Gupta Empire

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The Gupta Empire was one of the largest political and military empires in ancient India. It was ruled by the rulers of the Gupta dynasty from around 320 to 600 CE and covered most of Northern India, the region presently in the nation of Pakistan and what is now western India and Bangladesh. The time of the Gupta Empire is referred to as Golden Age of India in science, mathematics, astronomy, religion and Indian philosophy. The peace and prosperity created under leadership of Guptas enabled the pursuit of scientific and artistic endeavors. The decimal numeral system, including the concept of zero, was invented in India during the reign of the Guptas. At the time of its maximum extent, the Gupta empire was considered a Great power. Historians place the Gupta dynasty alongside with the Han Dynasty, Tang Dynasty and Roman Empire as a model of a classical civilization.


The Origins

The origins of the Guptas are shrouded in obscurity. The Chinese traveller I-tsing provides the first evidence of the Gupta kingdom in Magadha. He came to India in 672 CE and heard of 'Maharaja Sri-Gupta' who built a temple for Chinese pilgrims near Mrigasikhavana. I-tsing gives the date for this event merely as '500 years before'. This does not match with other sources and hence we can assume that I-tsing's computation was a mere guess. Some scholars link Guptas with abhir ruler mentioned in Bhagwatam.

The most likely date for the reign of Sri-Gupta is c. 240-280 CE. His successor Ghatotkacha ruled probably from c. 280-319 CE. In contrast to his successor, he is also referred to in inscriptions as 'Maharaja'.

The most accepted theory about the origins of the Guptas is that the Guptas originated from Bengal. The mention of "Varendra Mrigashihavan Stupa" on a mound in Nepal is a strong evidence that the Guptas originated from Bengal. Maharaja Sri-Gupta probably ruled a portion of Northern/Southern Bengal. Later Chandragupta I established his dominion over Magadha through marital policy with the Licchavis. However the origins of the Guptas is still hotly debated.

At the beginning of the 4th century the Guptas established and ruled a few small Hindu kingdoms in Magadha and around modern-day Uttar Pradesh.

The Guptas ascendant

The Gupta dynasty ruled India north of the Vindhya Range during the 4th and 5th centuries. Though not as vast as Mauryan empire, The Gupta era left a deep and wide cultural impact not only in the subcontinent but on the adjacent Asian countries as well. We get plenty of information about this illustrious dynasty through coins, inscriptions, monuments and Sanskrit classics.

The Gupta rulers were great conquerors and good administrators. They checked the infiltration of foreign tribes like Sakas and Hunas and established political stability. This brought on economic prosperity which led to cultural expansion.

Sanskrit language and literature reached its peak during the Gupta era. Poets Kalidasa, Dandi, Visakhadatta, Shudraka, and Bharavi all belong to this period. Many puranas and shastras were composed and famous commentaries on sacred works appeared. Buddhist and Jain literature, which was produced earlier in Pali, Ardhamagadhi and other Prakrit languages, began to appear in Sanskrit. The practice of dedicating temples to different deities came into vogue followed by fine artistic temple architecture and sculpture. Most of the twenty-eight Ajanta caves were constructed during this period. Gupta inscriptions, some of them on "victory pillars" provide first hand information not only about royalty but society in general.

Books on medicine, veterinary science, mathematics, astronomy and astrophysics were written. The famous Aryabhata and Varahamihira belong to this age. Overseas trade and commerce flourished. Hindu and Buddhist mythology, architecture, along with religion took root in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and other countries. The Chinese monk Lui Kang who was in India and Sri Lanka between 399 and 414 noticed general prosperity and peace-loving nature of the people.

This period is regarded as the golden age of Indian culture. The high points of this cultural creativity are magnificent and creative architecture, sculpture, and painting. The wall-paintings of Ajanta Caves in the central Deccan are considered among the greatest and most powerful works of Indian art. The paintings in the cave represent the various lives of the Buddha, but also are the best source we have of the daily life in India at the time.

The Gupta established a strong central government which also allowed a degree of local control. Gupta society was ordered in accordance with Hindu beliefs. This included a strict caste system, or class system. The peace and prosperity created under Gupta leadership enabled the pursuit of scientific and artistic endeavors.

The Gupta Dynasty decreased due to weak rulers and a series of invasions, but many of their cultural and intellectual achievements were saved and transmitted to other cultures and live on today. The Gupta period is considered something of a golden age, marked by great achievements in literature, music, art, architecture, and philosophy. Lui Kang wrote of beautiful cities, fine hospitals and universities, and described a content and prosperous people.

Main Gupta rulers


Ghatotkacha (c. 280–319) CE, had a son named Chandragupta. (Not to be confused with Chandragupta Maurya (340-293 BCE), founder of the Mauryan Empire.) In a breakthrough deal, Chandragupta was married to a Lichchhavi—the main power in Magadha. With a dowry of the kingdom of Magadha (capital Pataliputra) and an alliance with the Lichchhavis, Chandragupta set about expanding his power, conquering much of Magadha, Prayaga and Saketa. He established a realm stretching from the Ganga River (Ganges River) to Prayaga (modern-day Allahabad) by 320. Chandragupta was the first of the Guptas to be referred to as 'Maharajadhiraja' or 'King of Kings;' which was indeed a high and mighty title.


Samudragupta took the kingdoms of Shichchhatra and Padmavati early in his reign. He then attacked the tribes in Malwas, the Yaudheyas, the Arjunayanas, the Maduras and the Abhiras. By his death in 380, he had incorporated over twenty kingdoms into his realm, his rule extended from the Himalayas to the river Narmada and from the Brahmaputra to the Yamuna. He gave himself the titles King of Kings and World Monarch. He performed Ashwamedha yajna (horse sacrifice) to underline the importance of his conquest.

Samudragupta was not only a great ruler but also a great patron of art and literature. The important scholars present in his court were Harishena, Vasubandhu and Asanga. He was a poet and musician himself. He was a firm believer in Hinduism and is known to have worshipped Lord Vishnu. He was considerate of other religions and allowed Sri Lanka's buddhist king to build a monastery at Bodh Gaya.

He was succeeded by his son Ramagupta, who was captured by the Saka Western Satraps ("Kshatrapas") and was soon succeeded by his brother Chandragupta II.

Chandragupta II

Chandragupta II, the Sun of Power (Vikramaditya), ruled until 413. He married his daughter Prabhavatigupta to Rudrasena II, the Vakataka king of Deccan, and gained a valuable ally. Only marginally less war-like than his father, he expanded his realm westwards, defeating the Saka Western Kshatrapas of Malwa, Gujarat and Saurashtra in a campaign lasting until 409, but with his main opponent Rudrasimha III defeated by 395, and crushing the Bengal (Vanga) chiefdoms. This extended his control from coast-to-coast, established a second (trading) capital at Ujjain and was the high point of the empire.

Despite the creation of the empire through war, the reign is remembered for its very influential style of Hindu art, literature, culture and science, especially during the reign of Chandra Gupta II. Some excellent works of Hindu art such as the panels at the Dashavatara Temple in Deogarh serve to illustrate the magnificence of Gupta art. Above all it was the synthesis of the sacred and sensual elements that gave Gupta art its distinctive flavour. During this period, the Guptas were supportive of thriving Buddhist and Jain cultures as well, and for this reason there is also a long history of non-Hindu Gupta period art. In particular, Gupta period Buddhist art was to be influential in most of East and Southeast Asia. Much of advances was recorded by the Chinese scholar and traveller Faxian (Fa-hien) in his diary and published afterwords. The lineage of the Chandra Guptas' can be traced down for generations to the present day, to one Ashok Chandra Gupta.

The court of Chandragupta was made even more illustrious by the fact that it was graced by the navaratna, a group of nine who excelled in the literary arts. Amongst these men was the immortal Kalidasa whose works dwarfed the works of many other literary geniuses, not only in his own age but in the ages to come. Kalidasa was particularly known for his fine exploitation of the sringara (erotic) element in his verse.

Kumaragupta I

Chandragupta II was succeeded by his son Kumaragupta I. Known as the Mahendraditya, he ruled until 455. Towards the end of his reign a tribe in the Narmada valley, the Pushyamitras, rose in power to threaten the empire.


Skandagupta is generally considered the last of the great rulers. He defeated the Pushyamitra threat, but then was faced with invading Hephthalites or "White Huns", known in India as Indo-Hephthalites or Hunas, from the northwest. He repulsed a Huna attack c. 455, But the expense of the wars drained the empire's resources and contributed to its decline. Skandagupta died in 467 and was succeeded by his son Narasimhagupta Baladitya.

Military organization

The Imperial Guptas could not have achieved their successes through force of arms without an efficient martial system. Historically, the best accounts of this comes not from the Hindus themselves but from Chinese and Western observers. However, a contemporary Indian document, regarded as a military classic of the time, the Siva-Dhanur-veda, offers some insight into the military system of the Guptas. Like Indian kings before them, and The Guptas seem to have relied heavily on infantry archers, and the bow was one of the dominant weapons of their army. The Hindu version of the longbow was composed of metal, or more typically bamboo, and fired a long bamboo cane arrow with a metal head. Unlike the composite bows of Western and Central Asian foes, bows of this design would be less prone to warping in the damp and moist conditions often prevalent to the region. The Indian longbow was reputedly a powerful weapon capable of great range and penetration and provided an effective counter to invading horse archers. Iron shafts were used against armored elephants, and fire arrows were also part of the bowmen's arsenal. India historically has had a prominent reputation for its steel weapons. One of these was the steel bow. Due to its high tensility, the steel bow was capable of long range and penetration of exceptionally thick armor. These were less common weapons than the bamboo design and found in the hands of noblemen rather than in the ranks. Archers were frequently protected by infantry equipped with shields, javelins, and longswords.

The Guptas also had knowledge of siegecraft, catapults, and other sophisticated war machines.

The Guptas apparently showed little predilection for using horse archers, despite the fact these warriors were a main component in the ranks of their Scythian, Parthian, and Hepthalite (Huna) enemies. However, the Gupta armies were probably better disciplined. Able commanders like Samudragupta and Chandragupta II would have likely understood the need for combined armed tactics and proper logistical organization. Gupta military success likely stemmed from the concerted use elephants, armored cavalry, and foot archers in tandem against both Hindu kingdoms and foreign armies invading from the Northwest. The Guptas also maintained a navy, allowing them to control regional waters.

The collapse of the Gupta Empire in the face of the Huna onslaught was due not directly to the inherent defects of the Gupta army, which after all had initially defeated these people under Skandagupta. More likely, internal dissolution sapped the ability of the Guptas to resist foreign invasion, as was simultenously occurring in Western Europe and China.

Huna invasions and the end of empire

Narasimhagupta (467-473) was followed by Kumaragupta II (473-476) and Buddhagupta (476-495?). In the 480's the Hephthalite king Toramana broke through the Gupta defenses in the northwest, and much of the empire was overrun by the Hunas by 500. The empire disintegrated under the attacks of Toramana and his successor, Mihirakula; the Hunas conquered several provinces of the empire, including Malwa, Gujarat, and Thanesar, broke away under the rule of local dynasties. It appears from inscriptions that the Guptas, although their power was much diminished, continued to resist the Hunas, and allied with the independent kingdoms to drive the Hunas from most of northern India by the 530's. The succession of the sixth-century Guptas is not entirely clear, but the last recognized ruler of the dynasty's main line was Vishnugupta, reigning from 540 to 550.

The Guptas of Magadha

Gupta arts

Some of India's most magnificent works of art were produced during the Gupta era. The famous cave paintings at Ajanta, the Sarnath Buddha, the Deogarh Dashavatara Temple panels and the Udaygiri Varaha Cave are some marvellous products of the Gupta age. The traditional Buddha iconography from the Gupta empire includes the following: sting-fold style drapery; thicker garments; elongated, idealized bodies; "lotus" eyes; thick, "bee stung" lips; scooped, smooth eyebrows; snail shell curls; and distant, meditative gazes. Also, during the Gupta Empire, metal work and various sculptures were made. The Gupta architecture helped in the construction of Ajanta Caves and Ellora Caves though this may not be confirmed. The most well-known work from the Ajanta caves is the "Bodhisattva Padmapani." This colorful fresco, made with chaff, white plaster, and pigments, portrays a bodisattva holding a lotus flower.

Another example of Gupta Arts are their clothing. The clothing included colorful silks, rayon, and cotton. The clothing would usually be worn as a sarong or a toga. Many of the Gupta clothing and art were adapted from the Greeks.

Legacy of the Gupta Empire

The Gupta Empire is considered by many scholars to be the "classical age" of Hindu and Buddhist art and literature. The Rulers of the Gupta Empire were strong supporters of developments in the arts, architecture, science, and literature. The Guptas circulated a large number of gold coins, called dinars, with their inscriptions. This period is also very rich in Sanskrit literature. Several important works were composed by well-known writers, such as Mrichchakatika or The Little Clay Cart by Shudraka, along with ones by Kalidasa and others. Panchatantra, the animal fables by Vishnu Sharma, and 13 plays by Bhasa, were also written in this period. The Gupta Dynasty also left behind an effective administrative system. During times of peace, the Gupta system was decentralized, with only taxation flowing to the capital at Pataliputra. During times of war however, the government realigned and fought its invaders. The system was soon extinguished in fighting off the Hunnic Invasions.

The most significant achievements of this period, however, were in religion, education, mathematics, art, Sanskrit literature and drama, and Kama Sutra, the principles of pleasure including the art of sex. Hinduism witnessed a crystallization of its components: major sectarian deities, image worship, devotionalism, and the importance of the temple. Education included grammar, composition, logic, metaphysics, mathematics, medicine, and astronomy. These subjects became highly specialized and reached an advanced level. The Indian numeral system—sometimes erroneously attributed to the Arabs, who took it from India to Europe where it replaced the Roman system—and the decimal system are Indian inventions of this period. Aryabhatta's expositions on astronomy in 499, moreover, gave calculations of the solar year and the shape and movement of astral bodies with remarkable accuracy.

In medicine, the Guptas were notable for their establishment and patronage of free hospitals. And although progress in physiology and biology was hindered by religious injunctions against contact with dead bodies, which discouraged dissection and anatomy, Indian physicians excelled in pharmacopoeia, caesarean section, bone setting, and skin grafting. Indeed Hindu medical advances were soon adopted in the Arab and Western worlds.

The great universities in central and eastern India received an influx of students from many parts of the world. Most notable were the universities of Nalanda and Vikramasila.

Contributions to the World and Achievements

The Gupta golden age period contributed much to the world. Two of India's earliest mathematicians, Aryabhatta and Varahamihira, also appeared during this period. Their intellectual advances helped to shape many future breakthroughs in technology. The brilliant minds behind the Gupta Empire made major advances in Algebra and also devised the concept of zero and infinity. One of their most important gifts to the world were symbols of the numbers from 1 to 9. These numerals were later adopted by the Arabs through trade and became known as the hindu-arabic numerals. And these were eventually adopted by the west. Aryabhatta also estimated the number pi to the fourth decimal place.

Gupta astronomers also made advances in astronomy by using their mathematical breakthroughs. It was during this empire that philosophers first proposed that the earth was not flat but was instead round and rotated on an axis by viewing a lunar eclipes. They also made discoveries about gravity and the planets of the solar system, which they used to tell the horoscopes. Doctors also invented several medical instruments, and even performed operations. These ideas spread throughout the world through trade. The Gupta reign was certainly the "Golden Age" of India.

Gupta dynasty

The Gupta dynasty ruled the Gupta Empire of India, from around 320 to 550 CE.

Some of its main rulers were: