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(Covers the topics of history of Gupta empire, ancient period of Indian history, art and architecture of Gupta empire, Gupta empire art and architecture , Gupta dynasty) THE BACKGROUND TO THE RISE OF THE GUPTA EMPIRE in Ancient Indian History
The Satavahanas remained a
prominent power in northern Deccan (Andhra region) for more than three
centuries (first century BC to the year 220 AD). They acted as a stabilizing
factor in the Deccan. They gave political unity and economic prosperity to
Southern India. In the North the
Kushanas emerged as a big political power. Under Kanishka the Kushana empire
had reached its peak. He was a great conqueror and a patron of Buddhism. The
Satavahana and the Kushana empires came to an end in the middle of the third
The rise of the Guptas to power
was an event of great significance. The Gupta empire once more brought unity
and peace over nearly the whole of northern India. It was far less extensive
than the Mauryan empire, but was more steady and more enduring.
The origin of the Guptas in Indian History is
shrouded in mystery. The founder of the Gupta dynasty was Srigupta, who
probably was only a minor chief. He was followed by his son Ghatotkachagupta.
He was styled Maharaja, but we do not know much about him. After Ghatotkacha¬gupta,
Chandragupta I came to the throne.
SOURCES TO RECONSTRUCT THE AGE OF THE GUPTAS
There are plenty of sources, both
literary and archaeological about the empire of the Guptas.
The main literary sources may be
listed as follows :
1. Literary Accounts of Fa-hien : Fa-hien visited India during the
reign of Chandragupta II (375-414 AD). His book Fo-kwo-ki (The Travels of
Fahien) tells us about the city of Pataliputra, the two grand Buddhist
monasteries flourishing in the city, and the social and religious conditions
that prevailed in the early years of the 5th century AD. Fa-hien visited almost
all parts of India including Pataliputra, Nalanda, Mathura, Kanauj, Kashi
(Varanasi) and Kusinara and left a detailed account of the routes and places he
had visited. It helped not only to reconstruct the history of Buddhism but also
to know the life of the people.
2. Hiuen-Tsang’s Memoirs : Hiuen-Tsang is an important source on
the Harsha era. He visited India in the 7th Century AD. He came in search of
the Buddhist texts and stayed in India for about 15 years (630 to 645 AD). His
memoirs Siyuki (Memoirs of the countries of the West) present a trustworthy
account of political, social and religious conditions of Harsha’s times.
Hiuen-Tsang visited the Chalukya ruler Pulakesin’s kingdom also.
Hiuen-Tsang’s account reveals
that Pataliputra and Vaishali were in a state of decline, whereas Prayag and
Kanauj had become important centres of attention. The Chinese pilgrim takes
notice of unfortunate lot of the so-called untouchables and scavengers, etc.
3. Works of Kalidasa : He was the greatest literary genius of the
Gupta period. Abhijanasakuntalam, popularly known as Shakuntala, is regarded as
one of the best literary productions of the world. Malavikagnimitra and
Vikramorvasiya are two other excellent dramas written by him. His literary
skill was also displayed in the two epics — Raghuvamsa and Kumarasambhava and
in the lyric poetry of Ritu Samhara and Meghaduta.
4. Other Literary Works : The Vayu Purana and Vishnu Purana enable
historians to identify some of the Gupta rulers and know about the extent of
their kingdoms. The Smritis also give lot of information in respect of the
Gupta society. Vishakadatta’s Devi Chandra-guptam, a Saiiskrit drama, relates
the early life of Chandragupta II.
1.Allahabad Pillar Inscription : The archaeological sources usually
fall into three main categories — the Monuments, Inscriptions and Coins. The
Allahabad Pillar Inscription is in Sanskrit. It relates the skill the king
Samudragupta displayed in many battles which left scars all over his body. His
conquests are discussed in detail in this chapter.
2. The Vishnu Temple at Deogarh : The Vishnu Temple at Deogarh near
Jhansi stands on a wide basement with a flight of steps in the middle of each
side. The basement was decorated with superb sculptured panels. The temple
marked a change from the early flat-roofed temples to the later style with high
Shikharas. It had a spire and its roof was supported by pillars. The inner
chamber or the Garbha-Griha was surrounded by four porticoes.
3. Nalanda University : It was the most famous of the educational
institutions of ancient India. Situated near Rajagriha in Bihar, it was founded
by Kumaragupta in the middle of the 5th Century AD. It developed into a famous
centre of learning under the patronage of the Gupta rulers and of Harsha who
generously made rich endowments in its favour.
4. The GuptaSculptures
: The Gupta artists made beautiful statues of Buddha. A very large number of
statues of Buddha, Boddhisattvas, Vishnu and other Brahmanical Gods have been
discovered in Samath and Mathura. The image of the Seated Buddha at Samath and
the Standing Buddha discovered at Mathura are the most outstanding specimens of
Gupta sculpture. The Gupta sculptures discarded foreign influence and adopted a
style which was totally Indian in character.
Political Chronology of Gupta Empire:
CHANDRAGUPTA I (320-335AD)
Chandragupta I assumed the title
of Maharajadhiraj. He was the first ruler to raise the power and prestige of
the Gupta dynasty. He married the Lichchhavi princess Kumaradevi. His accession
is said to have taken place in 320 AD and he ruled up to 335 AD. Chandragupta’s
authority extended to Magadha (South Bihar), Prayag (Allahabad), Saketa
(Ayodhya) and neighbouring areas.
SAMUDRAGUPTA (335-375 AD)
Chandragupta I was followed by
his son Samudragupta. He turned out to be one of the ablest of the Gupta
rulers. Allahabad Pillar Inscription refers to the skill he displayed in many
battles which left scars all over his body. The Inscription is in Sanskrit and
was composed by his court poet Harisena.
The Inscription shows that
Samudragupta’s conquests were of varying degrees. He first defeated the rulers
of northern India and annexed their dominions. They included the Nagas of
Mathura, Padmavati (near Gwalior) and Ahicchetra (the region in the
neighbourhood of Bareli) and the ruling chiefs of western Uttar Pradesh and
The king then marched against the
southern rulers. He won victories over twelve rulers including those of Orissa,
Andhra and Tamil Nadu. He defeated these rulers, but did not annex their
kingdoms. He allowed them to rule as tributaries of the Gupta empire..
And lastly, the frontier monarchs
and tribes and a few other kings, being impressed by his victories submitted of
their own free will and agreed to pay
tributes to the emperor. They
included the rulers of Bengal, Assam, Nepal, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Samudragupta issued gold coins to celebrate his conquests and also performed
Ashvamedha (horse- sacrifice).
Samudragupta was not only a great conqueror, he was also a scholar, a poet and
a lover of music. He was called Kaviraja, that is the King of Poets. His coins
show him playing on lute, that is Vina. He worshipped Lord Vishnu, but he
showed respect for all religious faiths. He was also a patron of learning.
CHANDRAGUPTA VIKRAMADITYA OR CHANDRAGUPTA H (375-414 AD)
In the words of B.G. Gokhale, “the reign of
Chandragupta II marks the zenith of the Gupta glory” Chandragupta II, also
known as Chandragupta Vikramaditya, had not to build an empire for himself;
this task had already been accomplished by his father.
His main achievement was the
overthrow of the Saka power in Gujarat and Kathiawar peninsula. With a view to
pursuing his plan against the Sakas, Chandragupta married Kubemaga, a Naga
princess. He gave the hand of his daughter to Rudrasena II, the Vakataka
prince. Through these matrimonial alliances, Chandragupta secured the
friendship of those rulers who could be of much service to him in his campaign
against the Saka satraps. Having thus strengthened his position, he attacked
the Saka satraps. The end of the Saka rule came about some time between 395 and
400 AD. By this brilliant conquest Chandragupta obtained the title of Sakari.
An Inscription on the Iron Pillar
(near Kutab Minar in Delhi) records the conquests of a king named Chandra. If
he is identical with Chandragupta II, we can say with near certainty that he
defeated a united front of his enemies in Vanga (Bengal) and his victorious
arms reached the northern Afghanistan (Vahlikas).
HIS PLACE IN HISTORY
Chandragupta Vikramaditya is best
known for his humane administration, his personal wisdom and his patronage of
arts and literature. Fa-hien who visited India during the reign of
Chandragupta II visited almost
all parts of India and has left exact details about the places he saw and life
of the people as a whole.
FA-HIEN’S ACCOUNT OF INDIA
We have already narrated that
Fa-hien, the Chinese pilgrim, came to India to study Buddhism. He travelled all
over India for more than 13 years. On his return to China he wrote a book,
called Fo-kwo-ki (The Travels of Fa- hien). He mentions that the City of
Pataliputra has two grand monasteries — one of the Hinayan and the other of the
Mahayan. He felt amazed to see the grandeur of Ashoka’s Palace which still
existed when Fa-hien visited Pataliputra. The wealth and prosperity of the
Capital City deeply impressed him. There was an excellent hospital run by the
wealthy citizens of the town.
Although the King was a devout Vaisnava,
the relations between the followers of various sects were cordial. The people
were honest and law-abiding and free from unnecessary restrictions on their
movement; they could go wherever they desired to go. The criminal law was mild
and the punishment of death remained unknown.
KUMARAGUPTA I (414-455 AD)
Chandragupta was succeeded by
Kumaragupta I, who enjoyed a long reign of some 40 years. He maintained the
integrity of the empire. His principal title was Mahendraditya, although many
other titles are found on the gold coins issued by him. The material evidence
suggests that it was a period of peace and plenty, during which art, music,
literature and foreign trade flourished all over the kingdom. Towards the end
of his reign, the Hunas invaded the north-west frontier of the empire.
Kumaragupta himself could not proceed to the battlefield because he was very
old. Skandagupta, his son, defeated the enemy after a fierce struggle.
THE LATER GUPTA RULERS
Kumaragupta had died before his
son Skandagupta could return from the battlefield. Hunas, a tribe of nomads
from Central Asia, invaded the territories on the north-west again. This
invasion took place in 458 AD. Skandagupta was a horoic figure who defeated the
Hunas again. But the victory was not easy.
Skandagupta was succeeded by
Purugupta, whose reign was short and uneventful. He died in 477 AD. The history
of the ensuing period is hazy and vague. The process of the break up of the
mighty empire had now set in. The last known king of the Imperial Gupta line,
Vishnugupta, probably died in 550 AD.
CAUSES FOR THE DECLINE OF GUPTA EMPIRE
Thus came to an end a mighty
empire. The causes of its decline and fall were many.' An important reason
seems to be the repeated invasions of the Hunas who had occupied a vast area
of Punjab and some parts of Central India.
But the most important reason was
that after Skandagupta, most of the Gupta kings were engaged in disputes of
succession. Various parts of the empire had come under the sway of the
different branches of the Gupta family.