Satavahanas: Deccan’s First Empire Builders (100 BCE – 3rd CE)



There is a legend that old texts refer to, centered on Paithan in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra. It is the story of Shalivahana, a young man who lived in a potter's settlement in the city, in the days of yore. It is said that he saved Paithan from the attack of a mighty king, Vikrama of Ujjaini. He managed to take on the king’s might with the help of a clay/terracotta toy army that he possessed.

The story goes that he sprinkled amrit or sweet nectar on them, and they came alive. Shalivahana was the son of a Naga king and a Brahmin woman, who had abandoned him in the village when he was born. It is this boy, the legend says, who went on to establish the Satavahana Empire.

It is said that legends and myths arise from the mists of history, and this story, some historians believe, could be a reference to Satavahana King Gautamiputra Satakarni, who defeated the powerful Kshatrapa ruler, Nahapana, who ruled the neighbouring region of present-day West Malwa and Gujarat in the 1st century CE. Historians claim that the story of Shalivahana is confused with that of Simuka, who is said to have founded the Satavahana dynasty.

Victories are rarely final when empires are being forged and neither was Gautamiputra’s. Territorial wars continued long after both he and Nahapana passed on. But this particular victory marked an important moment in the story of the Satavahanas, who can be described as the first empire builders of the Deccan. It gave them a place in our collective memory and ensured that they became the heroes of legends.

For a long time, the story of the Satavahanas was enveloped in darkness. Hints of their greatness came from legends and the Puranas. But as archaeologists, epigraphists, historians and numismatic experts dug deeper, through the 19th and 20th centuries, the veil gradually lifted.

Inscriptions in temples across the Deccan; large hoards of coins found in the Malwa plateau, Maharashtra and Saurashtra; stupas built in Amaravati (in present-day Andhra Pradesh); idols found in faraway Italy; the exquisite gateways of the Great Stupa of Sanchi; and the Buddhist cave temples and monasteries across present-day Maharashtra, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have all helped piece together their story.

Naneghat Pass with the toll-collection jar
Naneghat Pass with the toll-collection jar|LHI

The Rise of the Satavahanas

Make your way up a steep hiking trail in the rolling hills of the Western Ghats, known as the Mavals, a four-hour drive from Mumbai, and you will come to a mountain pass. Known as Naneghat, this was an important tax-collection point on the route from the port of Kalyan (north-east of Mumbai) to Junnar (in present-day Pune district), which is believed to have been an early base of the Satavahanas. Over time, it also connected onwards to Pratisthana (present-day Paithan), the grand capital of the empire.

Inscriptions inside Naneghat Cave
Inscriptions inside Naneghat Cave|LHI

Naneghat is significant not only because of the commercial value it once provided but also because it gives us an insight into the early Satavahana period. This comes from a cave on the side of the pass which is covered in early Satavahana-era inscriptions. Inside the cave, you will also find remnants of a series of sculptures of early rulers of the dynasty – it was probably once a sculpture gallery – covering an entire wall. Sadly, all the sculptures have disappeared and only the feet of a few remain.

Historians are divided on the origins of the Satavahanas. The early Puranas refer to the Satavahana Dynasty as ‘Andhra’ or ‘Andhra-Jatiya’. This led many early historians to believe that the Satavahanas originated in an area further east, perhaps Srikakulam, in present-day Andhra Pradesh. Others even attribute their origins to Bellary, further south, in present-day Karnataka. Later research pointed to the fact that the term ‘Andhra’ mentioned in the Puranas, was the name of one of the many tribes that lived south of the Vindhya ranges. They could have been spread across a large area. More recent excavations indicate that the origins of the Satavahanas could have been in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.

Hathigumpha inscription
Hathigumpha inscription|Wikimedia Commons

The best source for our understanding of the Satavahanas and the period they dominated is epigraphic. The inscriptions at Naneghat give us the early chronology of rulers. Inscriptions in Nashik, commissioned by Gautamiputra Satakarni’s mother Gautami Balasri, tell us about his reign and what happened to him.

That apart, we have cross-references. The first comes from the adjoining kingdom of the Chedis in Kalinga, where King Kharavela ruled – the famous Hathigumpha inscription in Bhubaneswar. Then, there are coins from that period.

References to the list of ‘future’ kings in the early Puranas – the Matsya and Vishnu Puranas, for instance – indicate that Simuka was the founder of the empire. He is said to have defeated the Kanvas – who ruled briefly, usurping the Sungas in the turmoil of the post-Mauryan period – to carve out his own kingdom. The exact dates of Simuka’s reign are vague and while the Puranas refer to a much earlier origin of the Satavahanas, most present-day historians peg it around 100 BCE. Next in line, was his brother Kanha/Krishna, who in turn was followed by Satakarni I, who ruled in 70-60 BCE. It was under him that the first step in real expansion took place. Inscriptions at Naneghat also throw light on this.

One of the most important events in Satakarni’s reign was his marriage. His wife, Queen Naganika, was the daughter of the Maharathi (King/Lord) Tranakiya. The Maharathis or ‘chariot fighters’ were powerful warriors who ruled parts of present-day Maharashtra. The marriage of Satavahana King, Satakarni I, and Naganika was a significant political event in Satakarni’s reign.

The dynastic alliance of this Maharathi princess with Satakarni I gave the Satavahanas military power and sowed the seeds of ambition and empire building. Based on the inscriptions and coins found in various archaeological sites, we know that Satakarni I went on to rule most of Northern Maharashtra. Inscriptions refer to him as ‘Lord of the Southern Regions’ or ‘Dakshina-pathapati’. Though grand sounding, scholars point out that this may have been limited to an area around present-day Maharashtra.

With the coming of Satakarni and Naganika, it is as though the veil is lifted from this period. There is ample information on Satavahana’s rule from here on.

Coin of Queen Naganika
Coin of Queen Naganika|Rajgor auctions 

As the fame and power of Satakarni I grew, so did the stature of his queen, Naganika. Coins were even minted in her name – an extraordinary feat for those times. Two coins that have been found, dating to the 1st century BCE, have Naganika’s name on them. Her name ‘Naganikaya’ in the Brahmi script is placed in the centre of the coin, while the name of Satakarni I is placed below. The Naneghat inscription, though badly damaged, also mentions how she along with her sons Vedisri and Saktisri performed various Vedic sacrifices. Satakarni I is said to have performed two Ashvamedha Yajnas or horse sacrifices.

Interestingly, the position Queen Naganika enjoyed in the Satavahana court could also have set the stage for a unique trend followed by a series of kings of this dynasty, who adopted their mothers’ names – like Gautamiputra Satakarni (son of Gautami), Vasishthiputra Pulumavi (son of Vasishthi)!

The period between Satakarni I and Gautamiputra Satakarni, the most famous of the Satavahana rulers – seems to be muddled in a long list (or shortlist, depending on the source you are looking at) of rulers ranging from 30 to 10! A clutch of these rulers, according to historian and epigraphist D C Sircar, may not have even belonged to the mainline of the Satavahana family. He points to their names mentioned in the Puranas and to inscriptions. He says, “ ‘Apilaka’ seems to have belonged to a branch of the family holding sway in Madhya Pradesh, while ‘Kuntala Satakarni’ and ‘Hala’ belonged to another branch ruling the Kuntala country comprising the North Kanara district and parts of Mysore, Belgaum and Dharwad.”

Broadly speaking, at its widest extent, the Satavahana Empire stretched from Vidisha in Malwa (in present-day Madhya Pradesh), to parts of Karnataka. The core was the stretch between the Godavari and Krishna Rivers. However, victories are rarely lasting and, like other dynasties, the Satavahanas too gained some and lost some during the 300-odd years during which they held sway.

There are two references to how tough it was for the Satavahanas to hold power even in their early days. The Hathigumpha inscription of King Kharavela mentions how he pushed back the armies of his contemporary Satakarni I in the west. The Graeco-Roman account, the Periplus of the Erythraen Sea, believed to have been written in 70-80 CE, indicates a change of fortune for the Satavahanas. While this traders’ account of the known world of the time mentions various towns of the Satavahanas, like Suppara (Sopara) and Calliena (Kalyan), historians interpret the commentary in the work to indicate that the area of Northern Konkan or Aparanta, which was core during Satakarni I’s time, seems to have by now been lost to the Sakas.

Masters Of the Overseas Trade

While the rise of empires in the North, till then – from Magadha to the Mauryas – was fuelled by the expansion of agricultural income, trade along river routes and military conquest, the rise of the Satavahanas, like the kingdoms in the deep south, was powered to a large extent by international trade. And through the period, battles seem to have raged over control of key ports along the west coast – from Bharuch to Kalyan.

In 30 BCE, Rome conquered Ptolemaic Egypt, opening up a new circuit of sea trade via the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea to the Indian subcontinent and then, further east. The ports along the west coast of India – from Bharuch, referred to as ‘Barygaza’ (meaning ‘deep-treasure’) or ‘Bargosa’ by Greco-Roman writers; Kalyan or ‘Kalliana’, Sopara or ‘Shurparaka’ and Muziris – became early hubs for Roman merchants who couldn’t get enough of India’s riches, that is, ivory, cotton, silks, pearls and spices. It is said that at the height of the Roman Empire, a new ship from Rome docked on Indian shores each day, waiting patiently for Indian wares.

With control over the key northern ports of Kalyan and Sopara, the Satavahanas controlled a chunk of this trade, and tolls paid by merchants who frequented the route, in stations like Naneghat, undoubtedly added to their might fuelling their expansion.

The Satavahana Empire benefited greatly from the structures that were put in place during the Mauryan control of the region. This period also would have seen a great increase in inland trade as travel between north and south India became easy. The Satavahana capital at Pratisthana, present-day Paithan, on the banks of the Godavari River, marked an important point in the Dakshinapatha (‘Great Southern Highway’) and it is not surprising that the city grew into a major political hub. The sheer volume of coins issued by Satakarni I, compared to his predecessors, tells us how wealthy his empire was and how the later rulers could build on this wealth.

Coin of Nahapana
Coin of Nahapana|Wikimedia Commons

The Making of an Empire

By the time Gautamiputra Satakarni came to the throne in the 1st century CE (86-110 CE), the Satavahanas had firmly established themselves. But they were on the back foot. To the north-west, in present-day Gujarat, the powerful ruler of the Western Kshatrapas, Nahapana held sway. Nahapana was already in control of Bharuch or Barygaza, an extremely important port that was also the Western Kshatrapas’ capital.

He also now controlled Kalyan, Sopara and the trade routes along the Western Ghats. The shift in regnal symbols by Satavahana vassals like the Mahabhojas to regnal symbols of Nahapana in coinage is seen as a major shift of allegiance, by numismatists such as Shailendra Bhandare of the Ashmolean Museum, at the University of Oxford, England.

Much of the most lucrative parts of the Satavahana Empire were lost. It is at this point that Gautamiputra really leaps out of the history books. Based in Pratisthana or Paithan, inscriptions talk about how he brought together a confederation of kings from across the Deccan region to march against Nahapana, who he eventually defeated.

Near Nashik, Cave No.3 of Pandavleni Caves was built by Queen Gotami Balasiri during the reign of Pulumavi, and also received a dedication by Pulumavi himself. 
Near Nashik, Cave No.3 of Pandavleni Caves was built by Queen Gotami Balasiri during the reign of Pulumavi, and also received a dedication by Pulumavi himself. |Wikimedia Commons

The Nashik inscription written during the reign of his son Vasishthiputra Pulumavi gives us details. It refers to Gautamiputra as ‘Saka-yavana-pahlava-nisudana’ or the ‘destroyer of the Scythians, Indo-Greeks and Parthians’.

The defeat of Nahapana at the hands of Gautamiputra in 78 CE had two important consequences. First, the Satavahanas became etched in memory and in legend as the ‘sons of the soil’ who kept ‘foreign’ invaders at bay. And, second, it heralded the beginning of a new era. Nahapana’s successor, Chashtana, who founded his own dynasty, the Kardamaka Kshatrapas, also set the ball rolling for the ‘Shaka Era’.

This is a historical calendar era (like the Vikram Samvat, which is the historical Hindu calendar), which begins after the victory of Gautamiputra. While it was the Saka Chashtana under whom it was started, it is also referred to as the ‘Shalivahana Era’ in Maharashtra after the ‘Shalivahanas’ or the Satavahanas.

However, according to historian D C Sircar, it is historically inaccurate to link the Shalivahana Era with the victory of Gautamiputra Satakarni. He believes this may have been inspired by the idea of the Vikram Samvat being named after the Northern King Vikramaditya.

Nashik Cave
Nashik Cave|Wikimedia Commons

Gautamiputra’s victory heralded a golden era for the Satavahanas. The empire was now at its height, stretching from Malwa and Saurashtra in the north to present-day Maharashtra and further south till the Krishna River. It was, however, Gautamiputra’s son Vasishthiputra Pulumavi who enjoyed the peace and prosperity that came after his fathers’ victories.

One of the most significant sources of information for the last years of Gautamiputra’s reign comes from an inscription in a Nashik cave in Maharashtra. Although disputed, it also hints of the last years of his life.

Attributed to his mother Gautami Balashri, this Nashik Prashasti refers to Gautamiputra as the “king of kings" and states that his orders were obeyed by the circle of all kings. It indicates that Gautamiputra’s rule extended from Malwa and Saurashtra in the north to the Krishna River in the south; and from the Konkan in the west to Vidarbha (Berar) in the east. The inscription is dated to his 24th regnal year and this is where the controversy emerges. Gautami Balashri is referred to as a jiva-suta, meaning “having a living son”. There is also evidence that by this time, Vasishthiputra Pulumavi, Gautamiputra’s son, was a co-ruler. Historian D C Sircar interprets these facts to mean that perhaps this inscription was made during a time when Gautamiputra was ill, and his mother and son ran the administration. Other historians like V V Mirashi reject this interpretation.

After Gautamiputra’s reign, his son Vasishthiputra ruled for 29 years and further expanded the empire southwards. He came into conflict with Western Kshatrapa ruler Rudradaman, who made peace with him by giving him his daughter in marriage. Vasishthiputra did try twice more to attack Rudradaman I but could not move him. He had to content himself with a southward expansion. It is under him that the Satavahana rule extended deeper south, to parts of present-day Karnataka.

Timeline of Satavahana rulers
Timeline of Satavahana rulers|LHI

Gautamiputra’s son expanded the kingdom, over time the Kshatrapas in the west continued to remain a threat, with territorial battles raging for years. But with the coming to power of Yajnashri Satakarni (152-181 CE), the fortunes of the Satavahanas began to look up again. He defeated the Kshatrapas in the late 2nd century CE and left behind a number of inscriptions at Nashik, Kanheri in present-day Mumbai and Guntur as well as coins. Yajnashri was sadly the last of the great Satavahanas and, soon after him, the dynasty declined. His successor Vijaya was the last known ruler of the dynasty. After this, the Satavahana Empire splintered into regional kingdoms.

The southern gateway of the Sanchi stupa was, according to an inscription (see arrow), donated under the rule of ‘King Satakarni’
The southern gateway of the Sanchi stupa was, according to an inscription (see arrow), donated under the rule of ‘King Satakarni’|Wikimedia Commons

The Satavahana Trail

From the beginning of the Common Era, references to the Satavahanas come from almost all over the Deccan and the east coast of India. A series of later Satavahanas are known, for instance, from inscriptions in the Kanheri caves in Mumbai. In 1939, a hoard of 1,526 coins of this period was found in Tarhala in Akola district of Berar/ Vidarbha in Maharashtra, which shed extensive light on these rulers.

A fragmented Sanskrit inscription from Sannati in Northern Karnataka hints at the spread of the Satavahana state. Coupled with the regnal images of Simuka and Gautamiputra on the Kanagannahalli stupa panel, the coins of the Satavahanas found during the excavations and the Amaravati style of sculptures all seem to point to the spread of his rule into Karnataka and perhaps beyond, into Andhra.

The Sanchi stupa inscription is written in three lines in early Brahmi script over the dome of the stupa in this relief.Dated circa 50 BCE- 0 CE. 
The Sanchi stupa inscription is written in three lines in early Brahmi script over the dome of the stupa in this relief.Dated circa 50 BCE- 0 CE. |Wikimedia Commons

We also have factual evidence to show that Satavahana craftsmen from the Deccan were major players in the building of the Sanchi stupa complex, especially the gateways which are inscribed by the craftsmen of Satavahana ruler Satakarni II. This implies that the region of Vidisha in Malwa, in present-day Madhya Pradesh, was captured by Satakarni and added to the Satavahana Empire.

Apart from inscriptions and coins, there is a range of literary sources that gives us a glimpse into the Satavahanas and their times. The PuranasMatsya, Vishnu, Vayu and Brahmanda – for instance, have varying lists of the kings of the dynasty. The Buddhist Jataka Tales and the earlier mentioned inscriptions at Buddhist cave complexes in Nashik, Karla and Kanheri, and stupas further south in Bhattiprolu, Nagarjunakonda and Amaravati yield information about the Satavahanas.

Simuka, the earliest of the Satavahanas, is mentioned in detail in the Dwatramsika Puttalika, a Jain text that has information about the Satavahana ruler ‘Srimukha’.

A 16th century folio from an Indian retelling of the Kathasaritsagaram
A 16th century folio from an Indian retelling of the Kathasaritsagaram |Wikimedia Commons

This era was also a time of great literary creations and not surprisingly Satavahana rulers find ample mention in classics like the 11th-century Kathasaritsagaram written by Somadevasuri, which mentions the Satavahana Dynasty.

The Gathasaptashati, an anthology attributed to Satavahana King Hala (1st century CE), is a collection of poems on the emotion of love. Apart from that, Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, Katanatra Vyakaranam of Sarva Varma, Leelavati Parinayam of Kuthuhala, Bruhatkatha Manjari of Kshemendra and the Bruhatkatha Sokam of Hari Sena have references to the Satavahana Dynasty. Vatsayana’s Kamasutra also mentions Satavahana ruler Kuntala Satakarni.

But it is through two chance discoveries that the real legacy of the Satavahanas can be truly appreciated.

Statue of Pompeii Lakshmi 
Statue of Pompeii Lakshmi |Wikimedia Commons

Pompeii Lakshmi

It was a discovery in faraway Rome, in fact, in the ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii, that really underlined the reach of the Satavahanas. In 1938, a year before the Akola Hoard of coins was found, archaeologists excavating the ruins of this ancient Roman city destroyed by a volcanic eruption, unearthed an exquisite figurine that resembled the Indian Goddess Lakshmi.

Standing just 25 cm tall, it was exquisitely carved from ivory and was most probably a figurine of a yakshi, or spirit goddess rather than Lakshmi. This ‘Pompeii Lakshmi’, as it is still called, was found in a wooden chest in a private home in Pompeii. Today, it is housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli) in Italy.

While the figure’s origin is still unknown, based on the Kharosthi inscription on it, scholars believe it travelled from Gandhara in ancient India (present-day Pakistan) and reached Pompeii through Roman trade with the Satavahanas between the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE. Interestingly, a small sculpture of the Greek Sea God, Poseidon, was found by archaeologists at Brahmagiri, a site near Kolhapur in Maharashtra, belonging to the same era, underlining the close ties between the Satavahanas and Rome.

Excavation of the south gate of the Amaravati stupa by J G Horsfall in 1880 
Excavation of the south gate of the Amaravati stupa by J G Horsfall in 1880 |Wikimedia Commons

In the latter part of the 2nd century to the 3rd century CE, there seems to have been a shift in the centre of the Satavahanas – East. Many historians attribute this to the slowing trade with Rome, given the flux it faced – economic crisis and strife. This seems to have hurt the fortunes of port cities in the Indian subcontinent, especially on the west coast, all the way Bharuch to Muziris on the Kerala Coast.

Interestingly, this period also saw the shifting of mercantile interest in peninsular India to the east coast, along the shoreline of Andhra and the Tamil country. And that is where a new urban centre, perhaps the later administrative centre of the Satavahanas, shifted to the city of Dhanyakakata, later famous as Amaravati (now the capital of Andhra Pradesh). It must be noted that there are no references to this being the capital of the empire, as far as inscriptions go. However, the presence of one of the most exquisite stupas here, from the Satavahana period, indicates the city’s eminence.

While the Satavahanas were great patrons of both Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas and viharas or monasteries, giving liberal grants to cave temples in Nashik, Kanheri in present-day Mumbai, and all the way down the Dakshinapatha to the west coast of India, it took a British officer, Colonel Colin Mackenzie of the Trigonometrical Survey of India, to discover the finest legacy the Satavahanas.

Relief from the side of the Amaravati stupa, now at the Government Museum in Chennai 
Relief from the side of the Amaravati stupa, now at the Government Museum in Chennai |Wikimedia Commons

While on a tour of the region in 1797, Mackenzie discovered the remains of a large stupa with the most intricate and exquisite sculptures depicting the life and teachings of the Buddha. Later excavations by Sir Walter Elliot of the Madras Civil Service revealed a massive Mahachaitya or Grand Stupa complex with intricate workmanship. There were also a series of 120 sculptures famously known as the Amaravati Marbles (although they are made of limestone). These are currently housed in the British Museum. You can find some of the other ‘marble’ pieces known as the ‘Elliot Marbles’ in the Chennai Museum.

For nearly 300 years, the Satavahanas remained a power to reckon with, across peninsular India. By 225 CE, weak rulers, increasing threats from the north, a decline in trade and a gradual splintering of the kingdom led to the gradual end of this great dynasty. New empires rose – the Ikshvakus in Andhra, the Pallavas further south and the Vakatakas in Maharashtra.

But it is a testimony to the Satavahana legacy that the Deccan, a large part of peninsular India, whether Maharashtra or Andhra, still claims a close connection with them. The capital city of the state of Andhra Pradesh is Amaravati, the site of the grand Satavahana city of Dhanyakakata; and in Maharashtra, Gautamiputra Satakarni’s victory against Saka king Nahapana is still marked as a watershed – a period of a great regional awakening.

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.

This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.

Find all the stories from this series here.

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