Gupta Empire

By the fourth century A.D., political and military turmoil destroyed the Kushan empire in the north and many kingdoms in the south India. At this juncture, India was invaded by a series of foreigners and barbarians or Mlechchhas from the north western frontier region and central Asia. It signaled the emergance of a leader, a Magadha ruler, Chandragupta I. Chandragupta successfully combated the foreign invasion and laid foundation of the great Gupta dynasty, the emperors of which ruled for the next 300 years, bringing the most prosperous era in Indian history.

The reign of Gupta emperors can truly be considered as the golden age of classical Indian history. Srigupta I (270-290 AD) who was perhaps a petty ruler of Magadha (modern Bihar) established Gupta dynasty with Patliputra or Patna as its capital. He was succedded by his son Ghatotkacha (290-305 AD). Ghatotkacha was succeeded by his son Chandragupta I (305-325 AD) who strengthened his kingdom by matrimonial alliance with the powerful family of Lichchavi who were rulers of Mithila. His marriage to Lichchhavi princess Kumaradevi, brought an enormous power, resources and prestige. He took advantage of the situation and occupied whole of fertile Gangetic valley. Chandragupta I eventually assumed the title of Maharajadhiraja (emperor) in formal coronation.

Samudragupta (335 - 380 AD) succedded his father Chandragupta I. He was perhaps the greatest king of Gupta dynasty. Samudragupta enlarged the Gupta Kingdom by winning a series of battles till he was a master of northern India. Soon he defeated the kings of Vindhyan region (central India) and Deccan. He although made no attempt to incorporate the kingdoms of south of Narmada and Mahanadi rivers (southern India) into his empire. When he died his mighty empire bordered with Kushan of Western province (modern Afganistan and Pakistan) and Vakatakas in Deccan (modern southern Maharashtra). Samudragupta was a staunch Hindu and after all his military triumphs, he performed the Ashwamedha Yagna (Horse sacrifice ceremony) which is evident on some of his coins. Ashwamedha Yagna gave him the coveted title of Maharajadhiraj, the supreme king of kings.

Vikramaditya (380 - 413 AD) the son of Samudragupta is the legendary emperor of India. More stories/legends are associated with him than any other ruler of India. It was during his (and his son Kumargupta) reign, India was at the pinnacle of prosperity and opulence. Although named after his grandfather Chandragupta, he took a title of Vikramaditya, which became a synonym for sovereign of tremendous power and wealth. Vikramaditya succeeded his father Samudragupta (possibly there was another prince, or his elder brother who ruled briefly, and according to legends slayed by Shakas). He married princess Kubernaga, daughter of Naga Chieftains and later gave his daughter Prabhavati in marriage to Rudrasena of powerful family of Vakatakas of the Deccan (modern Maharashtra). His most significant and well celebrated military achievement being total destruction of Kshatrapas, the Shaka (Scythian) rulers of Malawa and Saurashtra, the western India (modern Gujrath and neighbouring states). He scored a fantastic victory over the Kshatrapa rulers and incorporated these provinces into his increasing empire. The cool courage he showed in fight with Shakas and killing their king in their own city entitled him the epithets Shakari (destroyer of Shakas) or Sahasanka. He has also been responsible for the era, popularly known as Vikram Samvat which commence in 58 BC. This era has been used by major Hindu dynasties and still in use in modern India.

Vikramaditya was succeeded by his able son Kumargupta I (415 - 455 AD). He maintained his hold over the vast empire of his forebears, which covered most of India except southern four states of India. Later he too performed the Ashwamegha Yagna and proclaimed himself to be Chakrawarti, king of all kings. umargupta also was a great patron of art and culture; evidence exist that he endowed a college of fine arts at great ancient university at Nalanda, which fluorished during 5th to 12th century AD.

Skandagupta (455 - 467 AD) took over the Gupta empire and soon had to face with the formidable enemy, the Huns (Hepthalites). He successfully repelled their early invasions and proved to be able king and administrator in time of crisis. In spite of heroic efforts of SkandaGupta, Gupta empire did not survive long the shock it received from invasion of the Huns and internal uprising of Pushyamitras. Although there was some sort of unity till reign of the last king Budhagupta in the 6th century AD.

This period is regarded as the golden age of Indian culture. The high points of this cultural creativity are magnificent and creative architecture, sculpture, and painting. The wall-paintings of Ajanta Cave in the central Deccan are considered among the greatest and most powerful works of Indian art. The paintings in the cave represent the various lives of the Buddha, but also are the best source we have of the daily life in India at the time. There are forty-eight caves making up Ajanta, most of which were carved out of the rock between 460 and 480, and they are filled with Buddhist sculptures. The rock temple at Elephanta (near Bombay) contains a powerful, eighteen foot statue of the three-headed Shiva, one of the principle Hindu gods. Each head represents one of Shiva's roles: that of creating, that of preserving, and that of destroying. The period also saw dynamic building of Hindu temples. All of these temples contain a hall and a tower.

The greatest writer of the time was Kalidasa. Poetry in the Gupta age tended towards a few genres: religious and meditative poetry, lyric poetry, narrative histories (the most popular of the secular literatures), and drama. The greatest Mathematician of India Aryabhatta also belongs to this age. The Panchatantra and Kamasutra were written during this period. The Nalanda University in Bihar, came to fame during the Gupta rule.

Unfortunately, very few monuments built during Gupta reign survive today. Examples of Gupta architecture are found in the Vaishnavite Tigawa temple at Jabalpur (in Madhya Pradesh state) built in 415 AD and another temple at Deogarhnear Jhansi built in 510 AD. Bhita in Uttar Pradesh State has a number of ancient Gupta temples, most are in ruins.

Because of extensive trade, the culture of India became the dominant culture around the Bay of Bengal, profoundly and deeply influencing the cultures of Burma, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. In many ways, the period during and following the Gupta dynasty was the period of "Greater India," a period of cultural activity in India and surrounding countries building off of the base of Indian culture.