After the death of Asoka, his successors were not able to keep the vast Mauryan Empire intact. The provinces started declaring their independence. 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.
The founder of the Sunga dynasty was Pushyamitra Sunga, who was the commander-in-chief under the Mauryas. He assassinated the last Mauryan ruler and usurped the throne. 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 some time. However, Pushyamitra succeeded in regaining the lost territory. He also fought a campaign against Kharavela of Kalinga who invaded north India.
Pushyamitra was a staunch follower of Brahmanism. He performed two asvamedha sacrifices. Buddhist sources refer to him as a persecutor of Buddhism. But there is enough evidence to show that Pushyamitra patronized Buddhist art. During his reign the Buddhist monuments at Bharhut and Sanchi were renovated and further improved.
After the death of Pushyamitra, his son Agnimitra became the ruler. The last Sunga ruler was Devabhuti, who was murdered by his minister Vasudeva Kanva, the founder of the Kanva dynasty. The Kanva dynasty ruled for 45 years. After the fall of the Kanvas, the history of Magadha was blank until the establishment of the Gupta dynasty.
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.
In the Deccan, the Satavahanas established their independent rule after the decline of the Mauryas. Their rule lasted for about 450 years. They were also known as the Andhras. The Puranas and inscriptions remain important sources for the history of Satavahanas. Among the inscriptions, the Nasik and Nanaghad inscriptions throw much light on the reign of Gautamiputra Satakarni. The coins issued by the Satavahanas are also helpful in knowing the economic conditions of that period.
The founder of the Satavahanas dynasty was Simuka. He was succeeded by Krishna, who extended the kingdom up to Nasik in the west. The third king was Sri Satakarni. He conquered western Malwa and Berar. He also performed asvamedha sacrifices. The seventeenth king of the Satavahanas dynasty was Hala. He reigned for a period of five years. Hala became famous for his book Gathasaptasati, also called Sattasai. It contains 700 verses in Prakrit language.
The greatest ruler of the Satavahana dynasty was Gautamiputra Satakarni. He ruled for a period of 24 years from 106 to 130 A.D. His achievements were recorded in the Nasik inscription by his mother Gautami Balasri. Gautamiputra Satakarni captured the whole of Deccan and expanded his empire. His victory over Nagapana, the ruler of Malwa was remarkable. He patronized Brahmanism. Yet, he also gave donations to Buddhists.
Gautamiputra Satakarni was succeeded by his son Vashishti Putra Pulamayi. He extended the Satavahana power up to the mouth of the Krishna river. He issued coins on which the image of ships was inscribed. They reveal the naval power and maritime trade of the Satavahanas. The last great ruler of Satavahanas was Yajna Sri Satakarni.
There was remarkable progress in the fields of trade and industry during the Satavahana rule. Merchants organized guilds to increase their activities. The craft guilds organized by different craftsmen such as potters, weavers and oil pressers also came into existence. Silver coins called Karshapanas were used for trade.
The Satavahana period also witnessed overseas commercial activity. Ptolemy mentions many ports in the Deccan. The greatest port of the Satavahanas was Kalyani on the west Deccan. Gandakasela and Ganjam on the east coast were the other important seaports.
The Satavahanas patronized Buddhism and Brahmanism. They built chaityas and viharas. They also made grants of villages and lands to Buddhist monks. Vashishti Putra Pulamayi repaired the old Amaravathi stupa. Their architecture in Nagarjunakonda was also notable. Brahmanism was revived by the Satavahanas along with the performance of asvamedha and rajasuya sacrifices. They also patronized the Prakrit language and literature. Hala’s Sattasai is an excellent piece of Prakrit literature.
Foreign Invasions of Northwest India
Bactria and Parthia became independent from the Syrian empire in the middle of the third century B.C. Demetrius, the Greek ruler of Bactria invaded Afghanistan and Punjab and occupied them. From Taxila, he sent two of his commanders, Appolodotus and Menander for further conquests.
Appolodotus conquered Sindh and marched up to Ujjain. Menander extended his rule up to Mathura and from there he made attempts to capture Pataliputra. But he was stopped by the army of Vasumitra, the grandson of Pushyamitra Sunga.
Menander was also known as Milinda and the capital of his kingdom was Sakala (Sialcot). He evinced much interest in Buddhism and his dialogues with the Buddhist monk Nagasena was compiled in the Pali work, Milindapanho (Questions of Milinda). He also embraced Buddhism. A Greek ambassador Heliodorus became a Vaishnavite and erected the Garuda Pillar at Besnagar. The Greek influence in India lasted for more than a century after the death of Menander.
The Sakas or the Scythians attacked Bactria and Parthia and captured them from the Greek rulers. Following the footsteps of the Greeks, the Sakas gradually extended their rule over northwestern India. There were two different groups of Sakas – the Northern Satraps ruling from Taxila and the Western satraps ruling over Maharashtra.
The founder of Saka rule in India in the first century B.C. was Maues. His son and successor were Azes I, who was considered to be the founder of the Vikrama era. Sakas rulers of Taxila were overthrown by the Parthians.
The Kushanas were a branch of the Yuchi tribe, whose original home was central Asia. They first came to Bactria displacing the Sakas. Then they gradually moved to the Kabul valley and seized the Gandhara region. The founder of the Kushana dynasty was Kujula Kadphises or Kadphises I. He occupied the Kabul valley and issued coins in his name. His son Wima Kadphises or Kadphises II conquered the whole of northwestern India as far as Mathura. He issued gold coins with high-sounding titles like the ‘Lord of the Whole World’. He was a devotee of Lord Siva.
Kanishka (78 – 120 A.D.)
Kanishka was the most important ruler of the Kushana dynasty. He was the founder of the Saka era which starts from 78A.D. He was not only a great conqueror but also a patron of religion and art.
At the time of his accession his empire included Afghanistan, Gandhara, Sind and Punjab. Subsequently he conquered Magadha and extended his power as far as Pataliputra and Bodh Gaya. According to Kalhana, Kanishka invaded Kashmir and occupied it. His coins are found in many places like Mathura, Sravasti, Kausambiand Benares and therefore, he must have conquered the greater part of the Gangetic plain. He also fought against the Chinese and acquired some territories from them. During the first expedition he was defeated by the Chinese general Pancho. He undertook a second expedition in which he was successful and he scored a victory over Panyang, the son of Pancho.
Kanishka annexed the territories of Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan into his empire. The empire of Kanishka was a vast one extending from Gandhara in the west to Benares in the east, and from Kashmir in the north to Malwa in the south. His capital was Purushapura or modern-day Peshawar. Mathura was another important city in his empire.
Kanishka and Buddhism
Kanishka embraced Buddhism in the early part of his reign. However, his coins exhibit the images of not only Buddha but also Greek and Hindu gods. It reflects the Kanishka’s tolerance towards other religions. In the age of Kanishka the Mahayana Buddhism came into vogue. It is different in many respects from the religion taught by the Buddha and propagated by Asoka.
The Buddha came to be worshipped with flowers, garments, perfumes and lamps. Thus, image worship and rituals developed in Mahayana Buddhism. Kanishka also sent missionaries to Central Asia and China for the propagation of the new faith. Buddhist chaityas and viharas were built in different places. He patronized Buddhist scholars like Vasumitra, Asvagosha and Nagarjuna. He also convened the Fourth Buddhist Council to discuss matters relating to Buddhist theology and doctrine. It was held at the Kandalama monastery near Srinagar in Kashmir under the presidency of Vasumitra.
About 500 monks attended the Council. The Council prepared an authoritative commentary on the Tripitakas and the Mahayana doctrine was given final shape. Asvagosha was a great philosopher, poet and dramatist. He was the author of Buddha Charita. Nagarjuna from south India adorned the court of Kanishka. The famous physician of ancient India Charaka was also patronized by him.
The home of the Gandhara school of art is the territory in and around Peshawar in northwestern India. The best of the Gandhara sculpture was produced during the first and second centuries A.D. It originated during the reign of Indo-Greek rulers but the real patrons of this school of art were the Sakas and the Kushanas, particularly Kanishka. Gandhara art was a blend of Indian and Graeco-Roman elements. Specimens of Gandhara sculpture have been found in Taxila, Peshawar and in several places of northwest India.
The Gandhara school made sculptures of the Buddha in various sizes, shapes and postures. The reliefs depict Buddha’s birth, his renunciation and his preaching. The salient features of Gandhara art are:
- Moulding the human body in a realistic manner with minute attention to physical features like muscles, moustache and curly hair.
- Thick drapery with large and bold fold lines.
- Rich carving, elaborate ornamentation and symbolic expressions.
- The main theme was the new form of Buddhism – Mahayanist – and the evolution of an image of Buddha.
A large number of monasteries were also built from first to fourth centuries A.D. Ruins of about fifteen monasteries were found in and around Peshawar and Rawalpindi. The Buddhist stupas erected during this period had Graeco-Roman architectural impact. The height of the stupa was raised and ornamentation was added to the structure of the stupa. These changes made the stupa more attractive.
Mathura School of Art
The school of art that developed at Mathura in modern Uttar Pradesh is called the Mathura art. It flourished in the first century A.D. In its early phase, the Mathura school of art developed on indigenous lines. The Buddha images exhibit the spiritual feeling in his face which was largely absent in the Gandhara school. The Mathura school also carved out the images of Siva and Vishnu along with their consorts Parvathi and Lakshmi. The female figures of yakshinis and apsaras of the Mathura school were beautifully carved.
Successors of Kanishka and end of Kushana Rule
The successors of Kanishka ruled for another one hundred and fifty years. Huvishka was the son of Kanishka and he kept the empire intact. Mathura became an important city under his rule.
Like Kanishka he was also a patron of Buddhism. The last important Kushana ruler was Vasudeva. The Kushan empire was very much reduced in his rule. Most of his inscriptions are found in and around Mathura. He seems to have been a worshipper of Siva. After Vasudeva, petty Kushan princes ruled for some time in northwestern India
- Module-1 Ancient India by NIOS
- India’s Ancient Past by RS Sharma
- Class-11 Tamil Nadu State Board History Book