The Sunga Dynasty (185-71 BC)
The founder of the Sunga dynasty was Pushyamitra Sunga, the commander in chief of Brihadratha, the last Mauryan king.
According to the Puranas, Pushyamitra ruled for 36 years and his reign ended in 148 BC.
Pushyamitra was succeeded by his son Agnimitra. Agnimitra was the governor of Vidisha during his father’s regime. He ruled for eight years and was succeeded by Jyestha. The next important king of this dynasty was Vasumitra, who was the son of Agnimitira.
The last king of this dynasty was Devabhuti or Devabhumi. He was an incapable and a loving ruler. He was put to death by his minister called Vasudeva Kanva. Thus, the kingdom of Magadha passed from Sungas to the Kanvas.
The Sunga dynasty’s greatest achievement was the safeguarding of India from invasion of the Hunas. They valiantly resisted the Huna’s attacks and saved India from being destroyed. The contributed a lot to the development of culture also. The Sunga kinks greatly encouraged the Brahman religion and literature.
Art, education, philosophy, and other forms of learning flowered during this period. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and Mahabhasya were composed in this period. Panini composed the first Sanskrit grammarian Ashtadayai during the reign of the Sunga dynasty. Artistry also progressed with the rise of the Mathura school. Devabhuti was the last ruler of this dynasty.
The script used by the Sunga dynasty was a variant of Brahmi and was used to write the Sanskrit language.
The Sunga Empire played an imperative role in patronizing Indian culture at a time when some of the most important developments in Hindu thought were taking place. The richness of India’s spiritual tradition owes much to the Sunga dynasty’s rule.
The Sunga rulers helped to establish the tradition of royal sponsorship of learning and art.
Under the Sunga kings, art and architecture flowered in the form of visual arts, including small terracotta images, larger stone sculptures, and architectural monuments such as the Chaitya hall at Bhaja, the Stupa at Bharhut, and the renowned Great Stupa at Sanchi.
The Kanva dynasty was a Brahman dynasty founded by Vasudeva Kanva, the minister of Devabhuti, the last Sunga king in 75 B.C.
This period is said to have witnessed the rule of four kings, extending to a period about 45 years.
The Kanva ruler allowed the kings of the Sunga dynasty to continue to rule in obscurity in a corner of their former dominions. The extent of the Kanva territory was confined to the areas of Sunga rule. Susarman was the last ruler of the Kanva dynasty.
In 30 B.C., the southern powers swept away both the Kanvas and Sungas and the province of Eastern Malwa was absorbed within the dominions of the Satavahanas.
The Chetis of Kalinga
The Hathigumpha inscription near Bhubaneshwar, Orissa; of Kharavela, the third ruler of the dynasty, gives information about the Chetis.
Kharavela is said to have defied the Satavahana ruler, Satakarni, and become free of the Magadhan empire. He pushed his southern conquests beyond the Godavari.
Kharavela was a follower of Jainism, and patronised Jain monks for whom he constructed caves in the Udaigiri.
After the fall of the Mauryan Empire, the history of the Andhras, as a continuous account of political and cultural events, commences with the rise of the Satavahanas as a political power. Satavahanas were also called Salivahanas and Satakarnis.
According to Matsya Purana there were 29 rulers of this dynasty. They ruled over the Andhradesa including the Deccan, for about 400 years from the 2nd century B.C. to beyond the 2nd century A.D.
In the 3rd century B.C., Simukha, the founder of the Satavahana dynasty, unified the various Andhra principalities into one kingdom and became its ruler (271 B.C. – 248 B.C.). Dharanikota near Amaravati in Guntur district was the first capital of Simukha, but later he shifted his capital to Pratishtana (Paithan in Aurangabad district).
Satakarni II, the sixth ruler of the dynasty (184 B.C.) was an able ruler who extended his kingdom to the west by conquering the Malwa. According to inscriptional evidence, he extended the boundaries of his realm far into central India across the Vindhyas, perhaps up to the river Ganges. He ruled for a long period of 56 years.
The long reign of Satakarni II was followed successively by eight rulers of whom none can be credited with any notable achievement. It was the accession of Pulumavi I that brought renewed strength and glory to their kingdom. He struck down the last of the Kanva rulers, Susarman, in 28 B.C. and occupied Magadha. The Satavahanas thus assumed an all-India significance as imperial rulers in succession to the Nandas, Mauryas, Sungas and Kanvas.
The kings, who succeeded him, appear to have been driven by the Sakas, out of Maharashtra back to their home land in Andhra. The only silver lining in that murky atmosphere was the excellent literary work, Gathasaptasati, of Hala, the 17th Satavahana king.
It was during the time of Gautamiputra Satakarni, the 23rd ruler of this dynasty, who ascended the throne in A.D.62, their kingdom made a sharp recovery of the lost territories from the western Kshatrapas. A Nasik record describes him as the restorer of the glory of the Satavahanas. His kingdom included the territories of Asika, Assaka, Mulaka, Saurashtra, Kukura, Aparanta, Anupa, Vidarbha, Akara and Avanti, and the mountainous regions of Vindhya, Achavata, Pariyatra, Sahya, Kanhagiri, Siritana, Malaya, Mahendra, Sata and Chakora, and extended as far as seas on either side.
Though some of the mountains mentioned in the inscription cannot be identified at present, it is clear that Gautamiputra’s kingdom covered not only peninsular India, but also the southern parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. He passed away in A.D.86, and his successors witnessed the dismemberment of their far flung empire.
Pulumavi II succeeded Gautamiputra and ruled for 28 years. In spite of serious efforts put forth by him to safeguard the frontiers of his vast empire, the closing years of his reign witnessed the decline of the Satavahana authority.
Yajnasri Satakarni’s accession to the throne in A.D.128 brought matters to a crisis. He came into conflict with the Saka Satrap, Rudradamana, and suffered defeat, and consequently, lost all his western possessions. However, he continued to rule till A.D.157 over a truncated dominion. His ship-marked coins suggest extensive maritime trade during his days. With him passed away the age of the great Satavahanas and by the end of the 2nd century A.D., the rule of the Satavahanas was a matter of past history.
There were different opinions about their capital. Some argue that Srikakulam was their capital. Evidence shows that Dharanikota in Guntur district, Dharmapuri in Karimnagar district and Paithan in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra State were used as capitals at various periods.
The Deccan, during this period, was an emporium of inland and maritime trade. The region between the rivers of Godavari and Krishna was full of ports and throbbing with activity. There was plentiful currency to facilitate trade and the Telugus entered upon a period of great industrial, commercial and maritime activity.
Buddhism flourished throughout the period and at the same time the rulers were devoted to Vedic ritualism. They constructed several Buddhist Stupas, Chaityas and Viharas. The Stupa at Amaravati is known for its architecture par excellence. Satavahanas were not only the able rulers but were also lovers of literacy and architecture. The 17th ruler of this dynasty, Hala was himself a great poet and his Gathasaptasati in Prakrit was well received by all. Gunadhya, the minister of Hala was the author of “Brihatkadha”.
The decline and fall of the Satavahana empire left the Andhra country in a political chaos. Local rulers as well as invaders tried to carve out small kingdoms for themselves and to establish dynasties.
During the period from A.D.180 to A.D.624, Ikshvakus, Brihatphalayanas, Salankayanas, Vishnukundins, Vakatakas, Pallavas, Anandagotras, Kalingas and others ruled over the Andhra area with their small kingdoms. Such instability continued to prevail until the rise of the Eastern Chalukyas.
Central Asian Contact
The first Indo-Greek kingdom appeared in 190 B.C., when the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrios was busy in India, when his Indian possessions were divided between several kings, probably firstly in order to better govern them but then due to civil war.
The term “Indo-Greek” is generally used because these kingdoms were almost always separated from Bactria and thus differed politically from the Greco-Bactrian kingdom.
These kingdoms, in which there were already some Greek settlers called Yonas, took more and more Indian characteristics, becoming truly unique political entities with a mix of Greek and Indian culture, at least for the ruling elites.
The Indo-Greek kingdoms timeline is very approximate. Between 190 BCE and circa 165 B.C., Greek possessions in India were divided between several Euthydemid kings, who fought among themselves and their Greco-Bactrian neighbors. These kingdoms extended to Western Punjab and had Indians of Sunga dynasty as neighbors.
In 165 B.C., the Greco-Bactrian rebel Eucratides invaded the Indo-Greek kingdoms and, defeating Antimachos II, succeeded to take control of most of the Indo-Greek possessions. Unluckily for him, Menander, his last Euthydemid enemy, pushed him back to Bactria in 155 B.C. Thus the Indo-Greek kingdoms were safely under Euthydemid rule for the next 25 years. In this time Menander extended the Greek rule as far as Paliputra, but fell in a civil war.
However in 130 B.C., the Euthydemid kings were chased away from Bactria by the Yuezhei and settled down in strength in the Indo-Greek territories.
From 130 B.C. to 80 B.C., numerous Indo-Greek kings ruled in India, often in little kingdoms, fighting among each other, while Arachosia was lost to the Sakas. Some kings seem to have nearly succeeded to reunite these areas, like Eucratids, Philoxenos and Diomedes, but finally failed. One Euthydemid queen, Agathokleia, made strong regency for her son Strato in this time. Yet at the turn of the century, the Indo-Greek regions were highly fragmented.
The disruptive element came in 80 B.C., when the Saka king Maues attacked the Indo-Greek kingdoms. He won against several Euthydemid and Eucratid kings, taking the Paropamisadae, Gandhara and Western Punjab.
Against this invader, both the dynasties forged an alliance under the rule of Amyntas, whose resistance in eastern Punjab saved Indo-Greek kingdoms, and in 65 B.C. the Indo-Greek kings regained their kingdoms and their rivalry.
The final moments of Indo-Greek history are written in civil wars once more, with the quick loss of all the Western possessions to the Indo-Saka kings. The last Indo-Greek king, Strato II ended his rule in10 B.C., vanquished by the Indo-Saka king Rajuvula.
The Indo-Greek kings and kingdoms are absent in the Greek imagination, because of the estrangement from the Greek world and the cut of political links due to presence of Parthian and Sakas between India and Greece. However these kingdoms appear to have strongly influenced their Indian subjects and Indian or nomad neighbors, as the nature of Indian art from the period, as well as the mention of the Yonas in Asoka’s edicts.
The Indo-Scythian Sakas were nomadic Central Asian tribes which inhabited the region around the River Jaxartes and Lake Issykkul (or Issyk Kul – located in the Tian Shan Mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan).
They seem to have been Indo-European in terms of their ancestry, part of a large group of peoples who had formerly lived around the north shores of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.
Migration between the fourth and second millennia BC had sent them far and wide, mostly into Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, but it also later saw them in Iran and India, and even in the Han dynasty of China.
The Sakas eventually found themselves situated to the north and east of the Indo-European Oxus Civilisation of late-third millennium BCTransoxiana, although it is impossible to say whether they were involved at all.
They could instead have been part of the Kazakhstan steppe-living ‘spiral city’ builders who may have traded with the Oxus dwellers but who did not achieve quite the same level of sophistication.
Probably related to the Massagetae, their subsequent fate between around 1700-550 BC can only be guessed at. It probably involved a return to a typical Indo-European nomadic existence, which is supported by their adventures with the Yeuh Chi, Achaemenids, and others. They may also have influenced or provided elements of the later Göktürks, who have been linked by some scholars with an Indo-European ancestry.
The Amyrgian subsets of Sakas in particular were fairly well attested, after coming into contact with both the Achaemenids (who called them Sakaibish) and the Greeks under Alexander.
They were apparently centred on the Amyrgian plain which equates to all of Ferghanaand also the Alai valley – well to the east of most of the Sakas. They accompanied Alexander on his campaign, under their King Omarg, and later entered India along with the Kambojas to found a kingdom in Gandhara (in northern Pakistan), displacing the ailing Indo-Greek Kings.
They appear to have been nearest the Persian border during the eastern campaigns of Darius the Great, fleeing from his advance. Then Darius crossed a river which was probably the Syr Darya – the Jaxartes or River Tanais – after crossing Suguda, and ‘smote the Saka exceedingly’, slaying their chief. This would be the Haumavarga.
The origin of their name is taken to mean that they practiced haoma-drinking. Haoma – the soma of Rigveda – is a medicinal and health-giving extract from plants which is associated with ancient Zoroastrian healing practices
Parthia was the ancient land corresponding roughly to the modern region of Khorāsān in Iran. The term is also used in reference to the Parthian empire (247B.C.– 224A.D.).
The first certain occurrence of the name is as Parthava in the Bīsitūn inscription (c. 520B.C.) of the Achaemenian king Darius I, but Parthava may be only a dialectal variation of the name Parsa (Persian).
It is evident from the great variety of the royal names in the coin-legends, which are nearly forty in number, that both before and after the death of Eukratides, the Indian borderland was parceled out among a crowd of Greek Princelings, for the most part related either to the family of Euthydemos and Demetrios or to that of their rival, Eukratides.
Some of these Princelings, among whom was Antialkidas, were subdued by Eukratides, who, if he had lived, might have consolidated a great border kingdom. But his death in the hour of victory increased the existing confusion, and it is quite impossible to make a satisfactory territorial and chronological arrangement of the Indo-Greek frontier kings contemporary with and posterior to Eukratides. Their names, with two exceptions, are known from coins only.
One name, that of Menander, stands out conspicuously amid the crowd of obscure princes. He seems to have belonged to the family of Eukratides, and to have had his capital at Kabul, whence he issued in 155 B.C. to make the bold invasion of India described in the last chapter. Two years later he was obliged to retire and devote his energies to the encounter with dangers which menaced him at home, due to the never-ending quarrels with his neighbours on the frontier.
Menander was celebrated as a just ruler, and when he died was honoured with magnificent obsequies. He is supposed to have been a convert to Buddhism, and has been immortalized under the name of Milinda in a celebrated dialogue entitled “The Questions of Milinda,” which is one of the most notable books in Buddhist literature.
In the early 2nd century B.C., a tribe on the Central Asian frontier of China called Hsiung-nu defeated a neighboring one known as Yueh-chih.
After more conflict, the survivors of the Yueh-chih were dislocated west, passing down the Ili river valley and along the southern shore of lake Issyk Kul. This movement also pushed the Saka tribes ahead of them. Sometime between 145 and 125 B.C., these nomad invaders burst into Bactria and Parthia.
A generation later, they were pressing into the Kabul valley and onto the Punjab plain. At around the beginning of the Christian era, one of the five Yueh-chih chiefs, K’iu-tsiu-k’io, attacked and defeated the others, leaving his clan in control; the Kuei-shang (Kushans).
Kujula Kadphises (30-80 AD) established the Kushan dynasty in 78 AD by taking advantage of disunion in existing dynasty of Pahalava (Parthian) and Scytho-Parthians, and gradually wrested control of the southern prosperous region, which is the northwest part of ancient India, traditionally known as Gandhara.
It was his grandson Vima Kadphises, who made Kushan a paramount power of northern India. His reign saw the emergence of the Kushan empire, when he conquered North-Western India (modern Punjab). Soon he came under the influence of Hinduism and took the opportunity to proclaim himself as Mahishwara, another name for Lord Shiva, on his coins.
The Kushan kings introduced gold and copper coins, of which a large number have survived. It was the Kushan emperor, Vima Kadaphises who introduced the first gold coins in India. Ample evidences of trade with China, Central Asia, Egypt and Rome are available which made their economy very strong and kingdom wealthy and prosperous.
Under Kaniska I and his successors, the Kushan kingdom reached its height. It was acknowledged as one of the four great Eurasian powers of its time (the others being China, Rome, and Parthia). The Kushans were instrumental in spreading Buddhism in Central Asia and China and in developing Mahayana Buddhism and the Gandhara and Mathura schools of art.
The Kushans became affluent through trade, particularly with Rome, as their large issues of gold coins show. These coins, which exhibit the figures of Greek, Roman, Iranian, Hindu, and Buddhist deities and bear inscriptions in adapted Greek letters, are witness to the toleration and to the syncretism in religion and art that prevailed in the Kushan Empire.
The Kushan empire had started its decline soon after Vasudeva’s death. Vasudeva was followed by his son Kanishka II, who lost all the territories west of the river Indus to the Sassanians.
Vasudeva II, Vashishka, and Shaka are the Kings who followed after Kanisha II.
After Vashishka the Kushan Empire completely disintegrated into a few small kingdoms. By the fourth century AD, this dynasty went into total obscurity with the advent of the mighty Gupta Emperors.
Trade and Commerce
Very little is known about the economy of the Indo-Greeks. The abundance of their coins would tend to suggest large mining operations, particularly in the mountainous area of the Hindu-Kush, and an important monetary economy.
The Indo-Greek did strike bilingual coins both in the Greek “round” standard and in the Indian “square” standard, suggesting that monetary circulation extended to all parts of society.
The adoption of Indo-Greek monetary conventions by neighboring kingdoms, such as the Kunindas to the east and the Satavahanas to the south, would also suggest that Indo-Greek coins were used extensively for cross-border trade.
The coins emitted by the Indo-Greek kings, particularly those in the monolingual Attic standard, may have been used to pay some form of tribute to the Yuezhi tribes north of the Hindu-Kush. The coins finds of the Qunduz hoard in northern Afghanistan have yielded quantities of Indo-Greek coins in the Hellenistic standard (Greek weights, Greek language), although most likely none of the kings represented in the hoard ruled so far north. Conversely, none of those coins have ever been found south of the Hindu-Kush.
Trade with China
An indirect testimony by the Chinese explorer Zhang Qian, who visited Bactria around 128 B.C.E., suggests that intense trade with Southern China went through northern India.
Zhang Qian explains that he found Chinese products in the Bactrian markets, transiting through northwestern India, which he incidentally describes as a civilization similar to that of Bactria:
“When I was in Bactria,” Zhang Qian reported, “I saw bamboo canes from Qiong and cloth (silk?) made in the province of Shu. When I asked the people how they had got such articles, they replied: “Our merchants go buy them in the markets of Shendu (northwestern India). Shendu, they told me, lies several thousand miles southeast of Bactria. The people cultivate land, and live much like the people of Bactria”.
Indian Ocean trade
Maritime relations across the Indian Ocean started in the third century B.C.E., and further developed during the time of the Indo-Greeks together with their territorial expansion along the western coast of India.
The first contacts started when the Ptolemies constructed the Red Sea ports of Myos Hormos and Berenike, with destination the Indus delta, the Kathiawar peninsula or Muziris.
Around 130 B.C.E., Eudoxus of Cyzicus is reported have made a successful voyage to India and returned with a cargo of perfumes and gemstones. By the time Indo-Greek rule approached an end, up to 120 ships set sail every year from Myos Hormos to India.
Art and Culture
In general, little documentation on the art of the Indo-Greeks exists, and few works of art (apart from their coins and a few stone palettes) may be directly attributed to them.
Historians generally consider the coinage of the Indo-Greeks as some of the most artistically brilliant of antiquity.
The Hellenistic heritage (Ai-Khanoum) and artistic proficiency of the Indo-Greek would suggest a rich sculptural tradition as well, but traditionally very few sculptural remains have been attributed to them. On the contrary, art historians attribute most Gandharan Hellenistic works of art to the direct successors of the Indo-Greeks in India in first century C.E., such as the nomadic Indo-Scythians, the Indo-Parthians and, in an already decadent state, the Kushans.
In general, precise dating of Gandharan sculpture has been impossible, leaving the exact chronology open to interpretation.
The possibility of a direct connection between the Indo-Greeks and Greco-Buddhist art has been reaffirmed recently as the dating of the rule of Indo-Greek kings has been extended to the first decades of the first century C.E., with the reign of Strato II in the Punjab. Historians have taken the view that some of the most purely Hellenistic works of northwestern India and Afghanistan, may actually be wrongly attributed to later centuries, and instead belong to a period one or two centuries earlier, to the time of the Indo-Greeks in the second-first century B.C.E.
Particularly the case of some purely Hellenistic works in Hadda, Afghanistan, an area which “might indeed be the cradle of incipient Buddhist sculpture in Indo-Greek style”.
The Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara, beyond the omnipresence of Greek style and stylistic elements which might be simply considered as an enduring artistic tradition, offers numerous depictions of people in Greek Classical realistic style, attitudes and fashion (clothes such as the chiton and the himation, similar in form and style to the second century B.C. Greco-Bactrian statues of Ai-Khanoum, hairstyle), holding contraptions characteristic of Greek culture (amphoras, “kantaros” Greek drinking cups), in situations which range from festive (such as Bacchanalian scenes) to Buddhist-devotional.
Uncertainties in dating make it unclear whether those works of art actually depict Greeks of the period of Indo-Greek rule up to the first century B.C.E., or remaining Greek communities under the rule of the Indo-Parthians or Kushans in the first and second century C.E. Benjamin Rowland thinks that the Indo-Greeks, rather than the Indo-Scythians or the Kushans, may have been models for the Bodhisattva statues of Gandhara.