The Sunga Empire (or Shunga Empire) is 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. The Sunga Empire is noted for its numerous wars with both foreign and indigenous powers although several kings patronized Buddhism. The Mathura school of art and the works of Patanjali colored North India during this empire. It was replaced by the Kanva dynasty.
The beginning of larger, centralized polities in India was largely in response to Alexander the Great’s invasion of 326. Following the Mauryan Empire, the task of protecting India from invasion and of securing stable governance fell to the Sunga dynasty for the next century. War is said to have characterized this period although the Sungas also engaged in diplomacy. Significant religious developments took place. Patanjali’s synthesis of the tradition of Yoga became the foundation of one of the Hindu “darshans” (schools of thought) and continues to enrich the lives of people all over the world. The Bhagavad Gita composed around about 150-100 B.C.E. is one of the most popular of all Hindu scriptures. Buddhists would later move out of India, as rulers began to identify more closely with Hinduism but early Sunga support may have enabled Buddhism to thrive long enough for the monks to complete their journey to more receptive areas. The Sunga Empire played an important role in patronizing Indian culture at a time when some of the most important developments in Hindu thought were taking place. The richness of India’s spiritual tradition, from which the whole world has gained insight, owes much to this period
Around 185 B.C., Pushyamitra Shunga, the principal military officer of the last Mauryan king, assassinated his ruler and assumed control. Because the Shungas were the successors to the Mauryans, the period following Mauryan rule is often called the Shunga period. However, except at the beginning, Shunga was not as extensive as the earlier realm but coexisted with other polities throughout the subcontinent. The period saw a flowering of the visual arts, including small terracotta images, larger stone sculptures, and architectural monuments such as the chaitya hall at Bhaja, the stupa at Bharhut, and the renowned Great Stupa at Sanchi. Under Shunga patronage, the core of the Great Stupa, thought to date from the era of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (r. ca. 273–232 B.C.), was enlarged to its present diameter of 120 feet, covered with a stone casing, topped with a balcony and umbrella, and encircled with a stone railing. Four famous gateways, each about thirty-five feet high, were carved during the first half of the first century A.D. Decorated with images of auspicious fertility spirits, known as yakshas and yakshis, the gateways also feature narratives depicting moments from the past lives and final existence of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. Motifs such as wheels, thrones, and footprints are used to symbolize the Buddha, who is not represented in human form until later.