Gautamiputra Satakarni: Warrior King of the Satavahana Dynasty
In India as in various parts of the world, from the time of the Vedic culture of around 1,500 BC, the royal dynasties have always held the names of their fathers when a new king succeeded to the throne. But there was one imperial dynasty from the Indian sub-continent which took the names of their mothers for their royal title. This culture of matriname though not exactly a matrilineal line was quite an aberration in the scheme of things.
That ancient dynasty of India is now known as the Satavahanas who ruled a vast part of the Deccan, roughly corresponding to parts of modern south India today. The etymology of Deccan has come from the local word for south – Dakkhin. However, the Satavahanas took their mother’s name not exactly to honor or uphold a matriarchal society, but it is said that since their kings had numerous wives, the children were given the names of their mothers to identify him precisely in reference to his mother.
Origins of the Satavahana Dynasty
The Satavahanas were quite ancient and they were referred to as the Andhras in the Puranas of Hinduism. According to the Puranas, they succeeded an earlier imperial dynasty called Kanvas in the middle of the 1st century BC and ruled from their capital called ‘Pratisthana’ which is the modern town of Paithan in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra state. But their origin can be traced further back.
Page of text from a Purana, ancient text that mentions Gautamiputra Satakarni. (Ms Sarah Welch / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The great emperor Devanampiya Piyadasi Raja Ashoka Maurya in his major rock edicts has referred to a clan called the Andhras, living within the southern boundaries of his empire. Not only that, the Greek ambassador Megasthenes who visited the court of Chandragupta Maurya (Ashoka’s grandfather) also wrote in his Indika about a powerful race of people called ‘Andarae’. Even the Kalinga king Kharvela mentioned them in his inscriptions.
All these denote the ancient lineage of the Satavahanas. In all probability, this dynasty was founded by somebody called King Simuka whose date of reign cannot be ascertained with any certainty now, until and unless discovery of further archaeological evidence is made. The name Satavahana probably means ‘driven by seven’ and comes from the Prakrit word ‘Sapta Vahana’.
Also, the original homeland of this dynasty is now much disputed among historians. They probably ruled a vast area which presently would include parts of the states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and some parts in central India too. This article is about their most powerful ruler called ‘Gautamiputra Satakarni’.
Coin of Gautamiputra Sri Yajna Satakarni. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Rise of Gautamiputra Satakarni
Much of what is known today about Gautamiputra Satakarni is from the numismatics evidence, the Puranas and the Nasik inscriptions of his mother ‘Gautami Balashri’. He ruled in the 2nd century AD but the exact dates of his rule or his birth cannot be determined with any certainty now. However, it is quite certain that during his rule, the Satavahanas reached the greatest extent of their empire covering the areas mentioned in the above paragraphs and also beyond.
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Full inscription of Gautamiputra Satakarni’s mother. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)
According to the inscription of his mother, he defeated the Sakas, also known as the Western Kshatrapas; the Indo-Parthians also called Pahlavas; and the Indo-Greeks. Though it has been erroneously depicted in some popular media that Satakarni defeated the Indo-Greek king Demetrius, in reality Demetrius existed much before Gautamiputra.
Gautamiputra Satakarni considered the Western Kshatrapas as outsiders, since they had Iranian and Central Asian Steppe origins. However, the Western Kshatrapas, after settling into the western and northwestern part of the Indian-subcontinent, had embraced Indian culture too and were a powerful empire in their own right. (Their most famous ruler Rudradaman was much extolled in Indian literature as he had supported both Sanskrit literature and culture during his time.)
But Gautamiputra Satakarni wanted to unite the entire Indian sub-continent under his rule and the Western Kshatrapas were encroaching on his borders. So Satakarni set out with his huge army to fight the Saka king Nahapana. He met the army of Nahapana, defeated him, and then issued coins to celebrate the victory.
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Approximate extent of the Satavahana Empire under Gautamiputra Satakarni, 124 AD, as suggested by the Nashik prashasti inscription. (Chetanv / CC BY-SA 3.0)
This remained his greatest victory, which is evident from its references made in numismatics and other literary sources. Satakarni is said to have had a huge army of cavalry, infantry, elephants, and chariots, just like other rulers of his time.
The Administration of Gautamiputra Satakarni
Gautamiputra Satakarni was a very cultured ruler and has been favorably considered by most historians. Though he was a staunch Hindu, he also seems to have patronized Buddhism which also flourished under his rule. The same happened with Jainism.
Trade also flourished and there were extensive exchanges with the Roman Empire. He and his descendants also seem to have commissioned many religious structures. Gautamiputra looked after his subjects with empathy and his empire had peace and prosperity.
He was generally known as a benign ruler to his subjects. Due to his attitude, agriculture also prospered, and the farmers and peasants remained mostly happy during his time. However, there were pitfalls too with Satakarni.
Being a staunch follower of Brahmanism, he did not take measures to check the flow of the evils of casteism. In fact, he was said to have encouraged it by stopping inter-caste marriages between various ‘Varnas’.
He also did not stop the superstitious rituals of Hinduism like sati etc. Due to these reasons, the culture of considering a section of the society as untouchables as they were born of low birth, increased during his rule.
Sati, an old Hindu tradition of a widow immolating herself after her husband's death, usually on her husband's funeral pyre. (Unibond / Public Domain)
Gautamiputra Satakarni‘s Later Life and the Decline of the Satavahanas
The reason and the year of Gautamiputra’s death cannot be ascertained now with any definite clarity. He was however succeeded by his son Vasishthiputra Pulumavi who was also an able ruler. But due to the growing power of King Rudradaman of the Western Kshatrapas, the Satavahana rule declined and the later Satavahana rulers were confined to a very small area in the Deccan.
But the Satavahanas will always be remembered in history for their uniqueness of taking their mother’s name which is a rarity in this sub-continent. And Gautamiputra Satakarni will remain their most glorious and famous ruler. The legacy is evident now from the numismatics, paintings, and art which survived from his era.
Gautamiputra Satakarni was a ruler of the Satavahana Empire, in present-day Deccan region of India. (KCVelaga / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Top image: Representative image of Gautamiputra Satakarni a ruler of the Satavahana dynasty. Source: Pranjal / Adobe Stock.
Charles Allen, C. 2018. Coromandel - A Personal History of South India-Little. Little, Brown Book Group.
Karashima, N. 2014. A Concise History of South India. Oxford University Press.