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- The header image is "Tombs of the Kings of Golconda" (1813) by Robert Melville Grindlay. From The British Library's Online Gallery.
“There can be little doubt that notwithstanding all the care bestowed on the ruined cave temples [at Ajanta] these wonderful wall paintings will be subject to progressive decay owing to irremediable physical conditions. It is most unlikely that their value for the student of Eastern art and Buddhism will ever be surpassed by any discoveries still possible in the future” – Sir Aurel Stein
All this talk of Buddhism in the Deccan is incomplete without mentioning the caves at Ajanta and their Hyderabad connection. The caves at Ajanta, 100 km from present-day Aurangabad, belong to two distinct periods – the Satavahanas in the 2nd Century BCE and the Vakatakas in the 5th Century AD. They were in use till around the 9th Century AD and the decline of Buddhism in the region eventually sent the caves into obscurity. The caves represent the pinnacle of Buddhist art in India; Hiuen Tsang left colourful descriptions of the caves despite never having visited them. After Mughal rule, Aurangabad (and Ajanta) passed into the dominion of the first Nizam pretty much at the inception of the Asaf Jahi dynasty. Aurangabad was, in fact, the capital of the Asaf Jahi kingdom till his son shifted it to Hyderabad in 1763.
Discovery & Restoration
John Smith of the Madras Cavalry and his fellow officers were out on a perfectly regular hunt in the jungles in Ajanta in 1819. The hunt wasn’t exactly successful – they lost their target in a valley below. They did, however, spot a horse-shoe shaped arch instead. Other stories tell us of a young shepherd boy who led the officers to the “unusual sight”. Cave 10 of the Ajanta caves was discovered thus. Mr. Smith promptly etched his name there – surely an indication of the “Amit + Reshma” plague that would haunt Indian monuments forever. This discovery probably cost the caves dearly. One Mr. James Bird, a surgeon (yes, a surgeon) from Satara was sent to Ajanta by the Governor of Bombay in 1926. He immediately declared the cave a Jain temple and believed he could “carry away” a few of frescoes with him – he ended up turning a few of them to dust. In 1844, Robert Gill arrived at Ajanta and spent the next thirty years of his life there. His copies of the caves’ frescoes and his photographs were instrumental in creating awareness about the art at Ajanta. Unfortunately, most of his work was destroyed by a fire in 1866. A few years later, John Griffiths, the principal of the Bombay School of Arts, began taking his students to Ajanta to copy the frescoes. However, the use of cheap varnish by Griffiths and his students did more damage to some of the frescoes than the centuries of natural decay did.
Fast forward to a 1915. The caves have been part of Hyderabad State for a while (barring a few post-battle transfers to the Marathas and back). Although copies of the frescoes had been made by Gill, Griffiths and Lady Herrigham, the government at Hyderabad appointed Syed Ahmed, an artist trained under Lady Herringham, to produce better copies of the art at Ajanta. But only a photograph could possibly be the most faithful reproduction of the frescoes – an option not entirely feasible due to the crust of moisture and dirt on them, not to mention the aftermath of earlier restoration attempts like Mr. Griffith’s – copal was applied as varnish, without cleaning the frescoes first, converting them into a hazy smear. That wasn’t all – even reaching the caves was a challenge. Consider the following excerpt from the Bombay Gazetteer (1880) :
“In 1824 Lieutenant, later General, Sir James E. Alexander, on his way to the caves, was warned by an officer in the Nizam’s horse, that he would never return, that if he escaped the tigers, he would fall victim to the stony-hearted Bhils. Near the path, several cairns, covered with rags, marked spots where travellers had been killed, and in one of the caves was a human skeleton and footprints of tigers, jackals, and bears”
It is at this point in the story that the 7th Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan steps in. With the help of Lord Curzon and Sir Rennell Rodd, the British Ambassador at Rome, the Archaeological Department at Hyderabad engaged two Italians, Prof. Lorenzo Cecconi and Count Orsini to restore the frescoes at Ajanta in 1920. The department then sought the services of E.L. Vassey to photograph the frescoes and published the collection in a four-volume work on the caves. The Nizam also ensured that the caves were accessible – he commissioned roads and bridges to the caves, he built a rest house for travelers to Ajanta and cut walkways in the valley so visitors could walk from one cave to the other. He spent Rs. 18 lakhs, a princely sum then, on the endeavor between 1915 – 1936. Mir Osman Ali Khan surely deserves the credit for preserving and bringing the magnificence of the Ajanta caves to us.
Note: This isn’t quite Hyderabad trivia, but Anna Pavlova visited the caves just after their restoration in 1922. She loved the frescoes so much that she asked her choreographer Ivan Clustine create a ballet based on them. And he did – “Ajanta’s Frescoes”. It didn’t do that well, though – the choreographer had never been to Ajanta.
Richard Cohen. (2005). Beyond Enlightenment: Buddhism, Religion, Modernity.
Sir John Cumming. (1939). Revealing India’s Past: A Co-operative Record of Archaeological Conservation and Exploration in India and Beyond.
Annual Report of the Archaeological Department of His Exalted Highness the Nizam’s Dominions 1920-21.
Ghulam Yazdani. (1930). Ajanta: Part 1.
Rediscovering Ajanta. Traveler’s India.
The Ikshavakus & Buddhism in the Valley
The Satavahana administration borrowed its structure from the Mauryas – this meant decentralized power and states that were ruled by feudal lords. Just as the Satavahanas declared independence when Mauryan rule weakened, their feudatories, the Ikshavakus, took over their dominions in the Krishna basin when the Satavahana dynasty was winding up in the first quarter of the 3rd Century AD. Some historians believe that they were the descendants of THE Ikshavaku kings of Hindu mythology but it is more likely that they just borrowed the name. It must be remembered, however, that the Ikshavakus took over only a fraction of the Satavahana kingdom; many ruling families, including the Pallavas, Vakatakas and Chutus of Karnataka were in possession of different parts of the former kingdom at different times. Only the Vakatakas managed to build a kingdom comparable to that of the Satavahanas in the Deccan.
Vashishtiputra Shantamula (whatey king-level name!) was the first of the four Ikshavaku kings we know of, but we don’t know much else about him except for the fact that he existed, performed a bunch of Yagnams, including the Ashvamedha, and had a few sisters. His son, Virapurushadutta (he one-upped his father in being king-level-ly named), expanded and protected his kingdom through the second-most powerful strategy to do so – matrimony. It was during the reign of the third Ikshavaku, Ehuvala Shantamula, that the kingdom reached its cultural peak. The Ikshavaku kings, like the Satavahanas, were Hindus but were patrons of Buddhist art and architecture. The women of the dynasty were devout Buddhists and were pretty much wholly responsible for the emergence of Nagarjuna Konda as one of the key Buddhist centers of the time. Shamtamula – II was succeeded by the last known king of the Dynasty, Rudrapurushadutta (you have to hand it to them for naming progeny well). Exactly what caused their decline is unknown; it is probable that the rise of the Pallavas in the 4th century pushed the Ikshavakus back into being vassals. All we know is that within a 100 years of its inception, the dynasty passed into oblivion.
Buddhism by the Rivers
Ashoka is credited with spreading Buddhism far and wide in the sub-continent, and rightly so, but Buddhism may have already been present in the Krishna – Godavari delta by the time he realized he didn’t want all that bloodshed anymore. The earliest mentions of Buddhism in the region can be attributed to Buddhist literature itself – there is mention of the Buddha himself visiting the Stupa at Dharanikota/Amaravati, the former Satavahana capital. The Sutta Nipatta mentions a Brahmin named Bavari who left Kosala t0 live as an ascetic on the banks of the Godavari, in Assaka. According to the text, a curse from a Brahmin prompted him to send 16 of disciples on a cross-country hike to meet famed Buddha, thus bringing back His teachings to the region. Moreover, Ashoka’s inscriptions suggest that Buddhism was already present in the region by the time he issued his edicts.
One suggested reason for the early spread of Buddhism in the region was the similarity between the neolithic and early Buddhist cultures – the Buddhists’ Stupas and the local proto-Andhra population’s megalithic burials, for e.g. Another argument was that caste-less Buddhism appealed to a population on whom caste had been imposed by the invading North Indian rulers. The growth of this faith, however, from its early cult-like existence to mainstream presence in the South can be attributed to the Satavahanas. After the decline of the Mauryas, the Sungas didn’t exactly support Buddhism like their predecessors did (like most things in history, this is debatable) and the religion continued to grow elsewhere. The relative stability of the kingdom, both political and financial, during Satavahana reign and the royal support extended to the religion made Amaravati the most important Buddhist center in the south. For a while.
160 km from present-day Hyderabad, Vijayapuri (“the city of victory”), located strategically by the Krishna River and flanked on either side by the Nallamala hills, was the capital of the Ikshavakus. To its east and north lies a plateau, Sri Parvata and it is as conquerors of this plateau that the Ikshavakus are referred to in the Puranas. While Vijayapuri was the administrative center of the kingdom, Sri Parvata was the spiritual one. Excavation after its discovery in 1926 revealed 27 monasteries and twenty stupas, the largest of which was the Maha Chaitya. The inscriptions on the Stupa tell us that it contains the “holiest relics” – the remains of the Buddha. Inscriptions also tell us that it was renovated in the early 3rd century AD, making it older than the Ikshavaku dynasty.
The monasteries, which were actively supported by the royalty (mostly) and the merchant class, are peculiar in their provision of both the Stupa and the image of the Buddha for worship. The Ikshavaku period thus marks the transition from the early symbol-based worship to image-based worship in Buddhism. While the influence of Amaravati is evident, the Ikshavaku period Buddhist art, despite the short timeline, came into its own at Sri Parvata. Stone from Palnadu was used to bring to life stories about the Buddha and tales from the Jataka – the Mandhatu Jataka being an oft-represented favourite. The region became a renowned Buddhist cultural center and attracted people from all over the subcontinent, thus disseminating the Krishna Valley form of Buddhism outside the Valley – the Buddha’s depiction at Sri Parvata, for example, became the standard for representing him in Sri Lanka as well.
After the Ikshavakus passed into oblivion, “Vijayapuri” and “Sri Parvata” followed – the entire region, now known as Nagarjunakonda, named after Acharya Nagarjuna who supposedly lived here, lost it importance. The Chalukyas built a few brick shrines in the valley much later, but its heyday was clearly over. Unfortunately, Nagarjunakonda (“the Hill of Nagarjuna”) is only an island now, thanks to the Nagarjuna Sagar Dam Project; the excavated relics can now be seen at the museum there.
Durga Prasad. (1988). History of the Andhras
Nagarjunakonda: A Cultural Study. (1977). K. Krishna Murthy
H. Sarkar & B.N. Mishra. (1980). Nagarjunakonda. New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India.
S. Padma and A.W. Barber. (Ed.). (2009). Buddhism in the Krishna River Valley of Andhra.
Sukumar Dutt. (1988). Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India: Their History and Their Contribution to Indian Culture.
Ghulam Yazdani. (1961). The Early History of the Deccan, Volume 1.
Valley of Stupas. (Oct., 2007). Frontline.
Before Sultan Quli founded the Golconda Sultanate in 1512, general Deccan/Andhra history is all that can be used to understand what would have happened in the region for the 1800 years between the Andhras and Sultan Quli. The rulers in question may have been elsewhere, but one cannot deny the cultural and political impact being part of these kingdoms would have had on the region and its people.
The early Andhras were tribal kings whose kingdom presumably originated
from the banks of the Godavari in the fertile Krishna-Godavari delta. According to the Mahabharata, they even fought at Kurukshetra, albeit for both sides. They are mentioned in texts that vary from the Vedas to the accounts of Megasthenes, who is responsible for Andhra blogs everywhere boasting about the kingdom’s “30 walled cities, infantry of 1,00,000, 2,000 cavalry and 1000 elephants”. But the overall picture presented is pretty uniform – they were a strong, independent kingdom, largely left undisturbed. (Yes, there is a whole lot written about the Northern “Aryans” bringing “civilization” to the South; but we will not talk about that here – we don’t want a Rediff-level comments section) Even during the Mauryan period, they were believed to have been left in-charge, despite the region becoming part of the empire during the reign of Bindusara (or Chandragupta Maurya, according to some historians). The decline of the Mauryan empire during the 3rd Century BCE marked the beginning of a relatively prosperous and more importantly, stable period in the region’s history, one that would last for over 400 years.
This was the origin of the Satavahana kingdom. Or so we think. While there is no direct evidence linking the identity of the Andhra Kings to the Satavahanas, historians equate the two based on commonalities in the names of certain kings mentioned and succession information that is common to the both of them. But this theory was not without controversy. For one thing, the ancient texts that talk about the Andhra kings never mention the name of the dynasty and the Satavahana coins don’t mention anything about being kings of “Andhra Desa” either. Moreover, the Satavahanas maintained their records in Prakrit, not Telugu and their coins were initially found mainly in Maharashtra, not in Eastern Deccan, where the Andhra Kings were said to have been. But an equal number of historians explained them away: a) Kings don’t exactly always mention their geographical heritage everywhere. None of the post-Satavahana dynasties did. b) Telugu might have been the Andhras’ first language but it must be remembered the use of Prakrit was the Buddhist lingua franca during the period – it was used both by Ashoka and the Satavahanas’ successors. and c) Satavahana coins were eventually found in Andhra and besides, it is well known that they extended their empire to Maharashtra anyway.
So there. Andhra Kings/ Andhrabhritya = Satavahanas.
“The Andhras were not slow to take advantage of the opportunity given by the death of the great emperor (Ashoka), and, very soon after the close of his reign, set up as an independent power under the government of a king named Simuka. The new dynasty extended its sway with such extraordinary rapidity that, in the reign of the second king, Krishna (Kanha), the town of Nasik, near the source of the Godavari in the Western Ghats, was included in the Andhra dominions, which thus stretched across India.” – History of India (1906): Volume 2 – From the Sixth Century B.C. to the Mohammedan Conquest, Including the Invasion of Alexander the Great
Simuka Satavahana is generally agreed upon as the founder of the dynasty. However, it is important to understand that he did not exactly “found” the kingdom – it is more likely that he brought the prominent tribal leaders together and formed the kingdom by making them acknowledge him as their leader. Moreover, they were part of the Mauryan empire and therefore, not fully independent. It was during the the reign of Simuka’s successor (and brother), Krishna/Kanha that things changed and expansion started. The 6th Satavahana, Satakarni II, even took on the title of ‘Dakshinapathapati’ (Lord of the South). The 17th king, Hala, on the other hand, was known for dramatically different things. He wrote ‘Gatha Saptasati’, an anthology of erotic verses composed in the vernacular dialect, a distinct departure from the classics of the time. It also supposedly earned him a mention in Vatsayana’s Kama Sutra (unverified).
The dynasty reached its peak in the first century AD, under Gautamiputra Satakarni (yes, too many a Satakarni) – the kingdom was said to have had the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, the Godavari and the Narmada bordering it. He is also responsible for protecting the kingdom from Sakas, Yavanas and Pahlavas (We’re still not too sure who these guys were. They might have been the Pallavas’ predecessors. Or not.).
One of the main reasons for the prosperity of the dynasty, apart from successful military conquests, was flourishing trade. The Nanaghat inscriptions, apart from being one of the earliest sources of Hindu numerals, inform us of the Satavahanas’ conquest of the region. This conquest brought the Junnar pass into their kingdom, thereby opening up the Konkan region to them; the important Paithan – Ujjain land route was now under their control. Nauthical-themed Satavahana coins and the discovery of Roman coins in Andhra Pradesh confirm the existence of thriving overseas trade. (Image Source: Trade and Trade Routes in Ancient India, 1977)
And as with most stories like these, it was after Gautamiputra that the decline started. The dynasty that gave us the Saka calender (No, the Sakas did not give us the Saka era. Their defeat at the hands of the Satavahanas did.), the Ajanata caves (probably) and other Buddhist monuments, despite the Kings following a Vedic religion (Satakarnii II conducted the Aswamedha Yagam, even), came to an end in the first half of the 5th Century AD. Their kingdom was split between a bunch of contemporary kings. Amongst them were the Ikshavakus.
Durga Prasad (1988). History of the Andhras
Moti Chandra. (1977). Trade and Trade Routes in Ancient India.
A. V. Williams Jackson. (Ed.). (1906). History of India: Volume 2 – From the Sixth Century B.C. to the Mohammedan Conquest, Including the Invasion of Alexander the Great
Since the Neolithic Age
Excavations over the last century have unearthed (pardon the pun) quite a few details about the lives of the inhabitants of this region since the neolithic age. We don’t quite know what was happening here around that time, but we do know how they liked to bury their dead. What we now know as Hyderabad has probably been inhabited for 4,000 years.
Discovery of megalithic burial sites
Excavations starting in the late 19th century and continuing well into the 20th, led to the discovery of many cairn circles/megalithic burials across the Deccan. One man, Robert Bruce Foote, was responsible for over 50 of the earliest discoveries. Others such as Philips Meadows Taylor and Ghulam Yazdani were instrumental in the discovery and conservation of some of the sites closer to home. These include sites in Moula-Ali, Begumpet, Bowenpally and Kompally. Later finds in the city include those in Kothaguda, Hashmatpet and most recently, Gachibowli in 2004 and Hayatnagar in 2008. The sites in Hyderabad were eventually dated to the Iron Age (around 500 BC) and that set the city’s age to 2,500 years; but earthenware found at the Gachibowli site was later dated to 2000 and 1995 BC. The city suddenly became officially older by 1,500 years.
Representation of the burial site at Moula-Ali | Image Source: Hyderabad Cairns (Their Problems) by E.H. Hunt
The Burial Sites
Similar burial sites are scattered across the Deccan and share all the major characteristics. They are typically located on high ground, in this case, near granite outcrops where the soil is not fit for cultivation. These sites typically have stone circles, packed with rubble to a depth of 1-4 ft and are 18-20 ft across (the one in Mouli-Ali, though, is 42 ft in diameter) with the stones placed at equal distances. Under these circles were cists where marked earthen ware, iron tools, copper ornaments and beads of Lapis Lazuli, quartz and carnelian were buried along with the dead. This, of course, differed from site to site based on its age. The Mouli-Ali site, for e.g., contained quite a few examples of marked pottery and early metal work but the Gachibowli one, on the other hand, did not.
What do these burials tell us about the earliest known inhabitants of Hyderabad?
- They weren’t “Rakshasas”: Locals apparently believed that the graves belonged to Rakshasas and that the archaeologists would find 20 ft bones. That, unfortunately, did not happen. The bones belonged to the ordinary H. Sapien.
- They were settlers: They had settled areas of habitation and they farmed. They were skilled potters and the later inhabitants also enjoyed the occasional pottery painting/ marking their property/leaving warnings on earthenware. It must be mentioned that we don’t exactly know what they’re for.
Markings on the pottery | Image Source: Hyderabad Cairn Burials and their Significance (1924) by E.H. Hunt
- They worked with metal: Later inhabitants (500 BC-ish) were reasonably skilled with metal work – iron and copper, mostly.
- They knew their stars: Evidence from the Gachibowli site apparently suggests the use of astronomical observations to plan the orientation and structure of these burials. This is not as far-fetched as it seems. In 2006, a 2,500 year old etching of Ursa Major was found in Mahabubnagar. Go here (pdf) for analysis on the significance of astronomy in the arrangement of other megalithic burials in Mahabubnagar.
- They believed in The Afterlife: The cists were equipped with everything they thought was important enough to carry to the Other World. Breakfast included.
Iron Age burial site discovered. (2010, September). The Hindu.
E.H. Hunt (1916). Hyderabad Cairns (Their Problems).
E.H. Hunt (1924). Hyderabad Cairn Burials and their Significance.
Dr. V.V. Krishna Sastry. (1983). The Proto and Early Historical Cultures of Andhra Pradesh.
Rao, K.P. (2010). Excavations at Gachibowli: A Preliminary Report, Puratattva, Bulletin of the Indian Archaeological Society, New Delhi, No. 40.
In the interesting-facts-behind-a-Navneet-notebook style, a teaser for the sort of thing you can expect from this blog:
- Madras was under (sort of) Hyderabadi rule for a while in the 17th century. Take that, CSK!
- Mir Osman Ali Khan’s parsimonious ways were notorious; even TIME magazine made fun of them. He also gives his name to the Osman biscuit.
- Ibrahim Quli (father of Muhammad Quli, the city’s founder) wanted to establish a city of his own; that didn’t quite work out, obviously.
- Bhagmati is a made-up person, some historians claim.
- Hyderabad was once walled with gates (Darwazas) and posterns (Khidkis) for access into the city; the wall is all but gone and only 2 of the 14 gates now remain.
“History is a set of lies agreed upon.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
For me, history has always been about stories: stories of valiant kings, beautiful queens, scheming progeny and the occasional joker. And it is these stories that this blog will (hopefully) retell. You, the reader, may have heard them a thousand times before or maybe you haven’t. If it is the former, I would love to hear your stories as well and if it is the latter, then I hope this blog will give you a piece of the puzzle that is Hyderabad.
Image Source: ebay