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Echoes of India

Ancient India like you've never heard it before

A spectacular odyssey through South Asian history from the invasion of Alexander. Along the way, monks debate, queens boast, and armies roar. In Echoes, the past comes back to life - noisy, breathing, as thriving as the Indian subcontinent is today.

  • Anirudh Kanisetti

06. The War of the Words

How did languages shape the way ancient Indians thought and behaved? Episode 6 of Echoes of India recounts the dramatic evolution of Sanskrit and Prakrit as widely-used languages of power and culture, in a time of political and cultural innovation.

In the first two centuries CE, the Shakas (Episode 2) and Satavahanas (Episode 3) in Central India and the Deccan began to issue grand royal inscriptions tracing out bloody wars between their families and jostling for power and prestige. And they chose to draw on the remarkable literary cultures of ancient India to do so. It was an experiment that would change the world: hear the boasts of an Indo-Scythian king, of a princess whose name is lost, and verses from the first of India's great collections of love poetry.

Transcripts and sources below.

Voice Credits (In Order of Appearance)

King Rudradaman - Manoj Kewalramani

Queen Gautami - Hamsini Hariharan

The Shaka-Satavahana Queen, Poet - Manasa Venkataraman

Script Editing - Pranav RS


From the womb, he was beloved by the Goddess of Royal Fortune. He was resorted to by all castes and chosen as their lord to protect them. He grants protection to all people who come to him of their own accord and who prostrate themselves before him. In his territories, which were gained by his own valour, all his subjects adore him, for through his might the goals of dharma, artha and kama are attained. And he has obtained great fame and reputation because he, in spite of completely defeating Satakarni, the lord of the South, twice, did not destroy him due to the nearness of their connection.

Near the sacred hill of Girnar, once home to an ancient city called Girnagara, is an immense boulder covered with inscriptions. The oldest of these inscriptions were issued by Asoka Maurya in Prakrit in the 3rd century BCE.

But the second inscription is in Sanskrit. It was issued on the orders of a man called Rudradaman, which means Garland of Rudra, an early Vedic form of the Hindu god Shiva. Rudradaman tells us that a beautiful artificial lake first built by a Mauryan governor near this sacred mountain was destroyed by a devastating thunderstorm around the year 150CE. Soon after, he had teams of architects and workers rebuild the dam, creating a structure which he describes as equalling the spur of a mountain, and restored the lake. Unlike Ashoka's inscription, though, his inscription is prolific and polished, adhering to high literary standards. Rudradaman doesn't emerge from this inscription seeming like a living, breathing human being with human follies and struggles. He seems, instead, to be some kind of ideal: not what a king is, but what a king should be.

Here's the thing with Rudradaman: he's a Saka. To be precise, Rudradaman is a Maha-kshatrapa, one of the descendants of those Indo-Scythian horse-lords who came to Gujarat and battled the Satavahanas. And though we ended episode 3 with the Satavahanas beating back the Sakas, Rudradaman claims not only to have defeated the Satavahanas twice but also to be closely related to them. The Saka-Satavahana wars were not only deadly family conflicts but were also tied to the languages in which they wrote: Sanskrit and Prakrit. Through this conflict was born one of the most remarkable cultures of the ancient world: the Sanskrit Cosmopolis. Let me tell you its story.

I'm Anirudh Kanisetti, and welcome to Echoes.

What is a language? Why do we speak the tongues that we do? To us the answer might be fairly obvious: we were educated in English, so we speak English; our families teach us another language; our friends teach us another. What we speak, in a way, is intertwined with who we are, the values we believe in, the way we see the world.

In ancient India, things weren't that different. For the wealthier and more powerful people, the question of what language they spoke, and how it was spoken, was key to their identities and their behaviour.

When a king issued inscriptions in a particular language, it didn't always mean it was a language that most of their subjects spoke. Rather, the language they chose was intended to convey certain qualities and behavioural norms, and thus reinforce, through sound, the power of the king. At this time, languages were more than just a the means of communication: they were emblems of power, of culture.

We think of ancient India as being almost a monolith, where the commoners spoke Prakrit - a language whose very name means "natural", and the nobles spoke Sanskrit - a language whose name means "perfected". But, as with most things in India, the reality of languages, both spoken and written, is much, much more complex. At this time - the second century CE - Sanskrit and Prakrit were just two among dozens if not hundreds of other Indian languages, all with their own history, worldview, and politics. The story of their interaction and evolution is an untold, almost completely forgotten aspect of our shared past.

One of the most interesting things about the Satavahana Dynasty is the way that they engage with the idea of language - particularly, the way they used language as power. You may think, "Huh, well, they're ancient Indians, so they must have written in Sanskrit." But no: except for one single inscription - which I'll come back to later - the Satavahanas always wrote in Prakrit. They practically invented the idea of using a "language of power", which is basically a language promoted by a royal court to express a narrative of their right to rule, and competed with the Sakas, who used Sanskrit as their language of power. The thing is, such languages also had to sound powerful.

In Indian literary traditions, power or ojas is considered to be the essence of prose. But, how do you make something SOUND powerful? It's not like ancient Indians had amplifier systems and mikes. So they did the second best thing - they chose words that, well, reverberated. Thanks to the distinct grammar of many Indian languages, you can join a bunch of different words together to a noun to make compound words of stunning lengths. The Satavahanas started this tradition in Prakrit, and there's nothing else quite like it in any other group of world languages.

Here's an example from our favourite ancient queen, Gautami Balasri, the mother of Gautamiputra Satakarni. If any linguists are listening, I apologise for the pronunciation.

Gautami's son is supposed to have had a face

"As white as a lotus made to blossom by the rays of the sun".

Gautami puts that as


In a single, powerful word, through the repetition of similar syllables, are conveyed a bunch of aesthetic meanings, meanings that define and are defined by the culture of the court. There are plenty of examples like that. The very title dakhinapathapathi - Lord of the Southern Way, which is a Satavahana royal title, is a compound word that uses the repetition of particular syllables to create a sonorous effect.

That's all well and good, I hear you say, but what does it have to do with Rudradaman? Good point. Let's come back to the politics a bit.

In the last episode of this podcast, we joined a group of pilgrims who visited the magnificent stupa of Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh, and touched upon the fact that though the Satavahanas made donations to the stupa, most of the work on it was paid for by much smaller donors - an ancient equivalent of crowdsourcing, using local agricultural and trade networks, instead of gofundme.com. The Satavahanas ending up in Andhra is due, in part, to the activities of Rudradaman.

Rudradaman's grandfather was a Saka noble who served in the court - and maybe the army - of the Maha-kshatrapa Nahapana. Nahapana was responsible for the Saka's first victories over the Satavahanas, and had conquered much of the Northern Deccan from them so that he could control more of the trade coming in from the Mediterranean to India's West Coast. Nahapana had no sons, and his successors would be his daughter and her husband, Rishabhadatta. That wasn't really a problem for the Sakas, who were relatively egalitarian in terms of gender relations - after all, some of the most famous ancient Saka warriors and leaders were women. The problem lay in the fact that the Satavahanas, under Gautamiputra Satakarni, had spectacularly defeated Nahapana and seized most of his treasury. That humiliation gave Rudradaman's grandfather the opportunity he needed to arrange a coup, and soon a new Saka dynasty was ruling from their capital of Ujjain, a city that still survives in modern Madhya Pradesh.

The Sakas soon began a dramatic recovery - not just against the Satavahanas but against most of their other neighbours. Like many other Indian kings, Rudradaman's power and independence was guaranteed by subjugating and raiding other neighbours, forcing them to accept his superiority and pay him tribute. This tribute took many forms - there was the standard gold and associated swag, but also the more unpleasant practice of marrying the daughters of the kings he defeated. Of course, Rudradaman claims that all these princesses voluntarily chose to marry him at swayamvaras - an ancient Indian ritual where supposedly a bunch of princes would show up at a royal court, and the eligible princess would garland the one that she found sexiest. It's present in India's most ancient epics, but as you’ll see in later episodes, there are good grounds for doubting how much freedom princesses had in making these choices.

Rudradaman recognised the importance of appearances and family bonds - in-laws were, in his logic, less likely to attack him. That's probably why he married his daughter to Gautamiputra's younger son, who eventually rose to the Satavahana throne as Vashistiputra Satakarni. Near modern Mumbai is a hill known as Kanheri, derived from its older name, Krishnagiri, the black mountain, where this indomitable Saka princess ordered an inscription to commemorate a gift, possibly to a Buddhist monastery.

This water-cistern is the meritorious gift of the queen of the illustrious Satakarni Vasishthiputra, and of her confidential minister Sateraka. She is descended from the race of Shaka kings, and is the daughter of the Mahakshatrapa Rudradaman.

There's many reasons why this inscription is thought-provoking. The first is that this, as I mentioned earlier, is the ONLY Satavahana inscription known to have been issued in Sanskrit - every other inscription issued by them was in Prakrit. The second is that this lady had her own confidential minister - implying that she wielded considerable independence and influence in the Satavahana court. The third is that sadly, her name does not survive, though her father's, her minister's, and her husband's have. Maybe that was an accident of history - or maybe her name was deliberately erased.

Why would that have happened? It’s simple - Rudradaman himself gave us the answer when we started this episode. Either Rudradaman or Vasishthiputra was dissatisfied with the size of his kingdom and decided to attack the other, ending in quite unpleasant consequences for the Satavahana, who was defeated not once but twice. At the end of it, Satavahana power in the Western Deccan was broken for generations, and the centre of gravity of their kingdom shifted towards Andhra, where, as we've seen, smaller independent polities were rising, as was Buddhism and the grand Mahachaitya of Amaravati.

But let's come back to the fact that it's the Sakas, considered foreign invaders of the Indian subcontinent, who wrote in Sanskrit, while the Satavahanas, indigenous to the land, were writing in Prakrit. Both of these dynasties were expressing their right to rule, their royal duties and rights, by deliberately drawing on a single language that was associated with certain cultural norms.

In the process, politics, religion, language and culture intertwined into a heady mix, and into a chain that would define the future course of the Indian subcontinent. It was a time of extraordinary political, economic, and cultural flux. One fascinating aspect of all this is the appearance of the culture of kama, of pleasure. The intersection of court and culture can be seen in the Gathasattasai, the Seven Hundred poems, which is an extraordinary compendium of love poetry, written in Maharashtri Prakrit and attributed to the Satavahana king Hala.

Nobody is sure who Hala was - it may have been a personal name of a king who had a much fancier official name. According to legend, Hala was playing with his wives in a pool and splashing them with water. One of them squealed modakaih puraya, meaning "Don’t throw water on me!" Poor Hala instead thought she was referring to modakas, the still-famous Indian sweet, and pelted the lady with sweets, at which point she gave him a lecture on his ignorance of Sanskrit grammar and told him he should have analyzed modakaih as ma udakaih, literally no water. In other stories, Hala requests a goddess to stay in his palace with him, but she agrees to do so only for two days, during which everyone in the palace spontaneously explodes into Prakrit poetry; in another, he offered four million gold pieces as prize money for just four poems, and collected all the submissions into a single compilation, the Seven Centuries.

Either way, we can be reasonably sure that a royal court in the Deccan was responsible for this compendium, expressing their idealisation of the idea of love, but most strikingly set in the context of village lives. Its narrators speak mostly with the voices of women and express a touching array of human emotions that we can still identify with. As one translator puts it, "they map out the territory of love, from the coastline of the sidelong look to the fertile valleys of infidelity."

(1) As the traveller, eyes raised,
Cupped hands filled with water, spreads
His fingers and lets it run through,
She, pouring it, reduces the trickle.
While the bhikshu
Views her navel
And she
His handsome face,
Crows lick clean
Both ladle and alms bowl.
(2) From the river thicket
Where it saw a girl and her first lover,
The astonished flock rose
With a shudder.
(3) The village
The heart
I passed him
The pitcher

Languages once only used for rituals, religious activities and other scriptures were now used by courts to new ideas of prestige, behaviour and culture.

Around this time, some of the greatest works in Tamil literature were being composed in the Sangams, something that we'll return to in a later episode. In South India, these new literary traditions drew on, Prakrit and Tamil. In North India, the Central Asian conquerors who had grown wealthy through war, now chose to pour their money into another language: Sanskrit. And Sansksrit, of course, was associated with the most ancient of Indian religions: Hinduism. The language used to compose the esoteric mantras of the Vedas and the extraordinary philosophy of the Upanishads now turned its copious, beautiful grammar to create new modes of expression - that is — poetry, drama, scientific textbooks, and of course, to one of the most enduring forms of literature in South Asia, the royal eulogy.

This was the Sanskrit prasasti - paeans to the beauty and power of the king, expressing a new way of thinking about statehood and royalty. Rudradaman, for example claimed that all the castes chose him as their lord to protect them, and that through his rule, they were able to achieve their goals of dharma - the path ordained for them by religion, artha - material well-being, and kama - pleasure and love. The king's role was now to ensure social order as conceived of through the caste system, and to ensure that each caste was happy - but also performed their religious and ritual duties in a hierarchy with him and his priests at the top. That's what the kings brag about of course, but prasastis are basically royal advertisements and should be taken about as seriously as government ads today.

The real picture was much more complex. Alternative ideas of life and royalty were still thriving in Buddhist and other traditions, and hundreds of local variations still existed. As the culture of kama was evolving in the Satavahana court as we’ve seen, so too were ideas about dharma and artha, across the subcontinent, feeding into this new melting-pot of politics, economics, and language. A new pattern was emerging. The creation of the state, the subjugation of the masses, and the extraction of wealth to create aristocracy and loyalty would be justified through this. The wealthier classes no longer defined themselves mostly through religious patronage and devotion: a new era was dawning, where they would also define themselves through their participation in the court, and their association with the king.

The literary battles of Sanskrit and Prakrit would far outlive its initiators - the Sakas and the Satavahanas. The prestige of Prakrit would eventually be reduced to the point where it was considered just a sub-language, nothing compared to the glory of Sanskrit, of Sanskrit rituals, of ideas of society and science and religion expressed in Sanskrit. It was not just a religious thing - Sanskrit should not be seen as being ONLY about Hinduism. Over centuries, Buddhism, which initially deliberately expressed itself in languages such as Ardhamagadhi in order to differentiate itself from the Vedic religion, which used Sanskrit, would itself use Sanskrit to express some of its most startling philosophical developments. Much of the literary forms and genres in later Sanskrit writing would actually build off originals patronized by the Prakrit-speaking courts of the Satavahanas, as well as the many other languages of power developed by less famous religions, cultures and kingdoms.

The new super-culture that these interactions created would live on and give birth to something much more vast. As its popularity spread like a wave throughout India and then into Southeast Asia, local populations would adapt it to their own traditions, creating an immense cultural region called the Sanskrit Cosmopolis. This is a striking parallel to what was happening in the Mediterranean world, where Latin was gradually becoming a classical language spoken by millions, but often enforced by the bloody iron hand of the Roman Empire. The Sanskrit Cosmopolis, on the other hand, seems to have spread voluntarily - it is an extraordinary occurrence with no parallel in human history. And it will shape the history of India for millennia - the battles over language, the power of language, still continue to this day.

Notes and Sources:

  1. Images are from Wikimedia Commons: the background is Girnar, near Rudradaman's inscription, by user Sachinvega here. The coins are from the British Museum (surprise, surprise) here and here.

  2. Much of the content for this episode was based on Ollett, Andrew. Language of the Snakes: Prakrit, Sanskrit, and the Language Order of Premodern India. University of California Press, 2017. (The author has very generously made it available for free here.

  3. Though the Sanskrit Cosmopolis is itself an old idea, the most magisterial work on it has been done by Sheldon Pollock in his The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India. Univ of California Press, 2006. Some of his theories have of course been rightly critiqued and built upon by H.P. Ray, Andrew Ollett (above) and one of the best scholars on early medieval India, Daud Ali.

  4. The extracts from the Gathasattasai are based on Mehrotra, Arvind. The Absent Traveller: Prākrit Love Poetry from the Gāthāsaptaśatī of Sātavāhana Hāla. Penguin UK, 2008.

  5. On the Satavahanas, see 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.

  6. On the Western Kshatrapas, see Shastri, A. J. The Satavahanas and the Western Kshatrapas: A Historical Framework. Dattsons, Nagpur, 1998.

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