Śuṅga Empire

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Śuṅga Empire

185 BCE–75 BCE
Approximate extent of the Śuṅga empire in (c. 185 BCE).
Capital Pataliputra
Languages Sanskrit
Religion Hinduism
Government Monarchy
 -  185–151 BCE Pushyamitra Sunga
 -  151–141 BCE Agnimitra
 -  83–75 BCE Devabhuti
Historical era Antiquity
 -  Established 185 BCE
 -  Disestablished 75 BCE
Today part of  India

The Śuṅga Empire (Sanskrit: शुंग राजवंश) or Shunga Empire was an ancient Indian dynasty from Magadha that controlled vast areas of the Indian subcontinent from around 187 to 78 BCE. The dynasty was established by Pushyamitra Sunga, after the fall of the Maurya Empire. Its capital was Pataliputra, but later emperors such as Bhagabhadra also held court at Besnagar (modern Vidisha) in eastern Malwa.[1]

Pushyamitra Śuṅga ruled for 36 years and was succeeded by his son Agnimitra. There were ten Śuṅga rulers. The empire is noted for its numerous wars with both foreign and indigenous powers. They fought the Kalinga, the Satavahana dynasty, the Indo-Greek Kingdom and possibly the Panchalas and Mathuras.

Art, education, philosophy, and other forms of learning flowered during this period including small terracotta images, larger stone sculptures, and architectural monuments such as the stupa at Bharhut, and the renowned Great Stupa at Sanchi. Śuṅga rulers helped to establish the tradition of royal sponsorship of learning and art. The script used by the empire was a variant of Brahmi script and was used to write Sanskrit.

The Śuṅga Empire played an imperative role in patronizing culture at a time when some of the most important developments in Hindu thought were taking place. Patanjali's Mahābhāṣya was composed in this period. Artistry also progressed with the rise of the Mathura art style.

The Kanva dynasty succeeded the Śuṅgas around 73 BCE.


The Śuṅga dynasty was a Brahmin dynasty established in 185 BCE, about 50 years after Ashoka's death, when the emperor Brihadratha Maurya, the last ruler of the Mauryan Empire, was assassinated by his Senānī or Commander-in-Chief, Puśyamitra Śuṅga,[2] while he was taking the Guard of Honour of his forces. Puśyamitra Śuṅga then ascended the throne.

Puśyamitra Śuṅga became the ruler of Magadha and neighbouring territories. The empire of Puśyamitra was extended to the Narmada River in the south, controlled Jalandhar and Sialkot in the Punjab in the northwestern regions, and the city of Ujjain[3] in Central India. The Kabul Valley and much of the Punjab passed into the hands of the Indo-Greeks and the Deccan to the Satavahanas.

Puśyamitra died after ruling for 36 years (187–151 BCE). He was succeeded by son Agnimitra. This prince is the hero of a famous drama by one of India's greatest playwrights, Kalidasa. Agnimitra was viceroy of Vidiśa when the story takes place.

The power of the Śuṅgas gradually weakened. It is said that there were ten Śuṅga emperors. The Śuṅgas were succeeded by the Kanva dynasty around 73 BCE.

Śuṅga Period


Main article: Pushyamitra Sunga

Following the Mauryans, the first Brahmin emperor was Pushyamitra Sunga, and is believed by some historians to have persecuted Buddhists and contributed to a resurgence of Brahmanism that forced Buddhism outwards to Kashmir, Gandhara and Bactria.[4] However, there is doubt as to whether he did persecute Buddhists actively.[4]

Support given[edit]

Śuṅga royal family, West Bengal, 1st century BCE.

Later Śuṅga emperors were seen as amenable to Buddhism and as having contributed to the building of the stupa at Bharhut.[5]

Some writers believe that Brahmanism competed in political and spiritual realm with Buddhism[4] in the Gangetic plains. Buddhism flourished in the realms of the Bactrian kings.[citation needed]

Some Indian scholars are of the opinion that the orthodox Śuṅga emperors were not intolerant towards Buddhism and that Buddhism prospered during the time of the Śuṅga emperors. The existence of Buddhism in Bengal in the Śuṅga period can also be inferred from a terracotta tablet that was found at Tamralipti and is on exhibit at the Asutosh Museum, University of Calcutta.

  • An inscription at Bodh Gaya at the Mahabodhi Temple records the construction of the temple as follows:
"The gift of Nagadevi the wife of Emperor Brahmamitra."
  • Another inscription reads:
"The gift of Kurangi, the mother of living sons and the wife of Emperor Indragnimitra, son of Kosiki. The gift also of Srima of the royal palace shrine.[6][7]"
Amorous royal couple, Śuṅga, 1st century BCE, West Bengal.

Cunningham has regretted the loss of the latter part of these important records. As regards the first coping inscription, he has found traces of eleven Brahmi letters after "Kuramgiye danam", the first nine of which read "rajapasada-cetika sa". Bloch reads these nine letters as "raja-pasada-cetikasa" and translates this expression in relation to the preceding words:

"(the gift of Kurangi, the wife of Indragnimitra and
the mother of living sons), "to the caitya (cetika)
of the noble temple", taking the word raja before
pasada as an epithet on ornans, distinguishing the
temple as a particularly large and stately building
similar to such expressions as rajahastin 'a noble
elephant', rajahamsa `a goose (as distinguished from
hamsa 'a duck'), etc." Cunningham has translated the
expression by "the royal palace, the caitya",
suggesting that "the mention of the raja-pasada would
seem to connect the donor with the king's family,"
Luders doubtfully suggests "to the king's temple" as
a rendering of "raja-pasada-cetikasa."

Wars of the Śuṅgas[edit]

War and conflict characterized the Śuṅga period. They are known to have warred with the Kalingas, Satavahanas, the Indo-Greeks, and possibly the Panchalas and Mathuras.

Extent of the Śuṅga Empire

The Śuṅga Empire's wars with the Indo-Greek Kingdom figure greatly in the history of this period. From around 180 BCE the Greco-Bactrian ruler Demetrius, conquered the Kabul Valley and is theorized to have advanced into the trans-Indus. The Indo Greek Menander is credited with either joining or leading a campaign to Pataliputra with other Indian rulers; however, very little is known about the exact nature and success of the campaign. The net result of these wars remains uncertain.

Vedika pillar with Greek warrior. Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh, Śuṅga Period, c.100-80BC. Reddish brown sandstone.[8] Indian Museum, Calcutta (drawing).

Some interpretations of the Mahabharata and Yuga Purana have attempted to account for this:

The Anushasanaparava of the Mahabharata affirms that the city of Mathura was under the joint control of the Yavanas and the Kambojas.[9]

Also the Hindu text of the Yuga Purana, which describes Indian historical events in the form of a prophecy,[10] relates the attack of the Indo-Greeks on the capital Pataliputra, a magnificent fortified city with 570 towers and 64 gates according to Megasthenes,[11] and describes the ultimate destruction of the city's walls:

"Then, after having approached Saketa together with the Panchalas and the Mathuras, the Yavanas, valiant in battle, will reach Kusumadhvaja ("The town of the flower-standard", Pataliputra). Then, once Puspapura (another name of Pataliputra) has been reached and its celebrated mud[-walls] cast down, all the realm will be in disorder." (Yuga Purana, Paragraph 47–48, 2002 edition.)
Bronze coin of the Śuṅga period, Eastern India. 2nd–1st century BCE.

Pushyamitra is recorded to have performed two Ashvamedhas and Śuṅga imperial inscriptions have extended as far as Jalandhar. Scriptures such as the Divyavadhana note that his rule extended even farther to Sialkot, in the Punjab. Moreover, if it was lost, Mathura was regained by the Śuṅgas around 100 BCE (or by other indigenous rulers: the Arjunayanas (area of Mathura) and Yaudheyas mention military victories on their coins ("Victory of the Arjunayanas", "Victory of the Yaudheyas"), and during the 1st century BCE, the Trigartas, Audumbaras and finally the Kunindas also started to mint their own coins). Accounts of battles between the Greeks and the Śuṅga in Northwestern India are also found in the Mālavikāgnimitram, a play by Kālidāsa which describes a battle between Greek cavalrymen and Vasumitra, the grandson of Pushyamitra, on the Indus river, in which the Indians defeated the Greeks and Pushyamitra successfully completed the Ashvamedha Yagna.[12]

Nevertheless, very little can be said with great certainty. However, what does appear clear is that the two realms appeared to have established normalized diplomatic relations in the succeeding reigns of their respective rulers.

The Indo-Greeks and the Śuṅgas seem to have reconciled and exchanged diplomatic missions around 110 BCE, as indicated by the Heliodorus pillar, which records the dispatch of a Greek ambassador named Heliodorus, from the court of the Indo-Greek king Antialcidas, to the court of the Śuṅga emperor Bhagabhadra at the site of Vidisha in central India.

Cultural contributions[edit]

A relief from Bharhut.

While there is much debate on the religious politics of the Śuṅga dynasty, it is recognized for a number of contributions. 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, which is considered the indigenous counterpart to the more Hellenistic Gandhara school of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

During the historical Śuṅga period (185 to 73 BCE), 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. It remains uncertain whether these works were due to the weakness of the control of the Śuṅgas in these areas, or a sign of tolerance on their part.

The last of the Śuṅga emperor was Devabhuti (83–73 BCE). He was assassinated by his minister (Vasudeva Kanva) and is said to have been overfond of the company of women. The Śuṅga dynasty was then replaced by the subsequent Kanvas.


The script used by the Śuṅga was a variant of Brahmi, and was used to write the Sanskrit language. The script is thought to be an intermediary between the Maurya and the Kalinga Brahmi scripts.[13]

List of Śuṅga Emperors[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ "Pushyamitra is said in the Puranas to have been the senānī or army-commander of the last Maurya emperor Brihadratha" The Yuga Purana, Mitchener, 2002.
  3. ^ India :: The Shunga Empire– Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  4. ^ a b c Sarvastivada pg 38–39
  5. ^ Akira Hirakawa, Paul Groner, "A History of Indian Buddhism: From Sakyamuni to Early Mahayana", Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1996, ISBN 81-208-0955-6 pg 223
  6. ^ (Barua, B.M., 'Old Buddhist Shrines at Bodh-Gaya Inscriptions)
  7. ^ [2]
  8. ^ D.N. Jha,"Early India: A Concise History"p.150, plate 17
  9. ^ "tatha Yavana Kamboja Mathuram.abhitash cha ye./ ete ashava.yuddha.kushaladasinatyasi charminah."//5 — (MBH 12/105/5, Kumbhakonam Ed)
  10. ^ "For any scholar engaged in the study of the presence of the Indo-Greeks or Indo-Scythians before the Christian Era, the Yuga Purana is an important source material" Dilip Coomer Ghose, General Secretary, The Asiatic Society, Kolkata, 2002
  11. ^ "The greatest city in India is that which is called Palimbothra, in the dominions of the Prasians [...] Megasthenes informs us that this city stretched in the inhabited quarters to an extreme length on each side of eighty stadia, and that its breadth was fifteen stadia, and that a ditch encompassed it all round, which was six hundred feet in breadth and thirty cubits in depth, and that the wall was crowned with 570 towers and had four-and-sixty gates." Arr. Ind. 10. "Of Pataliputra and the Manners of the Indians.", quoting Megasthenes Text
  12. ^ "Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian and Indo-Parthian coins in the Smithsonian institution", Bopearachchi, p16. Also: "Kalidasa recounts in his Mālavikāgnimitra (5.15.14–24) that Puspamitra appointed his grandson Vasumitra to guard his sacrificial horse, which wandered on the right bank of the Sindhu river and was seized by Yavana cavalrymen- the latter being thereafter defeated by Vasumitra. The "Sindhu" referred to in this context may refer the river Indus: but such an extension of Śuṅga power seems unlikely, and it is more probable that it denotes one of two rivers in central India -either the Sindhu river which is a tributary of the Yamuna, or the Kali-Sindhu river which is a tributary of the Chambal." The Yuga Purana, Mitchener, 2002.
  13. ^ Source


  • "The Legend of King Ashoka, A study and translation of the Ashokavadana", John Strong, Princeton Library of Asian translations, 1983, ISBN 0-691-01459-0
  • "Dictionary of Buddhism" by Damien KEOWN (Oxford University Press, 2003) ISBN 0-19-860560-9
  • "Ashoka and the decline of the Mauryas" Romila Thaper (London 1961).
  • "The Yuga Purana", John E. Mitchiner, Kolkata, The Asiatic Society, 2002, ISBN 81-7236-124-6

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Maurya dynasty
Magadha dynasties Succeeded by
Kanva dynasty