Just off the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, at the foothills of Lonavala, you will find a set of caves cut into the hillside. Here, you will find a grand chaitya griha, which still retains its 2,200-year-old wooden ribbing. Alongside this are carved a series of viharas, each with a number of austere rooms or bunkers for monks and elaborate reliefs.
These caves, known today as the Bhaja Caves, were once a place of Buddhist worship and meditation, overlooking one of the most frequented trade routes in ancient India. These are the oldest rock-cut caves in India after the ones made during the Mauryan period in Bihar, in the Barabar Hills. Here, in an inscription dating back over 2000 years, you will also find a reference to a mysterious dynasty called the ‘Maharathis’, who seem to have ruled the Central Deccan and Northern Konkan region in the 2nd century BCE.
The fact that the kingdom of the long-forgotten Maharathis coincides with a large part of the state of ‘Maharashtra’ in Modern India is a tantalizing twist worth wondering about. But who were the Maharathis? What was their world like? And how many other ‘unknown’ kingdoms have we lost from this period?
We take a tour through some of the lesser-known caves along the ancient trade route through the Western Ghats and look at the coins left behind, to piece together the story of the Deccan in 200 BCE.
This was a time when the Mauryan Empire had crumbled and the north was in turmoil. Local chieftains began to assert themselves and lorded over large swathes of the old empire. Much of this was to control the lucrative trade routes that had been established during the centuries before.
After the Nala Sopara Edict of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (now in the CSMVS Museum in Mumbai), the oldest inscription in Western India, is the Naneghat inscription. Etched into the wall of a cave at Naneghat, around 120 km north of Pune, the inscription is of Naganika, queen of Satakarni the First, of the Satavahana dynasty, and daughter of a Maharathi chieftain named Tranakariyo. This is the first reference to the ‘Maharathis’ that we have. In this inscription, dated to the 1st century BCE, Naganika talks about her husband, their life together and about the new king, their son, Shaktisri. She also talks of her father, the Maharathi king, thus proudly proclaiming her lineage.
Naganika was a powerful queen and it was the matrimonial alliance with her that helped the Satavahanas get a strong toehold in a region that was crucial for them.
The period between 200 BCE and 100 CE in Western India is remarkable for three different reasons. First, the strengthening of trade and trade routes from the coast to the hinterland via passes in the Western Ghats. Second, the building of numerous rock-cut Buddhist monasteries on both sides of the passes in the ghats. And, finally, the empowerment of local dynasties, thanks to the extremely lucrative trade, fuelled to a large extent by the growing appetite for Indian goods in Rome. Although these small kingdoms were eventually overrun by the Satavahanas, the first empire-builders of the Deccan, they represent an important period in the interim.
Sadly, the kingdoms that rose during this interim period left little behind. It is thanks to the rock-cut caves and the inscriptions on them, and a few coins, that we have any real historical data on the existence of these dynasties.
Probably the largest among these small, almost unknown kingdoms was that of the Maharathis since it was their princess whom Satakarni the First married to create an alliance that cemented his kingdom. The Naneghat cave with the inscription of Naganika was also the earliest royal image gallery in which were carved the images of Satakarni, his father Simukha, his wife Naganika, her father Maharathi Tranakariyo, and three (or four) Kumaras or princes. Sadly, only the names and worn stubs of the feet remain and all the images are lost to us today.
What is most important is that Naganika’s and therefore the Maharathis’ importance is seen from the fact that, of all the queens of the Satavahana Empire, she alone struck coins in her own name. This was unheard of prior to this event, not just in the Deccan but all over India.
The only such similarity is seen in the coins of Chandra Gupta, the first ruler of the Gupta Dynasty, where he is shown with his wife, Kumaradevi, the Lichchhavi princess. This was 400 years after Naganika put her name on a coin, after a similar alliance that was advantageous to her husband.
Chandra Gupta too established the Gupta dynasty with the help of a matrimonial alliance into one of the premier lineages of Northern India. However, the coins of Chandra Gupta are jointly issued in the names of Chandra Gupta and Kumaradevi and were most probably minted by their son Samudra Gupta to honour his parents.
In the entire interim in India not a single queen is known to us from her coins although many have been mentioned in inscriptions and have had inscriptions of their own inscribed such as that of Gautami Balasri, mother of Gautamiputra Satakarni (mid 2nd century CE) at Nashik.
Who were these Maharathis? Where did they come from? What made them so important?
Actually, the Maharathis first find mention in the inscriptions of Ashoka (at Mansera, Girnar and Dhauli), where they are referred to as his vassals in Maharashtra as the Rathis/Rathikas (alongside the Bhojas and others). After the death of Ashoka and the decline of the Mauryan Empire, these Rathis appear to have styled themselves as ‘Maharathis’ and emerge from the shadow of vassalage by creating a chiefdom of their own in the Northern and Western Deccan.
Interestingly, they also find mention alongside the Bhojakas in the Hathigumpha inscription of King Kharavela of Kalinga (2nd century BCE) at Udayagiri in Odisha. He mentions them among the kings he had subjugated. Surprisingly, apart from these brief mentions, the Rathikas are almost completely absent from the writing of the history of India and the Deccan.
Caves of the Deccan
The earliest evidence of monumental architecture in the Deccan are the beautiful Buddhist rock-cut caves of Bhaja, Karla, Bedsa and Kondane, all dated to between the 2nd and the 1st centuries BCE. All these caves lie on the main trade route that goes from the west coast of Maharashtra to the hinterland via some important breaks in the Western Ghats, including the Bhor Ghat and the Naneghat. Interestingly, both these corridors, which connect the hinterland to the coast, have important Buddhist cave complexes. They are offshoots of the Dakshinapatha (southern trade route) connecting the western coast and the important ports of the period with the hinterland.
Each of these ghats had important cave complexes adjacent to them. Naneghat has the Naneghat Caves, the Manmodi or Bhimashankar Buddhist Cave and the Lenyadri or Shivneri caves; while the Bhor Ghat has the Bhaja, Karla, Bedsa and Kondane cave complexes.
The story proposed by art historians and archaeologists has always been that these early caves in Maharashtra were built by merchants and traders. However, this is debatable. It is impossible to believe that these lucrative trade routes did not have various polities fighting over them, for tolls and taxes, right from their inception, and that without the umbrella security of an established political power, traders would have ventured through these lands.
What’s more, the caves at Bhaja, Bedsa and Karla all have inscriptions pointing to the reigning polity, which once again appears to be none other than the Maharathis. At Bhaja, we have the inscription of Maharathi Kausikiputra Venudutta, who donates a water tank. The late Dr Shobhana Gokhale, noted epigraphist and numismatist, discovered four more inscriptions on four more water cisterns on the route from Bhaja to Visapur.
At Bedsa, we have an early 1st century BCE inscription recording a donation of a water cistern by a Maharathi queen, who was originally a Mahabhoja princess, Mahabhojabalika Mahadevi Maharathi Samadinika.
The Karla inscription is even more ‘royal’ as it records the donation of the (extant) Lion pillar outside the main chaitya at the complex. It was donated by Maharathi Gotiputra Agnimitranaka. Dr Abhijit Dandekar, archaeologist and Associate Professor at Deccan College, Pune, says it appears to date to the 1st century CE on palaeographic grounds.
It is most definitely a very important part of the complex and a very vital and visible donation. We also have donations from Sopara at Karla, thus making a direct link between the port, the Bhor Ghat and the trade route passing by Karla. These links between the ports and the ghats are incredibly important to historians as they recreate the movement of trade and traders in the past.
Thus all three of the oldest cave complexes in Western India have inscriptions of the Maharathis, who remained later vassals of the Satavahanas and were most probably part of a larger confederation of chiefdoms. Their coins have been found as far afield as Vidarbha and as far south as the Maharashtra-Karnataka border. Surprisingly, there are no coin finds to date, near the caves or on the west coast of India.
Apart from the Maharathis, there were the Mahabhojas, who had their base further south, in Raigad district of Maharashtra; the Kannabhojas at Mahad a little further south; and the Kuras (who interestingly often refer to themselves as Maharathis on their coins) near Kolhapur and Karad. To the east were the smaller kingdoms of the Kuras and a few more chiefdoms calling themselves Maharathis on their coins, as well as the Chutus of Andhra Pradesh.
All these dynasties are known mainly from their coins and a few inscriptions, and are all dated on palaeographical grounds to the period between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE. The Chutus are the only ones whose dates go back to the 3rd century BCE.
Mentioned alongside the Rathikas in the inscriptions of Ashoka are the Bhojas. In the 1st century BCE, we see a ruling family called the Mahabhojas in Southern Raigad. They are known to us from their many inscriptions at the Kuda Cave complex in Tala taluka of Raigad district in Maharashtra, and from a few coins found at Chaul, a very important ancient port which traded with Rome and elsewhere. They prospered here and did well for themselves during the period of Indo-Roman trade as is seen from their inscription.
A little further to the south, we have the Caves at Mahad, near the modern town of Mahad on the Savitri River in Raigad district. These caves are known as Gandharpale and here we have evidence of a cadet branch of the Bhojas known as the Kannabhojas or Kumarabhojas. Their territory is contiguous with that of the Mahabhojas, and while the Mahabhojas controlled the sea route node at the port of Mandad, the Kannabhojas were on the main hinterland highway that ran alongside the Western Ghats and linked all the coastal nodes.
As we go further south and east, we have yet another enigmatic dynasty dated to the cusp of the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE – the Kuras. This dynasty has been mentioned on the relic casket recovered from the Bhattiprolu Stupa (2nd century BCE) in Andhra Pradesh and their coins have been recovered from excavations at Brahmapuri (ancient Kolhapur) and Belgaum.
The Bhattiprolu Stupa, which lies today in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, was a flourishing pre-Satavahana, Buddhist settlement with a very large brick stupa known as the Mahachaitya. Excavations in the 1870s by Archaeologist Alexander Rea revealed a number of reliquaries bearing inscriptions that proclaimed to have within them the relics of the Buddha himself.
Kings like Vasishtiputra Vilivayukura and Gautamiputra Vilivayukura are known from the coins of the Kuras. The king mentioned at Bhattiprolu, Siva Kura, has also been seen on coins (and in hoards) as Sivakura/Sivalakura. Archaeologist H D Sankalia, in his excavations at Brahmapuri, has also described the coins of the southern Maharathis, the Sarajakana Kalalya Maharathisa and Hariputra Vilivayakura Maharathiputrasa (1st to 2nd century CE). Interestingly, in some cases, we also see the prefix ‘Ranyo’ or ‘King’. This confirms that the Kuras were most definitely a regnal dynasty at some point.
The coins of the Kuras are, in turn, very similar to those of the Chutus/Chutukulas, a dynasty that many historians believe is in some way the predecessor of the Andhra Satavahanas. A number of inscriptions of these Chutu rulers have been found in Banavasi in Karnataka and are considered the oldest inscriptions in Karnataka after the Ashokan edicts. These supposedly date back to the late 3rd and early 2nd centuries BCE.
While we do not understand the early antecedents of the Chutus, we do know that they were a dynasty that ruled from Banavasi in Karnataka between the late 2nd century BCE and the 4th century CE, and that they too like all those mentioned before were vassals of the Satavahanas.
The links between these ‘southern’ chiefdoms and the later Satavahanas is also very interesting. Much like the matronymic (where sons were identified by their mothers’ names) used by the later Satavahanas, the same is seen among the Maharathis at Bedsa, the Mahabhojas at Kuda and the Kuras, on their coins. This points to shared or even identical cultural traits.
It stretches the imagination to believe that itinerant traders built such elaborate and decorated caves. This is the work of strong, established polities which in turn aided traders who further supported these complexes for their own spiritual and physical succour. Thus we need to take a long and hard look at our history all over again. We need to read between the lines and we need to talk about local dynasties, chiefdoms and polities that made up the fabric of ancient India.
It is time we tried to understand where the Satavahanas came from and who their subsidiaries and vassals were.
It is time we recognised the contributions of these local dynasties and began to bring them into mainstream history. We need to realise that history does not stop just because we have no data from a region or a period.
Digging deep into what we have and reading between the lines makes it very clear that the Deccan was populated by a number of small kingdoms/chiefdoms during the times of the Mauryas and the Satavahanas, and that in the interim phase, all of them appear to have enjoyed a great degree of independence.
They created their own states, controlled land and trade, and thereby generated sufficient revenue to not only make donations to the Buddhists but to monetise their economies by minting their own coins. Much more work needs to be done here before we can fill in sufficient blanks but the data that we have is already helping us create a rather detailed preliminary sketch.
This article is part of our 'The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material - archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
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