The Tocharians or Tusharas as known in Indian literature were the easternmost speakers of an Indo-European language in antiquity, inhabiting the Tarim basin in what is now Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, northwestern People's Republic of China. Their unique culture spanned from the 1st millennium BC to the end of the 1st millennium AD. Their language is called Tocharian.
The Tarim mummies suggest that precursors of these easternmost speakers of an Indo-European language may have lived in the region of the Tarim Basin from around 1800 BC until finally they were assimilated by Uyghur Turks in the 9th century AD.
There is evidence both from the mummies and Chinese writings that many of them had blonde or red hair and blue eyes, characteristics also found in present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Central Asia, due to the populations' high genetic diversity. This suggests the possibility that they were part of an early migration of speakers of Indo-European languages that ended in what is now the Tarim Basin in western China. According to a controversial theory, early invasions by Turkic speakers may have pushed Tocharian speakers out of the Tarim Basin and into modern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and northern India in the form of Kushans and the Tocharo-Iranic Hephthalites.
The Tarim Basin mummies (1800 BC) and the Tocharian texts and frescoes from the Tarim Basin (AD 800) have been found in the same general geographical area, and are both connected to an Indo-European origin. The faces on these frescos were usually vandalized in the past due to their European features. The mummies and the frescoes both point to White types with light eyes and hair color. There is no evidence that directly connects them however, as no texts were recovered from the grave sites.
A recent article (Hemphill and Mallory, 2004) reaches the following conclusions:
- This study confirms the assertion of Han  that the occupants of Alwighul and Krorän are not derived from proto-European steppe populations, but share closest affinities with Eastern Mediterranean populations. Further, the results demonstrate that such Eastern Mediterraneans may also be found at the urban centers of the Oxus civilization located in the north Bactrian oasis to the west. Affinities are especially close between Krorän, the latest of the Xinjiang samples, and Sapalli, the earliest of the Bactrian samples, while Alwighul and later samples from Bactria exhibit more distant phenetic affinities. This pattern may reflect a possible major shift in interregional contacts in Central Asia in the early centuries of the second millennium BC.
However, another theory states that the earliest Bronze Age settlers of the Tarim and Turpan basins originated from the steppelands and highlands immediately north of East Central Asia. These colonists were related to the Afanasievo culture which exploited both open steppelands and upland environments employing a mixed agricultural economy. The Afanasievo culture formed the eastern linguistic periphery of the Indo-European continuum of languages whose centre of expansion lay much farther to the west, north of the Black and Caspian seas. This periphery was ancestral to the historical Tocharian languages.
Textile analysis has shown some similarities to the Iron Age civilizations of Europe dating from 800BC, including woven twill and tartan patterns strikingly similar to Celtic tartans from Northwest Europe. One of the unusual finds with one of the mummies was a classical pointy hat (similar in shape to a witch's hat), worn by some European cultures in Ancient and Medieval times, suggesting very ancient Indo-European roots for this tradition. The female mummies also wore the same kind of skirts as have been found preserved in graves from the Nordic Bronze Age.
The Tocharians appear to have originally spoken two distinct languages of the Indo-European Tocharian family, an Eastern ("A") form and a Western ("B") form. According to some, only the Eastern ("A") form can be properly called "Tocharian", as the native name for the Western form is referred to as Kuchean (see below). Commonalities between the Tocharian languages and various other Indo-European language families (as with Germanic, Balto-Slavic, even Italic or Greek) have been suggested, but the evidence does not support any close relationship with any other family. The only consensus is that Tocharian was already far enough removed, at an early date, from the other eastern I-E proto-languages (Proto-Balto-Slavic and Proto-Indo-Iranian), not to share some of the common changes that PBS and PII share, such as early palatalization of velars.
Tocharian A of the eastern regions seems to have declined in use as a popular language or mother tongue faster than did Tocharian B of the west. Tocharian A speakers probably yielded their original language to Turkic languages of immigrating Turkic peoples, while Tocharian B speakers were more insulated from outside linguistic influences. It appears that Tocharian A ultimately became a liturgical language, no longer a living one, at the same time that Tocharian B was still widely spoken in daily life. Among the monasteries of the lands inhabited by Tocharian B speakers, Tocharian A seems to have been used in ritual alongside the Tocharian B of daily life.
Besides the religious Tocharian texts, the texts include monastery correspondence and accounts, commercial documents, caravan permits, medical and magical texts, and a love poem. Their manuscript fragments, of the 8th centuries, suggest that they were no longer either as nomadic or "barbaric" as the Chinese had considered them.
The Tocharians, living along the Silk Road, had contacts with the Chinese, Persians, Indian and Turkic tribes. They might be the same as, or were related to, the Indo-European Yuezhi who fled from their settlements in Gansu under attacks from the Xiongnu in the 2nd century BC (Shiji Chinese historical Chronicles, Chap. 123) and expanded south to Bactria and northern India to form the Kushan Empire.
The Tocharians who remained in the Tarim Basin adopted Buddhism, which, like their alphabet, came from northern India in the first century of the 1st millennium, through the proselytism of Kushan monks. The Kushans and the Tocharians seem to have played a part in the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism to China. Many apparently also practised some variant of Manichaeanism.
The term Tocharians has a somewhat complicated history. It is based on the ethnonym Tokharoi (Greek Τόχαροι) used by Greek historians (e.g. Ptolemy VI, 11, 6). The first mention of the Tocharians appeared in the 1st century BC, when Strabo presented them as a Scythian tribe, and explained that the Tokharians — together with the Assianis, Passianis and Sakaraulis — took part in the destruction of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom in the second half of the 2nd century BC:
- "Most of the Scythians, beginning from the Caspian Sea, are called Dahae Scythae, and those situated more towards the east Massagetae and Sacae; the rest have the common appellation of Scythians, but each separate tribe has its peculiar name. All, or the greatest part of them, are nomads. The best known tribes are those who deprived the Greeks of Bactriana, the Asii, Pasiani, Tochari, and Sacarauli, who came from the country on the other side of the Jaxartes, opposite the Sacae and Sogdiani."
Today, the term is associated with the Indo-European languages known as "Tocharian". Based on a Turkic reference to Tocharian A as twqry, these languages were associated with the Kushan ruling class, but the exact relation of the speakers of these languages and the Kushan Tokharoi is uncertain, and some consider "Tocharian languages" a misnomer. Tocharian A is also known as East Tocharian, or Turfanian (of the city of Turfan), and Tocharian B is also known as West Tocharian, or Kuchean (of the city of Kucha)
The term is so widely used, however, that this question is somewhat academic. Tocharians in the modern sense are, then, defined as the speakers of the Tocharian languages. These were originally nomads, and lived in today's Xinjiang (Tarim basin). The native name of the historical Tocharians of the 6th to 8th centuries was, according to J. P. Mallory, possibly kuśiññe "Kuchean" (Tocharian B), "of the kingdom of Kucha and Agni", and ārśi (Tocharian A); one of the Tocharian A texts has ārśi-käntwā, "In the tongue of Arsi" (ārśi is probably cognate to argenteus, i.e. "shining, brilliant"). According to Douglas Q. Adams, the Tocharians may have called themselves ākñi, meaning "borderers, marchers".
Tocharians in Indian Literature
The Rishikas are said to be same people as the Yuezhis. The Kushanas or Kanishkas are also the same people. Prof Stein says that the Tukharas (Tokharois/Tokarais) were a branch of the Yue-chi or Yuezhi. Prof P. C. Bagchi holds that the Yuezhi, Tocharioi and Tushara were identical. Thus, the Rishikas, Tusharas/Tukharas (Tokharoi/Tokaroi), Kushanas and the Yuezhis probably were either a single people, or members of a confederacy. But based on the syntactical construction of the Mahabharata verse 5.5.15 and verse 2.27.25, outstanding Sanskrit scholars like prof. Ishwa Mishra believe that the Rishikas were a section of the Kambojas i.e Parama Kambojas. And according to Dr B. N. Puri, the Kambojas were a branch of Tukharas .