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Satavahanas, Yavanas and the ‘Cotton Road’

Satavahanas, Yavanas and the ‘Cotton Road’

The story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra is one of the greatest love stories in the world. But few are aware that when Mark Antony lost the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, Cleopatra had planned to escape to India with her treasure. Sadly, that was not to be, as her ships were burnt before they were launched. 

But the idea of Mark Antony and Cleopatra escaping to India is not as fantastical as it seems, for during this time, India was the greatest trading partner of the Roman Empire. Such was the scale of Indo-Roman trade that in 77 CE, Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder would call India ‘the Sink of World’s Gold’.

It was the Satavahana Empire that controlled vast swathes of the Deccan between 1st century BCE to 3rd century CE, which was the main trading partner of Rome. Not surprisingly, a large number of Greco-Romans, who were called ‘Yavanas’, also settled in India and their influence can still be seen in places as remote as Nagarjunakonda in Telangana.

To learn more about the Satavahanas and their cultural interaction with the Roman world, we spoke to Prof Pia Brancaccio, Professor in the Department of Art and Art History of Drexel University (Pennsylvania, USA), where she teaches courses in the arts of South Asia and is responsible for the Asian Art Curriculum. Her research focuses on early Buddhist art and cross-cultural exchanges in South Asia, with a regional emphasis on the visual cultures of ancient Gandhara and the Deccan Plateau.

Prof Brancaccio shared with us some very interesting perspectives on the Satavahanas, the Yavanas and the very intriguing concept of the ‘Cotton Road’ that was once the Indian counterpart to the ‘Silk Road’.Extent of the Satavahana Empire | LHI

Extent of the Satavahana Empire | LHI

You have spoken about a new idea, ‘the Cotton Road’. How far back do you trace its journey? What were the ramifications of this Road? 

I coined the expression ‘Cotton Road’ to allude to the ancient commercial networks centred on the distribution of cotton textiles produced in the Western Deccan, across the Indian Ocean. As much as the growth of Buddhism on the so-called Silk Road went hand in hand with the development of a commercial economy linked to the silk trade, it is my impression that the flourishing of Buddhism in the Western Deccan was closely tied to the production and trade in cotton textiles – in essence, we are looking at a trading system that could be well-referred to as the ‘Cotton Road’.

The beginning of the Cotton Road traces back to the Satavahana times. The information from the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea tells us that a variety of cotton textiles produced at Ter and Paithan were destined for remunerative trade across the Indian Ocean. The findings of 1st CE Indian cotton fragments at the Red Sea Port of Berenike in Egypt confirm this picture. 

Thus, Buddhist monasteries in the Western Deccan were not only strategically positioned to take advantage of commercial routes linked to long-distance trade, but they were also situated to exploit agricultural areas covered with fertile black soil known as regar, ideal for cotton production. 

This is well exemplified by the early Buddhist monasteries at Ajanta and Pitalkhora on the upper regions of the plateau established at the crossroads of important commercial itineraries linking the cotton-producing areas of the Deccan to different distribution centres indicated in the Periplus, such as Ujjain to the north and the ports of Sopara, Kalyan and Bharuch on the coast. 

Long-distance commerce stimulated agricultural activities linked to cotton production at a time when Indian textiles were desired exports on the international market. Part of the profits from this remunerative trade may have been directly invested in the establishment and maintenance of the Buddhist caves.Paintings inside Cave No. 10 at Ajanta

Paintings inside Cave No. 10 at Ajanta | Wikimedia Commons

Considering the number of ‘Yavanas’ who traded and even lived in the Satavahana Empire, do we find any Western accounts of the Satavahana Empire? What was life like for these people in those times?

Unfortunately, we do not have any Western accounts of the Satavahana Empire, aside from brief references in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a manual for Indian Ocean traders written in Greek in Alexandria in the 1st CE, mentioning Gautamiputra Satakarni and the main Satavahana trading centres in the Western Deccan. We do not know much about how life would have been in those times. However, we can get a few glimpses of it from a variety of scattered sources. 

In the Western Deccan, the earliest fragments of wall paintings from Ajanta Cave 10 as well as many artefacts in terracotta and other media preserved in the Ramligappa Lamture Museum in Maharashtra’s Osmanabad district, can offer us an insight into Satavahana material culture. On the other hand, the beautiful poems compiled in the 1st century CE in the Prakrit anthology Gathasaptashati by Satavahana king Hala give us a sense of the literary and poetic atmosphere of the time. 

In other parts of the Deccan, which fall within the boundaries of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh today, carvings from the stupas at Kanagahanalli, Sannati and Amaravati, also show how life  – especially that of the upper classes – may have unfolded at the time of the Satavahanas. And, of course, one should not forget that the renovation of Stupa No 1 at Sanchi, with its beautiful carvings, also reflects this historical moment. The Great Cave at Sanchi | LHI

The Great Cave at Sanchi | LHI

From a cultural perspective, you have spoken about how the polyglot Satavahana industry assimilated Western items. What is the most striking example of this, according to you?

To me, one of the most spectacular items from the globally-minded Satavahana industry is a hexagonal bone handle from Ter kept in the Ramligappa Lamture Museum in Maharashtra’s Osmanabad district. The handle likely used to hold a mirror. It shows on its sides incised images of three couple types from different milieus: Central Asian, Graeco-Roman and Indian. Hairdo, ornaments and costumes seem to define the provenance of the figures represented on each facet of the handle. Most striking is the Graeco-Roman couple: the male figure, with a prominent nose and straight unruly hair, has a frowning expression, reminding us of images of actors represented in the ancient Graeco-Roman world. 

The global reach of the ivory and bone industry from the Satavahana period is well illustrated by the finding of an Indian ivory figurine in Pompeii that predates the 79 CE volcanic eruption that destroyed the city. It was likely the product of a Satavahana atelier at Bhokardan in Maharashtra. On the other hand, the findings of Roman bronzes in the Kolhapur hoard from Maharashtra attest to the two-way nature of this exchange and to the interest for diverse artistic models alive in the Satavahana world. Pompeii Lakshmi

Pompeii Lakshmi | Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that the Satavahanas shifted their capital south, away from Paithan, largely because of a decline in Roman trade but this has been refuted by some scholars. What is your view and what can you tell us about this second phase of the Satavahana rule? For instance, what happened to the Western Deccan region during this interim?

Around the beginning of the Common Era, thriving Indian Ocean trade surely boosted the power of the Satavahanas in the Western Deccan, as well as that of the Western Kshatrapas based in Gujarat, who fought the Satavahanas for control of the trade. The expansion of Buddhist monasticism on the Western Ghats is connected to Satavahana involvement in commercial activities, but also in part to their rural expansion up on the plateau. 

Changes in Indo-Roman trade and in the mercantile geography of the region, as well as significant agricultural growth in the upper regions of the Deccan, may have shifted the power centres. In the 3rd CE, we do not see many new Buddhist caves being established in the Western Deccan. However, we do continue to see some support at cave monasteries in the Konkan such as Kanheri and Kuda. Naneghat Pass | LHI

Naneghat Pass | LHI

According to you, what was the most lasting legacy of the Satavahana period and its close interface with the Western world?

When thinking about something that gives us a sense of the power and legacy of the Satavahana dynasty, I think about the site of Naneghat in Maharashtra with its breathtaking rock-cut pass, its ancient paved road and the nearby dynastic shrine with royal portraits and inscription – what an incredible statement of Satavahana power! 

And beyond the pass, the spectacular cave clusters at Junnar overlooking a beautiful landscape on the plateau remind us that the development of organized Buddhist monasticism is also a legacy of the Satavahana period.  And, finally, when thinking about a global legacy of the Satavahanas, of course the beautiful ivories found at Pompeii and Begram epitomize the internationally recognized artistic accomplishments of the Satavahana period and its unparalleled ivory industry.

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