The origins of the Saka Era

Today is Gudi Padwa, the first day of the month of Chaitra.  It also marks the beginning of a new year (1934) under the Indian National Calendar otherwise known as the Saka Era.  In a country as diverse as India there were and still are many calendars observed regionally in addition to the Gregorian calendar.  Yet the Saka Era was chosen as the official civil calendar of the Republic of India over many alternatives, notably the Vikram Samvat.   An important reason is that the founder of the Saka Era is almost certainly historical.  However, the exact identity of this individual is unclear.

The Vikram Samvat commences in 56 BCE and was allegedly created by the legendary king Vikramaditya.  While legendary tales of this Vikramaditya abound, a genuine historical character is hard to pin down.  Yet the legendary ruler’s fame survived and in successive centuries many rulers would adopt the name Vikramaditya as an honorific to denote great achievement.  The list includes two (Samudragupta and Chandragupta II) and perhaps three (Skandagupta) Gupta emperors and the much later soldier and brief emperor Hemu.  Unfortunately the years around the commencement date of the Vikram Samvat are among the most opaque in Indian history.  In Punjab and along the North-West frontier the Indo-Greek Kingdoms were crumbling under invasions of the Indo-Scythians and the Yuezhi.  In Magadha the Kanva dynasty ruled in somnolencent obscurity.  In the Deccan the Satavahana dynasty appears to have undergone a brief eclipse before reemerging in the following century.  The Tamil dynasties of the Sangam period are known, but  a complete historiographical record of all their rulers is not.  In this climate of obscurity the mythical ruler who was important enough to commence an era for some unknown major victory is unknown and almost impossible to narrow down.

Another persistent part of the Vikramaditya legend is that the great king met his doom at the hands of a ruler called Shalivahana.  This Shalivahana is generally identified as the great Satavhana Emperor of the following century Gautamiputra Satakarni, who ruled a century after the commencement of the Vikram Samvat, making it even harder to identify the legendary Vikramaditya.  It is here that the tale of the Saka Era intersects the 122 year older Vikram Samvat.  According to legend the Gautamiputra commenced the Saka Era to mark a great victory over the Sakas – presumably his annihilation of the Western Kshatrapa Nahapana.


Silver Drachhm of Nahapana Obv: Bust of king Nahapana with a legend in Greek script "PANNIΩ ΞAHAPATAC NAHAΠANAC", transliteration of the Prakrit Raño Kshaharatasa Nahapanasa: "King Kshaharata Nahapana". Rev: Thunderbolt and arrow, within a Prakrit Brahmi legend to right: Rajno Ksaharatasa Nahapanasa: Prakrit Kharoshti legend to left: Rano Ksaharatasa Nahapanasa.

Now Gautamiputra does appear to have defeated Nahapana and may have marked this by over-striking many of Nahapana’s coins.

Nahapana drachm overstruck by Gautamiputra Satakarni

Nahapana’s Kshaharata dynasty would also soon be supplanted by the Kardamaka dynasty of Chastana.  While it is plausible that the Saka Era was launched to commemorate a great victory over the Sakas,  this theory is not convincing.

Obverse of Silver Drachm on Chastana The obverse legend typically reads "PANNIΩ IATPAΠAC CIASTANCA" (corrupted Greek script), transliteration of the Prakrit on the coin reverse "Raño Kshatrapasa Castana: "King and Satrap Castana".

For one thing dating Indian rulers in this period is a nightmare.  It is not clear that Nahapana met his doom in 78 AD (when the Saka era commences).  It is also not clear that Gautamiputra’s reign commenced in 78AD.  Then there is the fact that the first dynasty to unequivocally use the Saka era is that of Chastana and his successors.  Chastana appears to have used the era in his inscriptions.  A century later, commencing with Jivadaman, the Western Kshatrapas would become the first Indian dynasty to use a calendar date on their coins.

Coin of the Western Kshatrapa ruler Jivadaman, dated year 119 Saka era, thought to be 197 CE. British Museum.

It appears far more plausible that the era marks the rise to power of the founder of the house Chastana (who appears to have reigned unusually long for that period) than the commemoration of a Satavahana victory.

We do not know how Chastana rose to power.  He may have overlapped Nahapana.  He may have risen to power in the aftermath of Gautamiputra’s victory.  He may even have been elevated by Gautamiputra himself.  Even if the House of Chastana was originally allied to the Satavahanas, hostilities commenced soon after.  Chastana’s grandson Rudradaman I would elevate himself from Kshatrapa to Mahakshatrapa and defeat the Satavahanas (after all the one constant in human history is that neighboring states are generally rivals/enemies).  Given this rivalry and enmity, it is hard to see the Sakas using a Satavahana calendar.   It seems more likely that the calendar marks the rise of the founder of their house to power.

However, even if the Saka Era was founded by Gautamiputra or Chastana there is a clear historical record that leads us close to the date of its commencement.  Time will tell whether the latest round of numismatic analysis changes or confirms the identity of the founder.

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