Sunga Empire (185 BC- 75BC)

The Sunga Empire or Shunga Empire was a Aryan dynasty from Magadha that controlled vast areas of the Indian Subcontinent from around 185 to 73 BCE. The dynasty was established by Pusyamitra Sunga, after the fall of theMaurya Empire. Its capital was Pataliputra, but later emperors such as Bhagabhadra also held court at Besnagar, modernVidisha in Eastern Malwa.

Pushyamitra Sunga ruled for 36 years and was succeeded by his son Agnimitra. There were ten Sunga rulers. The empire is noted for its numerous wars with both foreign and indigenous powers. They fought battles with the Kalingas, Satavahanas, theIndo-Greeks, 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 chaitya at Bhaja Caves, the Stupa at Bharhut, and the renowned Great Stupa at Sanchi. The Sunga rulers helped to establish the tradition of royal sponsorship of learning and art. The script used by the empire 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.  Patanjali`s  Yoga Sutras  and  Mahabhasya  were composed in this period. Artistry also progressed with the rise of the Mathura school of art. Thereafter, there was a downfall of the dynasty and Kanvassucceeded around 73 BCE.


The Shunga dynasty was established in 185 BCE, about 50 years after Ashoka’s death, when the emperor Brhadratha, the last of the Mauryan rulers, was assassinated by the then commander-in-chief of the Mauryan armed forces, Pusyamitra Sunga, while he was taking the Guard of Honour of his forces. Pusyamitra Sunga then ascended the throne.

Pushyamitra Sunga became the ruler of the Magadha and neighbouring territories. The empire of Pushyamitra was extended up to Narmada in the south, and controlled Jalandhar and Sialkot in the Punjab in the north-western regions, and the city of Ujjain 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.

Pushyamitra 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 Vidisha when the story takes place. The power of the Sungas gradually weakened. It is said that there were ten Sunga emperors.

The Sungas were succeeded by the Kanva dynasty around 73 BCE.

Wars of the Sungas

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

The Shunga Empire’s wars with the Indo-Greek Kingdom figure greatly in the history of this period. From around 180 BCE the Greco-Bactrianruler 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.

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.

Also the Hindu text of the Yuga Purana, which describes Indian historical events in the form of a prophecy, relates the attack of the Indo-Greeks on the capital Pataliputra, a magnificent fortified city with 570 towers and 64 gates according to Megasthenes, 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.)

Pushyamitra is recorded to have performed two Ashvamedha Yagnas and Sunga 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 Sungas around 100 BCE (or by other indigenous rulers: theArjunayanas (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 Sunga in Northwestern India are also found in the Mālavikāgnimitram, a play by Kālidāsawhich describes a battle between Greek cavalrymen and Vasumitra, the grandson ofPushyamitra, on the Indus river, in which the Indians defeated the Greeks and Pushyamitra successfully completed the Ashvamedha Yagna.

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 Sungas seem to have reconciled and exchanged diplomatic missions around 110 BCE, as indicated by theHeliodorus 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 Sunga emperor Bhagabhadra at the site of Vidisha in central India.

List of Sunga Emperors

  • Pusyamitra Sunga (185 – 149 BCE)
  • Agnimitra (149 – 141 BCE)
  • Vasujyeshtha (141 – 131 BCE)
  • Vasumitra (131 – 124 BCE)
  • Andhraka (124 – 122 BCE)
  • Pulindaka (122 – 119 BCE)
  • Ghosha (?)
  • Vajramitra (?)
  • Bhagabhadra (?)
  • Devabhuti (83 – 73 BCE)