Sunday, March 09, 2008

Afghanistan, a Friendly Look at It

I first heard of Afghanistan from reading Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson served with the Brit army in Afghanistan. Watson said it was the most desolate place on earth and that service there was the roughest.

I first became interested in Afghanistan in terms of ancient coin collecting. I met this Russian coin dealer, from Saint Petersburg, where he'd been a medical student. He claimed he had connections to the most expert numismatists in Russia; in fact, he had direct connections to the Hermitage and its vast collections of ancient coins from Russia and Central Asia.

Three places on earth I've always wanted to go: Istanbul, Turkey; Timbuktu, Niger; and Tashkent, Uzbekistan. In fact, Tashkent more than the other two because of Samarkand. And why Samarkand? Because that's where originally there were a people called the Chach, a nomadic tribe believed to be a branch of the Yu Chei who came down into the fertile valleys of that part of Central Asia and built great cities and fought great battles--the Chach successfully keeping off the Islamic invaders longer than any of the other tribes, though finally even the Sogdian-Chach were decimated or driven off and there cities and sites destroyed--no one really knows since there really isn't much historical evidence of the Chach at all except through coins that have been traced back to their time and also they were known to mine and refine the finest silver of that area and they renown as silversmiths and coinmakers.

But really I got interested in the Chach and Afghanistan because of a group of nomadic people called the Hephthalites, or Hepthalites, and also called the White Huns (or svetahuna--huna being "hun"). Through studying the White Huns, I'll admit it, I was in search of the first "white skinned" people, I came across a Russian anthropologist/archeologist who had found this woman in the mountains of Mongolia who was white of skin and red of hair--and in reading ancient history I discovered that the first reference to any people being described as "white" or any color for that matter, came in a Chinese history in which the historian wrote about these "white" people who had come out of those Mongolian mountains (the Hindu Kush). These people were the Hephthalites, a nomadic tribe that rushed into Central Asia from out of the Hindu Kush mountains. As to what they have to do with Afghanistan? Here's a little Afghanistan history:

Although the origins of the Afghans lie in very ancient times,4 the first mentions of the Afghan people appear only in the sixth and seventh centuries. The Brhat-samhita (XVI, 38 and XI, 61) speaks of the pahlava (Pahlavis), the svetahuna (White Huns or Hephthalites), the avagana (Afghans) and other peoples. On his return journey from India, the Chinese pilgrim Hsüan-tsang travelled from Varnu (possibly modern Wana) to Jaguda in Ghazni, crossing the land of A-p'o-k'ien,5 a word derived from Avakan or Avagan, meaning Afghans. In Islamic sources, the first reliable mention of the Afghans is found in the Hudud al-calam, which says of a settlement on the borders of India and the Ghazni district that ‘there are Afghans there too'. Mention is also made of a local ruler some of whose wives were Afghan women.6 The Afghan language, or Pashto, is one of the East Iranian groups. Among its characteristics, it contains a stratum of Indian words and its phonetic system has been influenced by Indian phonetic systems, which is not the case of other Iranian languages. There are approximately 23 million Pashto-speakers in Afghanistan and Pakistan today.7

The mountains in the east of modern Afghanistan and the north of modern Pakistan were settled by Dards. They were known to the ancient Greek authors, who used several distorted names for them: Derbioi, Durbaioi, Daidala, Dadikai and Derdaios.8 In their descriptions of India, the Puranas speak of the Darada in the same breath as the inhabitants of Kashmir and Gandhara. They are repeatedly mentioned in the Ramayana and the Saddhar-masmrtyupasthana, together with the Odra (the Uddiyana). In Tibetan sources, the Darada are known as the Darta.9

There are two groups of languages that are now generally known as Dardic. The first are the languages of Nuristan (a region of Afghanistan): they form an 'individual branch of the Indo-Iranian family belonging neither to the Indo-Aryan, nor to the Iranian group'. The second group of languages (particularly the Dardic) are 'part of the Indo-Aryan [group], though far departed in their development from the latter'. The two groups, however, have much in common in their 'structural and material features [phonetical, grammatical and lexical]'.10 The Nuristani languages include Kati, Waigali, Ashkun and Prasun (or Paruni) and are chiefly spoken in Nuristan. The Dardic languages proper include Dameli, which is the link between the Nuristani languages and the Central Dardic. According to one classification, the Central Dardic languages comprise Pashai, Shumashti, Glangali, Kalarkalai, Gawar, Tirahi, Kalasha and Khowar. The Eastern Dardic group is divided into three sub-groups containing the Bashkarik, Torwali, Maiyan, Shina, Phalura and Kashmiri languages. In the early 1980s Dardic languages were spoken by 3.5 million people in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, of whom 2.8 million spoke Kashmiri, some 165,000 spoke Khowar and some 120,000 spoke Pashai. The Nuristani languages were spoken by around 120,000 people.11

Burushaski is a completely distinct language: it stands at the confluence of three great families – the Indo-European, the Sino-Tibetan and the Altaic – but belongs to none of them. Its speakers live in northern Pakistan, in the region of the Hunza and Vershikum rivers, and number around 40,000. The language's morphological structure is very rich and the verb has a particularly extensive system of accidence. Burushaski is one of the oldest tongues, but its place in the system of ancient and modern languages remains obscure. Although a literary tradition may well have existed in the early Middle Ages, when Buddhism was widespread, no literary records have been found, which hampers attempts to reconstruct the language's past. There have been repeated attempts to trace its affiliations, and links with the Caucasian, Dravidian, Munda, Basque and other languages have been suggested, but from the standpoint of contemporary linguistics the case is not conclusive. Burushaski was unquestionably more current in ancient times and occupied a number of regions where Dardic languages are now spoken and where Burushaski acted as a substratal or adstratal foundation. Grierson has even postulated that speakers of Burushaski or related languages once inhabited all or almost all the lands now held by Dardic-speaking tribes.12

Then, like I say, I met this Russian coin dealer and while talking to him one day about Georgian coins I ask him if he ever had any Hephthalite coins. Turns out he shoveled over to me a whole handful of Hephthalite coins in 2 x 2 holders--I bought the whole handful and when I got home and went through them I came across several bronze coins I later identified as Chach coins.

Hephthalite coins were hammered silver coins--they took a small bar of silver, heated it, and then hammered it flat, to about the size of a US fifty-cent piece (yeah, I know, a what?) though much thinner--then dies on which an obverse and a reverse design had been etched were hammered (from whence comes the term "strike" in coin collecting) into the soft silver, then dipped in cold water, and there you had a pure silver coin with a splendid image of the ruler on it. These are called "imitation" coins because they imitate the Parthian (Indo-Parthian) and Sassanian (Islamic) silver coins of that time.

This is a Hephthalite coin from the rule of Khingia, AD430-490 "Raja Lakhana (Udaya) Ditya." The reverse of this coin shows the fire altar--a perpetual fire kept burning in a sacred place--a place where all their ancient evils were burned away.

Afghanistan is an very interesting country, a crossroads country, a place you passed through on your way to the treasures of China in those days, a wild country settled by a wild people. Remember, the Afghans play soccer using a goat's head for a ball. Of course they're high on poppy juice! Of course.
Kabul in the fertile Kabul River Valley--once ruled by the Hephthalites, the White Huns.

To be continued

for The Daily Growler

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