The Western Kshatrapas: From Governors to Kings (35 CE - 405 CE)

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    Below the Girnar Rock Edict (inscription) of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (r. 269 – 232 BCE) in Gujarat’s Junagadh, five and a half feet tall and 11 feet long, and written in 2nd century CE Brahmi characters, is a fascinating record dating to the time of Mahakshatrapa Rudradaman I (reigned c. 130 CE), grandson of Kshatrapa Chashtana. Here, among other things, Rudradaman talks about repairing the embankments of the great Sudarshana Lake built by the local governor, Vaishya Pushyagupta, during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (r. 321 – 297 BCE) in the 3rd century BCE.

    So who was this Rudradaman, grandson of Chashtana, and where did he come from? Rudradaman was a Kshatrapa, a dynasty often called the Western Kshatrapas to differentiate them from the Northern Kshatrapas like Rujuvula (most probably governors of the Kushanas). The Western Kshatrapas ruled Kutch, Saurashtra, mainland Gujarat, parts of Madhya Pradesh and parts of Western Maharashtra at their peak. The empire of the Kshatrapas lasted from the first half of the 1st century CE all the way to 405 CE, when they fell to the Gupta expansions under Chandra Gupta II (reigned c. 380 – 415 CE).

    There were two distinct branches of the Western Kshatrapas – the Kshaharathas and the Kardamakas. Pliny, the famous Roman historian, calls them Indo-Scythians (locally known as ‘Sakas’) in the 2nd century CE. As far as their origins in India are concerned, the word ‘Kshatrapa’ has its etymology in the word ‘satrap’, which is Persian for ‘governor’ and is perhaps a leftover from the time the Kshatrapas were governors of the Partho-Scythians in Western Punjab. British Archaeologist and former Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, John Marshall describes the word as the title of the heir-apparent and ‘Mahakshatrapa’ as being the title of the king or ruler as ‘Satrap of Satraps’.

    The origins of the Kshatrapas are shrouded in mystery. Some believe they were Scythio-Persians, while others are convinced they were Scythians and Indo-Scythian governors originally appointed by the Indo-Scythian dynasties of North-Western South Asia.

    The earliest use of the word ‘Kshatrapa’ in the South Asian context is seen in the Moga Copper Plate found in Taxila (now in Pakistan) and it refers to the Kshaharatha (and) Kshatrapa of Chukhsa-Liaka Kusulaka, who was most probably the Governor of Kapisa (now in Afghanistan). We then hear of the Satraps of Mathura – Hagana, Hagamasa, Sodasa and Sivdatta – and their names are seen on coins from Mathura. Next in the order are the Northern and then the Western Kshatrapas led by Abhiraka and Bhumaka.

    The Sakas or Kshatrapas – the words are often used interchangeably – are more of a titular word in some cases, a dynastic term in others, and an identifier of race elsewhere. The Kshatrapas of all kinds are referred to as ‘Sakas’, pointing to their very obvious Scythian antecedents.

    Their North-West Frontier antecedents are very obvious when one looks at the coins of the Kshaharatha ruler, Abhiraka. They follow Greek norms, weigh 10.3 g, and have a winged Nike (the Greek goddess of Victory) on the obverse surrounded by a clear Greek legend, and on the reverse a lion and elephant head standard and a spoked wheel standard with a Kharosthi legend that reads: ‘Kshaharatha Kshatrapa Jayasa Abhirasa’. When you add the Greek legend, Nike and the Kharosthi legend to the reference in the Moga Copper Plate (now in the British Museum), it seems obvious that the antecedents of the Kshaharatha Kshatrapas lie in the lands of the Sakas.

    Kshaharatha Kshatrapas

    The Kshaharathas (approx 100 BCE - 78 CE) were the first Western Kshatrapa dynasty and we know of their rulers, Abhiraka, Bhumaka and Nahapana, from their coins.

    Of these rulers, Nahapana was by far the most famous. He was based in what is present-day Bharuch in Gujarat, and his capital city was Ujjain, and we know of him from coins and from the inscriptions of his son-in-law, Ushavadatta seen in present-day Maharashtra at Nashik, Karla and Manmodi (Junnar). His dominion extended across Malwa, Gujarat, the West coast of India (from Bharuch to Sopara and perhaps Mandad), and the districts of Nashik and Poona (modern Pune).

    He finds mention in the Nashik cave inscription of Ushavadatta, and this is clearly evidence of his victory over the Early Satavahanas, who ruled over this region with their first capital at Junnar near Nashik. The silver coinage of Nahapana is found in large numbers and clearly points to a deep monetisation of the economy. There are numerous coin hoards with Nahapana’s coins. The symbols on the reverse of his coins are suddenly seen replacing the Satavahana symbols of the coins of the Mahabhojas, and this seems to show that he not only defeated the Satavahanas but also extended his rule over their vassals.

    Renowned historian and archaeologist, Prof M K Dhavalikar, cites the evidence of the vast number of Nahapana’s coins being overstruck by Satavahana king, Gautamiputra Satakarni (1st or 2nd century CE), to point out that Nahapana was finally defeated by a coalition of forces welded together by Gautamiputra. But far from being decisive, this started a feud that lasted the next 200 years, between the Satavahanas and the Kshatrapas.

    Nahapana was the last of the Kshaharathas. He was a patron of Buddhism and his economy flourished thanks to trade with the Roman Empire. He and his family left behind numerous inscriptions at the Nashik Caves; there is an inscription by him at the Karla Caves; and an inscription by one of his ministers at the Manmodi Caves (Junnar). Many Buddhist caves belonging to this period have ‘Yavana’ (Greek) donative inscriptions too. These sets of inscriptions further consolidate the fact that there was great overseas trade, which implies productivity and local trade and the creation of wealth. The control of this trade was the reason for the wars between the Kshatrapas and the Satavahanas.

    The Kardamaka Kshatrapas

    A new Kshatrapa dynasty was founded by Chashtana, the Satrap of Ujjain, in 78 CE. During his 52 years at the helm, till 130 CE, he skillfully held and nurtured an empire engaged in overseas and inland trade, and in competition with the Satavahanas. He was the grandfather of Rudradaman I and was succeeded by his grandson in 130 CE.

    Rudradaman I immediately defended his kingdom from assault by the Satavahanas. The wars were so fierce and both sides so unyielding that ultimately a marital alliance was formed to help cease hostilities and for both sides to save face. Rudradaman gave Vashishthiputra Pulumavi his daughter's hand, which is mentioned in an inscription in the Kanheri Caves in Mumbai.

    In the Girnar Rock Edict inscription in Junagadh in Gujarat, Rudradaman claims to have twice defeated Vashishthiputra in battle but did not kill him on account of their familial ties. Rudradaman regained many of the territories of Nahapana but was probably unable to conquer Nashik and Pune. He then went on to subjugate the Yaudheyas in North India in 150 CE.

    The Rise of Ujjain

    Ujjain in present-day Madhya Pradesh rose to great prominence during the reign of the Kshatrapas. The capital of the Kshatrapas under Chashtana and Rudradaman, it became a great seat of Sanskrit learning and was a very important trade emporium. The city is called ‘Ozene’ by Greaco-Roman writers, and both Nahapana and Chashtana are mentioned in their works. Ujjain, a major administrative centre during the pre-Mauryan and Mauryan eras as well, remained incredibly important in the subsequent Kshatrapa-Satavahana epoch.

    It was a place where semi-precious stones, fine cotton and many other products were gathered and then shipped to the coast for export to the Mediterranean world. It also housed an advanced steel-making industry as is obvious from the steel wedges under the Pillar of Heliodorus at Besnagar, which was a part of the Malwa region controlled directly from Ujjain.

    Rudradaman was a patron of the arts, an able administrator and an accomplished poet. He employed many experts, among whom was a Yavana who translated the Greek treatises on astrology for him. He was succeeded by Jivadaman, whose only real claim to fame is that he started printing Saka Era dates on his coins, thereby helping us date his reign from 178 CE. Rudradaman too seems to have had a long reign of 48 years.

    Rudradaman’s reign saw the translation of the very important text in astrology, the Yavanajataka of Sphujidhwaja, from Greek to Sanskrit, by Yavaneshwara, a Graeco-Roman scholar who is also credited with being the first to distinguish between astronomy and astrology. In his own words, he was a Greek living in India. His treatise was the first formal introduction of Western Astrology to India and a work referred to often in the ensuing centuries.

    Rudradaman was also a very unique ruler as he vowed never to kill any human except in battle and he is said to have kept that vow, which is mentioned in his Girnar Inscription, to the very end.

    The succession after Rudradaman is not very clear, and Jivadaman and Rudrasimha seem to have ruled either simultaneously, in tandem or alternatively. Jivadaman first ruled from 178-181 CE (as seen from the dated coins). We then have the coins of Rudrasimha, who ruled from 180-198 CE. We also have an inscription by Rudrasimha from Setkhedi in Shajapur District of Madhya Pradesh, dated to 185 CE. Jivadaman once again took the throne, reigning from 197-198 CE.

    The sun partially set on the Kshatrapa Empire after Rudrasimha. Yajnashri Satakarni (170-199 CE) brought sword and fire to the Kshatrapas and defeated them in the late 2nd century CE. He left behind numerous inscriptions at Nashik, Kanheri and Guntur, testifying to the expansion of his territories. Yajnashri was sadly the last great scion of the Satavahanas, and after him the dynasty declined. His successor Vijay was the last ruler of the dynasty.

    Taking advantage of this, the Kshatrapas soon began to expand their empire and the greatest extent of their power came now, under Rudrasena II (256-278 CE). Rudrasena brought about a Kshatrapa resurgence and once again the Kshatrapas rose to prominence in Western and Central India. He was the 19th Kshatrapa ruler and made marital alliances with the Ikshavaku Dynasty that ruled Andhra Pradesh. At Nagarjunakonda (a very important Buddhist site in Andhra Pradesh), the Ikshavaku ruler, Mathariputra Virapurushadatta, names his wife Rudradhara-Bhattarika, daughter of the King of Ujjain. This king, most historians believe, was Rudrasena II, whose reach extended deep into Madhya Pradesh and many of his coins are found in the Sanchi-Vidisha region. His sons followed him to the throne but the heyday of Chashtana’s lineage was finally at an end.

    The reins of the empire were now in the hands of another cadet branch of the Kardamakas, and Rudrasimha II took over the kingship. He claimed to be a ‘son’ of Jivadaman but this would have been impossible as Jivadaman was had been dead for over a century by then. This was either a symbolic way of asserting his legitimacy or this is another ‘Jivadaman’ he was referring to.

    Rudrasimha II ruled along with his sons, and coins of Rudrasimha and his sons have overlapping dates. Rudrasimha II was a great patron of the arts and of Buddhism, and during his reign (304-348 CE), the Buddhist heartland of Sanchi and Vidisha continued to be firmly ruled by the Kshatrapas. His coins are found inside the stupas at the great Buddhist complex of Devnimori (in Northern Gujarat), where we also see a very interesting influence of the Graeco-Buddhist/Gandharan style of art.

    End of an Empire

    The second half of the 4th century CE saw the eastward expansion of the Persian Sassanian Empire and the complete collapse of the Kushana vestiges. It is believed that their inroads into the Kutch had already shaken the Kshatrapas when Samudragupta (the second emperor of the Gupta Dynasty) made his westward expansion into Gujarat. His son finished the conquest and issued the Lion Slayer coins which are an indirect reference to his conquests in Gujarat, the home of the Asiatic lion.

    Shridharavarman, Mahadandanayaka (paramount-general) of the Kshatrapas, and perhaps its last ruler, paid homage to Samudragupta upon his defeat. This event is clearly mentioned, with Shridharavarman’s name mentioned in the Samudragupta inscription on the Allahabad Pillar, one of the Pillars of Ashoka. The inscription says that Shridharavarman “self-surrendered and offered his daughters in marriage to the emperor”.

    There are coins by Rudrasimha II (388-395 CE), who is mentioned in an inscription from Eran as the Saka king who stopped the subsequent advances of Ramagupta (heir of Samudragupta), who was forced to offer his wife Dhruvadevi to the clutches of the “Saka King”. Ramagupta’s brother Chandra Gupta II went in her place and killed Rudrasimha; he then killed his brother, married Dhruvadevi and became the Emperor. He totally subjugated Gujarat in 412-413 CE, made it a part of his empire and proceeded to mint coins in the same style as the Kshatrapas, for local circulation.

    These coins were minted here in this manner to preserve continuity. In the Ganga Valley, the heartland of the Gupta Empire, the Guptas minted gold and copper coins in the denominations minted by the Kushanas. Western India was used to silver, copper and lead coins. The silver coinage was built on much earlier Indo-Greek standards and the Guptas were forced to mint coins according to the local tradition to maintain a sense of continuity.

    Chandra Gupta II’s campaigns brought an end to four centuries of Saka rule and set the stage for the Guptas and their contemporaries.

    Cover image: Coin of Rudradaman, courtesy:

    This article is part of our 'The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material - archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.

    This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.

    Find all the stories from this series here.

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