Post Mauryan Period – Political History

Post-Mauryan’ is the name given to the period extending from approximately 200 BCE to 300 CE, that is, from the fall of the Mauryan dynasty to the rise of Gupta power. Though several important new developments are seen in this phase, it is best viewed in terms of the continuity and intensification of political, economic and social processes that started in the post- Vedic (6th century BCE) and matured in the Mauryan, culminating in the post-Mauryan.

Political History

Subsequent to the collapse and break-up of the vast Mauryan Empire, we see the rise of a number of smaller territorial powers in its place in different regions of the subcontinent.

The Shungas

In the Ganga valley, for instance, the Mauryas were immediately succeeded by the Shungas under Pushyamitra, the general of the Mauryan army who is believed to have assassinated the last Mauryan king in circa 180 BCE. The Shungas, who ruled for about a 100 years (and were then replaced by the Kanvas who quickly made way for the Mitras), included in their kingdom Pataliputra (Magadha), Ayodhya (central Uttar Pradesh) and Vidisha (eastern Malwa), and possibly reached up to Shakala (Punjab). Pushyamitra is associated with the performance of the Vedic Ashvamedha sacrifice and with an antagonistic attitude to the Buddhist faith.

In Kalinga (south Orissa), Mahameghavahana Chedis set up a kingdom towards the end of the first century BCE. We know this from the Hathigumpha inscription of King Kharavela who belonged to this dynasty. The rise of a regular monarchy in Orissa represents the spread of state polity and society to new areas in this period. This is illustrated also by the Satavahana kingdom that, with its capital at Pratishthana (modern Paithan on the Godavari river), covered Maharashtra and Andhra and, at times, parts of north Karnataka, south and east Madhya Pradesh and Saurashtra.

The Satavahanas

The Satavahanas were a major ruling dynasty of the post-Mauryan period which held sway from the first century BCE to the early third century AD. However, there is uncertainty about who the Satavahanas were and where they came from. While in their inscriptions they claim to be exalted brahamanas (ekabahmana) who performed Vedic yajnas, the Puranas call them Andhras who are described as lowly social groups. Similarly, apart from the name ‘Andhra’, the discovery of early Satavahana coins from sites in Andhra Pradesh led some historians to believe that the Satavahanas began their rule in the eastern Deccan and then spread westwards. On the other hand, their inscriptions in the Nasik and Nanaghat caves point to the western Deccan as the original power center of the Satavahanas. At any rate, the Satavahanas adopted the title of Lord of Dakshinapatha and Pliny, the Roman chronicler, too says that the Andhras had many villages and thirty walled towns and a large army of 1,00,000 infantry 2,000 cavalry and 1,000 elephants.

The Satavahana territories were divided into a number of administrative divisions known as aharas and we hear of different sorts of officials such as amatyas, mahamatras, mahasenapatis, and of scribes and record keepers. However, the basic organization of the empire was feudatory which means that there existed a number of local rulers of subordinate chiefs in the realm, known as the maharathis and mahabhojas whom the Satavahanas exercised political paramountcy over but did not eliminate.

Some of the major Satavahana kings were Gautamiputra Satakarni (circa 106-130 CE) during whose reign the empire seems to have territorially reached its peak, his son Vashisthiputra Pulumavi (130-154 CE), and Yajnashri Satakarni (165-194 CE). The use of metronyms (name deriving from the mother’s name) by Satavahana kings and the fact that their queens issued inscriptions are interesting features. Another remarkable aspect about this dynasty is that they issued coins made of lead and its alloy, potin.

Dynasties of External Origin

Finally, in the post-Mauryan period the north-west and west-central parts of the subcontinent witnessed the rule of not one but several dynasties of external origin, often simultaneously, as a result of tribal incursions from central Asia.

The Indo-Greeks

The first to come were the Indo-Greeks or Indo-Bactrians who were from the area north- west of the Hindukush mountains, corresponding to north Afghanistan. They expanded into the Indus valley and the Punjab and founded an empire there, occasionally making inroads as far as the Ganga-Yamuna doab, between the second century BCE and the first century CE. They are known for and by their coins which not only included the earliest gold coins recovered archaeologically in India but bore legends and portraits of individual kings, thus facilitating their identification. Indo-Greek rule in the region is also responsible for the growth of Hellenistic cultural influences seen in the town planning, on the one hand, and sculpture, on the other. The most famous king is Menander (165-145 BCE) who seems to have embraced Buddhism after an extension dialogue with a monk named Nagasena. The dialogue is captured in the Pali text Milindapanho, The Questions of Milinda (Menander’ Indianised name).

The Scythians

The next to invade were the central Asian tribe called the Scythians or Shakas (as they came to be known here). Different branches of the Shakas took over different parts of north and central India, establishing their rule at Taxila, for instance, and at Mathura. Shaka chiefs were known as Kshatrapas. The strongest and longest lasting Shaka presence was in Malwa where it continued till the fourth century CE. The best remembered kshatrapa of this line is Rudradamana I (circa 130-150 CE) of the Kardamaka family who extended his hold over Saurashtra, Kathiawar, Konkan and Sindh, apart from Malwa. This brought him into prolonged, fluctuating conflict with the Satavahanas as metinoned in the Satavahana’s Nasik inscription and Rudradamana’s Junagadh inscription. Significantly, Rudradamana’s inscription is the first long epigraph in chaste Sanskrit that we get from early India.

The Parthians

Close on the heels of the Shakas were the Parthians or Pehlavas, originally from Iran. They occupied a relatively minor principality in the north-west.Gondophernes was their best known king. Their early capital was at Taxila which was shifted to the region between Kabul and Peshawar. Their coins and artefacts bear Hellenistic influence.

The Kushanas

The last major central Asian force to enter the subcontinent in post-Mauryan times were the Kushanas. The Kushanas were a branch of a tribe bordering China known as the Yueh chi which, as a result of pressure from other tribes in their homeland, moved out to new regions. A section known as the Little Yueh chi settled in north Tibet while the Great Yueh chi occupied five principalities in the valley of the Oxus river. Then around the beginning of the first century CE, a chief by the name of Kujula Kadphises and his son Vima brought together the five areas and laid the foundations of a unified Kushana empire that extended from the Oxus river in the north to the Indus Valley in the south, and from Khorasan in the west to Punjab in the east.

Kushana power entered the subcontinent proper, and reached its height, under a king named Kanishka. During his reign, which started circa 78 CE (the date from which a new era, later called Shaka samvat, was inaugurated), the Kushana empire extended further eastwards into the Ganga valley reaching right up to Varanasi, and southwards into the Malwa region. A vast expanse spaning diverse cultures – Indic, Greek, West and Central Asian -was thus brought under one umbrella, leading to the commingling of peoples and practices.

Kanishka and his successors, like Huvishka, Kanishka II and Vasudeva I, ruled till circa 230 CE. Their Indian territories had twin capitals, at Purushapura (Peshwar) and at Mathura. Though they adopted titles like Devaputra(son of god), Kaiser (emperor) and Shahanushahi (king of kings), the Kushana kings did not exercise direct and absolute control over the whole empire. Large parts were under subordinated rulers (like the Shakas) with the title of kshatrapa and mahakshatrapa.

The Kushanas both introduced new features such as an improved cavalry with the use of reins and saddle or the trouser-tunic-and-coat style of dressing, and vigorously embraced elements of indigenous cultures as reflected in their patronage of Buddhism and Shaivism and of Sanskrit literature.

As the power of the Kushanas declined, various local dynasties subdued by them resurfaced all over north and central India. These included the Shakas of Malwa and a number of Naga, Mitra and Datta kings, as well as non-monarchical ganas like the Arjunayanas, Malavas and Yaudheyas who are known from their coins, seals and inscriptions. These were the conditions in which a new phase started with the rise to power of the Guptas in the early fourth century AD.

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