Between c. 320 and 550 CE, the Gupta Empire included northern, central, and parts of southern India. The achievements in the arts, architecture, sciences, religion, and philosophy are well-known during this period. Chandragupta I (320–335 CE) began the Gupta Empire’s rapid expansion and quickly established himself as the empire’s first autonomous ruler. It represented the end of 500 centuries of regional power dominance and the associated unrest, which began with the Mauryas’ fall.
Even more crucially, it marked the start of a time of overall wealth and progress in India that lasted for the next two and a half centuries and was dubbed the “Golden Age” in its history. However, the germ of the empire was sowed at least two generations earlier, in approximately 240 CE, when Srigupta, then simply a regional monarch, began the dynasty’s glory days.
The kings of the Magadha (now Bihar) state in northeastern India housed the Gupta empire dynasty. From the early fourth to the late sixth century CE, they ruled over northern and parts of central and western India. There was challenge of many assumptions by thorough studies of Indian society and culture. Historians once regarded the Gupta period as India’s classical age.
Gupta Period: From the Beginning to the End
During the Gupta empire, there was the establishment of Indian literature, art, architecture, and philosophical norms. However, many assumptions have been challenged by more extensive studies of Indian society and culture between the Mauryan and Gupta periods. For example, the decimal system of notation, the great Sanskrit epics, Hindu art, and contributions to the disciplines of astronomy, mathematics, and metallurgy were all traditionally attributed to the Gupta era.
Little is known about the Gupta dynasty’s early years. The most reliable sources of knowledge about those days are the trip diaries and writings of Buddhist monks who frequented this portion of the world. In this regard, the travelogues of Fa Hien (Faxian, about 337–422), Hiuen Tsang (Xuanzang, 602–664), and Yijing (I Tsing, 635–713) are invaluable.
During the reign of Srigupta (approximately 240–280 CE), the Gupta Empire was limited to Magadha and maybe a portion of Bengal. Srigupta governed from Pataliputra, near modern-day Patna, like the Mauryas and other Magadha monarchs before him. Ghatotkacha (approximately 280 – 319 CE), Srigupta’s son, succeeded to the throne.
The Gupta empire kings learned the value of having a cavalry from the Kushans, mighty ruler Chandragupta I, who made aflluent use the large army. Chandragupta, I obtained control of vast iron ore mines near his kingdom due to his marriage to Licchhavi Princess Kumaradevi. Metallurgy had progressed to the point where forged iron was no longer just employed to meet internal demands but became a lucrative trading item. The territorial rulers of various areas of India could not defeat Chandragupta I’s overwhelming armed troops and were forced to submit to him. It is thought that towards the conclusion of his reign, the Gupta Empire had already expanded to include Allahabad.
Chandragupta I’s son Samudragupta (approximately 335 – 375 CE), who gained the throne after him, was a military genius who maintained the kingdom’s expansion. Samudragupta shifted his attention to South India after conquering the whole of North India, and by the end of his Southern Campaign, he had added a chunk of it to his kingdom. The Gupta Empire stretched from the northern Himalayas to Krishna and Godavari rivers in the south. During his reign, it expanded from Balkh, Afghanistan, in the west to the Brahmaputra River in the east.
Samudragupta was particularly conscientious about raj dharma (kingly duties) and took extra care to follow Kautilya’s (350–275 BCE) Arthashastra (an economic, social, and political book with explicit instructions on kingdom ruling) to the letter. He gave huge sums of money to various charitable causes, notably the advancement of education. He was a poet and musician in addition to being a brave king and capable administrator. His diverse expertise is demonstrated by the enormous quantity of gold coins he has circulated.
The Allahabad Pillar, an inscription most likely commissioned by future Gupta monarchs, is most emphatic about his human traits. Samudragupta was also a strong believer in fostering friendship among various religious groups. For example, he granted permission and support to Meghavarna, King of Ceylon, to construct a monastery in Bodh Gaya.
Following Samudragupta’s tenure in Gupta empire, there appears to have been a brief power struggle. Ramagupta, his eldest son, became the next Gupta monarch. Banbhatta, a Sanskrit author who lived in the 7th century CE, reported this in his biographical work Harshacharita. What happened next is part of Visakh Dutta’s drama Devi Chandra Gupta, written in Sanskrit.
Ramagupta was defeated by a Scythian ruler of Mathura, according to legend. However, the Scythian monarch was more interested in Queen Dhruvadevi, a renowned scholar, than in the realm itself. Ramagupta offered up Dhruvadevi to his opponent to keep the peace. Chandragupta II, Ramagupta’s younger brother, travelled to meet the enemy disguised with a few of his close aides. He assassinated the Scythian king while rescuing Dhruvadevi. Dhruvadevi spoke out against her husband’s behaviour. Ramagupta was eventually slain by Chandragupta II, who afterwards married Dhruvadevi.
Chandragupta II (approximately 380 – 414 CE), like Samudragupta, was a kind monarch of Gupta empire, a capable leader, and skilled administrator. He expanded his dominion to the Arabian Sea shoreline by defeating the satrap of Saurashtra. Vikramaditya was bestowed upon him for his valiant efforts, and Chandragupta II established a second capital in Ujjain to govern his large empire better. He also made a point of bolstering the navy. As a result, the seaports of Tamralipta and Sopara became important maritime commerce hubs.
He was also a major supporter of art and culture. His court was graced by some of the greatest academics of the day, including the navaratna (nine diamonds). His contributions benefited several humanitarian organisations, orphanages, and hospitals. On the side of the route, rest stops for travellers were built up. During this time, the Gupta Empire reached its pinnacle, and extraordinary advancement was evident in all aspects of life.
Administration & Politics
There was delicate governance in the large Gupta empire kingdom, and the martial method was well-known for its effectiveness. The huge kingdom was divided into smaller pradesha (provinces), with administrative leaders chosen to oversee their administration. In the bureaucratic process, the kings maintained discipline and transparency. The criminal code was lenient, the capital penalty was unheard of, and judicial torture was unheard of. The cities of Mathura and Pataliputra were regarded as lovely by Fa Hien. Pataliputra was portrayed as a city of flowers. People were free to move around. But, according to Fa Hien, law and order ruled supreme, and theft and burglary were uncommon.
The following also says something about the Gupta monarchs’ foresight. Samudragupta accumulated significantly more land in southern India than he cared to include in his kingdom. As a result, he returned the kingdom to the original rulers in several situations and was content to collect taxes from them. He believed that the enormous distance between that area of the country and his capital, Pataliputra, would make good government difficult.
The people had a humble existence in Gupta empire. Commodities were inexpensive, and overall prosperity ensured the fulfilment of their needs. They preferred vegetarianism and abstained from alcohol. Gold and silver coins were issued in large quantities, a typical indicator of the economy’s health. Both within and outside the country, trade and business prospered. Sea transport carried silk, cotton, spices, medicine, priceless gemstones, pearls, precious metals, and steel.
Everyone assumed that Indian iron was impervious to corrosion because of advanced steel craft. The 7 m (23 ft) high Iron Pillar at Delhi’s Qutub complex, built around 402 CE, provides proof of this. The United States’ trade connections with the Middle East have improved. Ivory, tortoiseshell, other African products, and silk and medicinal plants from China and the Far East were among the most popular imports. The main inland commerce items were food, grain, spices, salt, gems, and gold bullion.
The Gupta empire kings understood that maintaining a good relationship amongst the diverse communities was crucial to the empire’s success. They were devoted Vaishnavas (Hindus who revere the Supreme Creator as Vishnu), yet this did not preclude them from tolerant of Buddhist and Jain believers. Donations to Buddhist monasteries were plentiful.
Gupta kings built inns and rest homes for Buddhist monks and other pilgrims, according to Yijing. Under their patronage, Nalanda flourished as a premier education and cultural exchange centre. Northern Bengal, Gorakhpur, Udayagiri, and Gujarat were hotbeds of Jainism. Several Jain institutions existed across the empire, and Jain councils were held regularly.
Education, Science, and Literature
Sanskrit has regained its lingua franca status and has risen to greater heights than before. Epics like Abhijnanasakuntalam, Malavikagnimitram, Raghuvansha, and Kumarsambhaba were written by poet and playwright Kalidasa. Allahabad Prasasti was written by Harishena, a great poet, panegyrist, and flautist. Sudraka wrote Mricchakatika, Vishakhadatta wrote Mudrarakshasa, and Vishnu Sharma wrote Panchatantra. Both Sanskrit and Prakrit linguistics, philosophy, and science were influenced by Vararuchi, Baudhayana, Ishwar Krishna, and Bhartrihari.
Varahamihira contributed to the sciences of astronomy and astrology and wrote the Brihatsamhita. Surya Siddhanta was written by Aryabhata, a brilliant mathematician and astronomer who covered many topics of geometry, trigonometry, and cosmology. Shanku committed himself to write Geography texts. Dhanvantri’s discoveries aided in the refinement and efficiency of the Indian medicinal system of Ayurveda.
Inoculation against contagious diseases was conducted by doctors proficient in surgical operations. Dhanvantri’s birthday is still commemorated on Dhanteras, two days before Diwali. This intellectual renaissance was not limited to the courts of royalty. The complexities of Sanskrit literature, oratory, intellectual discussion, music, and painting were urged to be learned. There was the establishment of several educational institutions, and those that already existed were given continued support.
Culture, Art, and Architecture
The Hindus do not regard the religious, aesthetic, and scientific standpoints as necessarily conflicting. On the contrary, in all their finest work, whether musical, literary, or plastic, these points of view, nowadays so sharply distinguished, are inseparably united, as philosopher and historian Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote in The Arts & Crafts of India & the Ceylon.
Ajanta, Ellora, Sarnath, Mathura, Anuradhapura, and Sigiriya are among the best examples of painting, sculpture, and building. Everywhere, especially in urban planning, they followed the core ideas of Shilpa Shastra. Intricately designed gold coins, jewellery, metal sculptures, stone studded golden stairways, iron pillars, jewellery, and metal sculptures speak volumes about the metalsmiths’ abilities. Carved ivory, wood and lac-work, brocades, and embroidered textiles all prospered throughout this period.
Vocal music, dance, and seven different musical instruments, such as the veena (an Indian stringed instrument), flute, and mridangam (drum), were the norm rather than the exception. As a sign of devotion, these were performed daily at temples. Artists and litterateurs were encouraged to reflect on the images within. They captured its essence in their works in the traditional Indian way. “O thou Lord of all gods, tell me in dreams how to carry out all the task I have in my mind,” says Agni Purana.
The Fall of the Empire
Kumaragupta I (approximately 415 – 455 CE) of Gupta empire reigned over the enormous empire with skill and talent after his father, Chandragupta II, died. He was efficient at maintaining peace and repelling significant challenges from the Pushyamitra clan. His capable son Skandagupta (455–467 CE), the last of the Gupta Dynasty’s sovereign emperors, aided him. He also succeeded in preventing the Huns from invading (Hephthalites). Skandagupta was a smart emperor and a superb scholar. He completed various construction projects for the residents’ benefit, including repairing a dam on Sudarshan Lake in Gujarat. However, the empire’s glory days were drawing to a close.
Following Skandagupta’s death, the dynasty got mired in internal strife. The kings could not rule over such a big empire as the previous emperors had. As a result, law and order began to deteriorate. In addition, the Huns and other foreign nations continued to attack them regularly. The empire’s economic well-being was harmed as a result of this.
Downfall of Gupta Empire
Furthermore, the monarchs were more preoccupied with self-indulgence than preparing for their opponents’ challenges. Ministers and administrative chiefs who were ineffective also followed suit. On the suggestion of his advisors, Gupta King Baladitya released Mihirakula, one of the most powerful Hephthalite monarchs of the time, following his defeat and capture. Later, the Huns returned to wreak havoc on the empire, finally putting an end to it in 550.
The empire eventually fell apart due to circumstances such as significant territorial and imperial power losses caused by former feudatories and the Huna peoples’ invasion of Central Asia. After the downfall of Gupta Empire in the sixth century, India was ruled by a slew of provincial kingdoms.
The Gupta Empire was one of the most prosperous and affluent kingdoms in the history of India. Many establishments, prosperity and resources flourished during this empire.