The arrow whooshed past the target and struck the ground.
Within a moment a protective ring formed around the abbot. ‘There,’ someone shouted pointing at a terrace partially hidden by the branches of a banyan. The speed at which the building was surrounded by troops gave the shooter no time to make an escape. The king himself ran ahead with his sword drawn, not a care for his own safety, breaking the doors and climbing two steps at time he reached the terrace, just in time.
The assassin was a professional, belonged to a secretive band of monks trained in the art of delivering death, of course for a price. They were oath bound never to reveal the names of those who procured their services. If capture is inevitable they preferred death by their own hands. Now was such time, the time to take out his own life.
He made a quick prayer to his teacher desperately seeking his pardon for failing, and a place in the heaven reserved for heroes.
He pulled out an arrow, crossed his legs and sat facing south, and looked at the arrow head, dark steel with an oily sheen pointing at his throat, and closed his eyes. With one swift motion it moved with the intent, of severing the tube that carried blood to the brain and the wind pipe with its prominent bulge bobbing up and down.
The king, Yagna Sri Satakarni saw the man about to die, a man who just a few moments ago, tried to kill his preceptor, Acharya Nagarjuna, the protector of the empire. He also knew that the assassin was only an instrument and the orders came from someone else. There was only one way to stop him… his sword came down at lightning speed. The hand that held the arrow fell on ground twitching, and the stump of the arm sprayed a fountain of blood on the assassin’s throat.
Now he had a captive who could lead him to the real killer.
An attempt to kill the Abbot of Sriparvata …
Entire city of Dhanyakataka was eager to know who the real culprit was. The queen Madhari was equally afraid… if the secret ever comes out in the open, all her efforts to ensure the succession of her son to the throne would come to a naught. She was quite sure who it was behind the plot to kill the abbot, in a way she herself was to blame. Didn’t she suggest to her son that… as long as the abbot is around, no harm could come to the king?
The king, brother of her husband, was an old man of sixty; and the abbot was so ancient no one can count his years. If her son got impatient he had a good reason. He was the rightful heir and had been waiting in the wings for over thirty years. In the last few years his desperation began to show.
She entered the chambers of her son in the south wing of the palace, unusually quiet with no signs of any slaves or servants. Faint fumes of hemp and the stale reek of wine was too intense, she almost choked with disgust. She rushed to the window and opened it wide. Mahachaitya, the grandest monument of Andhra power, filled the vista, shining brightly like a gigantic coral in the morning sun. For a moment it soothed her senses.
‘Who’s it? Get out, Get out,’ frantic screams came from the darkest corner of the room. The prince lay bundled up in that corner, his wine stained clothes soaked in sweat and head squeezed between his knees to ward off light. An involuntary howl of pain escaped her throat looking at her son, a man in his forties and hero of many battles, now looked as vulnerable as a child. The mother, in her, despaired. She ran to him and held his head, its eyes unseeing, wet with tears; and crushed it against her ample bosom.
‘Motherrrr,’ he sobbed nestling into her lap, ‘it’s over, it’s over. I’ll be dead before the end of the day,’ his words slurred. She held him tight trying to induce some strength into his quaking body. A lullaby she sang when her son was still a baby came to her lips and she began humming unconsciously, soothing his troubled mind.
‘Sorry mother, I failed you,’ he said finally, ‘I’ll never be the king you wanted me to. In a way what had happened is good. We need not suffer the waiting any longer,’ he said sobering up a little.
‘Don’t you say that my son, as long as I am there no harm will come to you,’ she said, touching his head in a gesture of affection, ‘You know, I’m no ordinary woman, I’m a princess and a direct descendent of Great Alexander and the sister of Rudradaman, the greatest of the Satraps. You need have no worry.’
‘Isn’t that why I was never made a king? Blood of the enemy flows in my veins, they say,’ he shook once withdrawing further into the corner. ‘They even call me ‘Shaka Sena’, reminding me of my foreign bloodline.’
It was fifty years ago… After the defeat of Rudradaman in the hands of Vasishtiputra Pulomavi, a daughter of the defeated Shaka satrap was offered to the victor as a bride. But the emperor had insisted that she be married to his eldest son and successor Siva Sri. And thus, Princess Madhari had come to the royal household of Satavahanas. For fourteen long years her husband had ruled the Andhra Empire, with her as his chief queen. During his reign the relations with the Western Satraps were friendly though tense. But the queen was widowed early. When her husband Siva Sri passed, her only son was a strapping boy of sixteen, old enough to succeed his father. But Nagarjuna, the Abbot of Sriparvata, had other designs, and installed the younger brother of the king, Yagna Sri on the throne. And he had been ruling ever since for the last twenty five tears. The wait for her son to succeed to the throne, rightfully his, had been interminable.
Thrice… he was close to attaining his object. Thrice the king Yagna Sri was almost dead. And, thrice he was saved by his preceptor Nagarjuna. Madhari was not naïve not to see the hand of her son behind all those incidents. She had deliberately distanced herself from the goings on as the knowledge itself could be lethal, but encouraged him through oblique suggestions to take the extreme step of regicide to realize his ambition and prayed for his success. Now, she needed to know the facts in order to save him, she must know how much the assassin knows, information that can incriminate her son. ‘Tell me my son, who is this incompetent bastard and what does he know?’
‘What can I tell you, mother?’ his voice was strangled and anguished, ‘He knows everything and if he sings under torture…’ his voice tapered off.
‘Everything?’ she prompted him, her voice tender, eager to get to the bottom of things.
‘Yes mother, he knows that it was I who’s behind the attempts on king’s life.’
‘How does he know?’
‘Huh uh, He was the wine mixer who spiked the cup that killed the ambassador of my uncle, you remember? It was meant for the king.’
‘Wasn’t that when the king received a letter from the abbot asking him to take a vow of abstinence?’ she asked.
‘Yes and when the king refused the cup meant for him, it was passed on to the ambassador.’
‘Lucky as a devil,’ she swore.
‘Not luck, mother, it’s always the hand of the abbot protecting him,’ he paused, ‘Do you remember the kitchen fire that gutted the sleeping chambers in the west wing?’
‘Hmm, was it deliberate?’ she continued, another piece of the puzzle falling in place, ‘the king was supposedly sleeping there but was called out on some urgent business.’
‘Yes, the arsonist was none other, so precise in his planning,’ he said, ‘but mother, and once again, who called him out? It was the abbot.’
‘No wonder, people call him clairvoyant.’
‘True mother, otherwise what business a monk had in the woods precisely when the king was bitten by a viper during the hunt last month? It took months of planning by the very same fellow to introduce the snake in his sleeping rolls. But the abbot was there just in time to save him.’
The queen realized now, Nothing could save her son if the assassin confesses. ‘Don’t despair my son,’ she said without conviction, ‘let me see if there is a way to discredit him and if not silence him permanently.’
‘No luck mother, he’s out of reach, under the supervision of the abbot himself.’
‘I’ll find a way, don’t worry,’ the queen resolved, ‘Sober up my son…’ she paused. ‘As courtesy demands… we are visiting the abbot,’ an impious smile lit up her face.
To be continued…
The injustice meted out to the Imperial Śātavāhanas is unparalleled in Indian historiography. An empire that ruled over a large portion of India for over four centuries and dictated the economic and cultural dynamics of the ancient world is relegated to a footnote in the textbooks, while relatively insignificant regimes of North India figure disproportionately high on the pegging scale of academicians.
Convenient excuses are regularly invented by them, lack of evidence – inscriptions, numismatics and literature – foreign and native – has been their pet argument.
But is that really so?
Let us look at some of the dynasties that ruled in India and compare them to the Imperial Andhra dynasty called Śātavāhanas. The combined period of Mauryas (321-185 BC), Imperial Guptas (320AD – 560 AD) and Harṣavardhana (630-656AD) who ruled over the neighborhood of Delhi is less than that of Śātavāhanas, who ruled from 230BC to 220AD over more than half of present day India. Chapters are written in our textbooks about others while the Śātavāhanas are reduced to a paragraph.
The argument about the lack of evidence doesn’t hold water. Inscriptions of Nasik, Naneghat, Amaravati and Kanaganahalli are not only elaborate but descriptive of Imperial Andhras. Hordes of coins, Indian and Roman, found across India vouch for the spread of Śātavāhana Empire. Sculpture and art of Amaravati, Sannati, Ajanta and many numerous cave temples and chaityas stand proof to the cultural achievements of Andhras. Mentions in Greek and Latin texts like Periplus, Geography and Historia Naturalis about the thriving trade between Europe and the Andhra Empire under Śātavāhanas are plenty. Yet our historians refuse to give Śātavāhanas their rightful place in their narrative. Every attempt is made to put down their importance. Interpretation of Junagadh Inscription of Rudradaman is a case in just such a point:
The inscription claims that Rudradaman a Western Satrap ruler of Gujarat defeated a Śātavāhana king called Pulakēśi and as a consequence gave his daughter as bride to Pulaski’s son. Historians accept this claim as a fact, without debate, and reduce the footprint of Andhra Empire to Eastern Deccan. Nobody questions the claim of Rudradaman where the victor was forced to give away his daughter to the son of a defeated king.
Similarly, the Puranas claim that for over 30 generations Andhra kings ruled over Magadha. Sangam literature places Śātakarṇis on the banks of Ganga. The Nasik Inscription of Gautami Bālaśri details every inch of land ruled by her son and grandson.
The map shows the true extent of Andhra Empire as described in Nasik Inscription.