers to the people of Kamboja janapada (Pamir-Badakhshanregion according to Dr. VS Agrawal or the region near Kandhar according to Dr D. C. Sircar) as Asuras/Demons (i.e. "Danavah sarve Kambojah").] the Kambojas are referred to as Asuras/Demons (i.e. "Danavah sarve Kambojah") and are included in the army of Daityahs [Rājapūta Polity: Political System of the Early Medieval India, 1968, p 15, A. B. L. Awasthi - Political science.] [Glory of the Divine Mother (Devi Mahatmyam), p 211, Sri Sankaranarayanan.] . "Asura" is found as "Ahura" in ancient Iranian traditions. The Iranian were followers of "Ahura Mazda" (Zoroastrian religion), including the Kambojas. Initially, the word Asura did not have the negative (demonic) connotation.

These texts refer to a mythological war of the goddess Durga/Ambika with some Asura/Demonic clans of north-west like Udayudhas, Kambus, Kotiviryas, Kalakas, Daurhritas, Kalkeyas, Mauryas etc. There is reference to eighty-four select warriors from the Kambu (Kamboja) clan accompanied by numerous Kambu (Kamboja) fighters set on a ferocious war with the deva forces of goddess Durga [Glory of the Divine Mother (Devi Mahatmyam), p 211, Sri Sankaranarayanan.] . Dr Raychaudhury identifies the Maurya Asura clan of the above texts with the Maurya clan of Chandragupta Maurya [Poitical History of Ancient India, 1996, p 4-5.] . Scholars including A. B. L. Awasthi, Swami Vijnanannanda etc have correctly identified the Asura "Kambu clan" with the "Kambojas of Hindukush"/Northeast Afghanistan, and their allies "Kalkeyas" with the "Afridis" etc [See: The Shrimad-Devi-Bhagawatam, trans: Swami Vijnanananda (1921-22), p 451; Rājapūta Polity: Political System of the Early Medieval India, 1968, p 15, A. B. L. Awasthi - Political science.] . The Kalakas have been identified with "Glausai or Glaukanikoi" of the Greeks, located on the upper courses of Hydaspes (Jhelum), Hydraotes (Ravi) and Akesines (Chenāb); and are the same as Kalajas of the Mahabharata (i.e. Kalachas of Rajput chronicles) [Etude, pp 102, 103, V. de. Saint Martin; The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great, 1896, p 111, John Watson M'Crindle.] .

It is notable that the great Asura warrior king Shumbha, the hero of the Asura/Danava forces, has been referred to as "danuja-lord", the son of Diti "(i.e ditija-danuja-adayah)" in Shri Devi Bhagawatam as well as Markandeya Purana traditions etc [Devi-Mahatam verse 9.30.] . It is also notable that great epic Mahabharata also mentions one king Chandravarman of the Kambojas, who has been referred to as an incarnation of the great Asura/Daitya Chandra and addressed as "ditija.shreshtho" i.e. "foremost among the Asuras, the son of Diti" [

:Sanskrit::Chandrastu "ditija.shreshtho" loke taradhipopamah. || 31 || :Chandra.varmati vikhiyaatah Kambojanam.nradhipah. ||32 || :— "MBH 2.67.31-32, Gorakhpore Edition; See also K.M Ganguli's online MBH)" ] . This reference also alludes to Iranian affinities of the Kambojas. The mythical Asura king Shumbha of Puranic Hindu texts appears to refer to some great warrior from the Iranian Kambojas of north-west. And the Durga/Shumbha legend probably refers to some dimly remembered remote tradition on border clashes between the ancient Iranian Aryans and the Vedic Aryans. Probably, the "Ditija" Chandravarman (a Kamboja) of Mahabharata and "Ditija" Shumbha of Markendeya Purana/Srimad-Devi-Bhagawatam texts refer to same personage.

Iranian vs Indian affinities of the Kambojas

There are also references in Sanskrit literature which suggest that a section of the Kambojas was probably also under Vedic cultural influence. There is reference to a sage from Kamboja clan mentioned in the "Vamsha Brahmana" [ Vamsha Brahmana 1.18-19.] of Sama Veda. This Sage Kamboja is referred to as the pupil of sage Shaungayani Madrakara. Sage Madrakara belonged to Uttara-Madra tribe (Vedic Index). These Uttara-Madras were an Iranian settlement of the Bahlika Uttara-Madras (Jean Przyluski). An ancient Vedic "Chudakarma Samskara" in "Paraskara GrhyaSutram" lists the Kambojas with the Vasishthas as a scholarly clan sharing common social and religious customs with them [

:dakshinatah Kambujaanaam Vasisthaanaam, :ubhayato Atri Kashyapaanaam mundah Bhriguh,:panchachuda Angris. Vajasaneyaanaam eka mangalartha shikhino anyai/ :— "(Chudakarma Samskaara, Paraskara GrhyaSutram 2.1.23, Commentary: Pt Harihar)" ] . The Mahabharata also reveals that, besides being fierce warriors, all the Kamboja soldiers were also noted as "kritavidyash" or the scholars of the Vedas [ Mahabharata 7.112.43-44.] .

These and similar references from ancient Sanskrit literature prove that a section of Kambojas had also come under Indo-Aryan cultural influence at some point in history. In the light of evidence presented above, several scholars opine that the Kambojas had both Iranian as well as Indian affinities [Vedic Index I, p 138, Dr Macdonnel, Dr Keith.] [Ethnology of Ancient Bhārata – 1970, p 107, Dr Ram Chandra Jain.] [The Journal of Asian Studies – 1956, p 384, Association for Asian Studies, Far Eastern Association (U.S.).] [ Balocistān: siyāsī kashmakash, muz̤mirāt va rujḥānāt – 1989, p 2, Munīr Aḥmad Marrī.] [ India as Known to Pāṇini: A Study of the Cultural Material in the Ashṭādhyāyī – 1953, p 49, Dr Vasudeva Sharana Agrawala.] [Afghanistan, p 58, W. K. Fraser, M. C. Gillet.] [ Afghanistan, its People, its Society, its Culture, Donal N. Wilber, 1962, p 80, 311 etc.] [Iran, 1956, p 53, Herbert Harold Vreeland, Clifford R. Barnett.] [Geogramatical Dictionary of Sanskrit (Vedic): 700 Complete Revisions of the Best Books..., 1953, p 49, Dr Peggy Melcher, Dr A. A. McDonnel, Dr Surya Kanta, Dr Jacob Wackmangel, Dr V. S. Agarwala.] .

Classical definition of Scythia/Scythians

Strabo defines all Central Asian clans inhabiting east of Caspian Sea as Scythic or Scythian in culture [See: Lib.xi, p 254; See also: Annals and Antiquities, I, p 49, fn 6, James Tod.] .
Diodorus further improves upon this definition and makes Mt. "Hemodos" as the dividing line between Scythia and India proper [Indika, Fragment 1, Diodorus II.35; See also: Annals and Antiquities, I, p 49, fn 6, James Tod.] . Mt "Hemodos" of the Greeks is stated to be Himalaya [Qv: Nonnos Dionysiaca 40.260.] . Mt Hemodos is also known as "Himaos", "Imaos" and "Paropamisos", but Greeks generally called it "Kaukasos" i.e. Caucasus, which was Greek designation for Hindukush. [Qv: Fragment IV, Strabo XV.i. II, p 689.] . Himalaya of ancient Sanskrit/Pali texts extended from eastern ocean to western ocean, and thus included the Hindukush and Karakoram ranges as well [Sumangavilasini, I.1; Geographical Data in Early Puranas, 1972, p 65.] .

This Scythia of the classical writers was known as "Shakadvipa" in ancient Sanskrit texts.

It is, therefore, very clear that the Central Asian tribes living east of the Caspian Sea, north of Hindukush/Karakoram and west of China, extending as far as Siberia, all fell into the Scythic or Scythian category of the ancient Greeks.

cythic vs Indo-Aryan question of Kambojas

In view of the facts presented above, the historical situation, so far as the Kambojas are concerned, appears to be something like the following: "The Kambojas were originally located across the Hindukush in Transoxiana in the Scythian cultural belt of the classical writers". The "Kamboja-Rishika" expressions of Sanskrit texts indisputably prove this fact. The reference to Kambojas, Sakas, Tukharas, Khasas jointly fighting Mahabharata war under supreme command of Kamboja Sudakshina [Mahabharata 5.19.21-23; "The Nations of India at the Battle Between the Pandavas and Kauravas", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1908, pp 313, 331, Dr F. E. Pargiter, (Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland).] also explains this fact. With passage of time, a section of the Kamboja had crossed the Hindukush and had also planted colonies in cis-Hindukush region in Kunar/Swat valleys, and as far as Rajauri, west of Kashmir. This was the Kamboja country of Mahabharata. Since this region was close to Indo-Aryans, therefore, these cis-Hindukush Kambojas got exposed to dominant Vedic culture and thus became somewhat like Indo-Aryans. The Transoxian Kambojas i.e the Parama-Kambojas of Mahabharata, on the other hand, being located in pure Iranian or Scythic cultural belt, continued, as usual, to follow the Iranian culture, customs, mannerism and language. This explains as to why the ancient Kambojas, though dominantly attested to be Iranians, still betray some glimpses of Indo-Aryan culture and customs". The Scythic or Iranic background of the Kambojas is also attested from the Mathura Lion Capital inscriptions of Saka Mahaksatrapa Rajuvula, where Yuvaraja Kharaostes and his daughter Aiyasi, the chief queen of Rajuvula, are mentioned as Kamuias (i.e of Kambojika or Kamboja extractions) [Corpus Inscrioptionum Indicarum, Vol II, Part I, pp xxxvi, 36, Dr. S. Konow.] . The Kambojas are stated by scholars to be a royal clan of the Sakas or Scythians [Ref: La vieille route de l'Inde de Bactres à Taxila, p 271, Dr A Foucher; See entry Kamboja in online "Heritage du Sanskrit Dictionnaire, sanskrit-francais", 2008, p 101, Gerard Huet, which defines Kamboja as: "clan royal [kṣatriya] Kamboja des Śakās". See link: [] ; See also Serge Thion: On Some Cambodian Words, Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter (NEWSLETTER is edited by Scott Bamber and published in the Department of Anthropology, Research School of Pacific Studies; printed at Central Printery; the masthead is by Susan Wigham of Graphic Design (all of The Australian National University); Cf: Indian Culture, 1934, p 193, Indian Research Institute - India; cf: Notes on Indo-Scythian chronology, Journal of Indian History, xii, 21; Corpus Inscrioptionum Indicarum, Vol II, Part I, pp xxxvi, 36, Dr. S. Konow; Cf: History of Indian Administration, p 94, Dr B. N. Puri.] .


ee also

*Parama Kambojas
*Uttara Madras

Books and Magazines

*Niruktam by Yaska
*Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, 1911, 1912
*Linguistic Survey of India, Vol. X, Sir G. A. Grierson
*Das Volk Der Kamboja bei Yaska, Dr E. Kuhn, First Series of Avesta, Pahlavi and Ancient Persian Studies in honour of the late Shams-ul-ulama Dastur Peshotanji Bahramji Strassburg and Leipzig, pp 213-14; cf: J. Bloch, Indo-Aryan, Paris, 1965, p 330; Also Lit. Gesch, 9 169, p 363, Weber

*Early Eastern Iran and Atharvaveda, Persica-9, 1980, fn 81, 83, Dr M. Witzel
*The Purana, Vol V, No 2, July 1963, Dr D. C. Sircar

*The Afghans (Peoples of Asia), W. J. Vogelsang
*The Cambridge History of Iran: Volume 3, E. Yarshater
*Ancient Kamboja', in Iran and Islam, Bailey, H. W. etc

*The Cultural Heritage of India, 1962 (Foreign Elements in Indian Population, Dr Debala Mitra)
*Ancient Kamboja, People and the Country, 1981, Dr J. L. Kamboj
*Bhartya Itihaas ki Mimansa, Dr J. C. Vidyalankar

*Bhartya Itihaas ki Ruprekha, Dr J. C. Vidyalankar
*Markendeya Purana
*Glory of the Divine Mother (Devi Mahatmyam), Trans: Sri Sankaranarayanan

*The Afghans (Peoples of Asia), 2001, W. J. Vogelsang and Willem Vogelsang

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