The Deccan Empires of Ancient and Medieval India


Historical overview
Religion, art and literature


This article covers the long period of time between the rise of the Satavahana kingdom in the final centuries BCE and the period just before the conquest of the Deccan by the Muslim armies of the Delhi sultanate, in the 13th and 14th centuries. The history of this period was characterised by the rise and fall of a series of powerful states in the region, the Satvahana, the Vakataka, the Chalukya and the Rashtrakuta.

Historical overview

The Satavahana

Satavahana was the first large kingdom of central India. It probably came to power at the end of the third or beginning of the second century BCE (it’s not known exactly when), as one of the major successor states to the great Mauryan empire. It was based in the great plateau of the Deccan.

Thirty kings are mentioned in the Puranas, the main textual source for the kingdom. Many of these kings also figure in the inscriptions and coins of the period. The kings were Brahmin by religion but at least some if them patronised Buddhism as well.

At times the kingdom covered a huge area of the subcontinent, from the east and west coasts and up into the northwest. At other times internal conflict and external threats, most especially from the Saka (Scythians), who established themselves in northwest India in the first century BCE, led to Satavahan’s borders retracting.

This important kingdom of ancient India came to an end sometime in the third century CE. Like many Indian kingdoms, the Satavahana kings had always exercised only loose control over their provinces. The end of the kingdom came when the central authority dwindled to the point where the provincial feudatories were able to set themselves up as independent kings.

The Vakataka

Not for long, however. By the end of the third century a new dynasty had established its sway over much of the Deccan. This was the Vakataka dynasty.

Like the Saravahana before them, the Vakatakas were Brahmins. Rudrasena II (reigned c. 380–385) married the daughter of the great Gupta King Chandragyota II, at a time when the Gupta Empire was by far the most powerful state in the subcontinent. Rudrasena died a few years later, leaving Prabhavatigupta to rule as regent for her two sons for 30 years. Sge seems to have aligned her government’s interests with those of the Gupta Empire, to the benefit of both realms.

Another famous Vakataka king was Harishena (reigned c. 475 – 500), who was a great patron of Buddhist culture. He inaugurated the great series of temple caves at Ajanta, some of the greatest centres of Indian art and architecture.

The Vakataka kingdom did not long survive Harishena, and the Deccan once again became divided amongst several smaller states.

The Chalukya

One of these was ruled by a dynasty called the Chalukya. This expanded its borders in the second half of the 6th century and first half of the 7th century to form a large empire covering much of central India. Its most famous king was Pulakeshin II, who repulsed the attacks of the great conqueror of northern India, Harsha, and expanded his borders on all sides to bring the Chalukya empire to the height of its power.

Very soon after Pulakeshin’s death a prince of the royal house hived off a large chunk of territory into a major kingdom under the Eastern Chalukya dynasty.

The Rashtrakuta

The dynasty survived until 753, when one of its feudatories seized power and installed a new dynasty on the throne. This was the Rashtrakuta dynasty.

The Rashtrakutas were more expansionist than the Chalukyas had been. They became involved in the great power struggles in both northern, where they competed with the powerful Gurjara-Pratihara and Pala kingdoms for dominance; and southern India, where they contested the power of the Pallava kingdom. Periodically they succeeded in dominating both regions, though not at the same time.

The Western Chalukya and others

The Rashtrakutas fell from power in 973 when a surviving member of the old Chalukya ruling family seized the throne.  Once again a powerful Chalukya kingdom covered much of the Deccan. It would never be as powerful as either the former Chalukya empire or the Rashtakuta empire had been, and its territories were more or less confined to the western Deccan – hence its name, the Western Chalukya kingdom. Over the next two centuries the Deccan again became divided into numerous small kingdoms. Apart from the Western Chalukya were the Eastern Chalukya, the Hoysala,the Yadava and the Kalachuri kingdoms also became prominent. A new chapter would open when the armies of the Delhi Sultanate overran the Deccan in the 14th century, installing Muslim rule in the region.


It is hard to piece together from the available evidence how these empires of the Deccan were organised; however, like many ancient and medieval Indian kingdoms, these states seem to have had a federate structure, with different areas under hereditary feudatories of the king. The monarchs therefore exercised only loose control over the provinces, and it was the feudatories who exercised full powers over their localities.

These had varying titles and different ranks, and although reconstructing their exact relationship to the central government or to each other is difficult, it was undoubtedly the case that some where more powerful and ruled over larger territories than others. Some feudatories were relatives of the royal family, whilst others seem to have been ex-officials who had established control of a particular territory. Others still (perhaps the majority) were descended from local kings and chiefs who had been defeated by one or other of the imperial ruers of the time.

This dispersion of power was a source of weakness for the empires of the Deccan. Weak emperors found it hard to keep their more powerful feudatories under tight control, and as we have seen, the kingdoms tended eventually to fragment into their constituent parts.  Nevertheless, the great states of the Deccan were enduring political edifices, not just fleeting constructs. The Satavahana kingdom lasted over four centuries (on a par with the Roman empire); the Vakatake empire endured about 150 years, as did the Chalukya empire in its pomp; and the Rashtrakuta empire lasted just over two centuries.

Religion, art and literature

Brahminism, Buddhism and Jainism had all become established in the Deccan under the Mauryan empire, and  flourished under the Satavahana, Vakataka, Chalukya and Rashtrakuta kingdoms.  The kings tended to be Brahmin by religion, but, like many royal families in ancient and medieval India, were active patrons of Buddhism and Jainism as well. The newer Shaiva and Vaishnava sects of Hinduism began to flourish in the first centuries CE as the cults of Shiva and Vishnu gathered popularity amongst the common people. By the end of the period Buddhims may have been beginning to die out in the Deccan,

The Satavahana began to practice, which became common throughout India, of granting villages to monasteries, both Buddhist and Hindu.

The Satavahana were the first to start building the monumental cave temples which were to become such a distinctive feature of Indian architecture. The first of these were at Ajanta, from the 2nd/1st centuries BCE, and, at a time when Brahminism shrines were little more than open spaces, consisted of entirely Buddhist temples. This tradition was carried through into the Chalukya and Rashtakuta dynasties, with the Ajanta series ending in the 5th or 6th centuries CE, under the Vakatakas, and a new series being constructed at Ellora from the 5th to the 10th centuries CE. These now contained Hindu and Jain temples, as well as Buddhist ones. The cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora are now UNESCO world heritage sites.

From the late 6th or early 7th centuries, the tradition of building free-standing Hindu temples in stone began. This would develop through the Rashtrakuta and later Chalukya periods and would be an important influence on the great temple architecture of later times.

Under Chalukya and Rashtrakuta rule the royal court became a major centre for the production of Saskrit literature. The period also saw the rise of a literature in the regional language of the southern Deccan, Kannada. This rose alongside, and did not displace, the older Sanskrit literature, and amongst the first extant works are grammars seeking to standardize Kannada writing conventions. These were clearly produced at the royal court, and hark back to earlier literary works in Kannada, some dated to the 6th century CE.


Throughout these centuries, agriculture made great strides at the expense of nomads and hunter-gatherers. There was  clearly a major increase in population. The expansion of farming was actively encouraged by government policy, which granted tracts of untamed land to temples, monasteries or individuals in the expectation that it would be brought under cultivation.

Under the Satavahana the  economy began to be significantly boosted by the rise the trans-Indian Ocean trade. Thus continued to flourish for the rest of the period.  To the west this was with the Greek and Roman worlds, and later with the Islamic world of the Middle East. To the east, it was with the countries of south east Asia. As time went by the western trade became somewhat less important, after the decline of the Roman Empire (from the 6th and 7th centuries CE), whilst the eastern trade became increasingly active, with the rise in south east Asia of well-organized states and urban civilization is such as the Pye and Burman kingdoms in Burma, the Khmer state in Cambodia, the Champa states in Vietnam and kingdoms of Java.

Before about 100 BCE the only city of which there is any mention in the whole of the Deccan is Pratishthana (modern Paithan), the capital of the Satavahana monarchs. From the 1st century BCE, however, cities began to grow up along the west, and then east, coasts of the peninsula. Large amounts of Roman bronzes, coins, ceramics and glass have been found dating from Satavahana and Vakataka times, evidence for the Indian Ocean trade’s early importance. These trading cities housed a growing class of prosperous merchants and craftsmen, who left records of themselves through their generous donations to religious institutions.

The maritime trade also stimulated internal trade, and huge overland caravans loaded with goods began the regular long-distance journey between the coasts and northern India – and on into central Asia to link up with the Silk Road between China and the Middle East. As a result, cities grew up in the interior of the Deccan as well as along the coast. These were often royal and provincial capitals, and also centres of religious pilgrimage.


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