Some of the oldest art in India dating back to the 1st century BC, can be found in the Ajantha caves of Maharashtra. Magnificent murals found here depict Buddhist and Hindu deities and figures. These caves and their paintings were created not long after the death of Buddha under the patronage of a dynasty called the Satavahanas. Who were they?
Above: Mural from the Cave 10 in the Ajanta complex [Public Domain]
Historians and archaeologists are still figuring out the answer to that question. Many Satavanhana sites have fallen to ruin, and archeological evidence and literary sources about them do not always match up. For example, the Matsya Purana- an ancient text about Indian polity, society and art- refers to the Andhra dynasty. Some historians say that the location of the Andhra kingdom matches Satavahana territory, so they are the same dynasty. Others say that the Puranas date the Andhras two centuries before the earliest evidence of the Satavahanas. They are not the same.
So what do we know about them for sure? They seem to have come into power in the Deccan in the 1st century BCE, after the fall of the Mauryan empire. Their territory was largely made up of parts of modern day Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. When there was an ambitious and capable Satavahana king on the throne, their kingdom included parts of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh as well.
The Satavahanas were blessed in terms of their geography. Their kingdom spanned from coast to coast, which meant that travellers from the north had to pass through Satavahana territory if they were headed to the south, and likewise for travellers from the south headed north. And for the promise of safe passage, travellers would pay tolls at various points in the kingdom.
The most prominent of these toll points was the Naneghat pass in the Western Ghats in Maharashtra. This pass essentially made the journey between the rest of India and the North-Western coast considerably shorter.
Above: Entrance to the Naneghat Pass. To the right, the remains of the pot used to collect toll
Ships from the west, particularly from the Roman Empire, frequently docked in Satavahana cities like Sopara and Kalyan. From there the goods would travel into the Indian subcontinent. The Satavahanas made a good profit off that.
At Naneghat you can still see the remains of a pot that archaeologists believe was used to collect tolls from travellers and merchants. In nearby caves there are the remnants of monuments built in honour of Satavahana kings, along with several inscriptions. These inscriptions were made by a Satavahana Queen called Naganika. Her husband was King Satakarani, by some historical records, the son of King Shimuka, the founder of the whole dynasty. Naganika details out her husband’s rule, and also her son’s.
It is from these inscriptions that we know that the Satavahanas worshipped ancient Vedic gods like Indira, Dharma and Surya, and also some early forms of Vishnu. But they weren’t just patrons of Hinduism. The wealth they collected from tolls was used to build stupas as well. Not only were those first caves of Ajanta carved in their time, they also built several huge Buddhist stupas in their kingdom, donated the entrance archway that you can still see at Sanchi, and they built the magnificent Amaravati stupa in modern day Andhra Pradesh.
(i) Southern gateway of the Great Stupa at Sanchi. Inscription reads that it was donated by King Satakarni c.50-0 BCE
The Amravati stupa did fall to ruin, and was lost for a considerable period of time. But then the site was rediscovered in the late 18th century and huge excavation and preservation projects were undertaken. Today they are the largest collection of both Satavahana and early Buddhist sculpture. You can find them on exhibit at the Government Museum in Chennai. Download the Storytrails App and take the Stone Sculptures Gallery Tour.