Sungas and Kanvas

Sungas and Kanvas

  • After the death of Asoka, his successors were not able to keep the vast Mauryan Empire intact. The provinces started declaring their independence. The northwest India slipped out of the control of the Mauryas and a series of foreign invasions affected this region.
  • Kalinga declared its independence and in the further south the Satavahanas established their independent rule. As a result, the Mauryan rule was confined to the Gangetic valley and it was soon replaced by the Sunga dynasty.

Sunga Empire (187 to 78 BCE)

Pushyamitra Sunga (187–151 BCE):

  • The founder of the Sunga dynasty was Pushyamitra Sunga, who was the commander-in-chief under the Mauryas.
  • According to the Harshacharita, Pushyamitra, commander-in-chief of the Maurya army, killed the Maurya king Brihadratha while the latter was inspecting his troops. This coup brought an end to Maurya rule in 187 BCE and Pushyamitra usurped the throne.
  • Its capital was Pataliputra, but later emperors such as Bhagabhadra also held court at Besnagar, modern Vidisha.
  • Origin:
    • The Puranas describe Pushyamitra as belonging to the Shunga family.
    • There are several references to Shunga teachers in Vedic texts, and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad mentions a teacher named Shaungiputra.
    • Panini connects the Shungas with the Brahmana Bharadvaja gotra.
    • Kalidasa’s Malavikagnimitra describes Agnimitra, son of Pushyamitra, as belonging to the Baimbika kula (family/lineage) and Kashyapa gotra.
    • While they differ in detail, all these sources indicate that the Shungas were Brahmanas.
    • The meaning of “Sunga” is the fig tree in Sanskrit. So Sungas took their dynastic name from the fig tree. (Other example of Indian dynasties like Kadamba (a tree name) of Banavasi, Pallava (Sanskrit word for “branch and twig”) of Kanchi who took their dynastic name from tree.)
  • The most important challenge to the Sunga rule was to protect north India against the invasions of the Bactrian Greeks from the northwest.
    • The Greeks advanced up to Pataliputra and occupied it for sometime.
    • However, Pushyamitra succeeded in regaining the lost territory.
    • He also fought a campaign against Kharavela of Kalinga who invaded north India.
  • Extent of Empire:
    • Pushyamitra’s empire extended over only part of the erstwhile Maurya empire.
    • It included Pataliputra (which was still the capital), Ayodhya, and Vidisha.
    • According to the Divyavadana and Taranatha’s account, it also included Jalandhara and Shakala in the Punjab.
    • Pushyamitra placed viceroys in at least some parts of his empire. In the Kalidasa’s drama Malavikagnimitra, Agnimitra is the viceroy at Vidisha.


  • Conflicts and sacrifices:
    • Malavikagnimitra refers to the conflict between Pushyamitra and Yajnasena, king of Vidarbha (the eastern Maharashtra area) and the victory of the Shungas.
    • The Shungas also clashed with the Bactrian Greeks.
      • Giving an example of an event belonging to the recent past, the 2nd century BCE grammarian Patanjali refers to the yavanas coming up to Saketa (in or around Ayodhya) and Madhyamika (near Chittor in Rajasthan).
      • During this period, yavana was a general term used in Indian texts for foreigners from the West, including the Greeks. In this case, it refers to the Bactrian Greeks.
    • Patanjali also mentions sacrifices performed for Pushyamitra.
    • The Malavikagnimitra narrates the story of a military encounter between prince Vasumitra (son of Agnimitra) and a Yavana army on the banks of the Sindhu.
      • The conflict apparently took place when, in the course of Pushyamitra’s ashvamedha sacrifice, the Yavanas challenged the horse which was accompanied by the young prince and his soldiers.
      • The Yavanas are defeated and the horse brought safely home.
    • The Ayodhya stone inscription of king Dhana refers to Pushyamitra as a performer of two ashvamedha sacrifices.
    • The Divyavadana gives stories of Pushyamitra’s cruelty and his animosity towards Buddhism.

Religious policy:

  • Pushyamitra was a staunch follower of Brahmanism.
    • He performed two asvamedha sacrifices.
    • Buddhist sources refer him as a persecutor of Buddhism.
    • But there is enough evidence to show that Pushyamitra patronised Buddhist art.
      • During his reign the Buddhist monuments at Bharhut and Sanchi were renovated and further improved.
  • Prosecution of Buddhists?:
    • It believed by some historians to have persecuted Buddhists and contributed to a resurgence of Brahmanism that forced Buddhism outwards to Kashmir, Gandhara and Bactria.
    • The earliest reference to persecution of Buddhists by Pushyamitra Sunga is from the Sarvastivadin Buddhist text of 2nd Century CE, Divyavadana and its constituent part, the Ashokavadana. Tibetan Buddhist Historian Taranatha also mentions prosecution.
    • Pushyamitra Sunga might have withdrawn royal patronage of Buddhist institutions. With patronage shifting from Buddhism to Brahmanism, the Buddhists sided with Sunga’s enemies, the Indo-Greeks.
    • According to some historians, Pushyamitra Sunga prosecuted Buddhists because:
      • There is evidence of damage to Buddhist establishments at Takshashila around the time of Sunga.
      • Sanchi stupa was destroyed by Pushyamitra Sunga, but later restored by his successor Agnimitra.
      • The Bharhut Stupa gateway was not constructed during the time of Pushyamitra Sunga, but was constructed by his successors who had a more tolerant attitude to Buddhism, compared to Pushyamitra Sunga.
      • The destruction of Ghositarama monastery at Kaushambi, in 2nd century CE, is attributed to Pushyamitra Sunga.
      • Deokothar Stupas (located between Sanchi and Barhut) suffered destruction during the same period, also suggesting some kind of involvement of Sunga rule.
    • Some historians have expressed skepticism of Pushyamitra’s persecution of Buddhists because:
      • The account of the Tibetan Buddhist Historian Taranatha is absurd.
      • Archaeological evidence casts doubt on the claims of Buddhist persecution by Pushyamitra.
      • The Ashokavadana legend is likely a Buddhist version of Pushyamitra’s attack on the Mauryas, reflecting the declining influence of Buddhism in the Sunga Imperial court. The very same Ashokavadana attributes similar cruelty to Ashoka against the Ajivikas.
        • Support of Buddhism by the Sungas at some point is suggested by an epigraph on the gateway of Bharhut, which mentions its erection “during the supremacy of the Sungas(but they may be Pushyamitra’s Successor)
        • The existence of Buddhism in Bengal in the Sunga period can also be inferred from a terracotta tablet that was found at Tamralipti.
    • Sunga Dynasty ended, Buddhism flourished under the Kushanas and the Shakas; and hence Buddhism did not suffer any real set-back due to the Sunga Dynasty.

Agnimitra (149–141 BCE):

  • After the death of Pushyamitra, his son Agnimitra became the ruler.
  • He was hero of Kalidasa’s play Malavikagnimitra. According to Kalidasa in the Malavikagnimitra, Agnimitra belonged to the Baimbika family (Baimbika-kula), while the Puranas mention him as a Sunga.
  • The Malavikagnimitra, informs us that , a war broke out between the Sungas and neighboring Vidarbha kingdom during Agnimitra’s reign.
    • Before the rise of the Sungas, Vidarbha (under Yajnasena) had become independent from the Mauryan Empire.
    • Yajnasena was defeated and recognized the suzerainty of the Sunga rulers.


  • In the Malavikagnimitram, Kalidasa tells us that Vasumitra guarded the sacrificial horse let loose by his grandfather Pushyamitra, and he defeated the armies of the “Yavana” (or Indo-Greeks) on the banks of the Sindhu River.

Devabhuti (83–73 BCE):

  • Ten Shunga kings are supposed to have ruled for a total of 112 years. According to the Puranas, the last ruler of this line was Devabhuti.
  • The Harshacharita narrates that he became the victim of a conspiracy masterminded by his Brahmana minister Vasudeva, who went on to found the Kanva dynasty.
  • The remnants of Shunga rule probably survived in central India for some time, till the rise of the Satavahanas.

The rule of the Sungas was important because they defended the Gangetic valley from foreign invasions. In the cultural sphere, the Sungas revived Brahmanism and horse sacrifice. They also promoted the growth of Vaishnavism and the Sanskrit language. In short, the Sunga rule was a brilliant anticipation of the golden age of the Guptas

Bronze coin of the Sunga period, Eastern India. 2nd–1st century BCE

Cultural contributions of Sungas:

  • Art, education, philosophy, and other learning flowered during this period. Most notably, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and Mahabhasya were composed in this period.
  • It is also noted for its subsequent mention in the Malavikaagnimitra. This work was composed by Kalidasa in the later Gupta period, and romanticized the love of Malavika and King Agnimitra, with a background of court intrigue.
  • Artistry on the subcontinent also progressed with the rise of the Mathura school of art, which is considered the indigenous counterpart to the more Hellenistic Gandhara school of art.
  • Sunga Art: Standing sculptures of Yakshas and Yakshis, discovered from Gwalior and Mathura.
  • During the Sunga period, Buddhist activity also managed to survive somewhat in central India (Madhya Pradesh) as suggested by some architectural expansions that were done at the stupas of Sanchi and Barhut, originally started under Emperor Ashoka.
    • The Sungas contributed to the expansion of Bharut and Sanchi Stupas.
    • During Sunga times, several edifices was raised at Sanchi and its surrounding hills. The Ashokan stupa was enlarged and faced with dark purple-grey sandstones (which was locally available) and decorated with balustrades, staircases and a harmika on the top.
    • Later Sunga emperors were seen as amenable to Buddhism and as having contributed to the building of the stupa at Bharhut.
Sunga royal family, West Bengal, 1st century BCE
Sunga Yaksha
Sunga fecundity deity. 2nd–1st century BCE
A relief from Bharhut of Sunga period
  • The Besnagar pillar inscription of Heliodorus:
    • An interesting inscription of the Shunga period is inscribed on a pillar at Besnagar, the site of ancient Vidisha.
    • The inscription is in Prakrit and is written in the Brahmi script.
      • It is written that this is garuda-pillar of Vasudeva. The garuda is a bird, the vehicle of Vishnu.
    • The Besnagar pillar inscription indicates that the Shungas continued the Maurya tradition of entertaining ambassadors from Greek courts.
    • Heliodorus, the Greek ambassador, describes himself as a Bhagavata—i.e., a worshipper of the god Vasudeva Krishna, and that he set up this pillar in honour of this god.
      • Heliodorus calls himself a Parambhagavata, native of Taxila, son of Divya, had been deputed as ambassador by Greek king Antialcidas to the Indian king Kasiputra (a Sunga king).
    • The foundations of a structure near the pillar represent remains of the ancient temple in front of which the Greek ambassador left an inscribed record of his devotion.

Art of Vidisha:

  • Vidisha was an important centre of trade, art and religion and capital under Sunga rule. Vidisha art was prevalent during 200 BC to 100 BC mainly during Shunga rule.
  • Vidisha art can be divided into three parts:
    • Free standing stone pillar
    • Stone capital without shaft
    • Sculpture art
  • Free standing stone pillar in Besnagar
    • Stone pillar erected by Greek ambassador whose name was Heliodorus.
    • This is known as “Garuda Dhwaj” and its size is about 20 feet.
    • It was unpolished.
  • Shaft and capital both are available and shaft is divided into 4 equal sections.
    • Shape of all the sections are also not the same.
    • The tops section is circular but 3 sections below represent 8 sides, 16 sides and 32 sides.
  • There is an ornamentation (garland ornamentation) between 2nd and 3rd sections.
  • The capital has 2 parts:
    • Lower inverted lotus capital also know and Bell capital and
    • upper capital at present is leaves but inscription suggest that it must have been grown by Garuda emblem.
  • Besnagar pillar inscription

Kanva dynasty (75 BCE – 30 BCE)

  • The Kanva or Kanvayana Dynasty replaced the Sunga dynasty in Magadha, and ruled in the Eastern part of India.
  • Vasudeva Kanva (75–66 BCE) was the founder of the Kanva dynasty. He was originally an Amatya (minister) of last Sunga ruler Devabhuti.
  • The Kanvas were Brahmins and considered themselves as descendents from Rishi Kanva.
  • At the time of Vasudeva Kanva’s accession, the Shunga kingdom was already finished as the Punjab region was under the Greeks and most parts of the Gangetic planes was under different rulers.
  • Magadha was ruled by four Kanva rulers. Much detail about these kings has been ascertained only on the basis of Numismatics.
  • Last ruler was Susharman (40 – 30 BCE).
  • In Magadha, the Kanvas made way for the Mitras in c. 30 BCE. The Mitras were, in turn, eventually dislodged by the Shakas.
  • The Kanva dynasty ruled for 45 years. After the fall of the Kanvas, the history of Magatha was a blank until the establishment of the Gupta dynasty.

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