• Anirudh Kanisetti

3. The Glory of a Deccan Queen (20 mins)

History is written by kings. What if a queen could tell us her story?

In this episode, the rush of Central Asian nomads into India is halted by the first true empire based in the Deccan. But it would not be the last. And the most remarkable aspect of this empire? Its queens - powerful matriarchs who ruled and built in their own right, and whose vision of what a kingdom should be had profound effects on all that came after.

The third episode of Echoes of India continues the complex saga of ancient Indian history but moves South - hear the boasts of mighty queens who commanded resources unthinkable to their ancestors, as trade, greed and violence lead to a saga of revenge and competition that will change the course of Indian history forever.

Transcript and sources below.

Voice Credits (In Order of Appearance)

Queen Gautami - Hamsini Hariharan

Queen Nayanika - Manasa Venkataraman

Script Editing - Pranav RS


This cave temple, a benefaction, the greatness of which is not excelled by the best of temple spires, has been constructed on the summit of Trirahsmi, in the second fortnight of Grishma, in the year nineteen of the King Sri Pudumaayi, by the Great Queen Gautami, the presiding genius of power, devoted to religious austerities, vows and fasts, and acting in every way as befits the title of a daughter of royal sages and the mother of Saatakarni Gautamiputra, the King of Kings.

The sun rises and glitters off the yellow ochre of the hills of the Deccan, near the modern city of Nashik, barely a hundred miles inland from the sleet-gray waters of the Arabian Sea. It pools in the elegant verandas of caves carved into the soft rock, and soft shadows caress the calm, benevolent faces of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who have been sitting here, tranquil and still, for almost two thousand years. It inches into the heart of the mountain and shines off inscriptions of long-dead kings and queens, merchants and bankers, who mutely proclaim their wealth and devotion to the countless generations that will come after.

But not all these kings and queens were native to the Deccan. Even two thousand years ago, the Deccan was the crossroads of the world, and people came to it from East and West, intermingling with its people, enriching its earliest cities and empires. The caves of Nashik, in all their glory, trace out, among many others, the history of two families whose dramatic conflicts shaped the early history of India's South and West, and through that, the early history of the Indian subcontinent. On one of these caves was carved the inscription that you just heard.

Queen Gautami has much to say about the glories of her son and her own generosity, but maybe she cannot tell you why his conquests matter at all to you, and how they contribute to the lives we now lead. So let me tell you the story of the dynasties of the Satavahanas, the Deccanis who battled North Indians, Indo-Scythians, Indo-Greeks, and Indo-Parthians, and in the process created a pattern of interaction and innovation that lasted for millennia.

I'm Anirudh Kanisetti, and welcome to Echoes.

Like with characters in many other episodes in this season, the Satavahanas only emerge onto the historical stage after the collapse of Mauryan control in the frontiers of its empire. It's easy to assume from the boasts of Ashoka Maurya that he actually controlled territory ranging from Afghanistan to Bihar and Gandhara to Karnataka. But, really, all that his edicts prove is that the Mauryas had military control over the specific areas where they were set up. The terror of the vast Mauryan army must have served to keep local powers silent, but only for a little while.

So when Ashoka disappears from the scene in the 3rd century BCE, local powers re-appear. Across the plateau of the Deccan, cities were starting to be built and lands were being tilled. Minor chieftains were beginning to call themselves kings and war with each other for supremacy. We know what happened in North-West India: the Indo-Greeks first capitalised on the situation and then the thousands upon thousands of migrating Central Asian horsemen and women melded into the mix, patronising Buddhism and local cultures. That's also what happened in the Deccan. The dynasty that managed to capitalise on the chaos and eventually come out on top were led by a gentleman called Simuka, and his son Satakarni eventually managed to stabilise the situation enough that their dynasty, the Satavahanas were, without question, the greatest power in the Western Deccan, ruling from their capital in Pratisthana, modern Paithan in Maharashtra.

Of course, to give the Satavahanas credit for all this is to take away credit from their many willing allies, and the deeper, older processes of urbanisation in the Deccan. We know that cities from this time were built on hills, with thick mud walls, pointing to severe conflict and competition. The Satavahanas were smart enough to see that they couldn't wing it alone, and married into two allied tribes, the Rathikas and the Bhojas, who, of course, let their success go straight to their heads and immediately declared themselves to be Maha-rathis and Maha-bhojas, ruling as almost independent sub-kings of the Satavahana King of Kings. It’s a striking parallel to the Indo-Scythians, who also had a King-of-Kings tied by politics and marriage to sub-kings and satraps. But more on that later.

What's really interesting about these marriages, though, is that the Satavahana queens retained their identity. It's a norm in many contemporary Indian marriages that the newly-wed wife leaves her family and becomes part of her husband's. Her identity as part of her birth family is, in a sense, subordinated to the one that she marries into, and her sons and daughters take on the last name of their father. The Satavahanas, though, did something very different: the sons of kings took on not their father's name, but their mother's. This could be because their mothers came from such wealthy and powerful families, but it's equally likely that that was just how inheritance worked in the Deccan at this time - it wasn't just patrilineal, but also matrilineal. Which is why Queen Gautami, who started this episode, is justifiably proud of her son, Gautamiputra Satakarni, The Satakarni Who is the Son of Gautami.

His might is equal to that of the mountains Himalaya, Meru and Mandara; he whose orders are obeyed by the circle of all kings, he whose pure face resembles the lotus blown open by the rays of the sun, whose beasts of burden have drunk the waters of the three seas, whose fearless hand is wetted by the water poured in granting asylums, who serves his living mother. His feet are adored by the whole circle of kings, and he has stemmed the confusion of the four castes. He, the only supporter of Brahmans, whose exploits rival those of Rama, Kesava, Arjuna and Bhimasena; has brought prosperity to his race. The great Queen, the mother of the Great King and the grandmother of the Great King, gives this cave to the congregation, the host of mendicants of the Buddhist school.

The Great Queen retained her ties to her family, she retained her wealth, she retained much independence and gave freely to many monasteries, not just the one on Trirashmi. And she's not the only Satavahana queen to do that. By the turn of the first millennium CE, Roman ships were beginning to arrive along India's west coast, sniffing for trading opportunities. The Satavahanas, as I said, were just the biggest bully in the school-yard. Dozens upon dozens of newly-emerged city-states vied for the wealth that trade could bring, and new routes were being explored and built. Merchants brought the produce of the rich black soils and thriving new cities of the Deccan by bullock-cart to the Western Ghats. There, they hired pack-animals and hiked up the steep hills, and on the peaks, smelling the salt of the Arabian Sea, taking in the spectacular views, they would have rested in caves sponsored by royal advertisers such as Queen Mother Gautami's predecessor by a generation or two, Queen Mother Nayanika (which is probably a Sanskritised form of the much more Southern-sounding name Nagannika). Queen Nayanika appears in carvings with her husband, King Satakarni and their sons. Strangely, also making an appearance is her dad, the Maharathi Tranakayira.

Adoration to Dharma, adoration to Indra, adoration to Samkarshana and Vasudeva, and to the four guardians of the world! This is given by the wife of the king, the brave hero, whose rule is unopposed, the lord of the Deccan, by she who is the daughter of the Maharathi, the increaser of the Amgiya race, the first hero of the earth that is girdled by the ocean and the best of mountains.

It wasn't just important for Satavahanas to advertise their generosity but also their ties to their supposed vassals. Perhaps their power structures were more horizontal and flat than later historians tried to make them seem. Plus, we also see that they, too, like the Indo-Greeks, worshipped Samkarshana and Vasudeva, the hero-gods!

If you've been paying attention, you may be wondering why Gautami, who is donating a cave to the Buddhist congregation, is bragging about her son protecting Brahmins and preventing castes from intermixing. After all, Brahmins and castes are something traditionally considered Hindu, right? Sort of, but that's not really how ancient Indians saw religion. Royal families were expected to patronise those that gave them power. In the case of the Satavahanas, they established their primacy over the other ambitious powers of the Deccan by paying for grand, overblown sacrifices and royal rituals meant to show off their prestige and power. Queen Nayanika, for example, announces that

a Gavamayana sacrifice was offered, a donation was given of 1,101 cows; an Angirasamayana sacrifice was offered, a donation was given of 1,101 cows; a Satatirata sacrifice was offered, the donation consisted of 1,100 cows…

In fact, Nayanika goes into such detail about all the sacrifices she offered and what she spent on them that her inscription is an important part of the history of number systems!

Performing public rituals was part of the duty of the king, as was respecting those who conducted the sacrifice, the Brahmins. Another official duty was preventing the intermixing of the castes, though, as we've seen, the Satavahanas didn't rule over any sort of centralised, totalitarian state so they are really just showing off and pretending to have done it. It's important to note, though, that the idea of ordering a society by caste was clearly becoming accepted (at least by elites) in the Deccan as well, spreading beyond North India. The consequences of that will become apparent in later episodes.

Now, yet another part of the king's job description was donating to ascetics and monks, which, as we've seen, Gautami does. The private business of salvation and moksha and personal belief was done in the king's private time. Little evidence of that survives, so we can't say for sure that the Satavahanas were Hindus because they performed sacrifices or Buddhists because they built monasteries. Anyway, it's not like the Satavahanas care what religious label we apply to them. To them, like every other Indian king, religion was a tool of politics and statecraft.

Let's think a bit about why Gautami and Nayanika are saying the things they're saying. There's a spin here. Like the advertisements of modern governments, the inscriptions of these royal ladies are drawing on an ancient spiritual and normative legacy to tell their subjects: "Look how ideal we are. We deserve to be royal. We deserve to have our commands obeyed." At this early time in the history of Deccan States, we already have women shaping the discourse of what a State should be, and what the role of women should be in such a state. What we're seeing is the creation of a new ruling class, not just the Satavahana royal family but all the families that the queens came from, too. The kings and sub-kings went around conquering and making people pay tax, but the queens did the things that ensured their conquests had popular support.

Which is not to say, of course, that the Satavahanas had an easy time of it. Their hold over the Western Deccan and its wealthy trade was soon challenged. In the last episode, we heard the Jain story of Kalaka, the teacher who asked a Shaka king for help in rescuing his sister, which may be a metaphorical tale that the Shakas later devised. What is important, though, is that it ends with the Shakas arriving from Shakastan to Gujarat. These Shakas were practically independent of the main Shaka kingdoms in Gandhara and Mathura, and thus proudly declared themselves to be independent satraps, Maha-kshatrapas, with their own coins and goals. And one goal, it seems, was bumping off the Satavahanas.

Why were the Shakas so hell-bent on doing that? Their primary port, Bhrigukaccha, modern Baruch in Gujarat, was difficult to access thanks to its geographical location. However, ports further to the South were more easily accessible to merchants, though local rulers only allowed foreign merchants to dock at specific areas, competing to offer better services in these spaces and thus gain more control over trade. Indian goods were often sold at almost 100 times their original price in the Roman Empire, and so competition was ruthless. And so the Shakas had every incentive to make the daring move of taking on the Deccan's foremost power head-on, hoping that the gamble would help them divert more trade to their ports.

For the space of a few decades, they did wonderfully at their task. At the mountain Trirashmi where Gautami would later declare her son's glory, the Shaka ruler Nahapaana and his son-in-law Rishbhadatta boasted of the donations that they made to the Buddhists. I call them Shakas, but really, their names prove that they were almost completely Indianised by this point. The Shakas of Gujarat started off using the Kharosthi script of India's Northwest - within a few generations they had forgotten how to read it and used Brahmi instead. And, as we can see, like every other ruler in the Indian subcontinent, they used religion to bolster their legitimacy and right to rule.

As always, the balance of power didn't remain for long. Soon, the Satavahanas, under Gautami's son, were on the offensive.

He has quelled the boast and pride of Kshatriyas, and is the destroyer of the Shakas, Yavanas and Pahlavas, and has established the glory of the family of Satavahana.

Satavahana revenge was sweet. Gautamiputra Satakarni seized most of Nahapana's treasury and stamped his own face and titles onto his coins. The immense wealth and territory that he suddenly possessed fuelled more state expenditure into monasteries and stupas and sacrifices, generating consumption and wealth. And it seems that some of it must have fuelled more military expeditions.

Gautami's son, it seems, attacked not only the Shakas but also paid a visit to the fragmented, thriving, competing states of North India. He may not have actually captured the relics of the Buddha (I might have dramatised that a little bit) but the Satavahanas were clearly interested in the politics of the North and not just their own backyard.

And we also need to remember that just because the Shakas came after the Yavanas and the Pahlavas (Indo-Parthians) came after the Shakas, it's not like they wiped out those who came before. There was plenty of overlap, and there would have been islands of power of some ethnicities, who would have spoken Indian languages and conceived of power in Indian terms. They would have ruled over mixed populations and paid tribute to a ruler of some other ethnicity who, too, sought approval from his subjects within the gradually emerging cultural framework of the land that became India. Here, all these distinct voices competed, co-evolved, and fused. In their conflicts and their glories, in their boasts and their silence, echo the earliest ideas of Indian-ness, the ideas that live within us today.

Notes and Sources:

  1. The image for this episode is from the British Museum, Amaravati, dome slab, 1880.7-9.49, used under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license. I would also like to complain that I had to register to get a high resolution image of something that my ancestors probably made if they weren't farming somewhere, which would not in itself be a problem if not for the fact that the website crashed after I painstakingly entered all my details. Such is life!

  2. The majority of the content was developed from Carla M. Sinopoli, "On the Edge of Empire: Form and Substance in the Satavahana Dynasty", from Alcock, D'Altroy, Morrison, and Sinopoli (eds.) Empires: Perspectives from Archaeology and History. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

  3. Information on urbanism was gleaned from Morrison, Kathleen D. "Trade, urbanism, and agricultural expansion: Buddhist monastic institutions and the state in the Early Historic western Deccan." World Archaeology 27, no. 2 (1995): 203-221. as well as Ray, Himanshu Prabha. "Early historical urbanization: The case of the western Deccan." World archaeology 19, no. 1 (1987): 94-104.

  4. On the role of women in the Satavahana Empire, my source was Sharma, R. S. "SATAVAHANA POLITY." Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 28 (1966): 81-93. An interesting alternate explanation for the use of matronymics is that the Satavahana princes were trying to present themselves as the sons of Brahmin women descended from upper-class gotras - such as the Gautama gotra, founded by the legendary Brahmin sage of the same name. The prestige of Brahmin/sagely descent legitimised the actual military power of the Satavahana state.

  5. Translations of both Gautami's and Nayanika's inscriptions are available in Epigraphia Indica - the complete set is available on

  6. Finally, on Nayanika's influence on number systems, see

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©2020 by Anirudh Kanisetti. Cover images by Apoorva Lakshmi.