With the rise of the Guptas to power in the beginning of the fourth century A.D., there opened a new era in the history of India.
Regarding the origin of the Guptas, history is indistinct. But once they rose into the status of an imperial power, history assumed a bright colour.
Various literary and epigraphic sources came into being to throw sufficient light on the age of the Guptas.
The original home of the early Guptas was obviously in the Gangetic valley. The dynasty was slowly rising to prominence during the Dark Age following the fall of the Kushanas. Among various smaller powers, the Guptas were also struggling to form a territory of their own. About the early Guptas, the Vayu Purana contained the account that “Kings born of the Gupta race will enjoy all these territories, namely, along the Ganges, Prayaga, Saketa (Kosala), and the Magadhas”. It is believed that the Guptas raised their head as a power in Magadha and “the regions along the river Ganges”.
When a territory was curbed at length, the Gupta Chief Sri Gupta by name proclaimed himself as the King or Maharaja in 240 A.D., and established a dynasty of his own, to be famous as the Gupta Dynasty. The inscriptions of the Gupta period speak of him as a Maharaja and as the ancestor of the Gupta Emperors.
He is also described in some copper plates as the Adiraja or the founder of the dynasty, and as belonging to the Dharana Gotra.
Maharaja Sri Gupta tried to extend his kingdom in order to make his monarchy strong. According to a tradition which was recorded by the Chinese pilgrim I-tsing at a much later time, Sri Gupta built a temple at Mrigasikhavana for Chinese pilgrims. I-tsing described the location of that place as at “50 stages east of Nalanda down the Ganges”. This distance being about 250 miles from Nalanda, it proves that Sri Gupta’s territory extended deep into Bengal. It was because of the size of his kingdom that Sri Gupta styled himself a Maharaja.
Sri Gupta died in 280 A.D. and was succeeded by Maharaja Ghatotkacha. This king has been described in the records of the Gupta Age as the son of Sri Gupta. Nothing much is known about the reign of this ruler who died after a long rule in the year 319 A.D.
The first two kings of the Gupta dynasty styled themselves as Maharaja, and were described in the Gupta records in that title. But, during the century after the fall of the Kushanas, many chiefs of minor territories called themselves as Maharajas. The title, therefore, did not signify either a position of power or a larger kingdom. The first two Guptas therefore were like small chieftains. Even, they could have been subordinate rulers under some more powerful state, as believed by some historians. But, there is no evidence to support this theory.
In any case, the two Gupta rulers Sri Gupta and Ghatotkacha, by their efforts, prepared path for the rise of a strong monarchy with Magadha as centre. The third ruler of the dynasty, emerged with the title of Maharajadhiraja or the King of Kings. He was Chandragupta I, the successor of Ghatotkacha, who came to the throne in 319 or in 320 A.D.