Gupta Empire

chanderggupta, samudrgupta

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Sources of Gupta Empire

There are plenty of source materials to reconstruct the history of the Gupta period.

They include

literary,

epigraphical

numismatic sources.

The Puranasthrow light on the royal genealogy of the Gupta kings.

Contemporary literary works like the Devichandraguptam and the Mudhrakshasamwritten 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 Meherauli Iron Pillar Inscription  refers to the achievements of Chandragupta I 

Allahabad Pillar inscription

The most important source for the reign of Samudragupta .

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 and 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 is 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

  1. Against some rulers of North India
  2. His famous Dakshinapatha expedition against South Indian
    rulers
  3. 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.

  1. They were Mahendra of Kosala,
  2. Vyaghraraja of Mahakanthara,
  3. Mantaraja of Kaurala,
  4. Mahendragiri of Pishtapura,
  5. Swamidatta of Kottura,
  6. Damana of Erandapalla,
  7. Vishnugupta of Kanchi,
  8. Nilaraja of Avamukta,
  9. Hastivarman of Vengi,
  10. Ugrasena of Palakka,
  11. Kubera of Devarashtra and
  12. 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.

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 government’s resources.

After Skandagupta’s death, many of hissuccessors 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.

Gupta Administration

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 commanderin- chief of the army and other important officials.

A high official called Sandivigraha 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 characterises 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.

Social Life of Gupta Empire

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 the early marriage for girls.

Brahmanism during Gupta Empire

In the sphere of religion, Brahmanism reigned supreme during the Gupta period.

It had two branches – Vaishnavism and Saivism. Most of the Gupta kings were Vaishnavaites. 

They performed Aswamedha 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 of Gupta Empire

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 during Gupta’s Empire

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 specimen 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 Saranath was unique piece of Gupta art.

The Bhitari monolithic pillar of Skandagupta is also remarkable. Metallurgy had also made a 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.

Literature of Gupta Empire

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 remain 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 Kritarjuniya 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 Vishnusarma 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 Mahabharatha and the Ramayana were given final touches and written in the present form during this period.

Science during Gupta Empire

The Gupta period witnessed a brilliant activity in the sphere of mathematics, astronomy, astrology and medicine.

Aryabhatta was a great mathematician and astronomer. He wrote the book Aryabhatiya in 499 A.D.

 It deals with mathematics and astronomy. It explains scientifically the occurrence of solar and lunar eclipses.

Aryabhatta 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 Brihadjataka 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 Ashtangasamgraha (Summary of the eight branches of medicine).

MODEL QUESTIONS

Choose the correct answer.

1. The Gupta era starts from the year

(a) 310 A.D.

(b) 320 A.D.

(c) 330 A.D.

(d) 300 A.D.

2. The founder of the Nalanda University

(a) Samudragupta

(b) Chandragupta II

(c) Kumaragupta

 (d) Skandagupta

3. The physician who lived during the Gupta age

(a) Varahamihira

(b) Vagbatha

(c) Charaka

(d) Susruta

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