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Buddhist Sculpture

Chapter 8 – The Sunga, Kanva, and Andhra Dynasties

184 B.C. to 236 A.D.

The Sunga Dynasty

Pushyamitra, the commander-in-chief, having slain his master, Brihadratha Maurya, and imprisoned the minister, usurped the vacant throne, and established himself as sovereign of the now contracted Maurya dominions, thus founding a dynasty known to history as that of the Sungas.

The capital continued to be, as of old, Pataliputra, and probably all the central or home provinces of the empire recognized the usurper’s authority, which extended to the south as far as the Narmada River, and presumably embraced the territories in the Ganges basin, corresponding with the modern Bihar, Tirhut, and the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. It is unlikely that either the later Mauryas or the Sungas exercised any jurisdiction in the Panjab.

During the latter years of his reign, the usurper

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Tower of Victory, Chitor

was threatened by serious dangers menacing from both east and west. Menander, a relative of the Bactrian monarch Enkratides, the King of Kabul and the Panjab, formed the design of emulating the exploits of Alexander, and advanced with a formidable force into

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the interior of India. He annexed the Indus delta, the peninsula of Surashtra (Kathiawar), and some other territories on the western coast, occupied Mathura on the Jumna, besieged Madhyamika (now Nagari near Chitor) in Rajputana, invested Saketam in southern Oudh, and threatened Pataliputra, the capital.

About the same time, or a little earlier, Kharavela, King of Kalinga on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, invaded Magadha. He claims to have won some successes, and to have humbled his adversary, but whatever advantage he gained would seem to have been temporary or to have affected only the eastern frontier of the Magadhan kingdom.

The more formidable invasion of Menander was certainly repelled after a severe struggle, and the Greek king was obliged to retire to his own country, but probably retained his conquests in Western India for a few years longer.

Thus ended the last attempt by a European general to conquer India by land. All subsequent invaders from the western continent have come in ships, trusting to their command of the sea, and using it as their base. From the repulse of Menander in 153 B.C. until the bombardment of Calicut by Vasco da Gama in 1502 A.D., India enjoyed immunity from European attack.

During the progress of these wars the outlying southern provinces extending to the Narmada River were administered by the crown prince, Agnimitra, as viceroy, who had his capital at Vidisa, the modern

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Bhilsa on the Betwa in Sindhia’s territory. Agnimitra’s youthful son, Vasumitra, was employed on active service under the orders of the king, his grandfather. Pushyamitra, who at this time must have been advanced in years, resolved to crown his military successes by proclaiming and substantiating a formal claim to the rank of Lord Paramount of Northern India.


His pretensions received confirmation by the success of Agnimitra in a local war with his southern neighbour, the Raja of Vidarbha (Berar), which resulted in the complete defeat of the raja, who was obliged to cede half of his dominions to a rival cousin, the river Varada (Warda) being constituted the dividing line.

Pushyamitra determined to revive and celebrate with appropriate magnificence the ancient rite of the horse-sacrifice (asvamedha), which, according to immemorial tradition, could only be performed by a paramount

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sovereign, and involved as a preliminary a formal and successful challenge to all rival claimants to supreme power, delivered after this fashion:–

“A horse of a particular colour was consecrated by the performance of certain ceremonies, and was then turned loose to wander for a year. The king, or his representative, followed the horse with an army, and when the animal entered a foreign country, the ruler of that country was bound either to fight or to submit. If the liberator of the horse succeeded in obtaining or enforcing the submission of all the countries over which it passed, he returned in triumph with all the vanquished rajas in his train; but if he failed, he was disgraced and his pretensions ridiculed. After his successful return, a great festival was held, at which the horse was sacrificed2.”

The command, at least nominally, of the guard attendant on the consecrated steed liberated by Pushyamitra was entrusted to his young grandson, Vasumitra, who is said to have encountered and routed a band of certain Yavanas, or western foreigners, who took up the challenge on the banks of the river Sindhu, which now forms the boundary between Bundelkhand and the Rajputana States. These disputants may have been part of the division of Menander’s army which had undertaken the siege of Madhyamika in Rajputana.

The Yavanas and all other rivals having been disposed of in due course, Pushyamitra was justified in his claim to rank as the paramount power of Northern

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India, and straightway proceeded to announce his success by a magnificent celebration of the sacrifice at his capital. The dramatist Kalidasa, who has so well preserved the traditions of the time in his play on King Agnimitra, professes to record the very words of the invitation addressed by the victorious king to his son, the crown prince, as follows:–

“May it be well with thee! From the sacrificial enclosure the commander-in-chief Pushyamitra sends this message to his son Agnimitra, who is in the territory of Vidisa, affectionately embracing him. Be it known unto thee that I, having been consecrated for the Rajasuya [i.e. asvamedha] sacrifice, let loose free from all check or curb a horse which was to be brought back after a year, appointing Vasumitra as its defender, girt with a guard of a hundred Rajputs. This very horse wandering on the right [or ‘south’] bank of the Sindhu was claimed by a cavalry squadron of the Yavanas. Then there was a fierce struggle between the two forces. Then Vasumitra, the mighty bowman, having overcome his foes, rescued by force my excellent horse, which they were endeavouring to carry off. Accordingly I will now sacrifice, having had my horse brought back to me by my grandson, even as Ansumat brought back the horse to Sagara. Therefore you must dismiss anger from your mind, and without delay come with my daughters-in-law to behold the sacrifice.”

The exaggerated regard for the sanctity of animal life, which was one of the most cherished features of Buddhism, and the motive of Asoka’s most characteristic

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legislation, had necessarily involved the prohibition of bloody sacrifices, which are essential to certain forms of Brahmanical worship and were believed by the orthodox to possess the highest saving efficacy. The memorable horse-sacrifice of Pushyamitra marked the beginning of the Brahmanical reaction, which was fully developed five centuries later in the time of Samudragupta and his successors.

But the revival of the practice of sacrifice by an orthodox Hindu ruler did not necessarily involve persecution of Jains and Buddhists who abhorred the rite. There is no evidence that any member of those sects was ever compelled to sacrifice against his will, as, under Buddhist and Jain domination, the orthodox were forced to abstain from ceremonies regarded by them as essential to salvation. Pushyamitra has been accused of persecution, but the evidence is merely that of a legend of no authority.

But, although the alleged proscription of Buddhism by Pushyamitra is not supported by evidence, and it is true that the gradual extinction of that religion in India was due in the main to causes other than persecution, it is also true that from time to time fanatic kings indulged in savage outbursts of cruelty, and committed genuine acts of persecution directed against Jains or Buddhists as such. Well-established instances of such proceedings will be met with in the course of this history, and others, which do not come within its limits, are on record. That such outbreaks of wrath should have occurred is not wonderful, if we consider

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the extreme oppressiveness of the Jain and Buddhist prohibitions when ruthlessly enforced, as they certainly were by some rajas, and probably by Asoka. The wonder rather is that persecutions were so rare, and that as a rule the various sects managed to live together in harmony, and in the enjoyment of fairly impartial official favour.

When Pushyamitra, some five years subsequent to the retreat of Menander, died, after a long and eventful reign, he was succeeded by his son, the crown prince Agnimitra, who had governed the southern provinces during his father’s lifetime. He reigned but a few years, and was succeeded by Sujyeshtha, probably a brother, who was followed seven years later by Vasumitra, a son of Agnimitra, who as a youth had guarded the sacrificial horse on behalf of his aged grandfather. The next four reigns are said to have been abnormally short, amounting together to only seventeen years.

The inference that the extreme brevity of these reigns indicates a period of confusion, during which palace revolutions were frequent, is strongly confirmed by the one incident of the time which has survived in tradition. Sumitra, another son of Agnimitra, who was, we are told, inordinately devoted to the stage, was surprised when in the midst of his favourite actors by one Mitradeva, who “severed his head with a scimitar, as a lotus is shorn from its stalk.” The ninth king, Bhagavata, is credited with a long reign of twenty-six years, but we know nothing about him. The tenth king, Devabhuti, or Devabhumi, was, we are assured,

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a man of licentious habits, and lost his life while engaged in a discreditable intrigue. The dynasty thus came to an unhonoured end after having occupied the throne for a hundred and twelve years.

The Kanva or Kanvayana Dynasty

The plot which cost the royal debauchee Devabhuti his throne and life was contrived by his Brahman minister Vasudeva, who seems to have controlled the state even during the lifetime of his nominal master. Mitradeva, the slayer of Prince Sumitra, probably belonged to the same powerful family, which is known to history as that of the Kanvas, or Kanvayanas. There is reason to believe that the later Sunga kings enjoyed little real power, and were puppets in the hands of their Brahman ministers, like the Mahratta rajas in the hands of the Peshwas. But the distinct testimony of both the Puranas and Bana that Devabhuti, the tenth and last Sunga, was the person slain by Vasudeva, the first Kanva, forbids the acceptance of Professor Bhandarkar’s theory that the Kanva dynasty should be regarded as contemporary with the Sunga.

Vasudeva seized the throne rendered vacant by his crime, and was succeeded by three of his descendants. The whole dynasty, comprising four reigns, covers a period of only forty-five years. The figures indicate, as in the case of the Sungas, that the times were disturbed, and that succession to the throne was often effected by violent means. Nothing whatever is known about the reigns of any of the Kanva kings. The last

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of them was slain in 27 B.C. by a king of the Andhra, or Satavahana, dynasty, which at that time possessed wide dominions stretching across the table-land of the Deccan from sea to sea.

The Puranas treat the whole Andhra dynasty as following the Kanva, and consequently identify the slayer of the last Kanva prince with Simuka, or Sipraka, the first of the Andhra line. But, as a matter of fact, the independent Andhra dynasty had begun about 220 B.C., long before the suppression of the Kanvas in 27 B.C., and the Andhra king who slew Susarman cannot possibly have been Simuka. It is impossible to affirm with certainty who he was, because the dates of accession of the various Andhra princes are not known with accuracy.

Andhra Dynasty

Before proceeding to narrate the history of the Andhra kings after the extinction of the Kanva dynasty, we must cast back a glance to the more distant past, and trace the steps by which the Andhra kingdom became one of the greatest powers in India.

In the days of Chandragupta Maurya and Megasthenes the Andhra nation, probably a Dravidian people, now represented by the large population speaking the Telugu language, occupied the deltas of the Godavari and Krishna (Kistna) Rivers on the eastern side of India, and was reputed to possess a military force second only to that at the command of the King of the Prasii, Chandragupta Maurya. The Andhra territory

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included thirty walled towns, besides numerous villages, and the army consisted of one hundred thousand infantry, two thousand cavalry, and one thousand elephants. The capital of the state was then Sri Kakulam, on the lower course of the Krishna.

The nation thus described was evidently independent, and it is not known at what time, in the reign either of Chandragupta or Bindusara, the Andhras were compelled to submit to the irresistible forces at the command of the Maurya kings and recognize the suzerainty of Magadha.

When next heard of in Asoka’s edicts (256 B.C.) , they were enrolled among the tribes resident in the outer circle of the empire, subject to the imperial commands, but doubtless enjoying a considerable degree of autonomy under their own raja. The withdrawal of the strong arm of Asoka was the signal for the disruption of his vast empire. While the home provinces continued to obey his feeble successors upon the throne of Pataliputra, the distant governments shook off the imperial yoke and re-asserted their independence.

The Andhras were not slow to take advantage of the opportunity given by the death of the great emperor, and, very soon after the close of his reign, set up as an independent power under the government of a king named Simuka. The new dynasty extended its sway with such extraordinary rapidity that, in the reign of the second king, Krishna (Kanha), the town of Nasik, near the source of the Godavari in the Western

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Ghats, was included in the Andhra dominions, which thus stretched across India.

A little later, either the third or fourth king, who is described as Lord of the West, was able to send a force of all arms to the aid of his ally, Kharavela, King of Kalinga in the east, which kingdom had also recovered its independence after the death of Asoka.

Nothing more is heard of the Andhra kings until one of them, as above related, in 27 B.C., slew the last of the Kanvas, and no doubt annexed the territory, whatever it was, which still recognized the authority of that dynasty. The Andhra kings all claimed to belong to the Satavahana family, and most of them assumed the title of Satakarni. They are consequently often referred to by one or other of these designations, without mention of the personal name of the monarch, and it is thus sometimes impossible to ascertain which king is alluded to. As already observed, the real name of the slayer of Susarman Kanva is not known.

The name of Hala, the seventeenth king, by virtue of its association with literary tradition, possesses special interest as marking a stage in the development of Indian literature. In his time, the learned dialect elaborated by scholars, in which the works of Kalidasa and other famous poets are composed, had not come into general use as the language of polite literature, and even the most courtly authors did not disdain to seek royal patronage for compositions in the vernacular dialects. On such literature the favour of King Hala was bestowed, and he himself is credited with the composition

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of the anthology of erotic verses, called the “Seven Centuries,” written in the ancient Maharashtri tongue. A collection of tales, entitled the “Great Story-book,” written in the Paisachi dialect, and a Sanskrit grammar, arranged with special reference to the needs of students more familiar with the vernacular speech than with the so-called “classical” language, are attributed to his ministers.

The next kings concerning whom anything is known are those numbered twenty-one to twenty-three in the dynastic list, who form a group distinguished by peculiar personal names and a distinctive coinage, and are commemorated by a considerable number of inscriptions and coins. Vilivayakura I, the first of the group, whose accession would seem to indicate a break in the continuity of the dynasty, perhaps due to the ambition of a junior branch, obtained power in 84 A.D., and, according to the Puranas, enjoyed it only for half a year. Some rare coins struck in his western dominions are his sole memorial.

He was succeeded by Sivalakura, presumably his son, who, after a reign of twenty-eight years, transmitted the sceptre to Vilivayakura II, who bore his grandfather’s name, in accordance with Hindu custom. His reign of about twenty-five years was distinguished by successful warfare against his western neighbours, the Sakas, Pahlavas, and Yavanas of Malwa, Gujarat, and Kathiawar. The names of these foreign tribes demand some explanation.

The Sakas, the Se (Sek) of Chinese historians, were

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a horde of pastoral nomads, like the modern Turkomans, occupying territory to the west of the Wu-sun horde, apparently situated between the Chu and Jaxartes Rivers, to the north of the Alexander Mountains. About 160 B.C., they were expelled from their pasture grounds by another similar horde, the Yueh-chi, and compelled to migrate southwards. They ultimately reached India, but the road by which they travelled is not known with certainty.

Princes of Saka race established themselves at Taxila in the Panjab and Mathura on the Jumna, where they displaced the native rajas, and ruled principalities for several generations, assuming the ancient Persian title of satrap. Probably they recognized Mithradates I (174–136 B.C.) and his successors, the early kings of the Parthian, or Arsakidan, dynasty of Persia, as their overlords.

Another branch of the horde advanced farther to the south, presumably across Sind, which was then a well-watered country, and carved out for themselves a dominion in the peninsula of Surashtra, or Kathiawar, and some of the neighbouring districts on the mainland. The Pahlavas seem to have been Persians, in the sense of being Parthians of Persia, as distinguished from the Parsikas, or Persians proper. The name is believed to be a corruption of Parthiva, “Parthian,” and is almost certainly identical with Pallava, the designation of a famous southern dynasty, which is frequently mentioned in inscriptions during the early centuries of the Christian era, and had its capital at

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Kanchi, or Conjevaram, in the Chingleput District, Madras.

The word Yavana is etymologically the same as “Ionian,” and originally meant “Asiatic Greek,” but has been used with varying connotation at different periods. In the third century B.C. Asoka gave the word its original meaning, describing Antiochos Theos and the other contemporary Hellenistic kings as Yavanas. In the second century A.D. the term had a vaguer signification, and was employed as a generic term to denote foreigners coming from the old IndoGreek kingdoms on the north-western frontier.

These three foreign tribes, Sakas, Pahlavas, and Yavanas, at that time settled in Western India as the lords of a conquered native population, were the objects of the hostility of Vilivayakura II. The first foreign chieftain in the west whose name has been preserved is Bhumaka the Kshaharata, who attained power at about the beginning of the second century A.D., and was followed by Nahapana, who aggrandized his dominions at the expense of his Andhra neighbours. The Kshaharata clan seems to have been a branch of the Sakas.

In the year 126 A.D. the Andhra king Vilivayakura II recovered the losses which his kingdom had suffered at the hands of the intruding foreigners, and utterly destroyed the power of Nahapana. The hostility of the Andhra monarch was stimulated by the disgust felt by all Hindus, and especially by the followers of the orthodox Brahmanical system, at the outlandish practices

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of foreign barbarians, who ignored caste rules, and treated with contempt the precepts of the holy sastras. This disgust is vividly expressed in the long inscription recorded in 144 A.D. by the queen-mother Balasri, of the Gautama family, in which she glorifies herself as the mother of the hero who “destroyed the Sakas, Yavanas, and Pahlavas . . . properly expended the taxes which he levied in accordance with the sacred law . . . and prevented the mixing of the four castes.”

River Sipra at Ujjain

After the destruction of Naha-pana, the local government of the west was entrusted to one Chashtana, who seems to have been a Saka, and to have acted. as viceroy under the Andhra conqueror. Chashtana, whose capital was at Ujjain in Malwa, is mentioned by his contemporary, Ptolemy the geographer, under the slight disguise of Tiastanes. From him sprang a long line of satraps, who retained the government of Western India with varying fortune, until the last of them was overthrown at the close of the fourth century by Chandragupta Vikramaditya.

In the year 138 A.D. Vilivayakura II was succeeded on the Andhra throne by his son Pulumayi II, the Siro Polemaios of Ptolemy, and about the same time the

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satrap Rudradaman, grandson of Chashtana, assumed the government of the western provinces. His daughter, Dakshamitra, was married to Pulumayi, but this relationship did not deter Rudradaman, who was an ambitious and energetic prince, from levying war upon his son-in-law. The satrap was victorious, and when the conflict was renewed, success still attended on his arms (145 A.D.). Moved by natural affection for his daughter, the victor did not pursue his advantage to the uttermost, and was content with the retrocession of territory, while abstaining from inflicting utter ruin upon his opponent.

The peninsula of Kathiawar, or Surashtra, the whole of Malwa, Kachchh (Cutch), Sind, and the Konkan, or territory between the Western Ghats and the sea, besides some adjoining districts, thus passed under the sway of the satraps, and were definitely detached from the Andhra dominions.

Although Pulumayi II was a son of Vilivayakura his accession seems to mark a dynastic epoch, emphasized by a transfer of the capital and the abandonment of the peculiar type of coinage known to numismatists as the “bow and arrow,” favoured by the Vilivayakura group. The western capital, which in the time of Vilivayakura II (Baleokouros) had been at a town called Hippokoura by Ptolemy, probably the modern Kolhapur, was removed by Pulumayi II to Paithan, or Paithana, on the upper waters of the Godavari, two hundred miles farther north. Pulumayi II enjoyed a long reign over the territories diminished by the

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victories of his father-in-law, and survived until 170 A.D.

The next two kings, Siva Sri and Siva Skanda, who are said to have reigned each for seven years, seem to have been brothers of Pulumayi II. Nothing is known about them, except that the former struck some rude leaden coins in his eastern provinces.

The most important and powerful of the last seven kings of the dynasty evidently was Yajna Sri, who reigned from 184 to 213 A.D. for twenty-nine years. His rare silver coins, imitating the satrap coinage, certainly prove a renewal of relations with the western satraps, and probably point to unrecorded conquests. It would seem that Yajna Sri must have renewed the struggle in which Pulumayi II had been worsted, and recovered some of the provinces lost by that prince. The silver coins would then have been struck for circulation in the conquered districts, just as similar coins were minted by Chandragupta Vikramaditya when he finally Shattered the power of the Saka satraps. The numerous and varied, although rude, bronze and leaden coins of Yajna Sri, which formed the currency of the eastern provinces, confirm the testimony of inscriptions by which the prolonged duration of his reign is attested. Some pieces bearing the figure of a ship probably should be referred to this reign, and suggest the inference that Yajna Sri’s power was not confined to the land.

His successors, Vijaya, Vada Sri, and Pulumayi III, with whom the long series of Andhra kings came to

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an end about 236 A.D., are mere names; but the real existence of Vada Sri is attested by the discovery of a few leaden coins bearing his name. Research will probably detect coins struck by both his next predecessor and immediate successor.

The testimony of the Puranas that the dynasty endured for 456½ years, or, in round numbers, four centuries and a half, appears to be accurate. The number of the kings also appears to be correctly stated as having been either thirty or thirty-one.

At present nothing is known concerning the causes which brought about the downfall of this dynasty, which had succeeded in retaining power for a period so unusually prolonged. The fall of the Andhras happens to coincide very closely with the death of Vasudeva, the last of the great Kushan kings of Northern India, as well as with the rise of the Sasanian dynasty of Persia (226 A.D.), and it is possible that the coincidence may not be merely fortuitous. But the third century A.D. is one of the dark spaces in the spectrum of Indian history, and almost every event of that time is concealed from view by an impenetrable veil of oblivion. Vague speculation, unchecked by the salutary limitations of verified fact, is, at the best, unprofitable, and so we must be content to let the Andhras pass away in the darkness.


2. Dowson, Classical Dict., s. v. Asvamedha.

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