The Imperial Guptas: Masters of Statecraft (320 CE - 510 CE)

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    Nestled quietly in a roundabout in the Allahabad Fort at Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh is a slender, polished Chunar sandstone column. Terminating abruptly without any capital, it is still immediately identified as an Ashokan Pillar, much like the ones at Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi or at Rampurva in Uttar Pradesh.

    But this pillar is much more than just an inscribed Ashokan column. This pillar also carries an inscription by Samudra Gupta (reign. c. 330 – 375 CE), the great Emperor of the Gupta Dynasty, whose capital was Pataliputra, in present-day Bihar. The inscription which is famous as the Prayag Prashasti of Samudra Gupta (‘prashasti’ meaning ‘eulogy’), is the single most important document for students of the Gupta Empire.

    It is ironic that what was originally an Ashokan edict is our primary source to know about another great king, who lorded over an empire as large as that of the Mauryans – Samudra Gupta.

    Interestingly, the original Ashokan edict is addressed to the Mahamatras of Kausambhi (in Uttar Pradesh) and was moved here to Allahabad later but most definitely before 1575 CE, when the city was founded once again by Mughal Emperor Akbar. The Mughal Crown Prince Salim (later Emperor Jahangir) cut an inscription through the Ashokan edicts on this pillar in the 17th century CE.

    A Glimpse of Gupta Glory

    The Prayag Prashasti, written in Sanskrit in a typically panegyrical (a text/poem in praise of someone) form by Harisena, a court poet and minister of Samudra Gupta, mentions the political and military achievements of the Emperor along with his gunas or virtues. It also mentions the antecedents of his dynasty.

    The prashasti tells us (in lines 28-30) that the Gupta Dynasty was founded by Maharaja Shri Gupta, who was succeeded by Maharaja Ghatotakacha Gupta. They were both lesser rulers as seen from their title. Samudra Gupta then tells us of his father Maharajadhiraja Chandra Gupta and his mother, the Lichchhavi Princess, Kumaradevi. This was an important connection as he calls himself the Lichchhavi-dauhitra, ‘grandson of the Lichchhavis’. The prashasti also tells us in great detail about Samudra Gupta’s conquests of the numerous smaller kingdoms that covered the subcontinent then, allowing us to build a picture of the subcontinent in those times.

    According to another one of Samudra Gupta’s inscriptions – the Eran Inscription (found at Eran in Sagar District of Madhya Pradesh) – he was chosen to succeed his father because of his devotion, righteous conduct and valour. Eran was a very important city in Central India and key to the rule of this region in even earlier times. This valour talked about in the inscription is very clearly seen in the numerous wars of conquest and subjugation fought by him. The inscription also mentions his queen Dattadevi, whom he says he won by his ‘valour, physical strength and courage, fulfilling the conditions of her father’. Samudra Gupta went on to donate an image of Vishnu here at Eran.

    The Allahabad Prashasti gives us a very exhaustive list of Samudra Gupta’s conquests. Interestingly, as opposed to Ashoka’s message of peace and non-violence, Samudra Gupta is proud of his battle victories and upholds the principles of war and aggression. Lines 13, 19, 21, 22, and 23 tell us of his conquests. ‘Samudra Gupta,’ says the Prashasti, “… was a holy warrior who had decided to free India (Northern India) from the yoke of foreign rulers and he thus followed a policy of extermination and annihilation of them.’ He pardoned those who surrendered and was ruthless to those who disobeyed him. In the north, he subjugated the Malavas, Arjunayanas, Yaudheyas, Madrakas (Punjab), Abhiras and other tribes. He turned his armies to the east and conquered Samatata (Bengal), Kamarupa (Brahmaputra Valley in Assam), Davaka (Assam east of Kamarupa), Nepala (modern Nepal) and Kartipura (Uttarakhand).’

    After defeating the kings of the north, the Emperor turned his armed might towards Dakshinapatha and went through the southern states like the proverbial hot knife through butter. The list of his conquests includes the Naga Kings (Achyuta Naga, Naga Sena and Ganapati Naga, all probably rulers of the Nagas of Padmavati (North-Central India with their capital at Pawaya in Gwalior District of MP); Mahendra of Kosala (modern Odisha); Vyagharaja of Mahakantara (in Central India); Mantaraja of Kerala (near Sonpur in MP and not to be confused with the state of Kerala); Mahendra of Pishtapura (in the Godavari Valley); Swamidutta of Kottura (near Ganjam in Odisha); Damana of Erandapala (near Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh); Vishnugopa of Kanchi (a Pallava ruler of Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu); Nilaraja of Avamukta (also in the Godavari Valley); Hastivarman of Vengi (probably in Nellore, TN); Ugrasena of Palakka (also in Nellore District of TN); Kubera of Devarasthra (Visakhapatnam in AP); Dhanamjaya of Kushthalapura (erstwhile North Arcot District of TN); and all the kings of the Southern regions. He defeated these rulers of the South but did not annex their kingdoms, probably a practical approach considering the distance from his capital city.

    Samudra Gupta was truly an empire builder and his reign saw the fledgling Gupta state evolve into a mighty empire that covered almost all of Northern India, from undivided Punjab to Assam, and from the foothills of the Himalayas all the way to Madhya Pradesh. His ‘indirect dominion’ thanks to his digvijaya (conquest of all quarters) of the South extended deep into Southern India. The Prayag Prashasti tells us that Samudra Gupta was a ferocious warrior, excelling in the use of all weapons and his body was covered in hundreds of scars from his many battles. It adds that he was a brilliant poet; a talented musician who excelled at playing the veena (lyre); a proficient writer and a scintillating speaker!

    With victory came wealth, and it is no wonder that Samudra Gupta issued a wide range of fabulous gold coins called ‘dinars’ and which followed the standard set by the Kushanas. He commemorated his parents in one, his skills as a veena-player in another, his prowess as a conqueror (standard-bearer type of coins), his skill as a warrior (battle axe type of coins and archer type of coins), his skills as a hunter (tiger slayer type of coins), and finally his fame as a chakravartin (an ideal ruler) in his Ashwamedha coins.

    Despite the panegyrical nature of the Allahabad Prashasti, there are some obvious facts about Samudra Gupta that cannot be denied. He brought together a huge empire by conquering a large number of states in his vicinity and also ensuring that neighbouring states paid tribute to him. This speaks of a man with a great sense of statecraft and state-building, coupled with a canny sense of war. Vincent Smith, the Irish Indologist who also served as an administrator in India, has aptly called him the ‘Napoleon of India’. His policies of peace and reconciliation, after defeating 21 monarchs, speak very highly of his sense of propriety.

    Harisena tells us that the king was also a great exponent of the arts. He was very learned and loved the company of poets and scholars. This is also reflected in the writings of Kalidasa, who was most probably his poet laureate. His skill as a musician is also seen reflected in his coins, which depict him as a lyrist (veena player).

    Samudra Gupta welded together the first real Indian empire in the Ganga-Yamuna plains after the Mauryas. Under him, the empire stretched from the fertile plains of the Brahmaputra to the tributaries of the Indus, and from the plains of the sub-Himalayan regions to the Narmada. It was the largest stretch of continuous agrarian lands in the era. No wonder he was able to ensure peace and prosperity.

    Samudra Gupta’s reign ended in 375 CE and he was followed to the throne by his son Chandra Gupta II (375-415 CE). Chandra Gupta II continued where his father had left off. He expanded the empire further, driving the Gupta armies west to defeat the Western Kshatrapas and then subsequently to annex their entire kingdom, which covered Western Madhya Pradesh, modern Gujarat and parts of North-Western Maharashtra. He is supposed to have extended the north-western borders of his kingdom to the banks of the Indus and to have consolidated Bengal in the east and made the Narmada his southern border. South of the Narmada in Central India lay the young but formidable state of the Vakatakas.

    Demonstrating his brilliance at not just warfare but also at statecraft, Chandra Gupta II married his daughter Prabhavati Gupta to a young prince who was to become Vakataka King Rudrasena II (355-380 CE). Rudrasena’s early death led to a long regency of the Dowager Queen Prabhavati Gupta in the name of her sons, and this brought the Vakataka Empire into lockstep with the Guptas. She was a very good and strong ruler and she brought peace and prosperity to the Deccan and Vidarbha or north-eastern Maharashtra.

    The union with the Vakatakas secured the southern borders of the Gupta Empire throughout its existence and also opened up two-way trade routes. The Guptas were Hindu rulers who patronised mainly the Vaishnavite religion and their coins all bear the image of the Goddess Laxmi on the reverse. On the other hand, the Vakatakas were great champions of Buddhism and both these religions coexisted. Prabhavati Gupta was an acknowledged Vaishnavite and the temples at Ramtek, with their fascinating Varaha and Narasimha images, are a direct result of this. Truly, it was an age of cooperation and coexistence.

    The Gupta Empire reached its zenith during the reign of Chandra Gupta II and the Chinese pilgrim Fa Hein has left us a very vivid record of a peaceful and prosperous land. Art, architecture, music and writing all flourished during his reign.

    Fa Hein reached India in 405 CE, at the very peak of Chandra Gupta II’s reign. Though Fa Hein does not mention Chandra Gupta II by name, it is very clear from his travelogue that he spent 6 years in the Gupta Empire. He talks of a land at peace, where movement of people was free, where governing officials were paid in cash to prevent them from taking bribes, where monasteries and temples were exempt from taxes, and where the highways were free of menace of thieves and dacoits.

    He goes on to tell us that he suffered no troubles during his travels, there were rest-houses (dharamshalas) for travellers and hospitals for the poor where medicines were distributed free. All this speaks of a strong and benevolent government. He also makes some interesting observations, that the people of the cities were mainly vegetarian and avoided meat and onions. The king, he says, was Hindu and worshipped Vishnu, but Hinduism and Buddhism flourished side by side and people were free to worship whom they wished.

    Fa Hein spent 3 years in the capital city of Pataliputra and was very impressed by the annual chariot processions of huge Buddha and Bodhisattva images, the free hospital which distributed not just medicines but also food, and the prosperity of the people of the city. Fa Hein inadvertently ends up describing the modes of transport in his writings, talking about highways laden with bullock carts and numerous sea ports with voyages to China, South East Asia and West Asia. In 411 CE, Fa Hein left India by ship from the Gupta port of Tamralipti en route to Sri Lanka.

    Chandra Gupta II’s inscription on the Mehrauli Iron Pillar in the Qutb Complex in Delhi commemorates a Vishnu temple built by him and also celebrates the amazing metallurgical skills of his times. His conquest of the Kshatrapas meant that the Gupta Empire now spread from coast to coast. He dedicated caves at Udayagiri (in Madhya Pradesh) and his inscription there declares him a sovereign ruler who went on a digvijaya (conquest of all quarters).

    In all probability, he extended his reign into Afghanistan as there is a small inscription in Gupta Brahmi on the Sacred Rock of Hunza, which mentions a king called ‘Chandra’. Buddhism did not suffer in any way during his reign, and there is a large donative inscription at Sanchi dated to 412-13 CE and inserted into a railing near the Eastern Gateway of the Great Stupa.

    Chandra Gupta II continued the traditions of minting exquisite gold coins and they show him as a ruler (standard bearer and Chhatrapati types), an archer and as a horse rider. His most interesting gold dinars though show him as a lion hunter killing a lion with his bow. Many historians believe this is an allusion to his victory over Gujarat, homeland of the Asiatic lion. Even more interestingly, he issued silver coins in the Kshatrapa style to ensure monetary continuity in these conquered lands. Many of his coins call him ‘Parama-Bhagvata’, ‘a devotee of Vishnu’.

    Chandra Gupta II was a great king and this is made very clear by the title ‘Vikramaditya’ claimed by him in the Mathura inscription, which is dated to 380 CE, and which records the installation of two Shivalingas by a person named Udita Acharya, probably a learned teacher. Thanks to this self-assumed title of ‘Vikramaditya’, Chandra Gupta II is also often mixed up with the legendary hero Vikramaditya, after whom the Vikrama Era of Ujjain was named. This era, dating to 58 BCE, is one of the calendrical systems of ancient India. It is attributed to a fictional warrior king of Ujjain called Vikramaditya, who supposedly freed India from foreign rule. Sadly, we know better today, that it commemorates the fall of Ujjain to the Indo-Scythian ruler, Azes.

    Chandra Gupta II was followed by his son Kumara Gupta (415-455 CE) from his queen Dhruvadevi. He also had another queen Kuveranaga (a Princess of the Naga Dynasty), the mother of Prabhavati Gupta. Kumara Gupta stabilised the Gupta Empire and did not really make many more extensions to it. Interestingly, though, he performed the Ashwamedha sacrifice though we have no real evidence of his military conquests.

    Historians have theorised that he defeated the Traikutakas of Western Maharashtra and the Aulikaras of Central India but we have no real proof of this, apart from vague mentions in the Bilsad pillar inscription (415-15 CE) of Kumara Gupta. He had two sons, Skanda Gupta and Puru Gupta.

    Multiple faiths flourished during his reign and his coins feature Kartikeya, the son of Shiva, seated on a peacock. His own name ‘Kumara’ is one of the names of Kartikeya as is ‘Skanda’, the name of his son.

    The final years of Kumara Gupta’s reign were not easy as North-West India saw invasions from the Hunas. His territory shrank and so did his rank. Kumara Gupta’s Mankuwar (Allahabad District, UP) Buddha image inscription (448 CE) merely refers to him as a ‘Maharaja’, instead of ‘Maharajadhiraja’, giving rise to speculation that the Empire was fragmenting or being swallowed by another.

    Around the end of the 5th and very early 6th CE, the Huna horde made its way into India via the Khyber Pass. The Hunas were a confederation of Hunnic tribes including the Hephthalites, Kidarites Xionites, Alchon Huns and Nezak Huns. They were Central Asian peoples who burst westward out of the Central Asian Steppe with one group going to Europe and the other descending into India.

    The Kidarites came first and established themselves in Afghanistan in the 4th CE. The Alchon Huns came later. They eradicated the Kidarites and made their way into Punjab in the late 5th CE. They carried out a massive pogrom against Buddhists and destroyed the monasteries and stupas at Taxila between 460-470 CE. By 480 CE, they were knocking on India’s doors.

    Skanda Gupta (455-67 CE) succeeded his father Kumara Gupta in 455 CE. Skanda Gupta inherited an empire in disarray. The Hunas were beating down the doors of his kingdom, pillaging everything in sight and wantonly seizing property. Skanda Gupta was fighting the Hunas when he received news of his father’s death. In his pillar inscription at Bhitari (not far from Ghazipur in UP), he tells us how after anointing himself king, he triumphed over all his enemies.

    The death of Kumara Gupta had exposed the jugular of the empire; there was no clear successor and this perceived weakness made many a vassal eager to shake off the imperial yoke. Skanda Gupta put down all these revolts harshly before taking the battle back to the Hunas. He defeated them decisively, “... the earth trembled and the noise of his arrows was like the roaring of the river Ganga” says his Bhitari edict.

    Thus Skanda Gupta defeated the Hunas but at great economic cost and heavy losses to his own armies. He was a good king and was engaged in a number of public works as is seen in his Junagadh inscription of 455-56 CE in Gujarat, where he repaired the dam on the Sudarshana Lake, built originally by Chandragupta Maurya (4th BCE) and then repaired by Rudradaman, the Kshatrapa. He appointed ministers to rule in the provinces and various officers too. With his death, the lineage of the Great Imperials Guptas came to an end and the empire survived in a dwindling manner for almost 85 more years.

    Interestingly, Skanda Gupta was succeeded by his older brother Puru Gupta in 467/68 CE. This tells us that there was most probably a succession battle when Kumara Gupta died. Puru Gupta (467/68 – 473 CE) ruled for 5-6 years and we only know of him thanks to him being mentioned by his descendants. Puru Gupta was succeeded by Kumara Gupta II (473 – 476 CE), most probably his son. We know of him from the king lists of his descendants as well as from coins and inscribed Buddha images dated to his reign at Sarnath. He ruled for only 3 years.

    He was followed by Puru Gupta’s other son Buddha Gupta, who ruled for 20 years, from 476-495 CE. Buddha Gupta forged an alliance with the newly emerging state of Kannauj and together they took the battle to the Hunas. He left us a record of his exploits in a Vishnu/Janardhana Pillar inscription at Eran. The inscription limits his direct rule to a stretch between the rivers Kalindi (east of Kolkata near the Bangladesh border) and the Narmada. Two beautiful standing Buddha images from Sarnath also bear evidence of his reign.

    He was followed by Narasimha Gupta in 495 CE, who according to Hiuen Tsang, was forced to pay tribute to the Huna king Toramana. Large tracts had been invaded by the Hunas under their king Toramana, who left behind his own inscription of the giant Varaha at Eran dated between 510 and 530 CE.

    We know nothing more about Narasimha Gupta except that his regnal name was Narasimha Gupta Baladitya, and Hiuen Tsang writing in 630 CE tells us that the Alchon Huns under Mihirakula, the successor of Toramana, had conquered all of Northern India except a small island in Magadha, where ‘kind Baladitya’ ruled. But he finally triumphed over Mihirakula and spared his life and forced him to return to Kashmir. This ‘Baladitya’, many historians believe, was none other than Narasimha Gupta and that it was he who probably with the Gupta governor of Malwa, Bhanugupta, finally overthrew the Hunas.

    Narasimha Gupta was succeeded by his son Kumara Gupta III in 530 CE. Very little is known of him and the only direct evidence is a cupro-silver seal from Bhitari and clay seals from Nalanda. He also finds mention in the genealogy of his son Vishnu Gupta (540-550 CE), the last known Gupta king, in his clay sealing from Nalanda. The Gupta Empire drastically declined under Kumara Gupta III and Vishnu Gupta was its last recognised ruler. The last positive mention of Vishnu Gupta is seen in his Damodarpur copper plate grants dated 542-43 CE.

    With the death of Vishnu Gupta around 550 CE, the Gupta Dynasty came to a complete end. Their landholdings had shrunk after Skanda Gupta’s reign and at the end, they were mere provincial rulers in Bengal and parts of Bihar. But in the 230 years that they ruled, they changed the face of Northern India and left behind an enormous legacy in literature, art, architecture, numismatics, epigraphy and their approach to the matters of faith. And it is for this outpouring, that many have referred to the Gupta Age as a sort of ‘Golden Age’.

    This article is part of our 'The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material - archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.

    This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.

    Find all the stories from this series here.

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