Uttara Kuru and the Jats

Subhash Kak
6 min readAug 10, 2018
“Tomyris Plunges the Head of the Dead Cyrus Into a Vessel of Blood” by Rubens

Some friends have asked for information on Uttara Kuru and so here it is. I also provide some lesser known facts about the remarkable community called the Jats, who were spread from India to Uttara Kuru, and about whom the famed historian Arnold J. Toynbee wrote thus: “It may not be fantastic to conjecture that the Teutonic-speaking Goths and Gauts of Scandinavia may have been descended from a fragment of the same Indo-European-speaking tribe as the homonymous Getae and Thyssagetae and Massagetae of the Eurasian Steppe who are represented today by the Jats of the Panjab.”

We hear of Uttara Kuru and Uttara Madra in the Mahābhārata. The Aitareya Brāhmaṇa (2nd millennium BCE from its internal astronomical evidence), says (in 8.14) that the kings of Uttara Kuru and Uttara Madra, in regions beyond the Himalayas in the north, had Vedic consecration.

We know that the regions of Kuru and Madra were roughly in the Ganga-Yamuna doab and West Punjab, respectively. One may then infer that during the period of the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa, Uttara Kuru was the Tarim Basin and Uttara Madra the region beyond Bactria (Bāhlīka).

Megasthenes and Strabo both mention the Uttarakuru as a land associated with the Indians. Ptolemy (100 CE) spells Uttara Kuru as Ottorokorrhas and describes it to be in the mountains in Central Asia, but erroneously locates it further to the east. Since the Greeks don’t mention Uttara Madra, it appears that by the time of Classical Greece the entire region right up to Caspian Sea was called Uttara Kuru (with the name Uttara Madra absorbed into it). The Mahābhārata (महाभारत अनुशासनपर्व) and the Digha Nikaya (आटानाटीय सुत्त) describe some social customs of Uttara Kuru, and these are similar to the descriptions by the Greeks.

India’s knowledge of the northern latitudes of the lands of Uttara Kuru is in Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa (Crit. Ed. 42.57) in which Sugrīva tells his followers: “Don’t venture beyond Uttara Kuru. The region beyond, where unending night broods, is unknown to us.” This indicates knowledge of the unending night of the Siberian winter.

The Śaka

Who were the people that lived in Uttara Kuru and Uttara Madra? Śaka शक (Greek: Σάκαι, Sákai), Shaka, Scythians, is the name in Sanskrit for the nomads speaking various Aryan languages who lived in these regions. According to Herodotus, the Achaemenid Empire called all of Scythians as “Saka”. They most definitely were composed of many groups (just as the term Indian means different languages and ethnicities) and they were to be found from Tarim Basin to the Danube in Europe. An inscription dated to the reign of Xerxes I (r. 486–465 BC) has them coupled with the Dahae (Dāsa, दास) people of Central Asia.

For more specificity within the Śaka, the Tocharians lived in the Tarim Basin to the northeast of Kashmir. They spoke an Indo-European language and they are believed to be the “Yuezhi” (Chinese 月氏) of Chinese texts. The region of the Tocharians constituted the Buddhist missionary highway from India to China, and over 7000 texts in Indian-style oblong poṭhī leaves of Buddhist material dating from 400 to 1200 CE have been found there. Linguists have determined that the language of the Śaka in the Kingdom of Khotan in the Tarim Basin has many borrowings from the Middle Indo-Aryan Prakrit. Elements of Tocharian culture survived until the 7th century, but they were later absorbed by Turkic people and have become the modern-day Uyghur ethnic group.

Two thousand years ago, we find the Kushanas in Bactria and it is believed they had moved there from the Tarim Basin. The genealogy of the Kushans until the time of Emperor Kanishka (कनिष्क) is provided by the Rabatak inscription, made on a rock in the Bactrian language, which was discovered only recently in 1993 in Afghanistan.

In this inscription, Kanishka calls the language of the Kushanas to be Arya, which means it was Sanskritic. The Hunas (or the Hephthalites or Ebodalo ηβοδαλο) who lived in the same region and became prominent sometime later also spoke an Arya language. Some see the Ebodalo or Abdali as forerunners to the Rajputs.

Getae and Massagetae (Jaṭa and Mahajaṭa)

Herodotus (1.201, 1.204.1.) says that one tribe of the Śaka was Massagetae (Skt.: महाजट) and it was settled somewhere in the great plains to the east of the Caspian Sea. Ptolemy’s Geography 6.10.2 sees them much further south near Kashmir. They were also called simply the Getae (Jat, Skt.: जट) and Thyssagetae (तिष्यजट).

The 9th century Frankish Benedictine monk, Rabanus Maurus, stated: “The Massagetae are in origin from the tribe of the Scythians, and are called Massagetae, as if heavy, that is, strong Getae.”

During Alexander’s campaign in western India in 329/28 BCE there were rebellions of the Sogdians, Bactrians, and Massagetae. From this it may be concluded that they were to the south of the Bactrians and thus situated squarely in Punjab. They are also seen as neighbors of the Aśvakas (Skt.: अश्वक), which is apparently the early form of the name Avagānā for the Afghans used by the Indian astronomer Varāhamihira.

When Arabs entered Sindh in the seventh century, the Jats were the chief tribe they met and they called them Zatt. This shows that the Jats were spread all the way from Sindh to Afghanistan and beyond.

Śiva is called जट and महाजट in the Mahābhārata and the Śiva-Stotra, indicating he was a leading deity for the Jat people.

How do we know that the language of the Jat was Indo-Aryan? Well the Jats form about 25% of the population of Haryana and Punjab and they are also present in large numbers in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and other states. If they were an intrusive group from Central Asia with a different language, they would have been able to maintain their separate speech, just as large intrusive groups in Europe and Asia have done over centuries.

The most famous Jat of ancient history is Queen Tomyris (Tahmirih, Skt. ताम्रिः, named after a daughter of Dakṣa दक्ष). She defeated and killed Emperor Cyrus (कूरुश or कुरोश) in 530 BCE. Herodotus describes the great victory of Tomyris thus:

[1.214] “Tomyris mustered all her forces and engaged Cyrus in battle. I consider this to have been the fiercest battle between non-Greeks that there has ever been…. They fought at close quarters for a long time, and neither side would give way, until eventually the Massagetae gained the upper hand. Most of the Persian army was wiped out there, and Cyrus himself died too.”

Herodotus tells us more about the life of the Mahājaṭa, महाजट:

“ [1.215] These Massagetae are like the Scythians in their dress and way of life. They are both cavalry and infantry (having some of each kind), and spearmen and archers; and it is their custom to carry battle-axes.”

“ [1.216] They never plant seed; their fare is their livestock and the fish which they take in abundance from the Araxes. Their drink is milk. The sun is the only god whom they worship; they sacrifice horses to him; the reasoning is that he is the swiftest of the gods, and therefore they give him the swiftest of mortal things.”

In Europe, the Getae were considered similar or equivalent to Thracians, who, not surprisingly, worshiped Dionysus (who many see as the Greek name for Śiva) and the goddess Bendis (= Artemis) who is seen as equivalent to Durga.

Given that greater Uttara Kuru adjoined Europe and the Jats and other Śakas serving as intermediary agents, one can understand how Vedic cultural practices diffused from India to the Slavs, Lithuanaias, and other Europeans.

The memory of the movement of the Jats lives on in the commonality of the names of the European and Jat clans as in Birk (Virk), Bains, Chiller, Dhillon, Gill, Hans, Herr, Kak, Lally, Mann, Mor, and Sandher unless, of course, this is just coincidence. According to Sundeep Jhutti, they are the “traces of the movement of these Getes [Jats]to various countries in the Eurasian continent.”

Second part: https://medium.com/@subhashkak1/the-gundestrup-cauldron-and-its-indian-connection-e75678e53b6a