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HOME : Asian Art : Art of India : Shunga period carved bone
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Shunga period carved bone - CB.2942
Origin: India
Circa: 187 BC to 73 BC
Dimensions: 7.9" (20.1cm) high x 1.5" (3.8cm) wide
Style: Shunga period
Medium: Bone

Location: Great Britain
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The Shunga Empire, a geographically extensive Iron Age historical power, was an ancient Indian dynasty from the kingdom of Magadha, in southern Bihar, that controlled areas of the central and eastern Indian subcontinent from around 187 to 73 BC. The dynasty was founded and established by Pushyamitra Shunga, the first ruler of the Shunga Empire in East India, after the fall and replacement of the Maurya Empire. Pushyamitra assassinated the last Mauryan ruler at a military parade and assumed the royal power. Pushyamitra was a Brahman, and, though he is said to have persecuted Buddhists, Buddhism still flourished in many areas under his control. Most of the traditional accounts of Pushyamitra’s reign are late in date. According to these, his rule extended over various cities with the Mauryan system of administering the provinces through princes of royal blood continuing as previously, and royal power tending to decentralize in the form of the establishment of nuclear kingdoms within the empire. Pushyamitra conducted several campaigns against the Indo-Greeks Yavanas, who were also trying during this same period to expand from Bactria into northwestern India. The history of the Shunga empire after Pushyamitra, who ruled for roughly 36 years, is largely uncertain and nothing truly substantial is known about his son and successor, Agnimitra. According to the Puranas, the sacred Hindu writings, and if the Puranic account is to be believed, the total tenure of Shunga rule was about 112 years, coming to an end about 73 BC. There were ten Shunga rulers. However, after the death of Agnimitra, the second king of the dynasty, the empire rapidly disintegrated: inscriptions and coins indicate that much of northern and central India consisted of small kingdoms and city-states that were independent of any Shunga hegemony. The dynasty is noted for its numerous wars with both foreign and indigenous powers. Art, education, philosophy, and other forms of learning flowered during this period including small terracotta images, larger stone sculptures, and architectural monuments such as the stupa at Bharhut, and the renowned Great Stupa at Sanchi. Shunga rulers helped to establish the tradition of royal sponsorship of learning and art. The script used by the empire was a variant of Brahmi script and was used to write Sanskrit. The Shunga Empire played an imperative role in patronizing culture at a time when some of the most important developments in Hindu thought were taking place.  Artistry also progressed with the rise of the Mathura art style. Ivory, myrrh, frankincense and textiles of muslin has been the legendary merchandise traded between India and the ancient world. Among these products, the fame of Indian carvings has retained its fame until today, the main reason being that it is one art form that has enjoyed continuous prestige based on the traditional skill and the established practice of generations of professional carvers. Before the 1st. century BC., surviving carved items in bone and ivory are mainly of a utilitarian and decorative nature, mostly related to the domestic sphere, as in kohl sticks, hairpins, combs, chess gamesmen and similar mostly functional objects. Though, despite the rather limited archaeological evidence, ancient Indian literature , both in Sanskrit and as well as in Prakrit, reveal the esteem in which the art of carving was held in ancient India, with a good number of texts abound with descriptions of costly furniture, especially manufactured for the nobility and the courtiers. From recent archaeological finds it is obvious that the Shunga's empire aesthetic canons and iconographic models influenced the artistic traditions of all neighbouring countries. Shunga period culture, regardless of all the undeniably and inevitably borrowings from previous traditions, was essentially indigenous in character and set the norms for subsequent developments. During the Shunga period, the sensuality with which the human form was represented was further enhanced with a particular awareness of the human anatomy and of the animal forms, with camel bone and walrus bone been carved into combs and jewellery mounted in silver. The refined technique acquired through centuries of practicing the art of carving, produced sophisticated and graceful pieces which are still highly sought after, due to their rarity. This splendid carved objects could have been part of a furniture, on a throne’s armrest or backrest, or it could equally have been the handle of a tool, such as a fan. In spite of it’s rather reduced dimensions, being only 7,9 inches long and 1,5 inches wide, there are seven full length human figures carved on the surface of the object, in two registers. On the upper register two male figures and two female figures, alternatively represented by sex, all of them richly adorned with elaborate coiffures and headdresses, series of neclaces, bracelets and ankle bangles, the textiles carved in a way as to appear beautifully transparent, revealing the curvaceous body forms. On the lower register three male figures are seen carrying a killed deer upside-down on a long cane, in the presence of what looks like either a small dog or a baby boar, with three rosettes filling the gap left above the two animals. The men are again elaborately dressed and richly adorned. This is a splendid example of the minor arts of the period, executed with impeccable finesse. - (CB.2942)


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