Reconstructing the History of the Gupta Age!
The period from 200 BC to AD 300, has been aptly characterized as the age of “the disintegration of the concept of empire”. In this period, the rise of many state structures in different parts of India that failed in their attempt to evolve into large kingdoms.
Once again, the idea of an empire became a reality with the emergence of the Guptas in 4th century AD.
In this background of small state structures in important parts of India, the Guptas of uncertain origin rose to prominence, whose core region appears to be eastern Uttar Pradesh.
A conscious effort is made by historians to portray this Gupta age as the age of ‘Imperial Guptas’ and ‘the Classical Age’. These scholars, in the words of B.D. Chattopadhyaya, were of the opinion, “that an empire is perceived as a political structure assiduously built by the military exploits of several charismatic royal personalities; it was simultaneously an outcome of the liberation of Northern India from long standing foreign rule and political unification achieved by successfully suppressing centrifugal elements”.
With this perspective, R.C. Majumdar observed, “the Gupta Empire, at full maturity, once more brings unity, peace and prosperity over nearly the whole of Northern India”. Echoing the same sentimental perspective U.N. Ghoshal also observed, “The greater part of the country undoubtedly enjoyed high prosperity”.
K.K. Dasgupta and R.C. Majumdar also observed, “The imperial Guptas with whom the volume opens, ably countered the centrifugal forces in Northern India and the kingdom, established by Chandragupta I was shortly converted by his son, Samudragupta into an empire. The Gupta Empire, reared by a succession of competent rulers, gave North India not only political stability and imperial peace but also set an exemplary standard in all departments of life and culture. Indeed, the advent of the Guptas on the political stage ushered an epoch which has rightly been called the Golden Age or the classical period of Indian history”.
This perception of an imperial, golden and classical age of the Guptas is created, sustained and perpetuated by a group of scholars as they witnessed in the rise of the Guptas an attempt to unite the different pockets of power in northern India. As described by B. Lahiri, “those controlled by the last rulers of the ‘foreign’ Kusanas; the Gana Sangha, Janapadas, unevenly distributed between Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, Himalayas to Haryana and Rajasthan, and petty rulers of what have been called ‘indigenous states’.”
Source material available to reconstruct the history of the Gupta age is scarce.
However, what is available may be classified as:
(2) Archaeological, and
(3) Chinese travellers’ accounts.
Of all the literary sources, the Puranas occupy an important place. The major Puranas, Vayu, Vishnu, Matsya, Brahmanda and Bhagavata Puranas are very helpful to the students of history. These Puranas were compiled and brought out in written form during this age. Based on the Puranic evidence it is believed that the founder of the Gupta lineage ruled over Prayaga, Saketa and Magadha.
Kalidasa, the famous Sanskrit dramatist and poet is considered to belong to this period but V. Ramachandra Dikshitar thinks that Kalidas’ works do not help us as a source material of the Gupta age. Further, Kamandaka’s Nitisara, Pravarasena’s Setubandha Kavya, Kaumudimahotsava a drama, whose authorship is debatable, Visakhadatta’s Devichandraguptam and Mudrarakshasa and Bana’s Harshacharita are the other valuable literary sources to reconstruct the history of the Guptas.
Epigraphs, coins, seals, monuments and paintings constitute the archaeological source material. A critical examination of Gupta coins helps us not only to deduce the extent of the empire, the artistic excellence and religious beliefs but also the economic soundness of the Gupta period. Gold, silver and copper coins of the Guptas are found in abundance. Generally, the gold coins of the Guptas have the figure of the king on the obverse and a goddess on the reverse with associated symbols like figures of altars, Garuda a dwarf or Tulasi plant.
Gold coins of Chandragupta I, Samudragupta, Chandragupta II, Kumaragupta and Skandagupta have become known. We have also gold coins of Purugupta, Kumaragupta II and Narasimhagupta Baladitya. There are silver coins of Chandragupta II, Kumaragupta I and Skandagupta. We have copper coins issued by Chandragupta II and Kumaragupta I.
The coins contained legends that indicated their reverence for goddesses, and their epitaphs. The coins of Chandragupta I and his queen Kumaradevi exhibit the importance they attached to the matrimonial alliance with the Lichchavis as a means of gaining political authority while the superior gold coins of Samudragupta reflect the economics of the period prosperity.
The inferior gold coins of the later Guptas reflect the deteriorating economic conditions of their period. The coins with Asvamedha symbol reflect their claim to sovereignty. We may conclude by observing that the gold, silver and copper coins of the Guptas bear testimony to the metal working skill and artisanship of the artisans of that period besides their economic condition.
Nearly 42 epigraphs of the Gupta times covering a period from AD 360 to AD 466, besides a number of non-Gupta epigraphs and later inscriptions enable us to reconstruct the history and times of the Gupta period. Of the 42 epigraphs, 19 are official, while the remaining 23 are private records issued by private individuals. Among these epigraphs, 27 are carved on stone and the rest are copper or Tamra Sasanas. The Prasasthis of Samudragupta and two Prasasthis of Skandagupta are very useful in reconstructing the Gupta history. We have also a Prasasthi of Chandragupta II engraved on an iron pillar at Mehrauli in Delhi and the rest of the fourteen copper plates. Generally, the Prasasthis and the copper plates provide us with the geneology of the recipient and the donor.
The private records show the donation of land or utensils to a religious establishment and these private records sometimes mentioned the name and occasionally the achievements of the ruling king. Of the Gupta epigraphs, the most valuable is the Allahabad pillar edict of Samudragupta, written by Harisena, the Mahadandanayaka of Samudragupta. It is a very long Prasasthi as it records the exploits of Samudragupta. Unfortunately, it is undated. It was written in a verse form in classical Sanskrit. Interestingly, 33 lines of this epigraph form a single lengthy sentence. Likewise, the Eran stone epigraph of Samudragupta also provides a glimpse of his achievements.
The hero of the Mehrauli iron pillar, Chandra, has been identified with Chandragupta II and this epigraph deals with his achievements. Chandragupta II’s conquests of western India are recorded in the Udayagiri cave inscription. So also, the Gadhwal stone epigraph, the Bilsad stone pillar epigraph and Mankuar stone-image inscription refer to the achievements of Kumaragupta. The Bhitari pillar epigraph near Benaras contains details of the fight between the Guptas and the Pushyamitras and the Hunas of the time of Skandagupta, the crown prince of Kumaragupta.
The Junagadh rock epigraphs and the Kahum pillar edict are attributed to the time of Skandagupta. Likewise, non-Gupta epigraphs also refer to events that happened during the Gupta regime. An inscription of Kakutsthavarman of the Kadamba dynasty refers to his marriage with the daughters of the Gupta dynasty.
A contemporary inscription of Varman dynasty reveals that they ruled the greater part of Malwa. The inscription does not acknowledge the hegemony of the Guptas. These also provide a clue to the time when the Guptas occupied that territory. About the disintegration and decline of the Gupta Empire, the epigraphs of Toramana and Mihirakula provide valuable information.
The importance of these epigraphs lies in the fact that they enable us to corroborate the information given in the epigraphs of the Guptas. The later dated epigraph of the Rastrakutas, the Saranath epigraph of Pakaditya and the Nalanda record of Yasodharman also indirectly refer to the Guptas and their times.
Besides epigraphs, the monuments of the Gupta period – temples, monasteries and Chaityas – also throw valuable light on the religious and artistic excellence of the Gupta age.
There were three different schools of art and architecture:
(ii) Benaras, and
(iii) Nalanda, during this period.
The cave paintings of Ajanta and Ellora of the Gupta times reflect the artistic tastes and excellence, social life, festivities and Jatras of that time. Likewish, numerous seals found at Vaishali and its neighbourhood provides very valuable information on the provincial and local government of the Guptas.
Chinese Travellers’ Accounts:
The information obtained about the Guptas from the literary and archaeological sources can be corroborated from the accounts of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fahien; and a later dated account of Itsing who visited the region of the Guptas and recorded his impressions. Fahien spent nine years in India, six of them in the Gupta court, interestingly; he spent three years at Pataliputra itself and visited the other places like Kanauj, Ayodhya, Sravasti, Kapilavastu, Vaishali and Kusinagara.
His account Fo-Kuo-Kie or ‘The Record of Buddhist Kingdoms’ gives very interesting information regarding different aspects of the Gupta age. Fahien is oddly silent about the name of the Gupta king. His account alone cannot be accepted as a truthful picture of the Gupta times; we have to carefully corroborate the information with other sources.
Itsing visited India during the closing years of 7th century AD. He refers to the construction of a place of worship for the Chinese pilgrims at Mrigasikhavana by Sri Gupta. A fair amount of knowledge about the times of the Guptas can be gathered from these sources so that the history of this period can be reconstructed with some sources.