The Mauryan Emperor Brihadratha slowly walked across the lines of the army, with a pleasant smile and confident swagger. It was a routine army review. Just like the many he has supervised over the years. As he walked forward, he suddenly looked back in simmering anger at the guard who was a little slow with the royal umbrella, resulting in a little sliver of the sun landing on the Emperor’s cheek. Little did he know that this would be the last thing he would do.
Pushyamitra Sunga, a high ranking general stepped out of the neatly stacked Mauryan infantry lines and confronted the Lord of Magadha. The emperor looked at him in mild annoyance but soon that expression turned to terror. Pushyamitra had drawn the scimitar out of his scabbard and drove it through Brihadratha’s chest. In one swing of the shoulder, the sun set hurriedly over the Asokan empire as steel met flesh. A new Sun would rise the next day, over the Sunga Empire.
The terrifying control Pataliputra exercised over its dominions during the time of Ashoka had already been diluted and this coup in the royal capital only made the Maharathis ( the local Governors) more ambitious and avaricious. Amongst them who took advantage of the confusion in the plains of Magadha, was a young man in the Deccan. Srimukha.
Little did he know that his mere assertion of independence would sow the seeds to one of the largest empires the Deccan would ever know – The Andhra Satavahanas.
Sungan dominance was challenged by the Kanvas a century later and it was a Satavahana king Pulomavi who kills Susarman, the last Kanva king and ends the dominance of Pataliputra over Indian politics forever. The Mauryan empire fell prey to its great size and centralized administration, like all large empires which tend to believe in centripetal usurpation of power do ( Remember the Khiljis after Allauddin or the Mughals after Aurungzeb). It was supplanted to a large Satavahana empire which captured the Deccan and the Kushans and Indo Greeks who took over the NorthWest.
The first great king of the Satavahanas was Satakarni I. From the information which the Nanaghat inscription of his wife Naganika offers us, we can conclude that he performed a Aswamedha sacrifice and proclaimed himself Dakshinapatha Swami ( a title to be famously used by Pulakesin II several centuries later as he defeated HarshaVardhana in the only defeat the Uttarapadha Swami would ever face).
Satakarni I was undoubtedly the initial empire builder for the Satavahanas who raised them to becoming the paramount sovereigns of Trans-Vindhyan India spreading outward from the Godavari Valley challenging the Greeks of Punjab and the Sungas in the plains of the Ganges.
It was the river Narmada. The year was 78AD. The horses of the Western Shatrap ruler Nahapana squarely faced the armies of the Satavahana king, Gautamiputra Satakarni. The Western Shatraps were the local descendents of the Sakas, the warring tribes of Central Asia.
As horses rode into battle over the din of war drums and clashing of swords, the young man from the plains of Godavari stood observant as his generals raised the flags of war, brilliant in vermillion and yellow. It wasn’t a mere battle. It was the sole event which would alter history as India burst forth on her unavoidable assimilation of all foreign tribes. Nahapana should be destroyed. That was the oath this young man had sworn in front of his mother and he would fulfill it. The war capitulated quickly as the Satavahanas fought fiercely with the speed of the Sun ( from whom, some say they descended as the Saptavahanas) and the Saka rulers were routed. The Satavahana dominions in the Deccan were safeguarded from the continuous pressure from the invading Iranian tribesman and the important ports of the West coast moved into their hands. Bharukachcha, Sopara, and Kalyana.
To commemorate his victory, Gautamiputra performed two Aswamedha yagnas, took the title of Trisamudrapitatoyavahana (one whose horses had drunk waters from 3 oceans). Not a big fan of elaborate minting, he instructed the coins of Nahapana be restruck with the Satavahana royal symbols at Jogulathambi. He ordered the earlier Vikrama calendar to be abandoned. It was the Era of the Satavahana now.
His conquests are generously extolled in the Nasik inscription of his mother Gautami Balasri. It which describes his dominions to extend from Banavasi in Karnataka to Kanchi in TamilNadu in the South to Aparanta(Konkan), Anupa ( MP) and Saurashtra in the north. He is said to have defeated the Yavanas (Greeks), the Shakas( Scythians) and the Pahlavas. He built a second capital at Dharanikota, near the present day Amaravati in Guntur district of AP, in addition to the traditional Pratishtana in the Maharashtra region.
Although he gave himself the title of “EkaBrahmana” and proclaimed the superiority of the caste system, the Satavahana empire has sterling examples of the promotion of minority faiths and languages. Buddhist art, learning and monasteries were promoted. The caves at Karle and the Buddhist stupas at Kanheri and Amaravati were built during this period, with generous donations from the Satavahana rulers. Various sects among the Buddhists sprung up.
Gunadhya wrote Brihatkadha in Paisachika language and Hala wrote Gathasaptasati in Pali. The great works of Bhasa, including the memorable Swapnavasavadatta and Aswaghosha composed his Buddhacharita and the greatest of the Mahayana scholars, Nagarjuna composed his seminal work Mūlamadhyamakakārika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way) during the Satavahana period in Sanskrit.
Gautamiputra Sri Satakarni (often revered as the Salivahana) was succeeded by Vasisthiputra Pulamavi who continued to expand the empire. He was succeeded by Vasisithiputra Satakarni who was defeated by the Western Shatrap ruler Rudradaman. It should be mentioned here that Rudradaman was the father in law of Vasisthiputra Satakarni but doesn’t seem to have any qualms in defeating his son in law in war, twice actually.
His Junagadh inscription specifically states that the only reason that the Satavahana king was allowed to live after the defeat was due to the alliance which bound the two kingdoms. (Ouch!)
After this defeat, the Satavahanas never recovered except for a brief period of glory under Yajna Sri Satakarni.
The emperors of the empire were known for their peculiar custom of matronymics. Gautamiputra and Vasisthiputra were among the rulers of this line who consciously decided to be identified for posterity through their matrilineal heritage than anything else. Romila Thapar in her book is deliberately vague as to the importance of this practice and its allusion towards a matrilineal and probably matriarchal practice among the Satavahanas. Even though inheritance to the throne was certainly patriarchal, this matronymic idea is unique to the Satavahanas. It should also remembered that the two major inscriptions of their period were on the orders of the royal queens (Nasik Inscription by Gautami Balasri and Nanaghat inscription of Naganika) and these are the major sources of information for us about the Satavahana Empire.
The Satavahana Empire became the first among several successive Deccan Empires that defended the plateau successfully from the northern invasions. (Taking the mantle from them were the Vakatakas, Chalukyas of Badami, Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas of Kalyani, Kakatiyas and the might Vijayanagara Empire).
The Deccan route became an important trading route between the mineral and rice rich southern parts of India and the rest of Northern India and the Satavahanas defended this route zealously and promoted trade and commerce. The ports of Kalyana and Sopara were teeming with Oriental and Occidental trade, making it truly the Mercantile Age.
One of the most underrated Empires of the south; the Satavahanas shall remain tied to the destiny of India forever, bound by a silken thread of a singular administrative instruction. The official Saka Calendar which the Government of India has adopted was started by the greatest of the Satavahana kings, Gautamiputra Sri Satakarni. AD 78.