Identity and genetic trail of the Saka tribes – I
by Jayasree Saranathan on 26 May 2021 1 Comment

The Saka tribes are heard for the first time in Ikshvaku King Sagara’s period. Sagara was the ancestor of Rama who defeated Haihayas and Talajanghas to take back his country overrun by them. Mention of Saka tribes appears in that context. Saka-s, Yavanas, Kambojas, Paradas, and Pahlavas were defeated in that war but were let free by Sagara on the advice of the family priest Vasishtha.


But this was done after imposing certain distinguishing marks on them, by which the Saka-s were compelled to shave half of their head, Yavanas to shave their heads completely, Paradas to let their hair long and Pahlavas not to shave their beards.[1]  They were branded as Mlecchas and driven out of the country to live in uninhabitable terrains such as mountains and deserts. Such regions in Afghanistan and Iran to the west of the Indus basin match with this description.


The bottom line is that the Saka-s were originally from Bharatavarsha and therefore likely to carry the same genetic markers. 


The probable period of the defeat of these tribes was just before the River Ganga was brought down by the fourth descendant of Sagara, i.e. Bhagiratha. The time period of birth of Ganga has been deduced as around 8000-7500 BCE (see here). Around this time these Mlecchas were sent out of India to live in the tough desert and mountainous terrains of Afghanistan and Iran, to the west of the Indus River. Nearly after 1000 years, they started fanning out due to pressures of population and climatic considerations.


This period matches with the genetic evidences given by Dr. Premendra Priyadarshi on migrations from Iran-Afghanistan region starting from 6000 BCE that continued till 1000 BCE through north of Black sea (Ukrainian) and Anatolia (Turkey) in the south of Black Sea.[2] They took along with them the language and customs of Vedic society that they were following, though cut off from the mainstream Vedic people.


Their presence however continued in the W-NW of India. This is known from the next appearance of these tribes at the time of the fight between Vasishtha and Vishwamitra for the possession of Shabala, the sacred cow. Vishwamitra’s presence marks this period as around Rama’s time (late 6th millennium BCE). According to Valmiki Ramayana, the above mentioned tribes including the Saka-s were created along with many other tribes by Vasishtha to fight against Vishwamitra’s army.[3]  Connecting this with the Sagara episode it appears that the Saka-s and other Mlecchas who were already thriving in the west of India came to rescue Shabala on behalf of Vasishtha, in gratitude for the lease of life granted to their forefathers by Vasishtha of Sagara’s time.


From Sugreeva’s route map given in Kishkinda Kanda it is known that the Yavanas and the cities of Saka-s were close to the Himalayas in the north.[4] Their occupation by robbery did not allow them to be accepted by Vedic society though they were entitled to do pitru yajnas and Paka-yajnas.[5]  The genetic trail of R1a1 from India to Iran to Europe around this time (vide Priyadarshi) can be attributed to a group of Saka-s/Mlecchas emerging around this time.


Further down in time, newer settlements appeared after Mahabharata times. Of interest in this regard is a genetic study by Keyser et al, on 26 ancient human specimens from the Krasnoyarsk area supposed to have been inhabited by Saka tribes (Scythians) dated from between the middle of the second millennium BCE to the fourth century CE, indicating R1a1-M17 marker.[6] This is used by AIT proponents to push the idea of Aryan migration, but the upper limit of the date coming after the Mahabharata war shows a push out of these people from Bharatavarsha after the war in 3136 BCE.


Saka tribes defeated by Yudhishthira, the Sakakaraka 


By the time of Mahabharata Saka presence is noticed in pockets within the Indian mainland. They had lived in Videha country at the foot hills of the Himalayas in Nepal- Bihar region. Bhima had subjugated them.[7] In the description of Bharatavarsha by Sanjaya to Dhritarashtra, Saka occupation appears along with Videha and Magadha and also near Yamuna and Anarta in Gujarat region.[8]  


Many Saka tribes were concentrated in the west of India, in and around a mountain called “Amara” and near the sea shore at the north of the Arabian Sea which is identifiable with Makran coast.


Nakula’s military expedition to these regions to subjugate them is found in Mahabharata. [9] One of those tribes by name Ramatha, conquered by Nakula, appears in Kalidasa’s Jyothirvidabharana, as a people defeated by the king Vikrama! Mount Amara or Amara Parvata seems to refer to Amarnath peak in J&K. Since this region was occupied by Mlecchas for long, the abode of Shiva in the Amarnath cave had remained out of reach and therefore unknown to Bharatiya people for a long time. However this peak was visited by the Tamil Kings until 2000 years ago. We will talk about it later.


The Saka-s along with other Mlecchas had taken part in the Mahabharata war, but fought on behalf of the Kauravas. They always fought along with Yavanas, Kambojas, Paradas and such other tribes living in the west-North West beyond the Indus River. They were all vanquished by the Pandavas in the war. Other tribes of that region were subjugated before Ashwamedha yajna. That is how Yudhisthira became the Sakakaraka of the first Saka of Kali Yuga.


Spread of Saka people outside India after Mahabharata war


After the Mahabharata war, the Saka tribes seemed to have spread far into North of Europe. As we try to locate them by the external appearance of half shaven head, Maxyes of Libya in North Africa were known to have grown hair on the right side of the head and shaved the left side. According to Herodotus, they claimed ancestry from the people who once lived in Troy, in modern Turkey.[10] Also known as Meshwesh of Berber origin they were in constant conflict with the Egyptians between 11th and 13th century BCE in their bid to settle down in that region.[11] They were also known as Mazices in Late Greek and Latin sources.[12]


Maxyes and Meshwesh appear as cognates of Mlecchas that changed into Meluhha in course of time. “The Cursing of Agade” of Naram-Sin of early 3rd millennium BCE of Mesopotamia refers to Meluhha as the people of Black land, a reference to Egypt.


Their Berber origin links them with the region of Amarnath peak (Amara Parvata) in Kashmir. This peak was known in Tamil as Paruppadam – a term corrupted to Barbar, due to occupation by the Mleccha tribes known by the same name in Mahabharata! Barbar tribes appear along with Saka-s, Kambojas, Yavanas and other Mlecchas in Mahabharata. The half shaven appearance stipulated for Saka-s seen in Berber/Barbar tribes indicate the presence of many sub-divisions among the Saka-s and Saka becoming a common name for all of them. 


Barbaras along with Yavanas, Saka-s, Ramathas and a host of other Mleccha names appear in Mahabharata as those subsisting on robbery but following Vedic practices.[13] Their separation from the Vedic people caused their Vedic practices to degenerate in course of time – the remnants of which are seen wherever they went, but now mistaken as origin traditions of Vedic society giving rise to the misplaced notion of Aryan Invasion/migration theory.


By the 6th and the 5th century BCE these tribes seemed to have become active in their previous locations to the west of India. By this time the Saka-s had diversified into many sub-classes depending on location and avocation. Their names start appearing in Persian inscriptions around this time, though they came to be collectively known as Scythian. Scythian was the Greek term for Saka-s and their region was known as “Sakastan” (later known as Sistan).


Sakastan was originally home to Jiroft culture that started flourishing after the Mahabharata war ended.[14] With peace restored right from the beginning of Yudhisthira Saka for nearly the next 2500 years, the Saka-s settled in this region were able to develop a culture of their own.


This location of Saka-s matches with the version of Pliny the Elder who lived after the start of the Vikrama Saka, that the Persians called the tribes ‘Sakai’ (Sacae)[15] who lived closer to their territories. The Persian domain extending between the Persian and the Caspian Sea, this location of Sakastan between Persia and India fits with the Indic references of Saka-s living in west of the Indus. This also matches with the description of Varahamihira of the regions of Ramatha, Saka and the rude Mleccha tribes to the west of India.[16]


In addition to traditional Saka-s, new groups of Saka seem to have appeared after the Mahabharata war. One of them was the Trigartas who fled after Arjuna pursued them after the war. The name “Saka Tigraxauda” who descended from king Targitaüs in the legends of Saka recounted by Herodotus is phonetically closer to Trigartas who lost heavily in the Mahabharata war. Later when Arjuna went to their territories in the west following the Ashwamedha horse, the Trigartas refused to budge and attacked him to avenge for the loss of their people in the Kurukshetra war. Arjuna killed their king Suryavarman, his brother, Ketuvarman and a mighty warrior Dhrithavarman, causing the Trigartas to flee.[17]


Saka tribes including Saka Tigraxauda were known to wear pointed hat. Pointed hat seems to be a better choice to hide the half shaven head. In course of time they could have stopped the half shaving practice but continued to wear the pointed hat. The Trigartas defeated by Arjuna might have been ordained to half-shave their heads like any Saka. 


The appearance of Targitaüs in the Black Sea region around 1,500 BC in the chronicles of Herodotus seems to convey the re-surfacing of Trigartas as Saka - the Mlecchas driven out by Arjuna long ago.[18] Their previous affinity with the Mlecchas to the west of Bharatavarsha along with whom they fought the Mahabharata war in support of Kauravas made it easier to merge with the other Saka tribes who made newer homes in Europe by then.


By 600 to 500 BCE those who had left seemed to have come back to the former habitat in the west of the river Indus. This period concurs with Bhagavatam version of start of Kali Yuga (in Dharmic measures) when the Saptarishis were in the star Magha.


Cyrus and the Sakas


Different types of Saka tribes appear in the inscriptions of Persia around this time. Of them, the Sakâ haumavargâ (“haoma-drinking Sacae”) were subjected by Cyrus the Great. The Sakâ tigrakhaudâ (“Sacae with pointed hats”) were defeated in 520/519 BCE by the Persian king Darius I the Great.[19]


The issue at hand is that a few Indic scholars are of the opinion that the Saka era found in the inscriptions could have been initiated by Cyrus the Great or the Saka tribes! In this regard some clarification:


-        Cyrus the Great was never known to have conquered any part of India.

-        The Behistun inscription of Darius the Great giving the list of countries inherited by him from the earlier Persian kings including Cyrus does not mention any region of India or Indus valley.[20]

-        There is no indication of any era started by Cyrus the Great.

-        According to Herodotus, Cyrus was killed by a Saka tribe called “Massagetes” who were not known to have started any era.


There is an opinion that Massagetes was known as Mâh-Sakâ, which means “Moon Sacae” in Persian, but this name sounds closer to Maha-Saka or Great Saka. They were sun worshipers. That period is dotted with many insurgencies and fights and it is not possible to trace any distinct era attributed to them.  


Different Saka tribes collectively known as Scythians had often overrun the Indian territories and that was when King Vikramaditya came into the picture to sanitize the region by driving them out.


According to Persian records [21], Sakâ territories lay to the west of India and up to Amarnath peak in Jammu and Kashmir.

-        Sakâ haumavargâ in the east of Aral Sea were conquered by Cyrus.

-        Sakâ tigrakhaudâ to the east of Caspian Sea were defeated by Darius.

-        Sakâ paradrayâ were living to the north of Black Sea near Ukraine.


In addition there was Sakastan (Sistan), a major location of Saka tribes. There were other Sacae tribes too, all of them carrying semblance of Vedic culture from different times (from Sagara onwards) when they were driven out of Bharatavarsha. By the 1st century BCE, some of them were crossing over to the Indian territories and giving troubles.


Saka tribes defeated by Vikrama, the Sakakaraka  


Kalidasa mentions in Jyothirvidabharana the defeat of the Saka and Ramatha tribes at the hands of King Vikrama.   

-        In the 43rd sloka of the 17th chapter he says that the King Vikrama established the Saka era after driving away the Saka-s.

-        In the 13th sloka of the 22nd chapter, he again says that the King Vikrama defeated innumerable Saka-s.

-        In the 17th sloka of the 22nd chapter, he says, ‘Vikrama of irresistible valour defeated the Saka king of the province of Rumma, brought him to Ujjain, took him round the city as a captive and released him.’[22]


Rumma is likely to be Ramatha according to Kota Venkata Chelam.[23] The name Ramatha appears in Mahabharata too, as those subjugated by Nakula. King Vikrama had subdued them as also other Saka tribes by which he was qualified to be crowned as Sakakaraka. This crowning had taken place on completion of Kali year 3044.


Surprisingly, the name Rumma (the tribes defeated by king Vikrama as per Kalidasa) appears as surname all across Europe with high incidence in India. Though the collected number is very small, say 568, as many as 209 persons with the surname Rumma are found in India while the highest frequency of recurrence of this name is found in Estonia![24] This shows that there is complete assimilation of the so-called Mlechas into the population of India of today. And they had also spread all across Europe carrying Indic markers genetically, linguistically and culturally.


Confusions in Vikrama Saka sorted out


Four major issues are raised about Vikrama Saka:

1)      Was the king Vikrama who initiated the Saka era legendary or true?

2)    If true, did he really initiate the Saka era?

3)     Did Vikrama Saka start on Caitra or Kartika?

4)    Did this Saka start in 56 BCE or 57 BCE?


The analysis:

1) Many writers could not and did not recognize the existence of Vikrama and his Saka era. However, a gold coin purportedly of Vikrama was recently found on the banks of Kshipra in Ujjain and was dated to 1st century BCE.[25] This is considered to be a major evidence for the historicity of King Vikrama.


2) As per currently available inscriptions, his Saka name appears in 8th century CE while there is ample evidence to say that this Saka was earlier known as Krita or Malava Saka. To put at rest any doubts on the initiation of this Saka by Vikrama at Kali 3044 years, let me quote the Buddhist text of Nepal named, “ParvatIya Vamshavali” giving the history of Nepal. This text states that King Vikramaditya came to Nepal and introduced his Saka era.[26] This evidence must put at rest any doubts on king Vikrama initiating a new Saka in his time.


3) This Saka coming up after a very long time of the previous Yudhisthira Saka, it seems to have undergone some teething problems in picking up the right time in order to align with the stipulations stated by the “Pura-vidah”. That is evident in the choice of the date that has led to a perception now whether this Saka followed two different dates, in Caitra and Kartika. There is another school of thought that the month may be either Purnimanta or Amanta – used differently in north and south India.


To get into the root of this problem, I went by the standard requirements for the initiation of a Saka, in the lines of similar rules for the starting date of Kali Yuga. They are,

1)      The Saka must start at the expiry of 3044 Kali Years. 3101- 3044 = 57 BCE. The new Saka must have started on 57 BCE.

2)    The cycles of Pancanga features namely tithi (Shukla Pratipat), month (sun in Mesha), star (Aswini), yoga (Vishkambha) and karana (Bava) must begin together on this date. If not all, at least the tithi and the month must have coincided.


When I checked the Jhora astrology software for the month Caitra in 57 BCE, it showed that the sun was in Pisces on the day of Caitra Shukla Pratipat. The karana cycle started in Bava, but the Yuga cycle was a day behind. Aindra Yoga that was running on that day must be followed by Vaidhriti and only after that a new cycle would begin.


The cycles do not match for this date. Since the Kartikadi tradition is hinted, I checked for the beginning of Kartika and was in for a pleasant surprise. All the cycles – tithi, vaara, yoga and karana started together as was on the 1st day of Kali Yuga. The week day was Friday. The sun was in zero degree Libra the previous day when the conjunction (amavasya) occurred.


The stipulation on the conjunction of the cycles is useful for tithi, star computation etc. Even for fixing Muhurta, a calculation is there that starts from the beginning of every cycle. The choice of Kalrtikadi tradition is proof of computational utility of the Kali Yuga and the Saka system. In this case the Saka Era computation starts six months after the expiry of the Yudhisthira Saka. This calls for adjustment of the delayed time (in terms of tithi, yoga etc.) whenever the elapsed days and years are counted.


4) This must have made them to look for the nearest date where the cycles had matched. To my surprise, I found that all the features matched for the previous year, 56 BCE, but the Kali date was a year earlier. 


The sun and moon had just entered Aries. Tithi, Nakshatra, yoga and karana started their cycles. The day was Sunday. Main cycles matching together on this date must have made the scholars of that time identify this year (56 BCE), Raktaakshi as the first year of the Vikrama Saka. But this year coming ahead of the expiry of the Yudhisthira Saka, they must have chosen Kartika Pratipat in the next year (57 BCE) when the Yudhisthira Saka 3044 had expired. 


Thus Vikrama Saka seems to have come up with three dates, Kartikadi, Caitradi at the expiry of Kali 3044 and Caitradi at Kali 3045, when the Yudhisthira Saka was not yet over. The month started after Amavasya, no doubt. The presence of twin years is a proof for the Saka classification to have been proposed right at the time of the beginning of Kali Yuga. The scholars of the time seemed to have had a tough time in initiating the Saka that came up long after the rishi tradition was lost.


This Saka was very much a Vedic tradition, initiated by a Bharatiya king for having overpowered the Mleccha tribes. The supposed-to-be present other Saka gets solved as I was going through this methodically and as per standard guidelines. The above date, 12th March 56 BCE, has a surprise element of a Mleccha Era beginning on that date – the details of which are found only in astrology texts of the Mlechas, not in any other text.


In the next part, we shall see that Mleccha era applicable to Mlechas but wrongly understood as Bharatiya by a section of Indic scholars. We will also explore the identity of Shalivahana and the Saka tribes overpowered by him. After that I would demonstrate why the Saka dates attributed to an old era as given by the scholars are untenable.


(To be continued…)


[1] Vishnu Purana: 4-3

[2] Priyadarshi, Premendra, 2016, “The Climate Change and the Environmental basis for the Human migrations during Holocene”, Concept Paper presented to the seminar Chronology of Indian Culture since the beginning of Holocene through Scientific Evidence, organised by Institute of Scientific Research on Vedas (I-SERVE), Delhi on 16 July 2016, pp.1-7

[3] Valmiki Ramayana: 1-55-2,3

[4] Valmiki Ramayana: 4-43-11,12

[5] Mahabharata: 12-64

[6] Keyser et al, “Ancient DNA provides new insights into the history of South Siberian Kurgan people”

[7] Mahabharata: 2-29

[8] Mahabharata: 6-9

[9] Mahabharata: 2-31

[10] Herodotus, Book IV, P 191,*.html



[13] Mahabharata: 12-64


[15] Pliny, Natural History: Book 6 – 50

[16] Brihat Samhita: 14-21

[17] Mahabharata: 14-74

[18] Herodotus IV: 5-7. The Saka nomenclature



[21] Map courtesy

[22] Kota Venkata Chelam’s translation




[26] Indian Antiquary 1884, Vol. 13,



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