Everything You Need To Know About Post Mauryan Period

Post Mauryan Period: Shunga, Kanva Dynasties & More [UPSC Notes]

Post Mauryan Period

The period from 200 BCE onwards is known as Post-Mauryan Period. It did not witness a large empire like the Mauryas but is known for its intimate contact between Central Asia and India.

      • Soon after Ashoka’s death, several small kingdoms declared independence. Then, the empire finally ended with the assassination of the last Mauryan King, Brihadratha, by Pushyamitra Sunga, the Mauryan army chief.
      • Mauryans were succeeded by Shungas, Kanvas and Satvahanas in central and South India.
      • Further, North-western India experienced several Central Asian Invasions by Indo-Greeks of Bactria, Sakas, Parthians and Kushanas.

    1. The Shunga Dynasty (185 BCE to 73 BCE)

    Pushyamitra Shunga (185BCE to 149BCE)

    Pushyamitra Shunga established the Shunga dynasty. He was initially a Mauryan army chief who assassinated the last Maurya King, Brihadratha, in 180 BC and usurped the throne of Patliputra.

    This overthrow is considered a Brahminical reaction to the enormous patronage given to Buddhism by Mauryans. The Ashokavadana tells us about the damage done to the Sanchi stupa and other structures by Pushyamitra Sunga.

    The Sunga territories comprised the Ganga valley and northern India, extending up to the Narmada in the south.

    Everything You Need To Know About Post Mauryan Period

    Bharut Scultpure, 2nd cent BCE

      • Pushyamitra had to defend his territories against the Greek invaders from Bactria (North Afghanistan), who entered the Indian plains. It seems that both powers had competed for the Punjab Plains around modern-day Sialkot.

      Everything You Need To Know About Post Mauryan Period

        • Pushyamitra Shunga was succeeded by his son Agnimitra. We know him from Kalidasa’s 4th century CE novel Malvikagnimitram, portraying him as the Hero. Unlike his father, he was a patron of Buddhism and reconstructed the Sanchi stupa and made his own additions to the structure.

        • Heliodorus, the Greek ambassador, erected a Garuda pillar at Besnagar, near Vidisha, during the rule of the Sunga dynasty.

        • Patanjali, the writer of Yogsutras, was a contemporary of Pushyamitra.

        2. Kanva Dynasty (72 BCE–28 BCE)

          • According to Harshcharita, Devbhuti, the last King of the Shunga dynasty, was murdered by his minister Vasudeva, and Vasudeva become the founder of Kanva dynasty. They ruled over Magadha.

          • In the Deccan, Andhras overthrew them, and the Satvahan dynasty was established.

          • In north India, they were succeeded by lesser-known smaller kingdoms such as Mitras of Kaushambi.

          Impact of Shunga and Kanva rule:

            1. Hinduism was revived and with that varna system also got a new lease of life.

            2. Sanskrit gained prominence, and eventually, even Buddhist texts started being composed in Sanskrit.

            3. In ancient Punjab and the adjoining territories, “tribal” or Gana-sangha polities, which had been subsumed under the Mauryan empire, resurfaced

            4. The Audambaras, Arjunayanas, Yaudheyas, Kunindas and Malavas, among others, were some of the important independent principalities that emerged after the fall of the Shunga and Kanva dynasties.

            5. Both of these kingdoms followed the Administrative systems introduced by the Mauryans. 

            Punch Marked Coins Of Shunga Dynasty

            3. The Indo Greeks

              • They were the first to cross the Hindukush in the series of invasions that started in about 200 BCE.

              • They ruled over Bactria in north Afghanistan, pushed by the Scythian tribe; the Bactrian Greeks were forced to invade India. Indian literary sources refer to them as Yavanas, and their kings are known largely from their coins.

              • The Yavanaraja inscription notes, in the 116th year of the Yavana era, the donation of a water well and tank to the community in the 1st century BCE. This tells us about the Yavana rule and an ancient Yavana calendar.

              • Two great dynasties- Demetrius and Eucratides– simultaneously ruled over north-western India.

              • Menander (165-145 BCE), the successor of Demetrius, was the most famous Indo-Greek ruler. He had his capital at Sakala (Sialkot) in Punjab and invaded the Ganga-Yamuna doab. He is also known by the name Milinda, and he was converted to Buddhism by Nagasena.

              • The Greeks failed to establish a consolidated rule in India. After Menander’s death, the political influence of the Indo-Greeks waned. However, they hold an important place in Indian history.

              Impact of Indo-Greeks:

                • Indo-Greek Coins: IndoGreeks were the first to mint gold coins in India, which increased in number during the Kushans. Unlike punch-marked coins used at that time (by Mauryans), they minted their coins, which were definitely attributed to the kings.

                Indo Greek Coins

                  • The Satrapy system: The Indo-Greeks also introduced the practice of military governorship, and the Governors were called strategos/satraps.

                  • Spice Trade through central Asia started before the Mauryan times and developed during the Indo-Greeks. Pepper was in such demand that it was known as Yavanapriya(meaning “Adorned by the Greeks”).

                  • Hellenistic art: IndoGreeks introduced Hellenistic art in the north-western front of India, a synthesis of Greek, Roman and Indian art; Gandhara art was the best example.

                  Gandhara Art Of Buddha

                  Buddha Head, Taxila (NCERT: An introduction to Indian Art)

                  4. Central Asian Contacts

                  Various Central Asian tribes such as the Shakas, Parthians and Yuezhis migrated towards India 1st Century BCE onwards and eventually established a territory.

                  Everything You Need To Know About Post Mauryan Period

                  Saka Dynasty (Sakas)

                    • The IndoScythians, or Saka Dynasty (Sakas), followed the Greeks, who controlled a much larger part of India than the Indo-Greeks. The Shaka were initially Steppe tribes, pushed by the Yuezhi tribes southwards. They formed a part of the Parthian Empire in Persia.

                    • They entered India through the Bolan Pass in several waves and established a territory in western India. 

                    Saka Dynasty Map

                      • Initially, Shakas contested the Area of Mathura and Ujjain with Satvahanas and Magadha, respectively. In about 57BCE, Shakas were defeated by a king of Ujjain, who called himself Vikramaditya. He commemorated this victory by introducing the Vikrama Calendar. 

                      • Later on, when pushed by the Indo-Parthians and the Kushanas, Shakas Satrapies consolidated themselves in different areas.

                      • There were five branches of Sakas, spread over different parts of India:

                        The Political system of Shakas:

                          • The political system, as it emerges, appears to be a confederation of (“tribal”/clan) chieftains headed by the Saka kings.

                          • The Kshatrapas and Mahakshatrapas were the provincial governors appointed by the King. Shakas adopted this Kshatrapa/Satrapa system from Indo-Greeks.

                          • Despite establishing in different parts of the country, only the Western Satraps held power for a considerable time(for four centuries).

                          • The chieftains and governors seem to have exercised a considerable degree of autonomy or independence within such a system.

                          • The assertion of independence by the local kshatrapas led to the waning of Saka power in the early part of the first century AD. 

                          • Maues or Moga was the first Saka king in India.

                          • Rudradaman I (130-150 AD) came to be the most famous Saka ruler.
                              • The Junagarh Inscription mentions that Rudradaman-I repaired the famous Sudarshan Lake in Kathiawar. It is the first ever long inscription found in Sanskrit. It mentions the history of Sudarshana lake and that it was an artificial lake constructed by a Governor of Chandragupta Maurya named Vaishya Pushyagupta. Later, a few canals were built by Ashoka and the Greek king Tusapha.

                              • Rudradaman fought many battles with Satvahanas. A brief period of peace was only established after Rudradaman married his daughter to Satvahana king Vashisthiputra Satkarni. This fact is mentioned in the Kanheri Inscription of Rudradaman.

                            Rudradaman- 1St In Coin
                            Source: Wikimedia Commons

                                • Their matrimonial alliances led to their integration into Indian society.

                              Indo Parthians

                                • The Parthians, or Pahalavas, originally ruled Persia in the 1st century BCE. They initially took control of the areas west of Indus while subjugating the other tribes, such as Shakas, ruling in parallel times.

                                • Eventually, Shakas established a territory in western India. After which, a branch of Parthians too invaded India and established the Indo-Parthians Empire.

                                • The most famous IndoParthian King was Gondophernes(19CE – 46CE), during whose reign St. Thomas is said to have come to India for the proliferation of Christianity.

                                Indo-Parthians Region -Map

                                Kushan Dynasty (Kushanas)

                                  • Kushanas were one of the five clans of the Yuechis/Tocharian tribe, a nomadic tribe from the Steppes of north central Asia. They had already pushed Shakas and Parthians out of central Asia over many years.

                                  • Kujula Kadphises (30-80 CE) organized the five tribes and marched toward India, and established a territory.

                                  • Kanishka (127–147 CE) succeeded the house of Kadphise. He is the most famous Kushana ruler. We know about his territories from the Rabatak Inscription in North Afghanistan.

                                  • It was previously believed that he adopted the Saka Calender in 78 AD, which the government of India now uses. However, historians today believe it to be wrong.

                                  Kanishka'S Empire - Kushan Dysnasty (Yuezhi Tribe)

                                    • According to the Rabatak Inscription, Kanishka’s empire extended from the Oxus (north Afghanistan) in the west to Patliputra in the east and from Kashmir in the north to Sanchi in the south; with Mathura occupying the position of the second capital. Purushapura (Peshawar) was the imperial capital.

                                    • They, too, like their predecessors, followed the Kshatrapa system for appointing governors for each region.

                                    • Kushan rulers accepted the prevalent Indian and Chinese concept of the divinity of kingship.

                                    • He patronized Buddhism and is presumed to have hosted the fourth Buddhist council in the 1st century CE. He also patronized art and Sanskrit literature.

                                    • The early Kushana kings issued gold coins with a higher degree of metallic purity than in the Gupta age. The reverse of the Kushana coins bears Indian (Hindu and Buddhist), Greek and Persian symbols and deities, indicating their syncretic religious ideology.

                                    • Major luminaries of his age: 
                                          • At this time, Charaka wrote his Charaka Samhita and contributed immensely to Ayurveda. Charak Samhita is best noted for its formulas for preparing major compositions such as Chyavanprash.  

                                          • Buddhist scholar Ashvaghosh, the founder of the Madhyamika school (Mahayana Buddhism), is said to have found a place in Kanishka’s court.

                                      • The Kushan empire in Afghanistan and the west of India was supplanted in the mid-third century by the Sassanian Empire, which arose in Iran. However, Kushan principalities in India continued to exist for about a century.

                                      Impacts of Central Asian Contacts

                                      1. Military influences

                                          • The Shakas and Kushanas introduced better cavalry and the use of riding a horse on a large scale.

                                          • They also popularized the use of reins and saddles, and toe-stirrup, which facilitated their movement.

                                        2. Cultural Influence:

                                            • Kushans also introduced tunics, trousers, long coats, caps, helmets and long boots, which gave them an advantage over their adversaries. 

                                            • The coming of central Asian people established intimate contacts between central Asia and India.

                                          3. Trade and Agriculture

                                              • The Kushans controlled the Silk route, which began from China and passed through the empire in Central Asia and Afghanistan to Iran and West Asia. This route was a great source of income for them because of the toll levied upon the traders. 

                                              • The Altai Mountains in Central Asia provided a significant amount of gold to India.

                                              • The Kushans also promoted agriculture. The earliest archaeological traces of irrigation in parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Western Central Asia belong to this period.

                                            4. Polity and administration

                                                • Introduction of Feudalism: The central Asian conquerors started imposing their role on numerous petty native princes, which led to the development of a feudatory organization. Kushans adopted the grandeur title of ‘King of kings, ‘ indicating their supremacy over numerous small princes who paid tributes.

                                                • Military Governorship: The Indo-Greeks introduced the practice of military governorship wherein they appointed their governors, Strategos.

                                                • “Satrap system” of government – The empires were divided into several satrapies, each under the rule of a Satrap or a governor, having a right to keep an army. Satrap system was essentially a feudal system, first adopted in Persia under the Achaemenid empire (6th-5th century BCE).

                                                • Divine Kings: The Saka and Kushana rulers strengthened the idea of the divine origin of kingship; they called themselves sons of god.

                                                • Hereditary dual rule – where two kings ruled in the same kingdom at the same time was introduced. So we hear of father and son ruling jointly.

                                              5. Religious Developments

                                                  • Adoption of Indian religions: For example, Greek ruler Menander(or Milinda) became a Buddhist. The book Milindpanho contains the compilation of questions and answers Menander exchanged with his teacher Nagasena, after which he converted to Buddhism.  

                                                  • The era of Religious peace: The Kushan rulers worshipped both Shiva and Buddha, and the images of these gods appeared on their coins. Some of them worshipped Vishnu as well.

                                                  • Origin of Mahayana Buddhism: The influx of central Asians led to fundamental changes in Buddhism, such as the acceptance of Idol worship. This led to the development of the Mahayana form of Buddhism, for whom Kushans were great patrons.

                                                  • The earliest form of Bhakti: We find the earliest mention of Krishna Vasudeva in this time. Heliodorus, the Greek ambassador to Shungas, erected a Garuda pillar at Besnagar, near Vidisha. The pillar venerated Vasudeva, who is referred to as the deva-deva (God of the Gods). Some Kushana kings even adopted the name ‘Vasudeva’ and converted to Vaishnavism.

                                                Imitation Of Vsudeva-1St Gold Coin Lord Vadudeva In The Rear

                                                6. Development of Schools of Art 

                                                    • During Kushana rule, several schools of art emerged, like Central Asian, Gandhara and Mathura. Sculptures from central Asia show the synthesis of local and Indian elements under the influence of Buddhism.

                                                    • The synthesis of different art forms gave rise to a new kind of art in which images of Buddha were made in the Graeco-Roman style.

                                                    • Mathura school produced beautiful Buddha images in red sandstone, but it is also famous for the Headless statue of Kanishka with its name inscribed on its lower part. It also produced several statues of Mahavira. However, its pre-Gupta sculptures and inscriptions ignore Krishna.

                                                  Central Asian Influence On Indian Sculpture Art

                                                  7. Literature and learning 

                                                      • The foreign rulers from central Asia patronized and cultivated the Sanskrit language. The Junagarh inscription of Rudradaman I, the Saka king, is the earliest example of Sanskrit kavya. It mentions that he repaired the famous Sudarshan Lake in Kathiawar.

                                                      • Ashvaghosha, the writer of Buddhacharita and the founder of Mahayana, was patronized by Kushanas. The promotion of Mahayana Buddhism led to the composition of Avadanas such as Mahavastu and Divyavandana.

                                                      • The Greeks’ introduction of the Curtain (Yavanika) led to the development of Indian theatre.

                                                      • Secular literature like Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra was developed during this period.

                                                    8. Science and technology

                                                        • In post-Maurya times Indian astrology and astronomy profited from the contact with the Greeks.

                                                        • Scholars like Charaka and Sushruta also dealt with subjects like Medicine, Botony and chemistry.

                                                        • The practice of making leather shoes probably started during this period. Kanishka is represented as wearing trousers and long boots.

                                                        • The copper and gold coins struck by Kushanas were a good imitation of Roman coins.

                                                        • Foreign practices especially influenced glassmaking.


                                                      The Post Mauryan period marked a significant phase in Indian history, characterized by political fragmentation and the emergence of diverse dynasties like the Shungas, Kanvas, Indo-Greeks, Sakas, Indo-Parthians, and Kushans. This era saw a rich cultural and economic exchange due to increased interactions with the outside world, leading to advancements in art, architecture, and trade. Despite the political upheavals, this period laid the groundwork for the flourishing of classical Indian civilization, showcasing resilience and adaptability amidst change.

                                                      Explore additional significant articles on Ancient Indian History listed in the table below:

                                                      Stone Age Harappan Civilisation
                                                      Vedic Period The Mahajanapadas
                                                      Age of Satvahanas Understanding Mauryan Society
                                                      The Gupta Empire Megalith and Sangam Age

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