Love and Life in Satavahana Times (100 BCE – 3rd CE)
The amorous poetry of an ancient Indian king and the women writers of his time tell us about everyday life during the Satavahana dynasty, the status of women then, and how society was stratified. Discover all this and more in one of the oldest extant anthologies of poetry in the Indian subcontinent
His form in my eyes, His touch in my limbs;
His words in my ears, His heart in my heart;
Now who’s separated?
This couplet, penned by a woman whose husband is travelling, is an example of just how timeless and enduring love is. The pangs of separation from a loved one are indeed universal, for this couplet is part of an anthology of poems put together about 2,000 years ago, by King Hala of the Satavahana Dynasty.
A part of the Gathasaptashati compiled in the 1st century CE, the work consists mainly of poems with an erotic flair, but it serves as a primary source to help us imagine what life was like for the people of the Deccan at the time.
The Satavahanas were the first empire builders of the Deccan. Holding sway for around 300 years, from 100 BCE to the 3rd century CE, they ruled over a kingdom that extended from Vidisha in Malwa (in present-day Madhya Pradesh) to parts of Karnataka. The core of their territories was the stretch between the Godavari and Krishna rivers, and they had a number of important cities such as their capital Pratisthana (present-day Paithan), Amaravati and Junnar, all in the Deccan.
This great dynasty, whose contemporaries were the Western Kshatrapas, the Kushanas, the Chedi kings of Kalinga and the southern dynasties of the early Cholas, Cheras and the Pandyas, ruled at a time when international trade with India was thriving. It was a period of great prosperity and the Satavahanas controlled ports along and west coast of the subcontinent, especially Kalyan and Sopara. These ports became hubs for Roman merchants who couldn’t get enough of India’s riches.
The age of the mighty Satavahanas came to an end in the 3rd century CE and, for a long time, their legacy was hidden in darkness. It was only in the 19th and 20th centuries, when experts started excavating a series of sites, that their story came to light. Artifacts, coins, inscriptions, monuments and manuscripts helped reconstruct the past. Among all these was the literature of the period, which held up a mirror to the life and times of the Satavahanas.
A Poet King & Women Writers
According to the Matsya Purana, King Hala was the 17th ruler of the Satavahanas and he was based in the Kuntala Janapada, comprising present-day North Kanara district and parts of Mysore, Belgaum and Dharwad. Gathasaptashati literally means ‘700 verses written in the gatha (saga) form’. Of these, Hala himself is said to have penned only 44 verses, while some, we are told, were composed by contemporary poets such as Makarandasena, Kumarila, Sriraja and Bhimswami, among others. Interestingly, the anthology also has contributions from women poets, including Reva, Sasippaha, Roha, Girisuta and Gunamugdha.
While a large part of ancient Indian literature is in Sanskrit, written by literate, social elites and is thus detached from the life of common folk, the Gathasaptashati marks a break with this tradition. It is written in the language of the masses – Maharashtri Prakrit, which had its origins in what is today Maharashtra. If Sanskrit was a courtly, scholarly language, Prakrit was earthy, and the Gathasaptashati gives a peep into everyday life by taking us inside the minds of the common folk.
Even by today’s standards, some of it is quite racy and spirited!
Tight lads in the fields, A month in springtime,
A cuss for a husband, Liquor in the rack,
And she young, free-hearted:
Asking her to be faithful, Is asking her to die.
One of the unique aspects of the Gathasaptashati is that it is perhaps one of the earliest works in the world that expresses the thoughts of women (even though most of the verses were written by men). It is one of the most sensual pieces of writing and some verses would be considered scandalous even today!
In her paper, Gathasaptashati: Retelling Intimate History of Ancient Deccan, Associate Professor, LSR, University of Delhi, Dr Smita Sahgal, notes that the renditions in Gathasaptashati are earthy and sometimes funny. As she explains, they are “very sensuous and tender, beautiful and inspirational but interspersed with reflections of unsophisticated chores of existence, uncomfortable human relationships and clear voice of resistance”. However, the women in the Gathasaptashati are also stereotypical – they are either chaste, virtuous and faithful or unrestrained, faithless, mistresses and courtesans.
This tells us that society during Satavahana times allowed women the freedom to voice their opinions. They were not yet bound by the shackles of patriarchy. This theory is further supported by the coins of the period, i.e. the coin issued by Queen Naganika; and inscriptions i.e. Nashik Prashasti of Queen Gautami Balashri issued by the Satavahana queens in their own right; and the rulers adopting their mothers’ names. For example, Gautamiputra Satakarni (son of Gautami) and Vasishthiputra Pulumavi (son of Vasishthi).
The Poetic Landscape
Ask the nights of rain
And the Godavari in spate,
How fortunate he is
And unwomanly my courage.
The Gathasaptashati also gives us a sense of geography, as the rivers and mountains become romantic settings for amorous couples. We find a mention of rivers such as the Godavari, Tapti and Murala (Kerala), the mahua flowers that grow on the banks of the Godavari, and Karanja trees of the Western Ghats. There are also references to the Vindhyachal hill range.
Next, there is mention, for instance, of a youthful peasant using the plough and a wife taking rice for her husband working in the fields. This points to an agriculture-based society during the time of the Satavahanas. The poems also mention what people ate and how they lived. Crops included barley, pulses, sesame, sugarcane and cotton. Secondary occupations mentioned in the poems indicate that there were goldsmiths, blacksmiths, carpenters, potters and weavers, among others, who made the villages vibrant and buzzing with activity.
Historian V D Mahajan writes in his book Ancient India (1960) that Satavahana society and administration was divided into classes. The first included the Mahabhojas, the Maharathis and the Mahasenapatis, who controlled the rastras or districts. They comprised the highest rank of society. The second class included officials like the Amatyas, Mahamatras, and the Bhandagarikas who acted as ministers, treasurers and heads of various departments; and non-officials as the Naigama (merchant), Sarthavaha (head of the traders) and the Sresthis (chief of the trade guild). The third class consisted of the Vaidya (physician), Lekhaka (scribe), Suvarnakara (goldsmith), Gandhika (perfumer), Halakiya (cultivator) etc. The fourth class included the Malakara (gardener), Vardhaki (carpenter), Dasaka (fisherman), Lohavanija (blacksmith) etc. This implies that the social structure during the Satavahanas was not caste-oriented but profession-oriented.
Driven By Trade
Her father-in-law said no
Her languish said yes
To the traveller
Sleeping on the terrace.
There is no direct reference to trading activities in the Gathasaptashati, but we know that trade was vibrant in Satavahana times. Much of this was long-distance and could have been the reason for men travelling, as mentioned in the poetry. In fact, King Vasishthiputra Pulumavi (r. c. 110-138 CE) even issued a coin with an image of a ship on it, a reference to the empire’s trading activities.
The 1st century CE Graeco-Roman work Periplus of the Erythraean Sea gives us an idea of the trade between India and the West. It shows how India has been a part of an interconnected global network for millennia. It talks of ships leaving Egyptian ports, sailing down the Red Sea, following the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, and reaching the west coast of India. The Periplus mentions nearly 20 Indian ports, markets and towns, and paints a buzzing world of trade, production and social exchange. And among the 20 mentioned towns are those of Pratisthana (Paithan) and Tagara (Ter), both in present-day Maharashtra and part of the Satavahana Empire.
Paithan, in present-day Aurangabad district, was one of the capitals of the Satavahanas. Historian R S Morwanchikar writes in his book Paithani, A Romance In Brocades (1993) about how the writer Gunadhya, a contemporary of the Satavahanas, gave a beautiful graphic description of the city in his work Brihatkatha. Gunadhya mentions a large number of palaces, gardens, public buildings and temples in Paithan, which was probably then the biggest centre of trade and industry in the Deccan.
Morwanchikar says that Paithan was known for its textiles even before the coming of the Satavahanas. But it was under their patronage that trade and crafts flourished. It is said that Roman merchants would wait for days and weeks in the port of Kalyan for the famous Paithani textiles to leave the weavers’ looms. During an excavation here, the team including Dr Morwanchikar came across a pot filled with 300 ivory needles. They were used during the Satavahana period, to weave Paithani silk fabrics, which were in demand among Roman brides.
Interestingly, it also seems that when foreign merchants came to India to trade, some even set down roots here. This is evident from some of the Buddhist caves in Maharashtra which were patronised around the beginning of the Common Era, by the mercantile class. These caves bear a number of inscriptions signed by the Yavanas.
The word ‘Yavana’ originally derived from ‘Yauna’ in Old Persian and referred to the Bactrian Greeks when they invaded India in the 2nd century BCE. In time, it was ‘Indianised’ and used by people from the West and the Mediterranean to identify themselves.
With trade between India and the Roman Empire booming, Roman coins made of gold and silver were exchanged for spices, textiles and precious stones and these have been unearthed during archaeological excavations in peninsular India. In the Satavahana centres in the Deccan, terracotta replicas of these coins in the form of pendants have also been found!
Pia Brancaccio, a faculty member of Philadelphia’s Drexel University’s Art History Department, believes that this helps us see how Westerners were perceived in Satavahana times. According to her, the transformation of precious Roman coins into inexpensive Indian ornaments with images of Yavanas on them suggest that common folk saw these foreigners as bearers of good luck and prosperity.
The watchdog dead,
My husband out of town,
And I’ve no one to inform him
A buffalo ravaged the cotton last night.
Hala’s Gathasaptashati is one of the oldest extant anthologies of poetry in the Indian subcontinent. Though scholars don’t agree on a date for its compilation, they do not rule out the fact that it is the earliest secular work we have in Prakrit. Another important work in Paisachi (a version of Prakrit) was Brihatkatha by Gunadhya. Both these texts signify how scholars during the Satavahanas tried to write for the masses, not just for the ruling class.
Although the original Brihatkatha believed to have been written during the Satavahana period no longer exists, there are several later adaptations of it. The legend goes that Gunadhya, a scholar of high merit, was a minister in the court of a Satavahana king. The king asked him to teach Sanskrit but Gunadhya replied that this would take years. Another grammar scholar, Sarva Verma (author of grammar treatise Kantantra Vyakaranam) said that he could teach the king in six months.
Insulted, Gunadhya announced that he would never use Sanskrit again. He went into the Vindhya forest, where he wrote a book of folktales in Paisachi, the language of the people residing in the forests. When he offered the book to a king, it was rejected as it had not been written in Sanskrit, then the language of scholarship and power.
Upset, Gunadhya threw the manuscript into a fire. Later, a distinguished scholar of Sanskrit, Somadeva, found about one-seventh of the manuscript and compiled a Sanskrit translation consisting of 2,400 shlokas, and titled it Kathasaritasagara. Later, Kshemendra, another Sanskrit scholar, translated the portion that had been recovered into 7,500 Sanskrit shlokas and named it Brihatkathamanjari.
Besides literature, the Satavahana period was also known for its art and architecture. Under these rulers, Buddhist art attained the superb forms of beauty and elegance preserved to this day in the cave-temples of Western India such as Karle and Nashik in Maharashtra. The best examples of their art are the marble reliefs of the Amaravathi Stupa, the Sanchi gateways or toranas, and painting fragments at the Ajanta Caves (no. 10 and 12).
Although Buddhism thrived during the Satavahanas, their inscriptions indicate that the rulers claimed Brahmana descent. The Nashik Prashasti, an inscription by Queen Gautami Balashri eulogising her son Gautamiputra Satakarni, calls him ‘ekabrahamana’ (a peerless Brahmin). His ancestor, Satakarni I (r. c. 70-60 BCE), even performed Vedic fire sacrifices such as the Ashwamedha and Rajasuya yajna.
Besides these two religions, Jainism also was practiced in Satavahana times. In fact, it is in a Jain text Dwatramsika Puttalika, that we find the most detailed information about the earliest of the Satavahana rulers – Simuka, who is believed to have ruled around 100 BCE. There were also temples dedicated to Jain tirthankaras at Paithan. The Satavahana rulers were tolerant and found political wisdom in supporting all religions. Maybe this social cohesion was a major reason behind the empire’s stability, and for this, the Satavahanas are not given enough credit in Indian history.
I greet them all:
Love born of deceit,
Love born of coercion,
Love born of stupidity,
Love born of impediment.
While King Hala was writing verse in the Deccan, there was another kind of literature taking shape in South India. Known as ‘Sangam literature’, most of which is believed to have been composed between 100 CE and 250 CE, it is the earliest writings in the Tamil language. Just like Gathasaptashati, Sangam literature too marked a shift from early Indian literature, which was mostly religious. Most of its content focused on themes such as love and heroism.
*Translated Gathasaptashati verses from ‘The Absent Traveller: Prakrit Love Poetry from the Gathasaptasati of Satavahana Hala’ by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (Penguin Classics)
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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