Anyone familiar with the Indian epics and the Puranas will know of the Ikshavaku. After all, Lord Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, was a proud scion of this clan, named after the legendary king Ikshavaku mentioned in the Vedas.
But centuries after the writing of the epics, there was another dynasty, in the South, in peninsular India, that took this title. The Ikshavakus, who ruled the present-day region around Andhra Pradesh way back in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, were undoubtedly trying to seek divine legitimacy by appropriating the name of this ancient clan. But was there a deeper connection? After all, there was a legend that the Ikshavaku of the Vedas was the son of the ruler of the southern kingdoms and hence also the protector of the five territories of the non-sacrificing, non-Aryan, pre-Aryan peoples. The Atharva Veda and the Brahmanas also refer to them as ‘non-Aryans’ and this led the well-known Orientalist of the late 19th-early 20th century CE, F E Pargiter, to associate them with the Dravidian people.
We will never know how much of this is plausible or whether there is any truth to the tales of yore, but we can piece together the story of the historic Ikshavakus of Andhra, who left quite a legacy, starting in the 3rd century CE, even though their grand capital was swallowed up by the waters of the Nagarjuna Sagar Dam in the 20th century.
You can trace the trail of the Ikshavakus through Vijayapura (present-day Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh) and the many inscriptions that its rulers and their families left behind.
The Ikshavakus were in all probability minor feudatories of the Satavahanas and, after their decline, became rulers in their own right with strong links to the Kshatrapas. They used the same matronymic style prevalent in the Deccan from the earliest times (3rd century BCE onwards) and which was also used by the Satavahanas. They issued similar coins too (cast in lead) and a number of hoards of these have been found.
Their domain spread from their capital city of Vijayapura and encompassed the larger Andhra region and the deltas of the Krishna and Godavari rivers. They ruled from Dharanikota (Amaravati) as feudatories of the Satavahanas and then from Vijayapura (Nagarjunakonda) as an independent dynasty. They seem to have first consolidated their empire in the Krishna-Guntur region after the fall of the Satavahanas and with marital alliances with the Kshatrapas further consolidated their hold on the region of Andhradesa and the lower reaches and deltas of the Krishna and Godavari rivers. They referred to themselves as the Shriparvatiya Ikshavakus probably because Sriparvatiya was also the name for Nagarjunakonda / Nagarjuni Hill. Interestingly this also has a mythical reference. The Matsya Purana (dated by the eminent Indological scholar P V Kane to a period between the 4th and 1st centuries BCE, based on the construction of the verses, the meter), mentions this historical dynasty. In this case too, scholars debate whether this name was originally theirs or was adopted by them from the Puranas to achieve greater legitimacy.
The founder of the dynasty was Vashishthiputra Chamtamula, a Satavahana vassal who came into his own after the decline of the Satavahanas in the early 3rd century CE. We have two known inscriptions mentioning him, and they are dated to his 5th and 13th regnal years. In the latter of these inscriptions, from Kesanapalli, a small village in the East Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh, at a Buddhist monastery, he names himself the founder of the Ikshavaku Dynasty.
Ikshavaku records refer to him as a Shaivite and a performer of numerous Vedic sacrifices including the Agnihotram and the Ashvamedha. These descriptions are corroborated by the discovery of his Ashvamedha-type coins and other archaeological data. His daughter Advai Chamtishri, who married an important local chieftain of the Dhanaka family, named Mahasenapati Mahatalvara Dandanayaka Khamdavishakha. Chamtamula also had a sister named Chamtashri and she in turn was married to Mahatalvara Skandashri of the Pukiya family. Chamtamula was succeeded by his son Virapurushadatta.
Mathariputra Virapurushadatta ruled for 24 years (250-275 CE) and it was during this period that the Ikshavakus rose to true power. We have a number of inscriptions by him. He married the three daughters of his father’s sisters and also a princess from Ujjain (in present-day Madhya Pradesh), Rudradhara Bhattarika, most possibly the daughter of the Western Kshatrapa ruler Rudrasena II (256-278 CE). According to an inscription from his capital city of Vijayapura, he stationed a garrison of Scythian / Shaka guards here, which further cements the Ikshavakus’ association with the Kshatrapas. In turn, his daughter, Kodabalishri, was married into the Chutu clan of Banavasi, predecessors of the Chalukyas of Banavasi (in present-day Karnataka). These alliances strengthened him and the Ishavakus locally and in the North, thereby giving him access to the lucrative Indo-Roman trade on the Western coast of India.
Interestingly, though the monarchy was Shaivite, and Virapurusha a devotee of Kartikeya, their affiliations were not rigid and many of the royal princesses and queens were great patrons of Buddhism, which was prevalent in this region at least 500 years prior to the establishment of the Ikshavaku Kingdom.
Chamtamula’s sister Chamtashri, who was a devout Buddhist, gave generous donations towards the building of a mahastupa over a tooth relic of the Buddha at Nagarjunakonda during the 6th regnal year of Virapurushadatta in the latter half of the 3rd century CE.
This relic is believed to have been sent to Andhradesa by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (r. 269-232 BCE) in the 3rd century BCE, 600 or so years earlier, with a missionary named Mahadeva sent to propagate Buddhism in the region. There are eight known inscriptions by royal women and commoners during the reign of Virapurushadatta, all towards the construction of Buddhist monuments.
What is fascinating is that while the men in the royal families and the court officials generally give donations to Brahmanical shrines, the women were all major donors to Buddhism.
Virapurushadatta’s son Vashishthiputra Ehuvala Chamtamula succeeded him and also ruled for 24 years. His reign marked the true zenith of the dynasty. He also left behind many inscriptions, including the oldest-known copper plate grant in the Indian subcontinent, the Patagandigudem Plates (3rd century CE), found in the tiny village of Pata Gandigudem in T Narasapuram Mandal in the West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh.
There were numerous invasions of Ikshavaku lands by petty neighbouring clans during Ehuvala’s reign and they are seen reflected in the inscriptions of his victorious commanders and generals. The religion of the dynasty moved from Vedic rites to Brahmanism during this period, and we have inscriptions alluding to the construction of numerous Shiva temples by the king and his commander, Elishri.
During Ehuvala’s reign, his mother Mahadevi Bhattideva, commissioned a Buddhist monastery at Nagarjunakonda for monks and teachers of the Bhaushrutiya sect. His sister, Mahadevi Kodabalishri, in turn commissioned one for the Mahishasaka sect and an upasika (female lay worshipper) named Chandrashri performed many religious activities for the Aparamahvinaseliya sect. Buddhism flourished during Ehuvala’s reign.
Ehuvala was succeeded by Vashishthiputra Rudrapurushadatta, his son from a Mahakshatrapa princess named Vammabhatta. There was much commerce with and much influence of the Kshatrapas on the Ikshavaku court. Rudrapurushadatta also adopted the classic Kshatrapa title ‘Svami’ while referring to his father and predecessors. He left behind a pillar inscription known as a Chhaya Sthambha (memorial pillar) at Nagarjunakonda, commemorating his mother. According to the well-known epigraphist Richard Salomon, this inscription and its contents are proof of the marital alliances. The well-known historian Upinder Singh estimates Rudrapurushadatta’s reign as having lasted from 300 to 325 CE.
The art of the Ikshavakus was a last burst of light from the great flame set ablaze in Andhradesa by the Satavahanas at Amaravati, Jaggayyapeta and Bhattiprolu. It was a great phase of Buddhist revival and perhaps the phase that inspired all subsequent ‘temple architectural’ styles that we call ‘Dravida’ as seen in the shrines at Nagarjunakonda. The Ikshavakus’ influence on the early art of South-East Asia and on the ‘Amaravati Style in Sri Lanka’ has been noticed and discussed in great detail by foremost art historians like Ananda K Coomaraswamy. Other art historians like Benjamin Rowland have written about the Graeco-Bactrian influences at Amaravati and the possibilities of direct Graeco-Roman influence via the sea route. All in all, the Amaravati School of Art was a huge influence on the art of Southern and South-East Asia.
The Ikshavakus had strong connections with Sri Lankan Buddhism and, according to epigraphists S J Mangalam and Okkampittye Pannasara, the Mahayana influences on Theravadan Sri Lankan Buddhism have their roots in Nagarjunakonda. This is clearly seen, according to these experts, in the strong influences of the Ikshavaku style on the Sinhala Brahmi script and the construction of the epigraphs themselves. A Sri Lankan monastery at Nagarjunakonda, dating to a later period, strengthens this hypothesis.
The reign of the Ikshavakus drew to a close by the end of the 3rd century CE, following skirmishes with the Abhiras, Traikutakas and Brihatpalayans. The Puranas assign the Ikshavakus a 100-year reign. Archaeologist and historian K Krishna Murthy estimates their rule stretched from 227 to 309 CE (72 years) while Upinder Singh estimates 210 to 325 CE (115 years). The Ikshavakus were finally absorbed into the Pallava Empire, perhaps as vassals, by the middle of the 4th century CE. This also brought to an end the great phase of Buddhist art and architecture in Southern India that had started in the 2nd century BCE (if not slightly earlier), at Bhattiprolu, Amaravati, Jaggayyapeta and other such sites in coastal Andhra Pradesh. While Buddhism lingered on in this region for many more years, its heyday was over.
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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