Gupta Empire

The Gupta Empire was an ancient Indian empire existing from the mid-to-late 3rd century CE to 590 CE. At its zenith, from approximately 319 to 550 CE, it covered much of the Indian subcontinent. This period is called the Golden Age of India by some historians, although this characterization has been disputed by others. The ruling dynasty of the empire was founded by the king Sri Gupta; the most notable rulers of the dynasty were Chandragupta I, Samudragupta, and Chandragupta II. The 5th-century CE Sanskrit poet Kalidasa credits the Guptas with having conquered about twenty-one kingdoms, both in and outside India, including the kingdoms of Parasikas, the Hunas, the Kambojas, tribes located in the west and east Oxus valleys, the Kinnaras, Kiratas, and others.

Gupta Empire in 375 AD

Gupta Empire in 450 AD

The high points of this period are the great cultural developments which took place during the reign of Chandragupta II. All literary sources, such as Mahabharata and Ramayana, were canonised during this period. The Gupta period produced scholars such as Kalidasa, Aryabhata, Varahamihira, Vishnu Sharma and Vatsyayana who made great advancements in many academic fields. Science and political administration reached new heights during the Gupta era. The period gave rise to achievements in architecture, sculpture, and painting that "set standards of form and taste [that] determined the whole subsequent course of art, not only in India but far beyond her borders". Strong trade ties also made the region an important cultural centre and established the region as a base that would influence nearby kingdoms and regions in Burma, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. The Puranas, earlier long poems on a variety of subjects, are also thought to have been committed to written texts around this period.

The empire eventually died out because of many factors such as substantial loss of territory and imperial authority caused by their own erstwhile feudatories, as well as the invasion by the Huna peoples (Kidarites and Alchon Huns) from Central Asia. After the collapse of the Gupta Empire in the 6th century, India was again ruled by numerous regional kingdoms. A minor line of the Gupta clan continued to rule Magadha after the disintegration of the empire. These Guptas were ultimately ousted by the Vardhana ruler Harsha, who established his empire in the first half of the 7th century.

The homeland of the Guptas is uncertain. According to one theory, they originated in the present-day eastern Uttar Pradesh, where most of the inscriptions and coins of the early Gupta kings have been discovered. The proponents of this theory argue that according to the Puranas, the territory of the early Gupta kings included Prayaga, Saketa, and other areas in the Ganges basin. Another prominent theory locates the Gupta homeland in the present-day Bengal region, based on the account of the 7th century Chinese Buddhist monk Yijing. According to Yijing, king Che-li-ki-to (identified with the dynasty's founder Shri Gupta) built a temple for Chinese pilgrims near Mi-li-kia-si-kia-po-no (apparently a transcription of Mriga-shikha-vahana). Yijing states that this temple was located more than 40 yojanas east of Nalanda, which would mean it was situated somewhere in the modern Bengal region. Another proposal is that the early Gupta kingdom extended from Prayaga in the west to northern Bengal in the east.

The Gupta records do not mention the dynasty's varna (social class). Some historians, such as A. S. Altekar, have theorized that they were of Vaishya origin, as some ancient Indian texts prescribe the name "Gupta" for the members of the Vaishya varna. Critics of this theory point out that the suffix Gupta features in the names of several non-Vaishyas before as well as during the Gupta period, and the dynastic name "Gupta" may have simply derived from the name of the family's first king Gupta.Some scholars, such as S. R. Goyal, theorize that the Guptas were Brahmanas, because they had matrimonial relations with Brahmanas, but others reject this evidence as inconclusive. Based on the Pune and Riddhapur inscriptions of the Gupta princess Prabhavati-gupta, some scholars believe that the name of her paternal gotra (clan) was "Dharana", but an alternative reading of these inscriptions suggests that Dharana was the gotra of her mother Kuberanaga.

Gupta is the earliest known king of the dynasty: different historians variously date the beginning of his reign from mid-to-late 3rd century CE. "Che-li-ki-to", the name of a king mentioned by the 7th century Chinese Buddhist monk Yijing, is believed to be a transcription of "Shri-Gupta" (IAST: Śrigupta), "Shri" being an honorific prefix. According to Yijing, this king built a temple for Chinese Buddhist pilgrims near "Mi-li-kia-si-kia-po-no" (believed to be a transcription of Mṛgaśikhāvana).

In the Allahabad Pillar inscription, Gupta and his successor Ghatotkacha are described as Maharaja ("great king"), while the next king Chandragupta I is called a Maharajadhiraja ("king of great kings"). In the later period, the title Maharaja was used by feudatory rulers, which has led to suggestions that Gupta and Ghatotkacha were vassals (possibly of Kushan Empire). However, there are several instances of paramount sovereigns using the title Maharaja, in both pre-Gupta and post-Gupta periods, so this cannot be said with certainty. That said, there is no doubt that Gupta and Ghatotkacha held a lower status and were less powerful than Chandragupta I.

Chandragupta I married the Lichchhavi princess Kumaradevi, which may have helped him extend his political power and dominions, enabling him to adopt the imperial title Maharajadhiraja. According to the dynasty's official records, he was succeeded by his son Samudragupta. However, the discovery of the coins issued by a Gupta ruler named Kacha have led to some debate on this topic: according to one theory, Kacha was another name for Samudragupta; another possibility is that Kacha was a rival claimant to the throne.

Samudragupta, Parakramanka succeeded his father in 335, and ruled for about 45 years, until his death in 380. He took the kingdoms of Ahichchhatra and Padmavati early in his reign. He then attacked the Malwas, the Yaudheyas, the Arjunayanas, the Maduras and the Abhiras, all of which were tribes in the area. By his death in 380, he had incorporated over twenty kingdoms into his realm and 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. Historian Vincent Smith described him as the "Indian Napoleon". He performed Ashwamedha Yajna in which a horse with an army is sent to all the nearby territories of friends and foes. These territorial kings on arrival either accept the king's alliance, who is performing this Yajna, or fight if they do not. The stone replica of the horse, then prepared, is in the Lucknow Museum. The Samudragupta Prashasti inscribed on the Ashokan Pillar, now in Akbar’s Fort at Allahabad, is an authentic record of his exploits and his sway over most of the continent.
Coin of King Samudragupta

Samudragupta was not only a talented military leader but also a great patron of art and literature. He conquered what is now Kashmir and Afghanistan, enlarging the empire. The critical 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 Sirimeghvanna to build a monastery at Bodh Gaya. That monastery was called by Xuanzang as the Mahabodhi Sangharama. He provided a gold railing around the Bodhi Tree.

Chandragupta II "Vikramaditya"

According to the Gupta records, amongst his sons, Samudragupta nominated prince Chandragupta II, born of queen Dattadevi, as his successor. Chandragupta II, Vikramaditya (the Sun of Power), ruled from 375 until 415. He married a Kadamba princess of Kuntala and of Naga lineage (Nāgakulotpannnā), Kuberanaga. His daughter Prabhavatigupta from this Naga queen was married to Rudrasena II, the Vakataka ruler of Deccan. His son Kumaragupta I was married to a Kadamba princess of the Karnataka region. Chandragupta II expanded his realm westwards, defeating the Saka Western Kshatrapas of Malwa, Gujarat and Saurashtra in a campaign lasting until 409. His main opponent Rudrasimha III was defeated by 395, and he crushed the Bengal chiefdoms. This extended his control from coast to coast, established a second capital at Ujjain and was the high point of the empire.

Coin of Vikramaditya

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 Chandragupta 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 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. Many advances were recorded by the Chinese scholar and traveller Faxian (Fa-hien) in his diary and published afterwards.

The court of Chandragupta was made even more illustrious by the fact that it was graced by the Navaratna (Nine Jewels), a group of nine who excelled in the literary arts. Amongst these men was the immortal Kālidāsa whose works dwarfed the works of many other literary geniuses, not only in his own age but in the years to come. Kalidasa was mainly known for his subtle exploitation of the shringara (romantic) element in his verse.


Skandagupta, son and successor of Kumaragupta I is generally considered to be the last of the great Gupta rulers. He assumed the titles of Vikramaditya and Kramaditya. He defeated the Pushyamitra threat, but then was faced with invading Kidarites (sometimes described as the Hephthalites or "White Huns", known in India as the Sweta Huna), from the northwest.
He repelled a Huna attack around 455 CE, but the expense of the wars drained the empire's resources and contributed to its decline. The Bhitari Pillar inscription of Skandagupta, the successor of Chandragupta, recalls the near-annihilation of the Gupta Empire following the attacks of the Kidarites. The Kidarites seem to have retained the western part of the Gupta Empire.
Skandagupta died in 467 and was succeeded by his agnate brother Purugupta.

Decline of the empire

Following Skandagupta's death, the empire was clearly in decline. He was followed by Purugupta (467–473), Kumaragupta II (473–476), Budhagupta (476–495), Narasimhagupta (495—?), Kumaragupta III (530—540), Vishnugupta (540—550), two lesser known kings namely, Vainyagupta and Bhanugupta.
In the 480's the Alchon Huns under Toramana and Mihirakula broke through the Gupta defenses in the northwest, and much of the empire in the northwest was overrun by the Huns by 500. The empire disintegrated under the attacks of Toramana and his successor Mihirakula. It appears from inscriptions that the Guptas, although their power was much diminished, continued to resist the Huns. The Hun invader Toramana was defeated by Bhanugupta in 510. The Huns were defeated and driven out of India in 528 by king Yashodharman from Malwa, and possibly Gupta emperor Narasimhagupta.
The much-weakened Late Guptas, circa 550 CE.
These invasions, although only spanning a few decades, had long term effects on India, and in a sense brought an end to Classical Indian civilization. Soon after the invasions, the Gupta Empire, already weakened by these invasions and the rise of local rulers such as Yashodharman, ended as well. Following the invasions, northern India was left in disarray, with numerous smaller Indian powers emerging after the crumbling of the Guptas. The Huna invasions are said to have seriously damaged India's trade with Europe and Central Asia. In particular, Indo-Roman trade relations, which the Gupta Empire had greatly benefited from. The Guptas had been exporting numerous luxury products such as silk, leather goods, fur, iron products, ivory, pearl, and pepper from centres such as Nasik, Paithan, Pataliputra, and Benares. The Huna invasion probably disrupted these trade relations and the tax revenues that came with them.
Achlon Hun "mihirakula" who weakenend the Gupta Empire

Furthermore, Indian urban culture was left in decline, and Buddhism, gravely weakened by the destruction of monasteries and the killing of monks by the hand of the vehemently anti-Buddhist Shaivist Mihirakula, started to collapse. Great centres of learning were destroyed, such as the city of Taxila, bringing cultural regression. During their rule of 60 years, the Alchons are said to have altered the hierarchy of ruling families and the Indian caste system. For example, the Hunas are often said to have become the precursors of the Rajputs.

The succession of the 6th-century Guptas is not entirely clear, but the tail end recognized ruler of the dynasty's main line was king Vishnugupta, reigning from 540 to 550. In addition to the Hun invasion, the factors, which contribute to the decline of the empire include competition from the Vakatakas and the rise of Yashodharman in Malwa.

The last known inscription by a Gupta emperor is from the reign of Vishnugupta (the Damodarpur copper-plate inscription), in which he makes a land grant in the area of Kotivarsha (Bangarh in West Bengal) in 542/543 CE. This follows the occupation of most of northern and central India by the Aulikara ruler Yashodharman circa 532 CE.

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