Read this article to learn about the whole history of the Gupta Empire. It’s Foundation, Rulers, Administration, Economy, Social Developments, Culture and Literature !
After centuries of political disintegration an empire came to be established in A.D. 319, under the Guptas. Although the Gupta Empire was not as large as the Maurya Empire, it kept north India politically united for more than a century, from A. D. 335 to 455.
The ancestry and early history of the Gupta family are little known, and have naturally given rise to various speculations.
But very likely they were initially a family of landowners who acquired political control in the region of Magadha and parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh seems to have been a more important province for the Guptas than Bihar, because early Gupta coins and inscriptions have been mainly found in that region.
Hence Uttar Pradesh seems to have been the place from where the Guptas operated and fanned out in different directions. Probably with their centre of power at Prayag they spread in the neighbouring regions. The Guptas were possibly the feudatories of the Kushanas in Uttar Pradesh, and seem to have succeeded them without any wide time-lag.
The Guptas enjoyed certain material advantages. The centre of their operations lay in the fertile land of Madhyadesha covering Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They could exploit the iron ores of central India and south Bihar. Further, they took advantage of their proximity to the areas in north India which carried on silk trade with the Byzantine Empire.
On account of these favourable factors, the Guptas set up their rule over Anuganga (the middle Gangetic basin), Prayag (modern Allahabad), Saket (modern Ayodhya) and Magadha. In course of time this kingdom became an all-India empire.
The Early Guptas:
An inscription tells us that Sri Gupta was the first king and Ghatotkacha was the next to follow him with the title Maharaja. This title was often borne by feudatory chiefs. The Poona copper plate inscription of Prabhavati Gupta describes Sri Gupta as the Adhiraja of the Gupta dynasty.
In the Riddhapura copper plate inscription, it is stated that Sri Gupta belonged to the Dharan Gotra.
Chandragupta I (A.D. 319-320 to 335):
The first Gupta ruler of consequence was Chandragupta I, son of Ghatotkacha. By marrying a Lichchhavi Princes Kumaradevi he sought to gain in prestige, though Vaishali does not appear to have been a part of his kingdom. His rule remained confined to Magadha and parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh (Saketa and Prayaga). He took the title of Maharajadhiraja, and his accession in about A.D. 319-20 marked the beginning of Gupta era.
Samudragupta (A.D. 335-380):
Chandragupta I was succeeded by his son Samudragupta probably in A.D. 325. Samudragupta became the ruler after subduing his rival Kacha, an obscure prince of the dynasty. His conquests are known from a lengthy eulogy composed by his court-poet Harishena and inscribed on an Asokan pillar at Allahabad. This account contains a long list of states, kings and tribes which were conquered and brought under various degrees of subjugation.
The list can be divided into four categories:
1. The first category includes the twelve states of Dakshinapatha with the names of their kings who were captured and then liberated and reinstated. They were Kosala, Mahakantara, Kaurata, Pishtapura, Kottura, Erandapalli, Kanchi, Avamukta, Vengi, Palakka, Devrashtra and Kushthalpura.
2. The second category includes the names of the eight kings of Aryavarta, who were violently exterminated; prominent of them were Rudradwa, Ganapatinaga, Nagasena, etc.
3. The third category consists of the rulers of the forest states (atavirarajyas) who were reduced to servitude and the chief of the five Border States (pratyantas) and nine tribal republics that were forced to pay all kinds of taxes obey his orders and came to perform obeisance.
The five Border States were Samtata (South-east Bengal), Kamarupa (Assam), Nepala (Nepal), Davaka (Assam) and Kartipura (Kashmir). The nine tribal republics were the Malavas, Yaudheyas, Madrakas, Abhiras, Prarjunas, Arjunayanas, Sarakinakas, Kavas and Kharaparikas.
4. The fourth category consists of the Daivaputra Shahi Shahanushahi (Kushanas), the Shaka-, Murundas, the dwellers of Sinhala (Ceylon) and all the other islands who paid tribute to the King.
Harishena, the court poet of Samudragupta rightly describes him as the hero of a hundred battles, and Vincent Smith calls him the ‘Napoleon of India’. But inspite of his preoccupation with political and military affairs, he cultivated music and poetry. Some of his gold coins represent him as playing on the lyre.
The Guptas were followers of the Brahmanical religion and Samudragupta performed the Asvamedha sacrifice. However, he fully maintained the tradition of religious toleration. According to a Chinese source, Meghavarman, the ruler of Sri Lanka was granted permission by Samudragupta to build a monastery at Bodha Gaya.
Chandragupta II (A.D. 380-412):
Samudragupta was succeeded by his younger son Chandragupta II. But, according to some scholars, Samudragupta who died shortly before A. D. 380 was succeeded by his eider son Ramagupta. The drama Devichandraguptam of Vishakhadatta suggests that Ramagupta suddenly attacked by the Sakas, made peace with them on condition that his queen Dhruvadevi was to be surrendered to the Saka chief.
This infuriated his younger brother Chandragupta, who went himself in the disguise of the queen to the Saka chief and killed him. Then he murdered his royal brother Ramagupta and married the queen. The official records of the Guptas, however do not refer to Ramagupta and trace the succession directly from Samudragupta to Chandragupta II.
Devichandraguptam of Vishakhadatta:
The reign of Chandragupta II saw the high watermark of the Gupta Empire. He extended the limits of the empire by marriage alliance and conquests. Chandragupta II married Kuberanaga of the Naga family. The Nagas were a powerful ruling clan and this matrimonial alliance helped the Gupta ruler in expanding his empire.
The marriage of his daughter Prabhavati by his wife Kubernaga with the Vakataka king Rudrasena II helped him to establish his political influence in the Deccan. With his great influence in this area, Chandragupta II conquered western Malwa and Gujarat from the Shaka Kshatrap, Rudrasimha III.
The conquest gave Chandragupta the Western sea coast, famous for trade and commerce. This contributed to the prosperity of Malwa, and its chief city Ujjain. Ujjain seems to have been made the second capital of Chandragupta II.
‘King Chandra’ whose exploits has been mentioned in the Mehrauli Iron Pillar Inscription, which is located in the Qutub-Minar complex in Delhi is identified by many scholars with Chandragupta II. According to this inscription, Chandra crossed the Sindhu region of seven rivers and defeated Valhikas (identified with Bacteria). It also mentions Chandragupta’s victory over enemies from Vanga (Bengal).
Chandragupta II adopted the title of Vikramaditya which had been first used by an Ujjain ruler in 57 B.C. as a mark of victory over the Saka Kshatrapas of western India. An important incident which took place during his reign was the visit of Fa-Hien, a Chinese pilgrim, who came to India in search of Buddhist texts. The court of Chandragupta II at Ujjain was adorned by numerous scholars including Kalidasa and Amarasimha.
Kumaragupta I (412-454 A.D.):
Chandragupta II died about A.D. 413 and was succeeded by his son Kumaragupta who enjoyed a long reign of more than forty years. He performed the Asvamedha sacrifice, but we do not know of any military success achieved by him.
He maintained intact the vast empire built up by his two predecessors. Towards the close of his reign the empire was menaced by hordes of the Pushyamitras probably a tribe allied to the Hunas which were defeated by the Crown prince Skandagupta.
Skandagupta (454-467 A.D.):
Skandagupta, who succeeded Kumaragupta I, was perhaps the last powerful Gupta monarch. To consolidate his position he had to fight the Pushyamitras, and the country faced Huna invasion from access the frontiers in the north-west. However, Skandagupta was successful in throwing the Huns back.
This heroic feat entitled him, like Chandragupta II, to assume the title of Vikramaditya. It appears that these wars adversely affected the economy of the empire, and the debased gold coinage of Skandagupta bears testimony to these. Moreover, he appears to have been the last Gupta ruler to mint silver coins in western India.
The Junagarh inscription of his reign tells us about the public works undertaken during his times. The Sudarsana lake (originally built during the Maurya times) burst due to excessive rains and in the early part of his rule his governor Parnadatta and his son Chakrapalita got it repaired. The last known date of Skandagupta is 467 A.D. from his silver coins.
The last days of the Gupta Empire:
Skandagupta died about A.D. 467 and the line of succession after him is very uncertain. Purugupta, a son of kumaragupta, ruled for some time and was succeeded by his son Budhagupta whose earliest known date is A. D. 477 and the latest A.D. 495. He was succeeded by his brother Narasimhagupta Baladitya.
A king named Kumaragupta II is known to have reigned in A.D. 474. This indicates internal dissension which continued after the end of Budhagupta’s reign. He was succeeded by his son and grandson, Kumaragupta III and Visnugupta – the three reigns covered the period A.D. 500-550. Two otherkinos, Vainyagupta (A.D. 507) and Bhanugupta (A.D. 510) ruled in Samatataand Nalandaand in Eran respectively. The Guptas continued to rule till about 550 A.D., but by then their power had already become very insignificant.
Fall of the Empire:
The successors of Chandragupta II had to face an invasion by the Hunas from Central Asia in the second half of the fifth century A.D. Although in the beginning, the Gupta king Skandagupta tried effectively to stem the march of the Hunas into India; his successors proved to be weak and could not cope with the Huna invaders. By 485 A.D. the Hunas occupied eastern Malwa and a good portion of Central India. Thus, the Huna attacks caused a major blow to the Gupta authority particularly in northern and western regions of the empire.
The Huna power was soon overthrown by Yashodharman of Malwa, who successfully challenged the authority of the Guptas and set up, in 532 A.D., pillars of victory commemorating his conquest of J almost the whole of northern India. Yashodharman’s rule was short-lived, but it meant a severe blow to the Gupta Empire.
The policy adopted by the Guptas in the conquered areas was to restore the authority of local chiefs or kings once they had accepted Gupta suzerainty. In fact, no efforts were made to impose a strict and effective control over these regions. Hence it was natural that whenever there was a crisis of succession or a weak monarchy within the Gupta Empire these local chiefs would re-establish their independent authority.
Divisions within the imperial family, concentration of power in the hands of local chiefs or governors, loose administrative structure of the empire, decline of foreign trade, growing practice of land grants for religious and other purposes, etc. contributed towards the disintegration of the Gupta Empire.
Unlike the Mauryas, the Guptas adopted such pompous titles as Parameshvara Maharajadhiraja, Paramabhattaraka, etc., which imply the existence of lesser kings with considerable authority within the empire. Besides, the Guptas added other epithets claiming for themselves super-human qualities which raised them almost to the level of gods. In fact, in the Allahabad Pillar Inscription, Samudragupta is referred to as a god dwelling on earth. Kingship was hereditary, but royal power was limited by the absence of a firm practice of primogeniture.
Council of Ministers and other officials:
The Guptas continued the traditional machinery of bureaucratic administration but it was not as elaborate as that of the Mauryas. The Mantri (chief-minister) stood at the head of civil administration. Among other high imperial officers were included the Mahabaladikrta (commander-in-chief), the Mahadandanayaka (general) and the Mahapratihara (chief of the palace guards).
The Mahabaladhikrta, probably corresponding to the Mahasenapati of the Satavahana kings, controlled a staff or subordinate officers such as the Mahashvapati (chief of cavalry), Mahapilupati (officer in charge of elephants), Senapati and Baladhikrta. A high ranking official, heard for the first time in the Gupta records was the Sandhivigrahika (the foreign minister).
A link between the central and the provincial administration under the Guptas is furnished by the class of officers called Kumaramatyas and Ayuktas. The Kumaramatyas were the high officers and the personal staff of the emperor and were appointed by the king in the home provinces and possibly paid in cash. Recruitment was not confined to the upper varnas only and several offices came to be combined in the hands of the same person, and posts became hereditary.
This naturally weakened the royal control. The Ayuktas were entrusted with the task of restoring the wealth of kings conquered by the emperor and sometimes placed in charge of districts or metropolitan towns.
The numerical strength of the Gupta army is not known. In contrast to the Mauryas, the Guptas do not seem to have possessed a big organized army. Probably troops supplied by the feudatories constituted the major portion of the Gupta military strength. Also, the Guptas did not enjoy a monopoly of elephants and horses, which were essential ingredients of military machinery.
All this lead to the increasing dependence on feudatories, who wielded considerable authority at least on the fringes of the empire. Chariots receded into the background, and cavalry came to the forefront.
The Mahabaladhikrta (commander-in-chief) controlled a staff or subordinate officers as mentioned above. The army was paid in cash and its needs were well looked after by an officer-in-charge of stores called Ranabhandagarika.
Land revenue was the main source of the state’s income besides the fines. In Samudragupta’s time we hear of an officer Gopasramin working as Akshapataladhikrita whose duty was to enter numerous matters in the accounts registers, recover royal dues, to check embezzlement and recover fines.
Another prominent high official was Pustapala (record-keeper). The Gupta kings maintained a regular department for the proper survey and measurement of land as well as for the collection of land revenue.
Provinces, Districts and Villages:
The provinces or divisions called bhuktis were governed by Uparikas directly appointed by the kings. The province was often divided into districts known as Vishayas which were ruled by Kumaramatyas, Ayuktas or Vishayapatis. His appointment was made by the provincial governors.
Gupta inscriptions from Bengal shows that the Municipal board – Adhisthanadhikarana associated with itself renresentation from major local communities: the Nagarasresthi (guild president), the chief merchant Sarthavaha, the chief artisan – Prathama Kulika and the chief scribe – Prathama Kayastha. Besides them were the Pustapalas – officials whose work was to manage and keep records.
The lowest unit of administration was the village. In eastern India, the vishayas were divided into vithis, which again was divided into villages. The Gramapati or Gramadhyaksha was the village headman. The Gupta inscriptions from north Bengal show that there were other units higher than the villages such as the Rural Board – Asthakuladhikarana which comprised of the village elders – Mahattaras and also included the village headman – Gramika and the householders Kutumbins.
With the absence of any close supervision of the state, village affairs were now managed by the leading local elements. No land transactions could be affected without their consent. The village disputes were also settled by these bodies with the help of Grama-vriddhas or Mahattaras (village elders). The town administration was carried on by the mayor of the city called Purapala.
The agricultural crops constituted the main resources which the society produced and the major part of the revenue of the state came from the agriculture. It is argued by many scholars that the state was the exclusive owner of the land. The most decisive argument in favour of the exclusive state ownership of land is in the Paharpur copper plate inscription of Buddhagupta. It appears that though the land was to all intents and purposes that of the peasants, the king claimed its theoretical ownership.
Various types of land are mentioned in the inscriptions; land under cultivation was usually called Kshetra, Khila was the uncultivable land, Aprahata was the jungle or forest land, Gopata Sarah was the pasture land and Vasti was the habitable land.
Different land measures were known in different regions such as Nivartana, Kulyavapa and Dronavapa. The importance of irrigation to help agriculture was recognized in India from the earliest times. According to Narada, there are two kinds of dykes the bardhya which protected the field from floods and the Khaya which served the purpose of irrigation.
The canals which were meant to prevent inundation were also mentioned by Amarasimha as jalanirgamah. The tanks were variously called, according to their sizes, as the vapi, tadaga and dirghula. Another method for irrigation was the use of ghati-yantra or araghatta.
The sources of the Gupta period suggest that certain important changes were taking place in the agrarian society. Feudal development surfaced under the Guptas with the grant of fiscal and administrative concessions to priests and administrators. Started in the Deccan by the Satavahanas, the practice became a regular affair in Gupta times.
Religious functionaries were granted land, free of tax, forever, and they were authorised to collect from the peasants all the taxes which could have otherwise gone to the emperor. Religious grants were of two types: Agrahara grants were meant for the Brahmanas which meant to be perpetual, hereditary and tax-free, accompanied with the assignment of all land revenue.
The Devagrahara grants were made to secular parties such as writers and merchants, for the purpose of repair and worship of temples. The secular grants were made to secular parties and are evident from a grant made by the Uccakalpa dynasty.
According to it, two villages were bestowed as a mark of favour, in perpetuity with fiscal and administrative rights upon a person called Pulindabhatta. Epigraphic evidence of land grants made to officers for the administrative and military services is lacking, though such grants cannot be ruled out.
In fact, certain designations of administrative officers such as bhagika and bhogapalika suggest that some of the state officials may have been remunerated by land grants.
Position of Peasantry:
The land grants paved the way for feudal development in India. Several inscriptions refer to the emergence of serfdom, which meant that the peasants were attached to their land even when it was given away. Thus in certain parts of the country the position of independent peasants were under- mined, and they were reduced to serfs or semi-serfs. The repression of the peasantry was also caused by the right of subinfeudation granted to the recipients of land grants.
They were often authorised to enjoy the land, to get it enjoyed, to cultivate it or get it cultivated. The donated land could thus be assigned to tenants on certain terms. This also implied the donee’s right to evict the tenants from their land. The practice of subinfeudation therefore reduced the permanent tenants to the position of ten- ants-at-will. The position of peasants was also undermined from the Gupta period onwards on account of the imposition of forced labour (Vishti) and several new levies and taxes.
Crafts Production and Industry:
Crafts production covered a wide range of items. Texts like Amarakosha of Amarasimha and Brihat Samhita which are generally dated to this period, list many items, give their Sanskrit names and also mention different categories of craftsmen who manufactured them.
Many important sites like Taxila, Ahichchhatra, Mathura, Rajghat, Kausambi and Pataliputra have yielded many craft products like earthen wares, terracottas, beads made of different stones, objects of glass, items made of metals, etc.
Different varieties of silk, cloth, called Kshauma and Pattavastra are mentioned in the text of this period. An inscription of fifth century from Mandasor in western Malwa refers to a guild of silk weavers who had migrated from south Gujarat and settled in the Malwa region. Among the various industries that flourished in the Gupta period, mining and metallurgy certainly occupied the top position.
The Amarakosha gives a comprehensive list of metals. Of all the metals, iron was the most useful, and blacksmiths were only next to the peasants in the rural community. The most eloquent evidence of the high stage of development which metallurgy had attained in the Gupta period is the Mehrauli iron pillar of King Chandra, usually identified as Chandragupta II.
Contemporary literature also testifies to the wide use of jewellery by the people of the time. A significant development of the period in metal technology was the manufacture of seals and statues, particularly of the Buddha.
Ivory work remained at a premium, as did stone cutting and carving, sculpture being very much in favour at this time. The cutting, polishing and preparing of a variety of precious stones – jasper, agate, carnelian, quartz, lapis – lazuli, etc., were also associated with foreign trade.
Pottery remained a basic part of industrial production, though the elegant black – polished ware was no longer used, instead an ordinary red ware with a brownish slip was produced in large quantities, some of it being made to look more opulent by the addition of mica in the clay which gave the vessels a metallic finish.
Trade and Commerce:
There was not much material change in the trade routes, commercial organization, currency systems, trade practices, etc. during the period. Like the previous phase, we have reference to two types of merchants in the Gupta period, namely Sresthi who was usually settled at a particular place and enjoyed an eminent position and the Sarthavaha who was a caravan trader. The articles of internal trade included all sorts of commodities for everyday use, chiefly sold in villages and town markets.
On the other hand, luxury goods formed the principal articles of long distance trade. Narada and Brihaspati laid down many regulations to govern the trade practices of the time. Compared to the earlier period, there was a decline in long-distance trade. Silk and spices were the chief Indian export articles of Indo-Roman trade. But by the middle of the sixth century silk worms were secretly brought overland from China and introduced into the Byzantine Empire. This produced an adverse effect on India’s trade with the west.
Later, the expansion of the Arabs under the banner of Islam may have further disrupted India’s trade. Indian merchants meanwhile had begun to rely more heavily on the South-East Asian trade. The establishment of Indian trading stations in various parts of South-east Asia meant the diversion of income to this region. The commercial prosperity of the Gupta era was the concluding phase of the economic momentum which began in the preceding period.
Guilds, (nigama, sreni) continued as the major institution in the manufacture of goods and in commercial enterprise. They remained almost autonomous in their internal organization, the government respecting their laws which were generally drafted by a larger body, the corporation of guilds, of which each guild was a member.
Each guild had a president called Prathama or Pravara. Some of the industrial guilds, such as the silk weaver’s guilds had their own separate corporation which was responsible for large-scale projects, such as endowments for building a temple, etc.
The Buddhist church or Sangha was by now rich enough to participate in commercial activities. The rate of interest on loans varied according to the purpose for which money was required. The high rates demanded during the Mauryan period on loans to be used for overseas trade were no longer demanded, indicating an increased confidence in overseas trade. The average rate was now twenty percent per annum as against two hundred and forty of the earlier period. The lowering of the rate of interest also indicates the greater availability of goods and the consequent decrease in rates of profit.
Commercial decline is indicated by the paucity of coins of common use. The Guptas issued the largest number of gold coins (dinaras) in ancient India; but these hardly flowed into day-to-day private economic relations. Copper and silver coins of the period are few. Fa-Hien tells us that cowries became the common medium of exchange.
It is, therefore argued that economy in the Gupta period was largely based on self-sufficient units of production in villages and towns, and that money economy was gradually becoming weaker at this time.
Languishing trade explains the decline of urban centres at least in the Gangetic plains, which formed the heartland of the Gupta Empire.
Land grants to the brahmanas on a large scale suggest that the brahmana supremacy continued in Gupta times. The term dvija was now beginning to be used increasingly for the brahmanas. The greater the emphasis on brahmana purity the greater was the stress laid on the impurity of the outcaste. The Varna system seems to have been considerably modified owing to the proliferation of castes.
The khastriya caste swelled up with the influx of the Hunas and subsequently of the Gurjars who joined their ranks as Rajputs. The increase in the number of shudra castes and untouchables was largely due to the absorption of backward forest tribes into the settled Varna society. Often guilds of craftsmen were transformed into castes.
It has been suggested that transfers of lands or land revenues gave rise to a new caste, that of the kayasthas (scribes) who undermined the monopoly of the brahmanas as scribes. The position of the shudras improved in this period and they were now permitted to listen to the epics and the Puranas. They were also allowed to perform certain domestic rites which naturally brought fee to the priests.
All this can be attributed to a change in the economic status of the shudras. The practice of untouchability became more intense than in the earlier period. Penance was provided to remove the sin arising out of touching a chandala.
Fa-Hien informs us that the chandala, entering the gate of a city or market place, would strike a piece of wood to give prior notice of his arrival so that men could avoid him. The Varna system did not always function smoothly. The Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, which may be assigned to the Gupta period, contains at least nine verses which stress the need of combination of the brahmanas and the kshatriyas; these may indicate some kind of concerted opposition from the vaishyas and shudras.
The Anushashana Parva of the Mahabharata represents the shudras as destroyer of the king. Most of the legal texts of the period took the Dharmashastra of Manu as their basis and elaborated upon it. A number of such works were written during this period, the best know being those of Yajnavalkya, Narada, Brihaspati and Katyayana. The joint family system, which became an essential feature of Hindu caste-society, was prevalent at the time.
Status of Women:
The status of women continued to decline. In a patriarchal set-up the men began to treat women as items of property, so much so that a woman was expected to follow her husband to the next world. The practice of sati (self-immolation at the funeral pyre of the husband) gained approval of the jurists.
But it seems to have been confined to the upper classes. The first memorial of a saf/dated A.D. 510 is found at Eran in Madhya Pradesh. Lawgivers of the period, almost unanimously advocated early marriage; some of them preferred even pre-puberty marriage. Celibacy was to be strictly observed by widows.
Women were denied any right to property except for stridhana in the form of jewellery, garments, and similar other presents made to the bride on the occasion of her marriage. They were not entitled to formal education.
In the Gupta period, like shudras, women were also allowed tolisten to epics and the Puranas, and advised to worship Krishna. But women of higher orders did not have access to independent sources of livelihood in pre-Gupta and Gupta times. The fact that women of the two lower varnas were free to earn their livelihood gave them considerable freedom, which was denied to women of the upper varnas.
Prosperous town dwellers seem to have lived in comfort and ease. The Kamasutra describes the life of a well-to-do citizen as one devoted to the pleasures and refinements of life. Theatrical entertair- ment was popular both in court circles and outside. Dance performances and music concerts were held mainly in the homes of the wealthy and the discerning.
Gambling, animal fights, athletics and gymnastics were an important part of sporting events. Amusements of various kinds in which the general public participated were essential to the various festivals, whether religious or secular.
Contrary to Fa-Hien’s statement that vegetarianism was customary in India, meat was commonly eaten. Drinking of wine and the chewing of betel-leaf was a regular practice.
Culture of the Gupta Age:
The Gupta period is called the Golden Age of ancient India. This may not be true in the political and socio-economic fields because of several unhappy developments during the period.
However, it is evident from the archaeological findings that the Guptas possessed a large amount of gold, whatever might be its source, and they issued the largest number of gold coins.
Princes and richer people could divert a part of their income for the support of those engaged in art and literature. Both Samudragupta and Chandragupta II were patrons of art and literature. Samudragupta is represented on his coins playing the lute (veena) and Chandragupta II is credited with maintaining in his court nine luminaries or great scholars. The Gupta period witnessed Golden Age only in the fields of art, literature etc.
Gupta Arts and Architecture:
Religion was intimately connected with the developments in architecture and plastic arts.
Earlier developments in plastic arts seem to have culminated in the Gupta sculpture. The most important contribution of Gupta sculpture is the evolution of the perfect types of divinities, both Buddhist and Brahmanical.
A large number of Buddha images have been unearthed at Sarnath, and one of them is justly regarded as the finest in the whole of India. Stone and bronze images of Buddha have also been found at Mathura and other places.
The images of Siva, Vishnu and other Brahmanical gods are sculptured in some of the finest panels of the Deogarh temple (Jhansi district). Of the Brahmanical images perhaps the most impressive is the Great Boar (Varaha), at the entrance of a cave in Udayagiri.
The art of casting metals reached a degree of development. Fa-Hien saw an over 25 metre high image of the Buddha made of copper, but it is not traceable now. The Bronze Buddha, found at Sultanganj, is 71/2 feet high and is a fine piece of sculpture. The Iron Pillar of Delhi, near the Qutub-Minar, is a marvellous work belonging to the early Gupta period.
The Gupta period was poor in architecture. The doctrine of bhakti and the growing importance of image worship led to the construction of the free standing temple with its sanctuary (garbha griha), in which the central cult image was placed. The Gupta period marks the beginning of Indian temple architecture. The temples are simple and impretentious structures, but their bearing upon later developments is of great significance. The following well defined types may be recognized.
1. Flat roofed, square temple with a shallow pillared porch in front.
2. Flat rooted, square temple with a covered ambulatory around the sanctum and proceeded by a pillared porch, sometimes with a second story above.
3. Square temple with a low and squat sikhara (tower) above.
4. Rectangular temple with an apsidal back and a barrel – vaulted roof above.
5. Circular temple with shallow rectangular projections at the four cardinal faces.
The first three types of may be regarded as the forerunners of medieval Indian temple styles. Representative examples of the first include temple No. XVII at Sanchi, Kankali Devi temple at Tigawa and Vishnu and Varaha temples at Eran.
The nucleus of a Temple (garbha – griha) with a single entrance and a porch (mandapa) appears for the first time as an integrated composition in this type of Gupta temples. The second type is represented by Parvati temple at Nachna Kuthara and the Siva temple at Bhumara (both in M P). This group of temples shows many of the characteristic features of the dravida style.
Notable examples of the third type are seen in the so called Dasavatara Temple at Deogarh (Jhansi district) and the brick temple at Bhitargaon (Kanpur district). The importance of this group lies in the innovation of a shikhara or tower that caps the sanctum, the main feature of the nagara style.
The fourth type is represented by a temple at Ter (Sholapur district) and the Kapoleshvara temple at Aihole. The fifth is represented by a solitary monument known as Maniyar Matha at Rajgir, Bihar.
The rock-cut caves continue the old forms to a large extent, some of the caves at Ajanta and Ellora (Maharashtra) and Bagh (M.P.) may be assigned to the Gupta period. Both Chaitya and Vihara caves were excavated at Ajanta and the Vihara cave No. XVI and XVII and the Chaitya cave no. XIX are thebest artistic monuments of the Gupta period.
The earliest of the Brahmanical shrines are to be seen in group of caves at Udayagiri (MP.). The caves at Mogulrajapuram, Undavalli and Akkannamadanna in the Andhra country beiong to the Gupta period.
Stupas were also built in large numbers, but the best are found at Sarnath (Dhamekh Stupa), Rajgir (Jarasindha – k.a – Baithak), Mirpur Khan in Sindh and at Ratnagiri (Orissa).
The art of painting reached its height of glory and splendour in this age. The most important examples of the Gupta paintings are to be found on the wall frescos of the Ajanta caves, the Bagh caves. The Gupta painters also painted incidents from the life of Buddha during the Gupta period.
Cave No. XVI at Ajanta has the scene known as “Dying Princess”. Cave no. XVII has been called a picture gallery. At Ajanta other prominent cave paintings are cave no. XIX, I and II.
Sanskrit language and literature after centuries of evolution, through lavish royal patronage reached to the level of classical excellence. Sanskrit was the court language of the Guptas.
1. The Puranas had existed much before the time of the Guptas in the form of bardic literature; in the Gupta age they were finally compiled and given their present form.
2. The period also saw the compilation of various Smritis or the law-books written in verse. The Smritis of Yajnavalkya, Narada, Katyayana and Brihaspati were written during this period.
3. The two great epics namely the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were almost completed by the 4th century A.D.
4. The Gupta period is remarkable for the production of secular literature. Among the known Sanskrit poets of the period, the greatest name is that of Kalidasa who lived in the court of Chandragupta II. The most important works of Kalidasa were the Abhijnanashakuntalam (considered to be one of the best hundred literary works in the world) Ritusamhara, Malavikagnimitra, Kumarasambhava, Meghaduta, Raghuvamsha and Vikrama Urvashiyam. Shudraka wrote the drama Mrichcbhakatika or the little Clay cart. Vishakadatta is the author of the Mudrarakshasa, which deals with the schemes of the shrewd Chanakya.
The Devichandraguptam another drama written by him, has survived only in fragments.
5. The Gupta period also saw the development of Sanskrit grammar based on Panini and Patanjali. This period is particularly memorable for the compilation of the Amarakosha by Amarasimha, who was a luminary in the court of Chandragupta II. A Buddhist scholar from Bengal, Chandragomia, composed a book on grammar, named Chandravyakaranam.
6. Buddhist and Jaina literature in Sanskrit were also written during the Gupta period Buddhist scholars Arya Deva, Arya Asanga and Vasubandhu of the Gupta period were the most notable writers. Siddhasena Divakara laid the foundation of logic among the Jainas. The Gupta age witnessed the evolution of many Prakrit forms such as Suraseni used in Mathura and its vicinity, Ardhamagadhi spoken in Oudh and Bundelkhand, Magadhi in Bihar and Maharashtri in Berar.
Science and Technology:
Aryabhata, was the first astronomer to pose the more fundamental problems of astronomy in A.D. 499. It was largely through his efforts that astronomy was recognized as a separate discipline from mathematics. He calculated n to 3.1416 and the length of the solar year to 365.3586805 days, both remarkably close to recent estimates.
He believed that the earth was sphere and rotated on its axis, and that the shadow of the earth falling on the moon caused eclipses. He is also the author of Aryabhattiyam, which deals with algebra, arithmetics and geometry.
Varahamihira, who lived towards the end of the fifth century wrote several treatises on astronomy and horoscopy. His Panchasiddhantika deals with five schools of astronomy, two of these reflect a close knowledge of Greek astonomy. The Laghu-Jataka, BrihatJataka and Brihat Samhita are some of his other important works.
Hastayurveda or the veterinary science, authored by Palakalpya attests to the advances made in medical science during the Gupta period. The Navanitakam, a medical work, which is a manual of recipes, formula and prescriptions, was compiled during this period.
The Political History of Northern India: Post Gupta Period
The break-up of the Gupta Empire was followed by the rise of a number of independent states. Northern India was divided into three main kingdoms, those of the later Guptas of Magadha, the Maukharis, and the Pushyabhutis.