Monday 8 May 2017

Gupta Empire of India

The Gupta Empire was an ancient Indian empire founded by Sri Gupta. The empire existed at its zenith from approximately 320 to 550 CE and covered much of the Indian subcontinent. This period is called the Golden Age of India and was marked by extensive inventions and discoveries in science, technology, engineering, art, dialectic, literature, logic, mathematics, astronomy, religion, and philosophy.

Bhitargaon, one of the most complete surviving Gupta temples

Srigupta, considered founder of Gupta Empire reigned from 240 CE to 280 CE. His son and successor Ghatotkacha ruled presumably from c. 280–319. He challenged other feudal lords and conquered their lands. At the beginning of the 4th century, the Guptas established and ruled a few small Hindu kingdoms in Magadha and around modern-day Bihar.


Ghatotkacha (reigned c. 280–319 CE), had a son named Chandragupta (reigned c. 320–335 CE) (not to be confused with Chandragupta Maurya (322–298 BCE), founder of the Mauryan Empire.) He established a realm stretching from the Ganges River to Prayaga (modern-day Allahabad) by 321. He assumed the imperial title of Maharajadhiraja.

Chandragupta I with his queen as depicted on a coin 

Samudragupta (r. c. 335 – c. 380 CE) was the fourth ruler of the Gupta Empire and the son and successor of Chandragupta I. 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.

Coin of Samudragupta, with Garuda pillar. British Museum.

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 don't. 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.

Ashok Pillar, Allahabad

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.  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.

Mahabodhi temple, Bodh Gaya

Ramagupta was the elder son and immediate successor of Samudragupta and succeeded by his younger brother Chandragupta II who ruled from 375 until 415. 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 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 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.

Dashavatara Temple, Deogarh

Close to the Qutub Minar is, an iron pillar, dating back to 4th century CE. The pillar bears an inscription which states that it was erected in the memory of Chandragupta II ( according to some accounts the pillar had been put up by Chandragupta II himself after defeating Vahilakas.). The pillar also highlights ancient India's achievements in metallurgy. The pillar is made of 98% wrought iron and has stood more than 1,600 years without rusting or decomposing.

Iron Pillar, Delhi

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.

Meditating Buddha from the Gupta era, 5th century CE.

Chandragupta II was succeeded by his second son Kumaragupta I who reined from 415 CE to 455 CE. Towards the end of his reign a tribe in the Narmada valley, the Pushyamitras, rose in power to threaten the empire. He is considered the founder of Nalanda University which on July 15, 2016 was declared as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Ruins of Nalanda University

Skandagupta, son and successor of Kumaragupta I is generally considered to be the last of the great Gupta rulers. He defeated the Pushyamitra threat, but then was faced with invading Hephthalites or "White Huns", from the northwest. He repulsed a Hun 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 agnate brother Purugupta.

Coin of Skandagupta period depicting himself

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—530), Kumaragupta III (530—540), Vishnugupta(540—550), two lesser known kings namely, Vainyagupta and Bhanugupta. In the 480's the Hephthalites broke through the Gupta defenses in the northwest, and much of the empire in the northwest was overrun by the Hun by 500. 

The Gupta period is generally regarded as a classic peak of North Indian art for all the major religious groups. The period saw the emergence of the iconic carved stone deity in Hindu art, as well as the Buddha figure and Jain tirthankara figures, these last often on a very large scale. The two great centres of sculpture were Mathura and Gandhara, the latter the centre of Greco-Buddhist art.

Vishnu reclining on the serpent Shesha (Ananta), Dashavatara Temple 5th century

The most famous remaining monuments in a broadly Gupta style, the caves at Ajanta, Elephanta, and Ellora (respectively Buddhist, Hindu, and mixed including Jain) were in fact produced under later dynasties, but primarily reflect the monumentality and balance of Guptan style. Ajanta contains by far the most significant survivals of painting from this and the surrounding periods, showing a mature form which had probably had a long development, mainly in painting palaces.

Ajanta Cave art

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