The decline and the subsequent disintegration of the mighty Mauryan Empire (322 BC-185 BC) led to the rise of a number of regional kingdoms throughout the Indian subcontinent. The period between the 1st century BC and the first three centuries of the Christian era was a period of political and social flux in the history of ancient India. On one hand, a number of new foreign cultures were being assimilated into the Indian ethos while, on the other hand, the Indian subcontinent was witnessing a rise in trade and commerce with the outside world.
A number of small and large kingdoms emerged in the Indian subcontinent after the fall of the Mauryan dynasty. The northern part of the country saw a prolonged struggle between foreigners like Indo-Greeks, Parthians, Kushans and the Sakas. The most important dynasty amongst these was that of the Kushans, who had their origins in China. The Deccan and the central part of India saw the rise of the Satvahana Empire, while the southern peninsular regions saw the rise of a number of kingdoms like those of Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas.
THE SATVAHANAS (28 BC-AD 250)
The rulers of most of the regional kingdoms during this period had at some time or the other served under the Mauryans, and the Satvahana family was no exception. The Satvahanas were also known as the Andhras. They ruled most parts of central India and, in their quest to increase the size of their empire, they came into open conflict with the rulers of Kalinga in the east and the Saka rulers to the north. The Satvahanas had a prolonged struggle with the Sakas.
The Sakas were of foreign origin who had settled in the western parts of the Indian subcontinent, including Gujarat and parts of Malwa. They attacked the Satvahanas and pushed them out of central India and into Andhra. However, the Satvahanas quickly recovered from this setback and after reorganizing themselves, they attacked and took back western Deccan from the Sakas. Gautamiputra Satakarni, the famous Satvahana ruler, achieved this feat.
Gautamiputra Satakarni strengthened the power of the Satvahanas in the Deccan, in spite of constant conflict with the Sakas. The trouble between these two states subsided when Gautamiputra Satakarni's son Vasishthiputra married the daughter of the Saka ruler. However, the Satvahanas took over large parts of the Saka kingdom by the end of the 2nd century AD, as the power of the Sakas had declined considerably. Nevertheless, the Satvahanas themselves did not last long and they declined in the 3rd century AD.
The Satvahana kingdom was a link between the kingdoms of north India and south India. A lot of commercial activity took place in the Satvahana kingdom and a large number of towns sprang up in central India during their rule. The port of Bharuch became an important trading center, where ships from Persia, Iraq, Arabia, and Egypt docked and unloaded their wares. Ships also sailed from a number of ports in the delta of River Godavari to Burma and Malaya.
The Satvahana kingdom was prosperous and well administered. The kingdom was divided into a number of administrative provinces. Civil as well as military officials administered these provinces. The administration had its roots at the village level also, where the headman in each village was responsible for collecting revenues or tax.
The Satvahana kingdom had a number of flourishing towns and cities, where merchants and artisans flourished alike. As most of the people engaged in trade and commerce were either followers of Buddhism or Jainism, they made liberal contributions to their respective religious institutions.
The period of Satvahana witnessed a spurt in activities pertaining to building of Buddhist monuments and monasteries. The state and the trading class made their contribution in building of Chaityas (Buddhist prayer halls) and Stupas (huge semi-circular mounds of brick, having within them the relics of Lord Buddha or Buddhist monks).
The panels within the Chaitya halls and the stone railings around the Stupas were richly carved with stories related to Buddha and other Buddhist legends. The Sanchi Stupa near Bhopal is famous for its profuse carvings on its magnificent gateways and the mastery of the carvers in realistically rendering Buddhist themes. The stupa at Amaravathi is also famous for its architecture and carvings. Most of the stupas had monasteries near them where Buddhist monks would stay and learn Buddhist scriptures. Some Buddhist monks lived in huge rock-cut caves, which were decorated with Buddhist sculptures. The caves at Karle and Bedsa (near Pune) are fine examples of earliest Buddhist rock-cut caves.
Buddhist religion was very popular during the reign of the Satvahanas. There were frequent debates and discussions, and monks journeyed throughout the kingdom to preach the teachings of Buddha. Even the followers of the Vedic Hindu religion began to change their religious habits. Sacrifices gave way to prayers and elaborate ceremonies were replaced by devotion. The cults of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva gained prominence in the society, so did the teachings of Bhagavad Gita (a part of the Indian epic of Mahabharata, containing preachings of Lord Krishna).
SOUTHERN INDIAN KINGDOMSThree kingdoms emerged in the region south of the Satvahana kingdom: the Cholas (who ruled the area of Tanjore), the Pandyas (who ruled in the region of Madurai) and the Cheras or Keralas (who ruled the Kerala coast). The region ruled by these kingdoms was known as the land of the Tamils, as Tamil was the language spoken here. Our information about these three states is mainly based on Tamil literature, also called the 'Sangam literature'.
SANGAM LITERATURESangam literature is a vast collection of ancient Tamil poems. These poems are treasure troves of information, as they vividly describe the life and culture of the common people and the rulers of the southern part of India. They also point to the fact that the Cholas, the Pandyas, and the Cheras constantly fought with each other. The Cholas, not content with fighting on land, built a vast fleet of ships and attacked the kingdom of Sri Lanka. They succeeded in capturing some parts of northern Sri Lanka and held it for a few years before being pushed out. It is also described that both the Pandyas and the Cheras, maintained a huge army.
FOREIGN TRADEThe rise of the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean region during this time and the demand for luxurious goods from India like spices, textiles, precious stones, exotic animals, etc., brought Roman trading vessels to Indian ports on the coastline of Kerala in the west and the straits of Munnar in the east. The Romans filled their ships with the products they wanted and paid the Indians in gold. The gold thus obtained made the kingdoms in the south very rich. Some of the Romans established settlements in the coastal areas of south India. Trading vessels from the southern kingdoms also went to Southeast Asian ports.
SOCIETY AND RELIGIONMajority of the people lived in villages and were engaged in agricultural activities. People living in hilly tracts did animal herding. Merchants and traders lived and operated from towns located near the coast, which facilitated sea trade. The state was ruled by a king who was assisted by Brahmin (priestly class) ministers. There was also a general assembly of all local chieftains, known as the Sabha. Important state and local matters were discussed and solved in the Sabha. Officials of the state collected taxes from farmers, herdsman, artisans, and traders, in the name of the king. Special taxes were levied on merchants when they took goods from one place to another. The life of the common people was simple and they amused themselves with music, dance, and poetry.
Though religious ideas belonging to Vedic Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism had percolated to the southern kingdoms from the north, yet people continued to worship and revere their old deities. People also worshipped great warriors and had immense faith in the sea god. In the first century AD, Christian missionaries arrived on coastal Kerala and brought with them the gospel preached by Lord Jesus.