Tracing the History of The Shunga dynasty

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Shunga Dynasty
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We all know that Ashoka, the Mauryan ruler in India was the most powerful king of ancient times. His reign was followed by kings of weaker authority. It was only after 50 years, that a powerful new king of a new empire was born. It was king Pushyamitra of the Shunga dynasty who took control after the Mauryan Empire. If the history of the Shunga dynasty intrigues you, or maybe you are interested in a little exploration, this blog right here will make your time worth it. Why wait? Scroll down to know the unexplored! 

Rulers of the Shunga Dynasty in India 

The Shunga dynasty ruled for more than a hundred years. The reign started around 185 BCE-183 BCE and ended in 73 BCE. A total of ten kings ruled over the Shunga empire. However, proper accounts exist only for some of them. Archaeologists have relied on ancient texts like Puranas to extract some information from them. Give it a read to know more about some of the rulers in details. 

A genealogical list of kings of the Shunga dynasty and their period of rule :  

  1. Pushyamitra Shunga ( 185 BCE-149 BCE ) 
  2. Agnimitra Shungha ( 149 BCE- 141 BCE ) 
  3. Vasujyeshtha ( 141 BCE-131 BCE) 
  4. Vasumitra ( 131 BCE – 124 BCE ) 
  5. Bhadraka ( 124 BCE- 122 BCE) 
  6. Pulindaka (122 BCE – 199 BCE ) 
  7. Ghosha (119 BCE – 108 BCE) 
  8. Vajramitra ( 108 BCE – 94 BCE ) 
  9. Bhagabhadra ( 94 BCE- 83 BCE ) 
  10. Devabhuti ( 83 BCE – 73 BCE) 

Pushyamitra Shunga 

  • The last king of the Mauryan empire was Brihadratha who was assassinated by his commander-in-chief (senani) Pushyamitra Shunga during a military parade. The reason owes to the fact that the viceroy wanted to show the strength of the army to the king.
  • Brihadratha was a king of weaker authority and was not able to counteract with other forces like the Yavanas and troops from the western side. There was an internal revolt between the Mauryan soldiers which culminated into the assassination. 
  • After Brihadratha died, Pushyamitra claimed the throne and became the new king. He established the Shunga regime at Magadha and other neighboring parts. 

Expanse of Pushyamitra Shunga’s reign

  • Pushyamitra ruled over the central and eastern subcontinent. Its capital was Pataliputra (modern-day Patna).
  • His realm was founded in the central parts of the old Mauryan empire.
  • The areas under his control included Ujjain, Mathura, Saket, Sanchi, and Kapilvastu.
  • His empire is also considered to have extended as far as Sakala (present-day Sialkot) in Punjab (Divyadana).
  • He ruled for a period of 36 years from 187 BCE which ended in 151 BCE with his death. 

Religious identity and tolerance

  • The dynasty of the Shungas were of a Brahmin origin. Prior to the Shunga dynasty, the Mauryan empire propagated Buddhism under its ruler Ashoka. As per the Ashokavadana account of the Divyadana, Pushyamitra persecuted a large number of buddhists because he firmly believed in the dominance of Hinduism in areas that he ruled. Therefore he took initiatives to replace Buddhism at all costs.  
  • The account also narrates how Pushyamitra equipped a four-fold army and marched towards Kukkutarama (Pataliputra) to destroy traces of Buddhists’ identity. The sangharama (Buddhists monasteries) and the Stupas collapsed under attack and large number of Buddhists were killed. However, there are not ample evidences to prove the same. 
  • There are further theories that contradict the above statements. According to them, Pushyamitra was tolerant towards Buddhism. The religion continued to flourish under his rule. Buddhists texts were adapted in Sanskrit which was the language of the Shunga empire. 
  • There were great many developments in architecture including the Buddhist stupas. For example, the Stupa at Bharhut was built and some changes were made to the core of the Sanchi stupa. It was enlarged to a diameter of 120 feet, covered with a stone case and topped with a balcony protected by square stone rails and three superimposed parasols that crowned the top. Thus, art and architecture were sponsored amply by the Shungas. 

Pushyamitra’s Conquests  

  • The Shunga empire under Pushyamitra was in conflict with the Kalinga, and Satavahanas in the south. There were also wars taking place with the Indo-Greeks or the Yavanas who were to conquer the north-western parts of India.  
  • There is also a conjecture that the Shunga empire also fought the Panchalas and Mitras of Mathura. However, there are no archaeological evidence stating that Mathura was under the Shunga’s regime. 

Agnimitra Shunga 

Agnimitra Shunga succeeded the throne after Pushyamitra’s death and became the second king of the Shunga dynasty. His ruling period lasted for eight years from 149BCE to 141 BCE. 

Accounts on Agnimitra: Malvikagnimitram  

  • Malavikagnimitram, a play by the poet Kalidasa of the Gupta Golden Age is the richest source to provide some information on Agnimitra. The latter is portrayed as the hero of the play. As per the play, Agnimitra belonged to the Brahmin Baimbika family and was the viceroy of Vidisha during his father’s rule.  
  • The play also mentions his three queens namely, a) Dharini b) Iravati and c) Malvika. Malvika was supposed to be a handmaiden to the queen. On some rare discovery, it was found that she belonged to nobility and was therefore accepted as queen. 
  • The other acts of the Malvikagnimitram go on to describe the conflict between the kingdoms of Agnimitra and Vidarbha. Vidarbha was an independent kingdom before the Shungas rose to prominence. 
  • Later on, a former Mauryan minister wanted to establish his relative Yajnasena on the throne. Madhavsena was the cousin of Yajnasena and he wanted to triumph over the other. It also turned out that Madhavsena was a close ally to Agnimitra and therefore sought out his help in overthrowing his cousin. As luck would have it, Madhavsena was captured while trying to escape Vidarbha and consequentially imprisoned. 
  • On one hand, Agnimitra demanded Madhavsena’s release while on the other Yajnasena demanded the release of his former minister. Agnimitra was not ready to accept Yajnasena’s terms and therefore set out to capture Vidarbha. As a consequence, Yajnasena surrendered and agreed to divide the kingdom with Madhavsena and enjoy internal autonomy. However, the Shunga rulers were to remain suzereign to Vidarbha. 

Vasujyeshtha  

  • Vasujyeshtha was the third king of the Shunga dynasty who ruled for ten years from 141 BCE to 131 BCE. There are fewer accounts depicting him or his influence. However, the Malavikagnimitram displays some of his achievements and conquests. 
  • The founder of the Shunga dynasty, Pushyamitra Shunga carried out Asvamedha campaigns during his rule. This ancient Vedic ritual was successful continued by his grandson Vasujyestha. 
  • Vasujyestha waged wars against the Indo-Greeks by the Sindhu river and emerged victorious. 

Vasumitra  

  • The fourth king in lineage after Vasujyestha was Vasumitra. He ruled for seven years from 131 BCE to 124 BCE. Similar to Vasujyestha, there are not much evidences of his ruling period. However, it was during his rule that the Shunga  dynasty gradually grew weaker. 
  • Vasumitra is also called Sumitra according to the manuscript of the Matsya Purana. 

Vasumitra was the:

  • Son of Agnimitra and Dharini 
  • Brother or half brother of Vasujyestha 
  • Step son of queen Malvika 

Conquest

Vasumitra led an army against the Indo-Greeks or the Yona on the banks of the Indus river. The battle ended with his victory. The cavalry squadron of the Indo-Greeks suffered at  the hands of the Vasumitra’s troops. 

Not enough sources record about the next four kings after Vasumitra. These kings include Bhadraka, Pulindaka, Ghosha and Vajramitra. 

Bhagabhadra 

  • Bhagabadra is the eight king in the Shunga lineage and the second last from Devabhuti. His rule spans more than a decade from 94 BCE to 83 BCE. 
  • The capital of the Shunga dynasty was Pataliputra but it was also rumoured that Bhagabhadra held court at Besnagar (modern-day Vidisha) in eastern Malwa. The Shunga dynasty controlled the north, central and eastern India under the king’s rule. 
  • The most important source that validates his existence is the Heliodorus inscription. He was named as “Kasiputra Bhagabhadra, the Saviour, the son of the princess from Benares” in the pillar. 

Devabhuti  

  • Devabhuti was the last king of the Shunga dynasty. His rule lasted for ten years ( 83 BCE- 75 BCE) before he was assassinated by his own minister Vasudeva Kanva. Consequentially, the Shunga dynasty collapsed and the emergence of a new empire took place. It was the Kanva dynasty under Vasudeva Kanva. 
  • It is said that Devabhuti excessively indulged in sensual pleasures and was overfond of the company of women. 
  • Bana’s Harshacharitra states that he was murdered by Vasudeva with the aid of the daughter of Devabhuti’s maid servant. The daughter disguised herself as the queen and took his life under false pretense. 

Wrap Up

The history of the Shunga dynasty ended catastrophically after ruling for more than a century. While Pushyamitra was the sole ruler to be called as a king of influence, we cannot say the same about others. There are claims that say kings largely were the puppets at the hand of the ministers which may hint at their weaker administration, authority and forces. The one interesting fact about the Shunga dynasty that might seem a little mysterious is that the empire was founded on regicide and ended with another. 

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