Nov 18, 2007

Persian Affinities of the Licchavis

By: Prof. Satis Chandra Vidyabhusana, MA, MRAS

In connection with Mr. Vincent A. Smith's very interesting article,
`Tibetan Affinities of the Licchavis,' published ante, Vol.XXXII,
p.233-236, I beg to offer a few observations for consideration. In
the article referred to an attempt has been made to establish the
theory that the Licchavis were a Tibetan tribe, which settled in the
plains during pre-historic times. While admitting the kinship of the
Licchavis with the early Tibetan Kings, I beg to differ from Mr.
V.A.Smith in his main theory as to the origin of the Licchavis. In my
humble opinion the Licchavis were a Persian tribe, whose original
home was Nisibis, which they left for India and Tibet in the 6th
century BC and 4th century BC, respectively.

According to Ptolemy,1 Arrian,2, Strabo,3 and other classical
writers, Nisibis was a most notable town in Aria to the South-East of
the Caspian Sea. Wilson 4 identifies it with the modern town of Nissa
(off Herat) on the north of the Elburz Mountains between Asterabad
and Meshed. Vines5 grew here abundantly and it is traditionally known
to have been the birthplace of the wine-god Dionysos. M. de St.
Martin6 observes that Nisibis must have been of Median or Persian
foundation, for its name is purely Iranian and figures in the
cosmogenic geography of the Zend Avesta, and this observation tallies
well with the account of Arrian, who, in his Indika7 distinctly says
that the Nysaioi (the inhabitants of Nysa or Nisibis) were not an
Indian8 race.

In fact, Nisibis was a part of Persia. It appears to me very probable
that while about 515 BC Darius,9 the King of Persia, sent an
expedition to India, or rather caused the Indus to be explored from
the land of the Pakhtu (Afghans) to its mouth, some of his Persian
subjects in Nisibis (off Herat) immigrated to India, and having found
the Panjab over populated by the orthodox Brahmans, came down as far
as Magadha (Behar) which was at that time largely inhabited by
Vrâtyas10 or outcaste people.

The earliest reference to the people of Nisibis in Indian writings
occurs in the famous Brahmanic Sanskrit work, the Manusamhitâ
(chapter X, verse 12) in which they have been designated as Nicchibi,
which is, no doubt, an Indian form of the Persian word Nisibis. Manu
describes the Nicchibis as Vrâtya-kṣatriyas, or an outcaste royal
race, and names them along with Khasa, Karaṇa and others. In the
Bhaviṣya Purâṇa, Chapter 139, verses 33-65, Nikṣubhâ is d=
escribed as a daughter of the sage Rijiúvâ of the Mihira Gotra or Solar clan, and
under the name of Hâvanî as married to Sûrya, the Sun-god. I imagine
that Nikṣubhâ represents the name of a Persian girl of Nisibis, who
worshipped the sun-god like other members of her race.

In the Indian Pali works they have been called Licchavi or Licchivi,
which is only a softened form of Nicchibi or Nisibis, and have been
mentioned as living in a large number in Vaisâli (in Magadha). That
in the 5th century BC the Licchavis were not yet fully established in
India, is evident from the Mahâparinibbâna Sutta, Chapter I, in which
Ajâtaúatru, the King of Magadha, is found to have been making plans
for their expulsion from his kingdom. But the excellent horse-
carriages and magnificent variegated dresses of the Licchavi youths
and courtezan, Ambapâli, described in Chapter II of the
Mahâparinibbâna Sutta, lead us to suppose that they must have
descended from a civilized race. By the first half of the 4th century
AD the Licchavis became very powerful in India and Nepal. In the
Allahabad Pillar Inscription of Samudra Gupta (vide Fleet's Corpus
Inscriptionum Indicarum, Vol.III, p.16) we find that a Licchavi
princess named Kumâra Devî was married to Chandra Gupta I about 319
AD. "That the Licchavis were then at least of equal rank and power
with the early Guptas is shown by the pride in this alliance
manifested by the latter." Jayadeva I, the first historical member of
the Licchavi tribe, reigned in Nepal AD 330-355 (vide Fleet, p.135).
In the Nepalese records, such as the Vaṁúâvalî, the Licchavis have
been allotted to the Sûrya Vaṁúa or Solar race. As late as about 700 =AD there reigned in the east in Vârendra (North-eastern Bengal) a
king named Siṁha, who sprang from the Licchavi race (vide Lama
Târânâtha's Geschichte des Buddhismus von Shiefner, p.146).

According to Pag-sam-jon-zang, Gyal-rab-sal-wahi-me-long11 and other
Tibetan books, the earliest Kings of Tibet from Nya-thi-tsau-po
downwards belonged to the Li-tsa-byi race. There is, no doubt, that
Li-tsa-byi is only a modified form of Licchavi. The first King of
Tibet was Nya-thi-tsan-po, who was a wanderer from a foreign country.
The exact date of his arrival in Tibet is unknown, but from Deb-ther-
sṅon-po and other Tibetan records it appears that he lived between
the 4th and 1st centuries BC. It is probable that during the
occupation of Sogdiana 12 and the neighbouring places by Alexander
the Great, the Bactrian Greek Kings and subsequently the Scythians
(the Yue-chi) about 150 BC, some Persian people from Nisibis (off
Herat) migrated to Tibet into the Himalayan regions, where they
established a monarchial system of Government on the model of the
Government in Persia.

The Bam-yik variety of the Tibetan alphabet, which is in common use
in Tibet, derived, I suppose, its name from the city of Bamyian (off
Nisibis), which was visited by Hiuen-thsiang in 630 AD, and is now
subject to the Afghans.

The custom of exposing the dead to be devoured by wild animals, as it
prevailed in Vaisâli and is still found in Tibet, was, I believe,
introduced into those countries from Persia by the Licchavi
immigrants. It is hardly necessary to add that the practice of
exposure of the dead is widely followed in Persia and its
dependancies, including Nisibis.

The Bon 13 religion, which preceded Buddhism in Tibet, is said to
have originated from Tajik (Persia). According to Dub-thah-sel-kyi-me-
long, twenty generations of Tibetan Kings from Nya-thi-tsan-po down
to Thi-je-tsan-po followed no other religion than the Bon, which
prevailed in Tibet up to 780 AD, when it was persecuted by King Thi-
srong-de-tsan. The various black arts- such as witchcraft, exorcism,
magic, performance of miracles, sacrifice of animals, etc. in which
the Bon-po priests were skilled - must have been imported from
Nisibis (Persia) by the Magi priests, who accompanied the Licchavis
into Tibet. Sen-rab, who was one of the most prominent Bon-teachers,
had among his spiritual descendants a Persian sage, named Mu-tso-tra-

That there was intercourse between Persia and Tibet in the ancient
days, is evident from Kâlidâsa's (Sanskrit) Raghuvaṁsa, Canto IV
(verses 60-81) in which the foreign conquests of Raghu are described.
Raghu after subduing the Pârasîka (Persians), Huna (Huns) and Kamboja
(the inhabitants of the Hindukush mountains, which separate the
Gilgit Valley from Balkh), ascended the Himalayas, where he fought
hard against the mountain tribes called U-tsa-va-saṁ-ketân,14 and
afterwards crossing the Lauhitya (Brahmaputra river), came down to
Prâgjyotiṣa (Assam). This conquest of Raghu is, perhaps, a mere
fiction, but it shows that in the days of Kalidasa, about 500 AD, the
people of India were aware of a route existing between Persia and
India on the one hand and Persia and Tibet on the other.

1. McCrindle's Ancient India as Described by Ptolemy, pp.308 and 328.

2. McCrindle's Ancient India Described by Megasthenes and Arrian,

3. McCrindle's Ancient India as Described in Classical Literature,

4, 5, 6, 7. McCrindle's Megasthenes and Arrian, pp.179-180.

8. It is not definitely known whether this Nisibis is in any way
connected with the famous city of that name in Mesopotamia (on the
borders of Armenia) which rose to importance during the Assyrian
period, continued under the Seleucidae and became the residence of
the Kings of Armenia from 149 BC to 14 AD, being afterwards conquered
by the Romans. It is, however, probable that while Cyrus, the King of
Persia (559 BC-530 BC), was extending his sway up to Chorasmia
(modern Khiva) and Sogdiana (modern Samarkand and Bokhara), a colony
from Nisibis in Mesopotamia was planted in the North of Aria (off
Herat) which, too, thenceforth bore the name of Nisibis (vide.
Encyclopaedia Britannica 9th ed. Vol.XVII and XVIII, articles Nisibis
and Persia).

9. Encycl.Brit., 9th edition, Volume XVIII, p.569.

10. Vide Lâṭyâyana Srauta Sûtra, 8/6. Compare also Rajaram Ramkrishna=
Bhagavat's article named "A Chapter from the Tâṇḍya-Brâhmȧ=
1;a" ... J. of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. XIX, of 1895-

11. Compare Alexander Csoma de Koros' Tibetan Grammar, p.194. As
books in Tibet were written long after the intercourse of that
country with India had been opened, the Litsabyi Kings of Tibet are
often mentioned as having originally come from Vaisâli in India. As a
matter of fact the Licchavis of Vaisâli and Tibet are collateral
branches of a Persian race in Nisibis (off Herat).

13. Vide Rai Sarat Chandra Das's article on "The Bon Religion" in the
Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Part I, 1881.

14. Utsavasangketân, according to the Mahâbhârata (Sabhâparva,
Chapter 26 and Bhiṣmaparva, Chapter 9) was the collective name of
seven tribes that inhabited the Himalayas. It is a compound word,
which may be analysed as follows: - u + t + sa + ba + sang + ketân =
u + da-yul + sa-yul + ba-thang + tsang + khotan. In this compound we
discern several well known Tibetan names, such as U - Central Tibet,
Tsang - Western Tibet, Ba - Bathang, etc. Sa-yul, Da-yul and Khotan
were also provinces of Tibet.

From: The Indian Antiquary
Vol.XXXVII (March 1908) p.78-80

12. Encycl. Brit., 9th ed., Vol.XXII, p.246.

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