The Gupta Empire stretched across northern, central and parts of southern India between c. 320 and 550 CE. The period is noted for its achievements in the arts, architecture, sciences, religion, and philosophy. Chandragupta I (320 – 335 CE) started a rapid expansion of the Gupta Empire and soon established himself as the first sovereign ruler of the empire. It marked the end of 500 hundred years of domination of the provincial powers and resulting disquiet that began with the fall of the Mauryas. Even more importantly, it began a period of overall prosperity and growth that continued for the next two and half centuries which came to be known as a “Golden Age” in India’s history. But the seed of the empire was sown at least two generations earlier than this when Srigupta, then only a regional monarch, set off the glory days of this mighty dynasty in circa 240 CE.
Gupta Period – Early Days to the Zenith
Not much is known about the early days of this Gupta dynasty. The travel diaries and writings of Buddhist monks who frequented this part of the world are the most trustworthy sources of information we have about those days. The travelogues of Fa Hien (Faxian, circa 337 – 422 CE), Hiuen Tsang (Xuanzang, 602 – 664 CE) and Yijing (I Tsing, 635 – 713 CE) prove to be invaluable in this respect. The Gupta Empire during the rule of Srigupta (circa 240 – 280 CE) comprised only Magadha and probably a part of Bengal too. Like the Mauryas and other Magadha kings who preceded him, Srigupta ruled from Pataliputra, close to modern day Patna. Srigupta was succeeded to the throne by his son Ghatotkacha (circa 280 – 319 CE).
From the Kushans, the Gupta kings learned the benefit of maintaining a cavalry and Chandragupta I, son of Ghatotkacha, made effective use of his strong army. Through his marriage with Licchhavi Princess Kumaradevi, Chandragupta I received the ownership of rich mines full of iron ore adjacent to his kingdom. Metallurgy was already at an advanced stage and forged iron was not only used to meet the internal demands, but also became a valuable trade commodity. The territorial heads ruling over various parts of India could not counter the superior armed forces of Chandragupta I and had to surrender before him. It is conjectured that at the end of his reign, the boundary of the Gupta Empire already extended to Allahabad.
Samudragupta (circa 335 – 375 CE), Chandragupta I’s son who ascended the throne next, was a military genius and he continued the growth of the kingdom. After conquering the remainder of North India, Samudragupta turned his eyes to South India and added a portion of it to his empire by the end of his Southern Campaign. It is generally believed that during his time the Gupta Empire spanned from the Himalayas in north to the mouth of Krishna and Godavari rivers in the South, from Balkh, Afghanistan in the west to the Brahmaputra River in the east.
Samudragupta was very attentive to rajdharma (duties of a king) and took special care to follow Kautilya’s (350 – 275 BCE) Arthashastra (an economic, social and political treatise that has clear instructions about how a monarchy should be governed) closely. He donated large sums of money for various philanthropic purposes, including the promotion of education. Besides being a courageous king and able administrator, he was a poet and musician. The large number of gold coins circulated by him showcases his multifaceted talent. An inscription, probably commissioned by subsequent Gupta kings, known as the Allahabad Pillar is most eloquent about his humane qualities. Samudragupta also believed in promoting goodwill among various religious communities. He gave, for example, Meghavarna, king of Ceylon, permission and support for the construction of a monastery in Bodh Gaya.
A short struggle for power appears to have ensued after the reign of Samudragupta. His eldest son Ramagupta became the next Gupta king. This was noted by 7th century CE Sanskrit author Banbhatta in his biographical work, Harshacharita. What followed next forms a part of Sanskrit poet and playwright Visakh Dutta’s drama Devi Chandra Guptam. As the story goes, Ramagupta was soon overcome by a Scythian king of Mathura. But the Scythian king, besides the kingdom itself, was interested in Queen Dhruvadevi who was also a renowned scholar. To maintain peace Ramagupta gave up Dhruvadevi to his opponent. It is then Ramagupta’s younger brother Chandragupta II with a few of his close aides went to meet the enemy in disguise. He rescued Dhruvadevi and assassinated the Scythian king. Dhruvadevi publicly condemned her husband for his behaviour. Eventually, Ramagupta was killed by Chandragupta II who also married Dhruvadevi sometime later.
Like Samudragupta, Chandragupta II (circa 380 – 414 CE) was a benevolent king, able leader and skilled administrator. By defeating the satrap of Saurashtra, he further expanded his kingdom to the coastline of the Arabian Sea. His courageous pursuits earned him the title of Vikramaditya. To rule the vast empire more efficiently, Chandragupta II founded his second capital in Ujjain. He also took care to strengthen the navy. The seaports of Tamralipta and Sopara consequently became busy hubs of maritime trade. He was a great patron of art and culture too. Some of the greatest scholars of the day including the navaratna (nine gems) graced his court. Numerous charitable institutions, orphanages and hospitals benefitted from his generosity. Rest houses for travellers were set up by the road side. The Gupta Empire reached its pinnacle during this time and unprecedented progress marked all areas of life.
Politics & Administration
Great tact and foresight were shown in the governance of the vast empire. The efficiency of their martial system was well known. The large kingdom was divided into smaller pradesha (provinces) and administrative heads were appointed to take care of them. The kings maintained discipline and transparency in the bureaucratic process. Criminal law was mild, capital punishment was unheard of and judicial torture was not practised. Fa Hien called the cities of Mathura and Pataliputra as picturesque with the latter being described as a city of flowers. People could move around freely. Law and order reigned and, according to Fa Hien, incidents of theft and burglary were rare.
The following also speaks volumes about the prudence of the Gupta kings. Samudragupta acquired a far greater part of southern India than he cared to incorporate into his empire. Therefore, in quite a few cases, he returned the kingdom to the original kings and was satisfied only with collecting taxes from them. He reckoned that the great distance between that part of the country and his capital Pataliputra would hinder the process of good governance.
People led a simple life. Commodities were affordable and all round prosperity ensured that their requirements were met easily. They preferred vegetarianism and shunned alcoholic beverages. Gold and silver coins were issued in great numbers which is a general indicative of the health of the economy. Trade and commerce flourished both within the country and outside. Silk, cotton, spices, medicine, priceless gemstones, pearl, precious metal and steel were exported by sea. Highly evolved steelcraft led everyone to a belief that Indian iron was not subject to corrosion. The 7 m (23 ft) high Iron Pillar in Qutub complex, Delhi, built around 402 CE, is a testimony to this fact. Trade relations with Middle East improved. Ivory, tortoise shell etc. from Africa, silk and some medicinal plants from China and the Far East were high on the list of imports. Food, grain, spices, salt, gems and gold bullion were primary commodities of inland trade.
Gupta kings knew that the well-being of the empire lie in maintaining a cordial relationship between the various communities. They were devout Vaishnava (Hindus who worship the Supreme Creator as Vishnu) themselves, yet that did not prevent them from being tolerant towards the believers of Buddhism and Jainism. Buddhist monasteries received liberal donations. Yijing observed how the Gupta kings erected inns and rest houses for Buddhist monks and other pilgrims. As a pre-eminent site of education and cultural exchange Nalanda prospered under their patronage. Jainism flourished in northern Bengal, Gorakhpur, Udayagiri and Gujarat. Several Jain establishments existed across the empire and Jain councils were a regular occurrence.
Literature, Sciences & Education
Sanskrit once again attained the status of a lingua franca and managed to scale even greater heights than before. Poet and playwright Kalidasa created such epics as Abhijnanasakuntalam, Malavikagnimitram, Raghuvansha and Kumarsambhaba. Harishena, a renowned poet, panegyrist and flutist, composed Allahabad Prasasti, Sudraka wrote Mricchakatika, Vishakhadatta created Mudrarakshasa and Vishnusharma penned Panchatantra. Vararuchi, Baudhayana, Ishwar Krishna and Bhartrihari contributed to both Sanskrit and Prakrit linguistics, philosophy and science.
Varahamihira wrote Brihatsamhita and also contributed to the fields of astronomy and astrology. Genius mathematician and astronomer Aryabhata wrote Surya Siddhanta which covered several aspects of geometry, trigonometry and cosmology. Shanku devoted himself to creating texts about Geography. Dhanvantri’s discoveries helped the Indian medicinal system of ayurveda become more refined and efficient. Doctors were skilled in surgical practices and inoculation against contagious diseases was performed. Even today, Dhanvantri’s birth anniversary is celebrated on Dhanteras, two days before Diwali. This intellectual surge was not confined to the courts or among the royalty. People were encouraged to learn the nuances of Sanskrit literature, oratory, intellectual debate, music and painting. Several educational institutions were set up and the existing ones received continuous support.
Art, Architecture & Culture
What philosopher and historian Ananda Coomaraswamy said in The Arts & Crafts of India & Ceylone, about the art of the region must be remembered here,
The Hindus do not regard the religious, aesthetic, and scientific standpoints as necessarily conflicting, and in all their finest work, whether musical, literary, or plastic, these points of view, nowadays so sharply distinguished, are inseparably united.
The finest examples of painting, sculpture and architecture of the period can be found in Ajanta, Ellora, Sarnath, Mathura, Anuradhapura and Sigiriya. The basic tenets of Shilpa Shasrta (Treatise on Art) were followed everywhere including in town planning. Stone studded golden stairways, iron pillars (The iron pillar of Dhar is twice the size of Delhi’s Iron Pillar), intricately designed gold coins, jewellery and metal sculptures speak volumes about the skills of the metalsmiths. Carved ivories, wood and lac-work, brocades and embroidered textile also thrived. Practicing vocal music, dance and seven types of musical instruments including veena (an Indian musical stringed instrument), flute and mridangam (drum) were a norm rather than exception. These were regularly performed in temples as a token of devotion. In classic Indian style, artists and litterateurs were encouraged to meditate on the imagery within and capture its essence in their creations. As Agni Purana suggests, “O thou Lord of all gods, teach me in dreams how to carry out all the work I have in my mind.”
Decline of the Empire
After the demise of his father Chandragupta II, Kumaragupta I (circa 415 – 455 CE) ruled over the vast empire with skill and ability. He was able to maintain peace and even fend off strong challenges from a tribe known as Pushyamitra. He was helped by his able son Skandagupta (455 – 467 CE) who was the last of the sovereign rulers of the Gupta Dynasty. He also succeeded in preventing the invasion of the Huns (Hephthalites). Skandagupta was a great scholar and wise ruler. For the well being of the denizens he carried out several construction works including the rebuilding of a dam on Sudarshan Lake, Gujarat. But these were the last of the glory days of the empire.
After Skandagupta’s death the dynasty became embroiled with domestic conflicts. The rulers lacked the capabilities of the earlier emperors to rule over such a large kingdom. This resulted in a decline in law and order. They were continuously plagued by the attacks of the Huns and other foreign powers. This put a dent in the economic well-being of the empire. On top of this, the kings remained more occupied with self-indulgence than in preparing to meet with the challenges of their enemies. The inept ministers and administrative heads also followed suit. Notably, after the defeat and capture of Mihirakula, one of the most important Hephthalite emperors of the time, Gupta King Baladitya set him free on the advice of his ministers. The Huns came back to haunt the empire later and finally drew the curtains on this illustrious empire in circa 550. The following lines of King Sudraka’s Mricchakatika (The Little Clay Cart) aptly sum up the rise and fall in the fortune of the Gupta Dynasty.
Fate plays with us like buckets at the well,
Where one is filled, and one an empty shell,
Where one is rising, while another falls;
And shows how life is change - now heaven, now hell.