Sātavāhana Dynasty Rises to Power in South India

Sātavāhana rule marked a long and important phase in Indian history in its Brahmanical revitalization after Aśoka’s great Buddhist sweep.

Summary of Event

At its height in the second century c.e., the Sātavāhana Dynasty, sometimes called Sādavāhana-kula, Sātakarṇi, or Āndhra Dynasty, ruled an immense territory extending from the Vindhya Mountain range south to the border of modern-day Tamilnadu and from the Indian Ocean to the Bay of Bengal. Although the dynasty was long lived and an influential religious and political force in India, lively controversies exist concerning this dynasty’s origins and the chronology of its kings because of the fragmented and sometimes contradictory evidence. The Āndhras are mentioned in records of the Mauryan Dynasty emperor Aśoka as being people over whom he governed. After the decline of Mauryan authority in the Deccan, the Āndhras rose to power in the political vacuum. The appellation Āndhra Dynasty led to the assumption that they were people who had originated in eastern Āndhradeśa (modern-day Andhra Pradesh) in the region between the Krishna and Godarvari Rivers. A more recent theory asserts that Āndhradeśa is so called because it was the last province remaining to the Sātavāhanas before their demise. The evidence indicates that their original home may have been northwestern Maharashtra, specifically the Nasik-Pune region. Their first capital was Pratiṣṭhāna (modern Paithan), a city located on the major north-south trade route crossing the subcontinent. Simuka
Gautamīputra Sātakarṇi

It is impossible, given the current state of knowledge, to supply a definitive history of the Sātavāhanas because the data are fragmentary and obscure. At best, a tentative account may be established through the use of coins, literary references in various Purāṇas (fourth to sixth centuries c.e.; sectarian anthologies compiled by the legendary sage Vyāsa), and some thirty-five known inscriptions in Prākrit. The chronology of kings is difficult to establish because, according to the lists of kings in various Purāṇas, there were either nineteen kings who ruled for approximately 350 years (short chronology) or twenty-nine kings who reigned for 456 years (the long chronology). Some specialists have suggested that the discrepancy may be attributed to the inclusion of names of some minor family members serving as governors under the Sātavāhanas, thus producing a longer chronology of rulers. There is general agreement today that the short chronology is the more viable version, although its use poses some serious questions.

Inscriptional evidence and accounts in the Purāṇas seem to agree that the founder of the Sātavāhana line was a Brahman named Simuka. He is mentioned in the inscription of Queen Nāganikā at Nanaghat, wife of King Sātakarṇi, as being her husband’s father. Little is known of him, although he is said to have destroyed the Kāṇvas and the last of Śuṇga power, events that may have occurred early in the first century b.c.e. Launching his family on a path of great leadership and unification of the Deccan, Simuka ruled for twenty-three years. He was succeeded by his younger brother Kṛṣṇa (Kaṇha), who ruled for eighteen years.

The third king of the line, Sātakarṇi, made the Sātavāhanas into a great power. It is recorded that he performed numerous Vedic sacrifices, including the Rājasūya and at least two aśvamedhas, ancient Vedic rituals affirming his kingship. Instituting a campaign of aggressive military expansion, he extended the eastern boundary of his kingdom to the border of modern-day Orissa and north beyond the Vindhya Range into the Malwa region. A votive inscription on the south toraṇa, or gateway, of the Great Stupa at Sanchi records the name of Vāsishthīputra Ānanda, foreman of the artisans of King Sātakarṇi, an indication that the western Malwa region was under the sway of the Sātavāhanas during construction of the gateway. It is also recorded that Sātakarṇi married the daughter of a Mahārāthi chieftain, a political alliance that ensured Sātavāhana power in the Deccan. Depending on which source is consulted, Sātakarṇi ruled for either ten, eighteen, or fifty-six years.

The Sātavāhana period was one of great industrial, commercial, and maritime activity and one in which the kingdom grew rich on trade with the Romans and various regions of South Asia. Hoards of Roman coins found throughout the Deccan and along coastal Andhra Pradesh indicate vigorous trade between the Sātavāhanas and Romans. Indian spices, textiles, semiprecious stones, jewelry, exotic birds and animals, and in particular ivory items were prized in the Roman world. A carved ivory mirror-handle found in the ruins of Pompeii (dating before 79 c.e.) and an ivory comb found at Tac-Gorsium, Hungary (found beneath the ruins of Roman basilica dating to the late second century c.e.) attest to the Roman fascination with exquisite Sātavāhana luxury items.

A king named Gautamīputra Sātakarṇi ruled the empire in the latter half of the first century c.e. Ptolemy, in the Geōgraphikē hyphēgēsis (second century c.e.; The Geography of Ptolemy, 1732), mentioned a king named Saraganus (probably Sātakarṇi) who administered the prosperous market town of Kalliena (modern-day Kalyana). The enemies and rivals of the Sātavāhanas were the Scythians, called Śakas, who vied for control of their lucrative trade routes and ports along India’s western coast. At one point, the Śaka ruler Nahapāna, who ruled enormous tracts of land in northwest India, led successful incursions into the Sātavāhana kingdom, seizing control of the western ports. Gautamīputra’s decisive response in retrieving the pillaged lands can be attested to by the vast hoard of silver coins found near Nasik, consisting of coins initially minted by Nahapāna but that had been overstruck by Gautamīputra, who was referred to in the famous Nasik inscription as the destroyer of the Śakas (Scythians), Yanas (Greeks), and Pahlavas (Parthians). His reputation reflects the protectionist policies concerning the Sātavāhanas’ prosperity and control of trade. Particularly during his reign, a complex exchange network with ports along the coast supplied by inland production centers promoted the rise of a great mercantile society sustained by highly organized guilds. The inscription records that he destroyed the pride of the Kṣatriyas (warrior class), stopped contamination of the four varṇas (castes), and promoted the interests of Brahmans. He ruled for either twenty-one or thirty-four years.

Sātavāhana control of its northernmost holdings was brief, and Śaka rule reasserted its hegemony over lands north of the Vindhyas. Ptolemy also mentions a king Siro-Ptolemaios (Sri Pulumāvi), ruling from Pratiṣṭhāna. According to the Purāṇas, Pulumāvi ruled for twenty eight years. It was probably King Pulumāvi who lost the western territories to the Śakas. Deprived of the benefits of that trade, he extended control to the east and consolidated Sātavāhana rule in Āndhradeśa. He left an inscription on the Great Stupa at Amaravati, and his coins have been discovered throughout Āndhradeśa and further south. That Amaravati, ancient Dhanyakataka, became the capital from then on is confirmed by numerous inscriptions and coins.

Despite the rulers’ allegiance to Hinduism, both Jainism and Buddhism flourished under Sātavāhana rule; it is recorded that the kings generously endowed land to Brahmans and Buddhists alike. The material prosperity of the Sātavāhanas was reflected in their art. In the western provinces, important monuments include the rock-cut caves at Nasik, Karle, and Kanheri. The Sātavāhanas were responsible for introducing rock-cut art to the eastern Deccan and south India. The eastern Āndhradeśa school of art was responsible for creating numerous noble monuments, including the marvelous sculptures associated with the Buddhist monuments at Amaravati, Goli, Jaggayyapeta, Gummadidurru, and Bhattiprolu. The classic southern style of sculpture with its elegant, fluid treatment of the human figure came to full expression at these early Āndhra sites. Permanently recorded in the white limestone used on the sacred Buddhist monuments, the texts of the Buddhist faith in symbolic form—the stupa, the wheel of dharma, the Bodhi tree and the footprints of the Buddha—are repeated in infinite variety.

In the heyday of Sātavāhana rule, both literary pursuits and intellectual inquiries were advanced. The great Buddhist teacher Nāgārjuna lived under the auspices of the Sātavāhanas. The primary advocate of Mādhyamika Buddhism, Nāgārjuna’s main treatise was the Madhyamikaśastra (second century c.e.; treatise on the Middle Way). He was also interested in medical science and pharmaceutical remedies. A rationalist, he contended that if something cannot be demonstrated rationally, it cannot be completely true. A Sātavāhana king named Hāla, a contemporary of Nāgārjuna, is cited in the Purāṇas as being the seventeenth ruler of the Sātavāhanas. A highly literate man, he compiled the Gāthāsaptaśati (second century c.e., also called Gāhākośa; The Prakrit Gāthā-Saptaśati, 1971) an anthology of seven hundred verses that portrayed daily life, scenes of love, humorous situations, and descriptions of natural phenomena. Hāla was king for a mere five years, possibly between 150 and 200 c.e. The literary genius Guṇādhya, a prolific writer, lived during the first or second century c.e. He is known for writing the Bṛihatkathā (the great tale). The work, written in the Paiśāchi language, was an anthology of folk tales, many of which were about love. The original work has not survived, but it was so popular that sections of it were cited or copied by writers for many centuries.

By the early third century c.e., Sātavāhana rule was weakening and gradually the dynasty’s territories were being overrun by vigorous new contenders for the riches of the empire. The western provinces were taken by the Ābhīras and Taikutakas. The Kalachuris usurped the northern territories. The Ikṣvāku Dynasty, in taking the fertile lands of Āndhradeśa, brought an end to Sātavāhana rule around 225 c.e.


There can be no doubt that the Sātavāhanas brought unity, order, and prosperity to the Deccan. Little is known of the region before their rule, but the vast expanse seems to have been populated by widespread and diverse clans and tribes. The Sātavāhanas were responsible for consolidating Brahmanism with its social strictures as the primary religion of the empire. Nonetheless, they were enlightened and liberal rulers who encouraged religious tolerance. Perhaps their greatest contribution was the creation of a great mercantile network that ensured prosperity for their subjects.

Further Reading

  • Knox, Robert. Amaravati: Buddhist Sculptures from the Great Stupa. London: British Museum Trust, 1992. Provides historical background on the Sātavāhanas and excellent evaluation of Sātavāhana archaeological materials from Amaravati. Bibliography.
  • Sastri, Ajay Mitra, ed. The Age of the Sātavāhanas. 2 vols. New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 1999. Collection of essay addressing history, culture, numismatics, epigraphy, art, and archaeology of the Sātavāhanas. Plates and notes with references.

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