The curious case of matronymic names during the Satavahana period.

The emperor called himself as Gauthamiputra Satakarni which meant Gauthami’s son Satakarni. Gauthami referred to his mother, Gauthami Balashri. The Satavahanas, also known as the Andhras were an ancient Indian empire whose rule lasted from 1st century BCE to 2 century CE. At their peak, they ruled over greater portions of the northern part of the Deccan peninsula with their territories covering parts of modern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharastra, and Madhyapradesh. They were one of the first kingdoms of South India to come to prominence and their nearly three-century rule changed the Deccan significantly. They were the first great empire builders of South India and their rule was the precursor for the later dynasties like the Chalukyas, Rastrakutas and other later Deccan dynasties.

Source — By chetanv — http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:India_rivers_and_lakes_map.svgThe History and Culture of the Indian People, Vol IIIndia, a History — John Keay, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5501430

Rather than their political history, we would be instead focussing on the unique naming scheme of the rulers of the Satavahana dynasty and their feudatories. Gautamiputa Satkarni, Vasishthiputra Puluvavi, Haritiputra Sakasena, Madhariputra Satakarni were some of the rulers of this dynasty with the first name always being a maternal name. This strange matronymic has continued to baffle Indian historians. The Satavahanas, similar to the other dynasties in the region, were largely patriarchal in their method of succession with the ruler’s eldest son succeeding the father to the throne. And yet the kings, evidently held their mothers in high regard, proudly displaying their maternal names as part of their own names. Gauthamiputra Satakarni’s name is a more interesting case since Satakarni, according to many historians, was most likely a title than an actual name. It is used by not just multiple Satavahana kings and also many of their subordinate kings. The title translates as a steersman of seven horses in ancient Prakrit, the language commonly used during the Satavahana period. The emperor’s actual name then was simply, Gauthamiputra i.e Gauthami’s son. Quite a high honor indeed that he accorded to his mother.

Gauthamiputra Satakarni’s coins stuck over western Kshatrapa ruler Nahapana’s coins. Source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

The historians have tried to explain this use of matronymic names by theorizing that the Satavahana emperors married women from different royal lineages and as such a son was best identified through his mother’s name. While this sounds like a plausible explanation, it was still strange, considering most ancient kings adopted a regnal name upon coming to the throne. For example, the great king Raja Raja Chola’s birth name was Arulmozhi Varman while his son Rajendra Chola’s birth name was Maduranthagan. Hence it is not wholly inaccurate to assume that the Satavahana kings probably had different birth names which they discarded upon their ascension to the throne. And what about the scenario when more than one queen might have had the same name, what would be the differentiation between their sons then? This use of maternal names was not just limited to the Satavahanas. Even the Chutu rulers, who ruled over Uttara Kannada district in modern Karnataka and who started out as the feudatories of Satavahanas had similar matronymic names. Mulananda was a prominent Chutu ruler whose name translated as ‘a son (Nanda) of a queen belonging to a Mula clan’. His successor Sivalananda’s name translated to ‘a son of a queen belonging to the Sivala clan’. A few of the Chutu rulers also possessed the name Satakarni indicating quite clearly that it was a title rather than a name and it was a rather widely used one. Similarly, the Andhra Ishvaku rulers who claimed descent from the Satavahanas held the same naming practices as their forefathers. Their kings had names like Vasishthiputra Chamtamula, Mathariputra Virapurushadatta, etc. Once again referring to either the queens themselves or their Kula/Gotra. This trend also continues with Abiras who ruled immediately after the Satavahanas, over the western portions of the empire. Their founder’s name, Mathariputra Ishvarasena.

All these clearly points to the fact that during this time period the use of maternal names was quite common and in fact rather widespread. What purpose it served, if any, is still debated, but it is another unique facet of the history of India overlooked by modern readers.

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Writer, History buff, software engineer. I am fascinated with Indian History especially the early and late Medieval India.

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Abhijeeth Hiliyana

Writer, History buff, software engineer. I am fascinated with Indian History especially the early and late Medieval India.