Ashoka’s death left a vacuum in India for the next 600 years, during which, several foreign tribes overran India. With the ascent of the Gupta power, the northern States were merged into a single empire. This national revival yielded an excellent administration and trade, all-round development with prevailing order and peace. The tax-burden was low compared to the Mauryan rule and the State provided for safe roads for trade. The period saw the revival of religion, sanskrit literature, art and architecture too.
After the Mauryas, the two main powers were the Satavahanas in the Deccan and the Kushanas in the north. They carried on brisk trade with the Roman empire. These powers were replaced in the middle of the 3rd century A.D. by the Guptas. The Guptas were Vaishyas by caste and followed Vaishnavism.
The main centres of Gupta activity were Magadha (Pataliputra), Prayag (Allahabad), Ujjain (M.P., considered as their second capital), Saket (Ayodhya, U.P.), and Sarnath (Benaras, Varanasi, U.P.).
Sri Gupta and his son Ghatotkacha Gupta were the first definite rulers of this dynasty, who also used the term ‘Maharaja’. However, no definite place is assigned to them over which they ruled.
Chandragupta-I is considered “real founder”. He started the Gupta Era (320 A.D.). His marriage alliance with the Licchavi (North Bihar) princess Kumaradevi enhanced his status and he ruled over Oudh, Magadh and Prayag.
Samudra Gupta’s campaigns have been mentioned by his court poet Harisena in the Prayag Prasasti, which is a valuable source of information for the various States, tribes and their rulers. His victory over the Nagas, Hunas, Vakatakas, etc gave him the title of “Indian Napoleon” (for his conquests), especially the Vakataka ruler Pravarasena (of Berar, Deccan) and Tamralipti (Bengal).
The Guptas were secular rulers and offered religious freedom to the society.
Chandra Gupta-II (“Vikramaditya”) defeated his elder brother Ramagupta and the Saka chief Basana, because Ramagupta had agreed to offer his wife Dhruvadevi to save the kingdom from Basana. To strengthen his position further, he married his daughter Prabhadevi, by his wife Kuber Naga, to the Vakataka king Rudrasena II. The Vakatakas helped him to end the power of the Sakas of Western India.
Vikramaditya is identified with king Chandra of the iron pillar inscription near Qutab Minar, Delhi.
The reign of Vikramaditya also saw the visit of the
Chinese monk Fahien, who wanted to secure some copies of Buddhist manuscripts from India.
Skanda Gupta is famous for saving the empire from the Huna tribe, which had overran Asia and Europe. They suffered a terrible defeat in India.
Skanda Gupta appointed Parnadatta as governor to the Sakas at Saurashtra. The famous Junagarh rock inscription in Girnar hills, Kathiawar, refer to the repair of the embankment of the Sudarshan Lake by Parnadatta and his son Chakrapalita.
The last important Gupta ruler was Vishnu Gupta.
Archaeological sources of Gupta history are available as “prasastis” (charters recording land grants, etc). They are called Tamra sasanas or Tamrapatras (copper plates).
Gupta coins were first issued by Samudra Gupta, as the golden “Dinara”. He also issued Chandragupta and Kumaradevi type coins to commemorate his father’s marriage to the Licchavi princess.
The first silver coins were issued by Chandragupta-II, on imitation of the western Satraps. Copper coins were also issued.
Brahmanical faith, which had been eclipsed for long by the new sects of Buddhism and Jainism, achieved immense splendour under the Vaishnavite Guptas, who also encouraged to revive use of Sanskrit.
Devi worship in various forms achieved importance during Gupta period. Lakshmi was worshipped as consort to Vishnu and Parvati to Shiva.
Emergence of Bhakti cult, stressing on worship, devotion and love towards a personal God, gained importance during the Gupta period.
Literature and intellectual progress also manifested unparalleled progress. Sanskrit was honoured as the State language.
Some important scholars/works of the period are:
(a) Vishnusharma — wrote Panchatantra, a collection of moral stories.
(b) Harisena—author of Prayag (Allahabad) prasasti (insciption)—gives account of Samudragupta’s campaigns.
(c) Vishakhadutta — wrote Mudra Rakshas (on Mauryas and Nandas) and Devichandragupta (on Chandragupta-II and Dhruva Devi).
(d) Shudraka—wrote Mricchakatika (a drama on a Brahmin merchant Charudutt and a courtesan Vasantsena, portrays city life).
(e) Bharavi—epic poem Kirtarjuneya (Arjuna and the disguised hunter Shiva).
(f) Dandin—Dasakumaracharita (stories of 10 princes).
(g) Subandhu—Vasavdatta (story of prince Kandarpketu and princess Vasavdatta).
(h) Banabhatta—a later date writer—wrote Harshacharita and Kadambari—he was court poet of Harsha Vardhana.
(i) Amarsimha—a lexicographer—he wrote Amarakosa, he listed various metals and alloys.
(j) Kamandaka—Nitisara (on Chandragupta-I’s polity and administration)— is parallel to Kautilya’s Arthasastra.
(k) Puranas—religious literature was made more appealing. Puranas were finally written down.
(l) Kalidasa—greatest literary scholar—wrote the dramas Abhijnanasakuntalam (Shakuntala), Vikramorvasiya, Malvikagnimitra; The epics Raghuvamsa and Kumarasambhava; The poetries Meghaduta and Ritusamhara.
Nalanda (Rajagriha, Bihar) was founded by Kumaragupta (A.D. 450) and was famous for its tests. There was free education. It had 10,000 students, 1,500 teachers and 300 classrooms, a big three-storeyed library. Huen Tsang who came later, during Harsha, studied here for five years. Itsing (A.D. 675) records a donation by Sri Gupta, for the University.
Guptas started using bricks for temples (E.g. Bhitargaon temple, Kanpur). The Dasavatara temple, dedicated to Vishnu, at Deogarh, Jhansi shows a transitory State from flat roof temples to the shikhara style.
In sculpture, purely indigenous patterns were adopted—instead of the Kushana period Buddha with shaven head, we have the Buddha with curly hair now, and transparent drapery was used along with various mudras (postures). The main centres were Sarnath (Benaras), Mathura, Pataliputra (Patna).
Some famous sculptures of Gupta period are:
—The seated or preaching Buddha, giving his first sermon, discovered in sandstone, at Varanasi.
—The standing Buddha, at Mathura, in red sandstone.
—The great boar—as Vishnu’s incarnation—Udaigiri caves.
The art of painting reached its zenith during the Gupta period and is manifested at Bagh caves (Gwalior, M.P.) and Ajanta caves (Maharashtra).
Aryabhatta—mathematician and astronomer of Gupta period—wrote Aryabhattiya and Surya Siddhanta. He explained the eclipses, shape of earth, its rotation and revolution and gave important results in maths too.
Brahmagupta—of Ujjain—had an observatory.
Varahmihir wrote Jyotishsastra and Pancha siddhantika on astronomy.
The central administrative system of the Gupta era comprised the Mantri/Sachiv (modern Chief Minister), Bhatasvapati (commander of infantry and cavalry), Kataka (commander of elephants), Dandapasadhikaran (police chief), Kumaramatyas and Ayuktas (provincial heads).
Each province was called bhukti and was under such officials as uparikas, bhojikas, goptas, rajasthaniyas, etc.
The provinces were divided into vishyas, under charge of Vishyapatis. The lowest division (village) was under the gramika (village headman).
Land was properly classified into kshetra (cultivable), khila (wasteland), donations for brahmins (agrahara grants), donations for religious purposes (Devagrahara land grants) and so on.
The land revenue system was put in charge of Dhruvadhikaranika. The pustapala was an officer especially appointed to record various land transactions.
The receivers of land grants had the right to enjoy land revenue from the farmers. They could even punish and try thieves. Thus, there was serfdom (forced work) and oppression of the peasantry.
A number of taxes had to be paid to the king. These were: Bhaga (1/6th of produce). Bhoga (taxes in kind fruits, wood, flowers, etc.). Kara (periodic tax on farmers). Uparikara (extra taxes). Udianga (probably water tax). Sulka (modern customs tax). Klipta and Upaklipta (purchase and sales taxes).
There were two classes of merchants—settled (sresthi) and caravan traders (Sarthavaha). The group of merchants called as “puga” constituted the advisory council in cities. Its president was the Nagarsresthi. Town mayor was called Purupala.
The Guptas spread Indian culture to the S.E. Asian countries, especially Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism.
The Srenis (traders unions or guilds) had immense powers. Not only did they perform economic functions but also judicial and executive ones. Some of them even issued seals and coins and had their own militia (called Srenibala, in the Kalachuri inscriptions).
Narada and Brihaspati smritis lay down the rules for merchants. The normal rate of interest was 15% per annum.
The most important metal of the Gupta age was iron.
The blacksmith acquired the second most important place in the village economy. The iron pillar (of Chandra Gupta-II) is a fine example of iron workers of Gupta period.
The term golden age can be applied mainly for the economically upper classes, and that too in Northern India only. Though art and architecture flourished, it was confined as a “State art”. There was flourishing trade with the southeast, but, on the whole, there was decline of trade centres and towns. Sanskrit literature, undoubtedly, made immense progress, but it was more of a state language, limited to the learned ones.
The caste-system became rigid during this period. Manu, for instance, had put several restrictions on the woman and the shudras. In no way was the tax-burden on the common man low. The flourishing money—economy during their predecessors (Kushanas and Satvahanas)—also slowly broke down. Fahien mentions use of “cowries” (shells) as the “common medium of exchange”, indicating shortage of coins.