The earliest dynastic rule in peninsular India was that of the Satavahanas. In history, dynastic rule or monarchy is generally equated with the state, and it is valid as long as the former is found resting on class-structured societies. The state is found only in a differentiated economy or stratified society. However, until recent years, the term “state” was used in Indian historiography without such theoretical presuppositions. Earlier, historians recounted the history of the dynasty with a ruler-wise focus on the nature of administration, and they debated over the dates of succession. Later, when historians tended to be theoretical, the debates revolved around theoretical models. The former viewed the Satavahanas as an independent state, while the latter theorized it as a Mauryan transplant or a secondary formation. Now, the debate is about the degrees of theoretical rigor. In the most rigorous sense of the theory, the origin of the state is not external, for it is integral to the society’s internal dynamic. Naturally, the state neither gets diffused nor transplanted. It is inevitably sui generis. So, the concept of secondary state formation is a misnomer.
The Satavahana state, like any other state, has to be studied against its socio-economic background. Hence, at the outset, it is imperative to characterize the social formation and examine the institutional features of the political process therein. Unfortunately, the existing historiography hardly provides enough knowledge about the life of the people in those days to characterize the social formation. However, it is important for a student studying the discipline to know the available knowledge and use it for understanding the process of state formation.
By the third century B.C., the Krishna-Godavari valleys had witnessed the rise of agrarian localities focused on paddy cultivation. The place name Dhanyakataka or Dhamnakada suggests specialization in arts and crafts, trade networks, urban enclaves, social differentiation, and the resulting political processes. However, at this stage, it was merely a simple hierarchy of landed households (gahapatis) and their servants (dusas and bhrtakas) in terms of production relations. The agrarian localities were small compared to the vast uplands and forest areas inhabited by the majority of ‘tribal’ people.
Paithan served as the region’s central hub for economic activities and held strategic importance in terms of trade and urbanism, which also explains its significance in Buddhist and Jain contexts, as well as its connection to Mauryan political control. The ports of transmarine commerce, such as Barygaza, Supara, and Kalyan, further added to the region’s importance. The Mauryan control enhanced its significance and, over time, gave rise to a local ruling aristocracy that transcended the political relations of the ‘tribal’ structure. It is from this aristocracy that the Satavahana rule emerged. In short, the historical context of the Satavahana state’s emergence is intertwined with the differentiated economy and stratified societies of the Krishna-Godavari valleys.
According to Jain legends, Paithan served as the headquarters of the Satavahana rule. The main sources of Satavahana history include approximately twenty-four inscriptions, a few coin hoards, and literary references primarily found in Jain and Buddhist accounts, as well as puranic genealogies. The rule persisted under around 30 kings, covering roughly four and a half centuries from around 234 B.C. to approximately A.D. 207. Needless to say, there are likely gaps and discontinuities in the royal genealogy spanning such a long period of time. The rule faced interruptions by the Scythians, Greeks, and Parthians.
King Simuka, who is likely also referred to as Satavahana in Jain tradition, was the founder of the dynasty. Like many dynastic names, the interpretation of Satavahana varies, and there is no consensus on its meaning. The term “sata” meaning “dana” (gift) and “vahana” meaning “bearer” seem to make more sense than other proposed derivations. All the Puranas agree that Simuka’s reign lasted for 23 years. He is believed to have commissioned the construction of Jain basatis and Buddhist Caityas. Simuka’s brother, Kanha (Krishna), succeeded him and extended the kingdom to Nasik and possibly beyond. His reign lasted for approximately 18 years.
Siri Satakani (Satakarni), the son of Krishna, became the next king, and it is from his title that most of the Satavahana rulers derived their names, such as Cakora Satakarni, Mrgendra Satakarni, Gautamiputa Sri Yajna Satakarni, and so on. Satakarni, like other curious names such as Kumbhakarna, Jatikama, and Lambodara, defies easy derivation. The Hathigumpha inscription mentions Kharavela of Kalinga disregarding Satakarni and sending his army to the west. The synchronism of Kharavela with Satakarni has allowed historians to determine that Satakarni ruled between 200 and 190 B.C. His successor, Satakarni II, mentioned in the Puranas as ruling for 56 years, also lived during the same period as Kharavela. Apilaka and Hala are two other important successors in the lineage. Hala’s reign witnessed significant economic growth, military exploits, and cultural achievements.
The Satavahana rulers were patrons of both sramanas and brahmanas. Constructing Jain and Buddhist monuments earned them religious merit and elevated their status, while performing Vedic rituals and mahadanas established their legitimacy as Kshatriyas. Interestingly, the Satavahanas maintained Vedic brahmana names. They followed a matrilineal system or cross-cousin marriage, especially with the daughter of the father’s sister. However, their succession followed a patriarchal inheritance system.
The Satavahana reign faced interruptions from various external powers such as the Sakas, Kushanas, Parthians, and Yavanas. Coins of Kshatrapa Nahapana and epigraphs found at Nasik and Karle indicate that the Nasik and Pune Districts became part of Nahapana’s kingdom, presumably captured from the Satavahanas. During the later period of the Satavahanas, their kingdom contracted to the region around Paithan. However, Gautamiputra Satakarni restored and expanded the kingdom, reaching Vidarbha, Rajputana, Malwa, and northern Konkan. In the south, it extended into the Kanarese country. Gautamiputra was succeeded by Vasishtiputra Pulumavi, who ruled for 24 years.
According to the puranic genealogy, the subsequent Satavahana kings were Siva Sri Satakarni, Sivamaka Sada, Madhariputra, Sri Yajna Satakarni, Vasishtiputra Cada Sati, and Pulumavi III. It is believed that the line of rulers came to an end with Pulumavi III.
The Satavahana state was structured with a dominant monarch, resembling a miniature version of the Kautilyan vijigishu (conqueror) with the assistance of a team of amaryas (ministers), senapatis (generals), and dandanayakas (lawkeepers). Chieftains of agrarian localities were incorporated as samantas (feudatory chiefs), while those from “tribal” areas served as rathikas and bhojas. Epigraphs mention titles such as mahasamanta, maharathika, mahabhoja, mahasenapati, and mahadandanayaka, indicating their roles as higher-level constituents within a hierarchical structure. However, this doesn’t imply a well-organized bureaucracy with clearly defined structure and function. Their functions extended beyond the literal meaning of their titles. For example, the mahasenapati also acted as a provincial ruler, similar to the mahasamanta or any other high-ranking dignitary who held local ruling authority.
The dignitaries, forming the nucleus of the king’s power structure, were prominent gahapatis (landed householders) of the nagaras (urban centers) and gramas (villages). The gahapatis of the nagaras were predominantly merchants, often referred to as vanijas or negamas, organized into a corporation called nigama, led by a sethi or sreshti.
It is worth noting that the structure of the Satavahana state was not purely centralized, similar to the Mauryan state. The higher functionaries were not directly controlled by the king, and the powers of the state did not solely emanate from the capital. It was a strong monarchy at the heart of the kingdom, with provincial and regional rulers as well as chieftains in the periphery acknowledging the king’s suzerainty, reinforced by the standing army under the mahasenapati stationed at the capital.
The Satavahana state largely followed the Mauryan revenue system, which relied on regular returns from agriculture, trade, industry, and various taxes collected periodically. The state had crown lands that generated substantial revenue. It held a monopoly over mines, metals, minerals, and salt production. Lands owned by gahapatis (landed householders) were subject to multiple taxes. Taxes on merchant gahapatis and merchandise were also significant sources of revenue. Since it was a money economy, all state dues were collected in cash. There seems to have been a high rate of interest, around 12% per month, indicating a state of deflation. The variety and distribution of Satavahana coinage demonstrate the high demand for money as a medium of exchange, measure of value, and means of payment.
Satavahana coins coexisted with those of the Saka, Kushana, and Nahapana Kshatrapa, and the Satavahanas even restruck the coins of intruders like Nahapana. The minting of coins with the name or legend of kings symbolized their identity and the extent of their dominions. This explains why the Satavahanas reproduced the coins of the intruders. For example, Gautamiputra Satakarni restruck Nahapana’s silver coins.
During the Satavahana rule, agriculture, trade, markets, and urbanization flourished. Amaravati, Naneghat, Pune, Bhaja, Karle, Kanheri, and Nasik emerged as major towns and trade centers during the Satavahana era. These locations were also centers of Jainism and Buddhism, as evident from the remaining basatis (residential complexes), caityas (Buddhist shrines), viharas (monasteries), and stupas in the region. The funding and joint patronage of these monuments by monks, merchants, local chieftains, and kings reflect the group relations and power dynamics within the Satavahana state.
In the post-Mauryan period, various powers dominated the political scene in North India, including the Kanvas, Sungas, and Ganasangha polities. An important development during this period was the rise of Indo-Greeks, Sakas, Parthians, and Kushanas who entered India from Central Asia and Iran through the northwestern frontier. Among these, the Kushanas held significant influence and their establishment of a state greatly stimulated trading activities. Socially and culturally, this period witnessed assimilative and syncretic tendencies that emerged and became stronger. In the Deccan, this era was marked by the emergence of the Satavahana state.