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Sunga Empire

The Sunga Empire And Sunga Art, It Played An Important Role In Patronizing Art

The Sunga Empire (or Shunga Empire)

A Magadha dynasty that controlled North-central and Eastern India as well as parts of the northwest (now Pakistan) from around 185 to 73 B.C.E. It was established after the fall of the Indian Mauryan empire. The capital of the Sungas was Pataliputra. Later kings such as Bhagabhadra also held court at Vidisa, modern Besnagar in Eastern Malwa. It was replaced by the Kanva dynasty.

The Sunga dynasty was established by Pushyamitra Sunga in 2nd century, around 185 B.C, in Magadha and extended up to Malwa. The last king was Devabhuti who ruled between 83 and 73 B.C. The Sunga dynasty has many contributions. They were patrons of art and knowledge. They were culturally more aligned to Hinduism. The Patanjali yoga-sutras and Mahabhasya were composed during this period.


Sunga Art (pushyamitra sunga)

The Sunga empire played an important role in patronizing art. Bharhut, Bodhgaya and Sanchi bear evidence of the patronage received from the Sunga rulers. The gates and railings of the Bharhut stupa and the fine gateway railings which surround the Sanchi stupa are said to have been built during the Sunga period.

The Bharhut stupa at Madhya Pradesh from the Mauryan times saw the railings reconstructed by the Sunga dynasty;many parts of it are presently at museums in India. Additions like the railings and modifications to the Great stupa at Sanchi ,Madhya Pradesh(which was built under King Ashoka of the Mauryas), was also done under them. The decorations on the railings of the Bharhut stupa are ornate and depicted with yakshas, yakshis and Kubera, their leader. Medallions with floral patterns, busts of kings, Jataka tales and scenes from the life of the Buddha. The yakshas are depicted on the uprights. The art was executed over a period of time by different craftsmen and artisans from India. The style is a continuation of the Mauryan period. The human figures are seen wearing heavy and elaborate jewellery having metal beads.

A phenomenal spatial expansion of Buddhist monastic sites occurred from the second-first centuries BCE onwards.The period saw the flowering of visual arts including small terracotta images, larger stone sculptures and architectural monuments like the caitya hall at Bhaja, the stupa at Bharhut and the Great Stupa at Sanchi.


Sanchi buddhist monuments ( world heritage site)

Sanchi, variously known as Kakanaya, Kakanava, Kakanadabota and Bota-Sriparvata in ancient times, has a singular distinction of having remarkable specimen of Buddhist art and architecture right from the early Mauryan period (c. third century BC to twelth century AD). Sanchi is famous in the world for stupas, monolithic Asokan pillar, temples, monasteries and sculptural wealth.

It was Emperor Asoka who laid the foundation of a religious centre at Sanchi fascinated probably by the location of the hill or because of his Queen Devi, who was the daughter of a merchant of Vidisha. He erected the Great Stupa (Stupa 1) here after redistribution of mortal remains of Lord Buddha for erecting several stupas all over the country in order to spread Buddhism. This stupa was originally a low structure of brick, half the diameter of the present edifice hemispherical in shape with raised terraces at the base. It was enclosed by a wooden railing and a stone umbrella at the top. This Great Stupa served as a nucleus to the large Buddhist establishment during the later period.

The Sunga Empire (or Shunga Empire)

During Sunga times, several edifices were raised at Sanchi and its surrounding hills. The Asokan stupa was enlarged and faced with stones and decorated with balustrades, staircases and a harmika on the top.

In the first century BC the Andhra-Satavahanas, who had extended their sway over the eastern Malwa, caused the elaborately carved gateways to Stupa 1. The Great Stupa of Sanchi displays an austere grandeur and the exquisite carvings of the doorway depict in detail the significant episodes and miracles from Lord Buddha’s life and events depicted in the Buddhist Jataka stories.

miracles from Lord Buddha's life and events depicted in the Buddhist Jataka stories.

The reconstruction of Temple 40 and erection of Stupas 2 and 3 also seem to date back around the same time.The reconstruction of Temple 40 and erection of Stupas 2 and 3 also seem to date back around the same time.

From the second to fourth century AD Sanchi and Vidisha came under the Kushanas and Kshatrapas and subsequently passed on to the hands of the Guptas. During the Gupta period some temples were also built and sculptures were added displaying the classical grace and simplicity of the era. Further, statues of Lord Buddha seated in the canopies facing the four entrances of the Great Stupa were also added. Sanchi also flourished during the 7th – 12th centuries A.D. when shrines and monasteries were continued to be added. Thus Sanchi displays harmonious co-existence of Hindu and Buddhist faiths.

Since the fourteenth century Sanchi remained deserted and uncared for till 1818 when General Taylor rediscovered the site. Sir John Marshall established an archaeological museum in 1919, which was later transformed into the present site museum at Sanchi.

Presently under an UNESCO project Sanchi and Satdhara, a Buddhist site, 10 km south-east of Sanchi, is being further excavated, conserved and environmentally developed.

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Other buddhist monuments

Satdhara – a significant Buddhist site

Just 9 km from the UNSECO world heritage site of Sanchi Stupas, located Satdhara. A prominent Buddhist site that has stupas, chaitya and a rock shelter painted with a picture of Buddha figure belonging to Maurya and Gupta period. Interestingly, there were found some relic caskets containing the relics of Sariputra and Mahamauglayan in Stupa no.2. It is assumed that they were the celebrated disciples of Lord Buddha.


Murelkhurd – a settlement of around 37 stupas

Also known as the Bhojpur Stupas, the Murelkhurd Stupas are sited 11 km from Sanchi. It is a settlement of 37 stupas and two Buddhist temples. One of the temples was found with a Buddha figure. The stupas have adorned relic caskets with relics of Buddhist educators and senior disciples.


Andher – a site that overlooks the glorious Murelkhurd

We cannot move ahead without mentioning the phenomenal Andher stupas that are a group of six stupas perched atop a hill, 19 km from Sanchi in Raisen district. The site overlooks the magnificent Murelkhurd Stupas. Just like other Buddhist sites, stupas here also revealed the inscribed relic caskets but surprisingly all were empty.


The astonishing site of Sonari

Another Buddhist site that can be toured is Sonari, 25 km from Sanchi. It is again a complex of stupas comprising two large and five smaller stupas.


Saru Maru

Saru Maru is a monastic compound with Buddhist caves and stupas located 80 km from Bhopal and 52 km from the world heritage site known as Bhimbetka Rock Shelters which is famous for rock paintings and caves. Saru Maru has a number of stupas and natural caves where monks lived centuries ago. There can be seen many inscriptions and drawings inside the caves.


Deorkothar – once a centre of trade

Deorkothar is a beautiful reminder of Buddhist architecture located in Rewa district. There are over 40 remnants of stupas that can be seen at the site. The most important finding was an inscribed pillar referring the name of Acharya Dharmadeo and his three students Uttarmitra, Bhadra and Upaska who believed to have stayed here. The area around tells so many stories of old times through rock paintings. The things which were discovered from the site like terracotta toys, ear studs, beads suggest that Deorkothar must have been the active centre of trade in ancient times.


Gurjara pratiharas

If there is one dynasty in north India that has left a lasting imprint on the architectural style of the region than any other, it is the Gurjara-Pratiharas.

Morena was no exception. More than half of the great temples of Morena were built by the Gurjara-Pratiharas or inspired by their architectural style.


The Great Laboratory of Naresar

There is a group of around 22 temples in the Naresar village in Morena district. These temples were built in the 8th century by Yashovarman and Amaraj of Kannauj. Albeit built by independent rulers, the architecture of these temples belongs to the Pratihara style, the dominant style of the region. Hindu temple architecture witnessed great experimentation in the seventh century. The temples at Naresar exhibit the early stages of the nagara temples, with a precursory antarala, curvilinear shikhara, and a square plan. The site also hosts the first example of the Valabhi shikhara in India. Two of the earliest temples that are 1400 hundred years old have phamsana shikhara, (the pyramidal shikhara of successively decreasing pillars going up), popular in the early stages of Hindu temple architecture. They are similar to the Brahma temple at Khajuraho.

Half of the temples are situated beside a lake and the other temples are approached by descending a flight of steps to a cliff overhanging the Naresar valley of Morena.

Naresar TemplesMost of these temples consist of a garbha-griha and a narrow antarala inside the doorway. Some of the temples have the peculiar plan of a pancharatha jangha and triratha shikhara
Naresar Temples Most of these temples consist of a garbha-griha and a narrow antarala inside the doorway. Some of the temples have the peculiar plan of a pancharatha jangha and triratha shikhara


The jangha of the temples contains bhadra niches in pilasters and pediments. The doorways are the features to be marvelled at. The figures of Ganga and Yamuna along with chhatradharinis flank both sides of the door while other deities, surasundaris are on the three niches on both of the two pillars.

The lintel sometimes displays the saptamatrikas and Ganesha, and sometimes other deities. The main deity of the temple is generally carved in a central udgama niche on the lintel.

Naresar is such a wonderful site of Hindu architecture that it should be on the map of every enthusiast of Hindu architecture as well as the pilgrim or the average tourist.

However, as we remarked earlier in the series, the lamentable fact is that it is almost completely lost to the outside world. It is one of the hardest temple sites in Morena to visit, despite being just five kilometres from the main road.

From the highway, one has to turn to a dusty unpaved lane, and go through fields for about two kilometres. Parking the vehicle in jungle, one has then to hike through two hills, cross the riverbed of a seasonal river, go through still more fields, then through a lake, before one stumbles upon the breathtaking site of Naresar overhanging a cliff, overlooking the Naresar valley in Morena. And all this through dacoit-infested lands.

It is an immensely rewarding view and the temples are great works of art but except for a few courageous travellers, it is not possible to visit these sites. Unless the government builds better infrastructure, these sites will go to permanent ruin, as the mining activity in the area is already inflicting enough damage upon the temples.


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