There are plenty of source materials to reconstruct the history of the Gupta period. They include literary, epigraphical and numismatic sources. The Puranas throw light on the royal genealogy of the Gupta kings. Contemporary literary works like the Devichandraguptam and the Mudhrakshasam written by Visakadatta provide information regarding the rise of the Guptas. The Chinese traveler Fahien, who visited India during the reign of Chandragupta II, has left a valuable account of the social, economic and religious conditions of the Gupta empire. Apart from these literary sources, there are inscriptions like the Mehrauli Iron Pillar Inscription and the Allahabad Pillar inscription. The first refers to the achievements of Chandragupta I. The most important source for the reign of Samudragupta is the Allahabad Pillar inscription. It describes his personality and achievements. This inscription is engraved on an Asokan pillar. It is written in classical Sanskrit, using the Nagari script. It consists of 33 lines composed by Harisena. It describes the circumstances of Samudragupta’s accession, his military campaigns in north India and the Deccan, his relationship with other contemporary rulers, and his accomplishments as a poet and scholar.
The coins issued by Gupta kings contain legends and figures. These coins provide interesting details about the titles and sacrifices performed by the Gupta monarchs.
Chandragupta I (320 – 330 A.D.)
The founder of the Gupta dynasty was Sri Gupta. He was succeeded by Ghatotkacha. These two were called Maharajas. Much information was not available about their rule. The next ruler was Chandragupta I and he was the first to be called Maharajadhiraja (the great king of kings). This title indicates his extensive conquests. He strengthened his position by a matrimonial alliance with the Licchavis. He married Kumaradevi, a princess of that family. This added to the power and prestige of the Gupta family. The Meherauli Iron Pillar inscription mentions his extensive conquests. Chandragupta I am considered to be the founder of the Gupta era which starts with his accession in A.D. 320.
Samudragupta (330-380 A.D.)
Samudragupta was the greatest of the rulers of the Gupta dynasty. The Allahabad Pillar inscription provides a detailed account of his reign. It refers to three stages in his military campaign:
- Against some rulers of North India
- His famous Dakshinapatha expedition against South Indian rulers
- A second campaign against some other rulers of North India.
In the first campaign Samudragupta defeated Achyuta and Nagasena. Achyuta was probably a Naga ruler. Nagasena belonged to the Kota family which was ruling over the upper Gangetic valley. They were defeated and their states were annexed. As a result of this short campaign, Samudragupta had gained complete mastery over the upper Gangetic valley. Then Samudragupta marched against the South Indian monarchs. The Allahabad Pillar inscription mentions that Samudragupta defeated twelve rulers in his South Indian Expedition. They were Mahendra of Kosala, Vyaghraraja of Mahakanthara, Mantaraja of Kaurala, Mahendragiri of Pishtapura, Swamidatta of Kottura, Damana of Erandapalla, Vishnugupta of Kanchi, Nilaraja of Avamukta, Hastivarman of Vengi, Ugrasena of Palakka, Kubera of Devarashtra and Dhananjaya of Kushtalapura. Samudragupta’s policy in South India was different. He did not destroy and annex those kingdoms. Instead, he defeated the rulers but gave them back their kingdoms. He only insisted on them to acknowledge his suzerainty.
The third stage of Samudragupta’s campaign was to eliminate his remaining north Indian rivals. He fought against nine kings, uprooted them and annexed their territories. They were Rudradeva, Matila, Nagadatta, Chandravarman, Ganapathinaga, Nagasena, Achyuta, Nandin and Balavarman. Most of these rulers were members of the Naga family, then ruling over different parts of north India.
After these military victories, Samudragupta performed the asvamedha sacrifice. He issued gold and silver coins with the legend ‘restorer of the asvamedha’. It is because of his military achievements Samudragupta was hailed as ‘Indian Napoleon’.
Extent of Samudragupta’s Empire
After these conquests, Samudragupta’s rule extended over the upper Gangetic valley, the greater part of modern U.P., a portion of central India and the southwestern part of Bengal. These territories were directly administered by him. In the south there were tributary states. The Saka and Kushana principalities on the west and northwest were within the sphere of his influence. The kingdoms on the east coast of the Deccan, as far as the Pallava Kingdom, acknowledged his suzerainty.
Estimate of Samudragupta
Samudragupta’s military achievements remain remarkable in the annals of history. He was equally great in his other personal accomplishments. The Allahabad Pillar inscription speaks of his magnanimity to his foes, his polished intellect, his poetic skill and his proficiency in music. It calls him Kaviraja because of his ability in composing verses. His image depicting him with Veena is found in the coins issued by him. It is the proof of his proficiency and interest in music. He was also a patron of many poets and scholars, one of whom was Harisena. Thus, he must be credited with a share in the promotion of Sanskrit literature and learning, characteristic of his dynasty. He was an ardent follower of Vaishnavism but was tolerant of other creeds. He evinced keen interest in Buddhism and was the patron of the great Buddhist scholar Vasubandu.
Chandragupta II (380-415 A.D.)
Samudragupta was succeeded by his son Chandragupta II Vikramaditya. But according to some scholars, the immediate successor of Samudragupta was Ramagupta, the elder brother of Chandragupta II. But there is little historical proof for this. Chandragupta II inherited the military genius of his father and extended the Gupta Empire by his own conquests. He achieved this by a judicious combination of the policy of diplomacy and warfare. Through matrimonial alliances he strengthened his political power. He married Kuberanaga, a Naga princess of central India. He gave his daughter Prabhavati in marriage to the Vakataka prince Rudrasena II. The political importance of this marriage lies in the fact that the Vakatakas occupied a geographically strategic position in the Deccan. This alliance served a useful purpose when Chandragupta-II undertook his campaign in western India against the Sakas.
Conquest of Western India
The greatest of the military achievements of Chandragupta II was his war against the Saka satraps of western India. Rudrasimha III, the last ruler of the Saka satrap was defeated, dethroned and killed. His territories in western Malwa and the Kathiawar Peninsula were annexed into the Gupta Empire. After this victory he performed the horse sacrifice and assumed the title Sakari, meaning, ‘destroyer of Sakas’. He also called himself Vikramaditya as a result of the conquest of western India, the western boundary of the Empire reached to the Arabian Sea gaining access to Broach, Sopara, Cambay and other sea ports. This enabled the Gupta empire to control trade with the western countries. Ujjain became an important commercial city and soon became the alternative capital of the Guptas. The fine cotton clothes of Bengal Indigo from Bihar, silk from Banares, the scents of the Himalayas and the sandal and species from the south were brought to these ports without any interference. The western traders poured Roman gold into India in return for Indian products. The great wealth of the Gupta Empire was manifest in the variety of gold coins issued by Chandragupta II.
Chandragupta II defeated a confederacy of enemy chiefs in Vanga. He also crossed the river Sindh and conquered Bactria. The Kushanas ruling in this region were subdued by him. With these conquests, the Gupta empire extended in the west as far as western Malwa, Gujarat and Kathiawar. In the northwest it extended beyond the Hindukush up to Bactria. In the east, it included even eastern Bengal and in the south the Narmada river formed the boundary.
The famous Chinese pilgrim, Fahien visited India during the reign of Chandragupta II. Out of his nine years stay in India, he spent six years in the Gupta empire. He came to India by land route through Khotan, Kashgar, Gandhara and Punjab. He visited Peshawar, Mathura, Kanauj, Sravasti, Kapilavastu, Kusinagara, Pataliputra, Kasi and Bodh Gaya among other places. He returned by the sea route, visiting on the way to Ceylon and Java. The main purpose of his visit was to see the land of the Buddha and to collect Buddhist manuscripts from India. He stayed in Pataliputra for three years studying Sanskrit and copying Buddhist texts. Fahien provides valuable information on the religious, social and economic condition of the Gupta empire. According to him, Buddhism was in a flourishing condition in northwestern India but in the Gangetic valley it was in a state of neglect. He refers to the Gangetic valley as the ‘land of Brahmanism’. Fahien mentions the unsatisfactory state of some of the Buddhist holy places like Kapilavastu and Kusinagara. According to him the economic condition of the empire was prosperous.
Although his account is valuable in many respects, he did not mention the name of Chandragupta II. He was not interested in political affairs. His interest was primarily religion. He assessed everything from the Buddhist angle. His observations on social conditions are found to be exaggerated. Yet, his accounts are useful to know the general condition of the country. Estimate of Chandragupta II the power and glory of Gupta empire reached its peak under the rule Chandragupta II Vikramaditya. He also contributed to the general cultural progress of the age and patronized great literary figures like Kalidasa. He promoted artistic activity. Because of the high level of cultural progress that was achieved during this period, the Gupta period is generally referred to as a golden age. A detailed account of the cultural progress in the Gupta age is given below.
Successors of Chandragupta II
Kumaragupta was the son and successor of Chandragupta II. His reign was marked by general peace and prosperity. He issued a number of coins and his inscriptions are found all over the Gupta empire. He also performed an asvamedha sacrifice. Most importantly, he laid the foundation of the Nalanda University which emerged as an institution of international reputation. At the end of his reign, a powerful wealthy tribe called the ‘Pushyamitra’ defeated the Gupta army. A branch of the Huns from Central Asia made attempts to cross the Hindukush mountains and invade India. But it was his successor Skandagupta who really faced the Hun invasion. He fought successfully against the Huns and saved the empire. This war must have been a great strain on the government’s resources. After Skandagupta death, many of his successors like Purugupta, Narasimhagupta, Buddhagupta and Baladitya could not save the Gupta empire from the Huns. Ultimately, the Gupta power totally disappeared due to the Hun invasions and later by the rise of Yasodharman in Malwa.
According inscriptions, the Gupta kings assumed titles like Paramabhattaraka, Maharajadhiraja, Parameswara, Samrat and Chakravartin. The king was assisted in his administration by a council consisting of a chief minister, a Senapati or commander in-chief of the army and other important officials. A high official called Sandhi Vigraha was mentioned in the Gupta inscriptions, most probably minister for foreign affairs.
The king maintained a close contact with the provincial administration through a class of officials called Kumaramatyas and Ayuktas. Provinces in the Gupta Empire were known as Bhuktis and provincial governors as Uparikas. They were mostly chosen from among the princes. Bhuktis were subdivided into Vishyas or districts. They were governed by Vishyapatis. Nagara Sreshtis were the officers looking after the city administration. The villages in the district were under the control of Gramikas. Fahien’s account on the Gupta administration provides useful information. He characterizes the Gupta administration as mild and benevolent. There were no restrictions on people’s movements and they enjoyed a large degree of personal freedom. There was no state interference in the individual’s life. Punishments were not severe. Imposing a fine was a common punishment. There was no spy system. The administration was so efficient that the roads were kept safe for travelers, and there was no fear of thieves. He mentioned that people were generally prosperous and the crimes were negligible. Fahien had also appreciated the efficiency of the Gupta administration as he was able to travel without any fear throughout the Gangetic valley. On the whole the administration was more liberal than that of the Mauryas.
The pre-Gupta period in India witnessed a series of foreign invasions. Indian society had given way to those foreigners who had become permanent residents here. But during the Gupta period, the caste system became rigid. The Brahmins occupied the top ladder of the society. They were given enormous gifts by the rulers as well as other wealthy people. The practice of untouchability had slowly begun during this period. Fahien mentions that Chandalas were segregated from the society. Their miserable condition was elaborated by the Chinese traveler. The position of women had also become miserable during the Gupta period. They were prohibited from studying the religious texts like the Puranas. The subjection of women to men was thoroughly regularized. But it was insisted that they should be protected and generously treated by men. The practice of Swyamvara was given up and the Manusmriti suggested early marriage for girls. In the sphere of religion, Brahmanism reigned supreme during the Gupta period. It had two branches – Vaishnavism and Shaivism. Most of the Gupta kings were Vaishnavite. They performed Asvamedha sacrifices. The worship of images and celebration of religious festivals with elaborate rituals made these two religions popular. Religious literature like the Puranas was composed during this period. The progress of Brahmanism led to the neglect of Buddhism and Jainism. Fahien refers to the decline of Buddhism in the Gangetic valley. But a few Buddhist scholars like Vasubandhu were patronized by Gupta kings. In western and southern India Jainism flourished. The great Jain Council was held at Valabhi during this period and the Jain Canon of the Swetambras was written.
Art and Culture
The Gupta period witnessed a tremendous progress in the field of art, science and literature and on account of this it has been called “a golden age”. A few scholars even call this period a period of renaissance. But it should be remembered that there was no dark period before the Gupta rule. Therefore, the cultural progress witnessed during the Gupta period may be called the culmination of Indian intellectual activities.
Art and Architecture
In the history of Indian art and architecture, the Gupta period occupies an important place. Both the Nagara and Dravidian styles of art evolved during this period. But most of the architecture of this period had been lost due to foreign invasions like that of Huns. Yet, the remaining temples, sculptures and cave paintings provide an idea about the grandeur of the Gupta art. The temple at Deogarh near Jhansi and the sculptures in the temple at Garhwas near Allahabad remain important specimens of the Gupta art. There was no influence of Gandhara style. But the beautiful statue of standing Buddha at Mathura reveals a little Greek style. The Buddha statue unearthed at Sarnath was a unique piece of Gupta art. The Bhitari monolithic pillar of Skandagupta is also remarkable. Metallurgy had also made wonderful progress during the Gupta period. The craftsmen were efficient in the art of casting metal statues and pillars. The gigantic copper statue of Buddha, originally found at Sultanganj now kept at Birmingham museum, was about seven and a half feet height and nearly a ton weight. The Delhi Iron pillar of the Gupta period is still free from rust though completely exposed to sun and rain for so many centuries.
The paintings of the Gupta period are seen at Bagh caves near Gwalior. The mural paintings of Ajantha mostly illustrate the life of the Buddha as depicted in the Jataka stories. The paintings at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka were highly influenced by the Ajantha style. The Gupta coinage was also remarkable. Samudragupta issued eight types of gold coins. The legends on them throw much light on the achievements of that marvelous king. The figures inscribed on them are illustrative of the skill and greatness of Gupta numismatic art. Chandragupta II and his successors had also issued gold, silver and copper coins of different varieties.
The Sanskrit language became prominent during the Gupta period. Nagari script had evolved from the Brahmi script. Numerous works in classical Sanskrit came to be written in the forms of epic, lyrics, drama and prose. The best of the Sanskrit literature belonged to the Gupta age. Himself a great poet, Samudragupta patronized a number of scholars including Harisena. The court of Chandragupta II was adorned by the celebrated Navratnas. Kalidasa remains the foremost among them. His master-piece was the Sanskrit drama Shakuntala. It is considered one among the ‘hundred best books of the world’. He wrote two other plays – the Malavikagnimitra and Vikramorvasiya. His two well-known epics are Raghuvamsa and kumarasambhava. Ritusamhara and Meghaduta are his two lyrics. Visakadatta was another celebrated author of this period. He was the author of two Sanskrit dramas, Mudrarakshasa and Devichandraguptam. Sudraka was a renowned poet of this age and his book Mrichchakatika is rich in humour and pathos. Bharavi’s Kiratarjuniya is the story of the conflict between Arjuna and Siva. Dandin was the author of Kavyadarsa and Dasakumaracharita. Another important work of this period was Vasavadatta written by Subhandhu. The Panchatantra stories were composed by Vishnu Sharma during the Gupta period. The Buddhist author Amarasimha compiled a lexicon called Amarakosa. The Puranas in their present form were composed during this period. There are eighteen Puranas. The most important among them are the Bhagavatha, Vishnu, Vayu and Matsya Puranas. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana were given final touches and written in the present form during this period.
The Gupta period witnessed a brilliant activity in the sphere of mathematics, astronomy, astrology and medicine. Aryabhata was a great mathematician and astronomer. He wrote the book Aryabhata in 499 A.D. It deals with mathematics and astronomy. It explains scientifically the occurrence of solar and lunar eclipses. Aryabhata was the first to declare that the earth was spherical in shape and that it rotates on its own axis. However, these views were rejected by later astronomers like Varahamihira and Brahmagupta. Varahamihira composed Pancha Siddhantika, the five astronomical systems. He was also a great authority on astrology. His work Brihadsamhita is a great work in Sanskrit literature. It deals with a variety of subjects like astronomy, astrology, geography, architecture, weather, animals, marriage and omens. His Brihat Jataka is considered to be a standard work on astrology. In the field of medicine, Vagbhata lived during this period. He was the last of the great medical trio of ancient India. The other two scholars Charaka and Susruta lived before the Gupta age. Vagbhata was the author of Ashtangasamgraha (Summary of the eight branches of medicine).
- Module-1 Ancient India by NIOS
- India’s Ancient Past by RS Sharma
- Class-11 Tamil Nadu State Board History Book