Gupta period in Indian History is known as classical period or golden age, the reason being that virtually every manifestations of life reached at a peak of excellence.

So whether it was arts, architecture, literature,  education, social life, political system, administration, economy everything appeared to be in its best form during Gupta period.

A lot can be written about Gupta period but today in this article we will talk about the origin and political history of Guptas and in later articles we will cover their other accomplishments.

Early history and origin of Guptas

  • Not much is known about the early history of Guptas due to the lack of resources . The only source of their origin is Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudra Gupta.
  • In Allahabad inscriptions their genealogy is given from Srigupta who seems to be an early vassal of magadha rulers referred in the inscription as Maharaja.
  • Chinese traveller Yijing also named one king called Srigupta who built a temple for Chinese pilgrims in Mrgasikhavana.
  • Whatever may be the truth behind their origin most historians agree that the early Gupta's were the petty landlords under the rulers of Magadha who gradually became the rulers by overthrowing the weak rulers in Patliputra.
  • The Allahabad pillar inscription gives credit to Srigupta of being the founder of Gupta dynasty who was succeeded by Ghatotkatcha,who in turn was succeeded by Chandragupta- I and then his son Samudragupta, the king who commissioned Allahabad pillar inscription.
Some great Rulers of Gupta dynasty

Srigupta-  (240 - 280 CE)

He is credited of being the founder of Gupta dynasty , it seems he was the one who overthrew the weak rulers of Magadha and seized the power. Allahabad pillar inscriptions mentions him with title Maharaja.

Ghatotkatcha-(280-319 CE)

Not much is known about his reign his name is also mentioned in Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudragupta he is also referred to as Maharaja.

Chandragupta-I (319- 335 CE)

He was the first powerful ruler of Gupta dynasty. He is referred to as Maharaja dhiraja in Allahabad pillar inscription which shows his elevated status as compared to his father and grandfather. Many historians believe that his marriage to a Licchavi princess Kumardevi made him influential and helped in extending his political power. 

This marriage indeed brought a great prestige to Gupta dynasty so much that the royal couple was even depicted in a Gold dinar of Samudragupta(their son). Later even Samudragupta used the title of Licchavi Dauhitra meaning son of daughter of Lichhavis this further shows the importance of being connected to Licchavis. It seems that Chandragupta-I during his reign, had acquired greater territories than his ancestors and the powerful Licchavis didn't mind marrying their princess to him.

Samudragupta empire
Extent of Gupta empire with its core region and tributary states (image credits- Author- Woudloper|Wikimedia commons)

Historians believe that he was the one who founded the Gupta calender era and that the epoch of this era marks hid coronation in 319 CE.

Samudragupta (335-375 CE)

He was one of the most powerful and accomplished ruler of ancient India. He was the son of Chandragupta-I and Lichhavi princess Kumardevi. We have multiple resources with us that testify about his glorious reign. Under his reign Gupta rule was firmly established. His passion for war and aggression woon made him a conqueror of whole northern India. Early in his reign he embarked upon an elaborate programme of conquest in different directions which made Dr. Vincent Smith gave him the title of Indian Napoleon.

Chakravarti Samrat Samudragupta

His empire at its peak extended from Ravi river in northwest to Brahmputra river in east and from Himalayan foothills in North to vindhyan hills in south. He undertook two succesful aryavarta campaigns to conquer the independent kingdoms of northern India after he and had united the whole aryavarta (northern India) of his conception, he never thought of annexing more territories in spite of great temptations. He conquered the  frontier states and the kingdoms in the south only to liberate them on terms of peaceful neighborhood and acknowledgement of his paramount sovereignty .

His reign and victories are documented in Allahabad pillar inscription which has helped scholars in reconstructing the history not only of Samudra Gupta but also of the whole Gupta dynasty. This long Prashasti was composed by harisena in classical Sanskrit a poet in the court of Samudragupta. It reveals information about the lineage, the conquest, and glory of Samudragupta and it is upon this single record that the name and fame of the real founder of Gupta empire rest. He also went to southern India traversing a difficult terrain and after defeating southern kings , restored their territories however it was an intelligent move as the difficulty in controlling these far off territories in south from his capital was the main reason behind his this step.

According to this inscription a number of foreign powers who submitted to his suzeranity and purchased peace by acts of homage. These were Daivaputras,Sahis,sahanushahis,Sakas and Murundas.
The inscription also describes Samudragupta's qualities calling him a fearless fighter , dextrous in waging hundreds of various kinds of battles with the only strength of the prowess of his arms, the beauty of his charming body was enhanced by scars of various kinds caused by different weapons of war.

The inscription also mentions the name of princes of various states like malavas,arjunayanas,Yaudheyas,madarakas,Abhiras, prarjunas,sanakanikas, kharaparikas, devaka, kartripura, kosala,mahakantara,pistapura and kottura.

This important inscription could have revealed more information but unfortunately it's been broken at many places. The discovery of the inscription has brought  a great king of ancient India from complete oblivion into light. Without its discovery our knowledge about Samudragupta would have been very limited. Another source of information regarding his reign is Eran inscription and Puranas which are used to corroborate the findings of Allahabad inscription.

Chandragupta-II (375-415 CE)

He was another great ruler of Gupta dynasty who carried on his father's mission of  world conquest. Though SamudraGupta bequeathed a large empire but it was not necessarily unified under one ruler. Sakas were their arch-rivals who were too quick to raise the banner of independence after Samudragupta's death. Chandragupta-II undertook the task of strengthening and consolidating his empire on firm footing.

He waged a ceaseless war against the saka rulers and did not sheath his sword till he had completely annihilated their power. By the end of his reign , his effective rule extended over the whole of northern India , including the maritime provinces of malwa, Gujarat and kathiawarh.

He followed the footsteps of his grandfather and entered into two very historically significant matrimonial alliances with the ruling families of his times to further his political ends. He himself married kubernaga , a princess of the naga family of narwar and the daughter of this alliance Prabhavati was married to Rudrasena-II the Vakataka king of central Deccan.

Chinese pilgrim Fahien who travelled in India in the begining of the 5th century A.D. came to patliputra during his rule. He says that people were wealthy prosperous,cultured and happy during his rule.

Ample number of inscriptions were issued by Chandragupta II for eg. Udhaygiri cave inscriptions, Sanchi stone inscription,Mathura stone inscription , Mathura pillar inscription and Gadwa stone inscription .

Kumargupta-I (414-455 CE)

He was the son and successor of Chandragupta II. He is known for his coins that he issued in large numbers.
Large extent of his coins indicate that he could retain s large Portion of his father's empire during his rule. His empire extended from North Bengal to kathiawar and from Himalayas to narmada. Some of his coins indicates that he like samudragupta performed the asvamedha sacrifice. He is also identified as siladitya whose coins have been discovered at Nalanda and is credited for the establishment of Nalanda buddhist Vihar .

His reign was generally peaceful but towards its end his empire faced frequent invasions of Pushyamitras and Hunas from north West and tribals from South. Though in most battles his army was victorious but still the total subjugation of enemy was never accomplished.

Skandagupta (455-467 CE)

He was the last great king of Gupta dynasty. Right from the begining of his reign he faced external invasions from the dreaded Hunas who were already defeated many times by him in past when he was the crown prince. Bhitari pillar inscription states that skandagupta defeated the Hunas and by inflicting terrible defeat on Hunas he revived the falling fortunes of the empire.

Skandagupta Vikramaditya

He tried to reform the debased coinage of the time of kumargupta by issueing coins of pure gold. Towards the close of his reign a fresh wave of Hunas made deep inroads into his Kingdom . The imperial forces were divided because of internal dissension and consequently failed to resist the onslaughts of the barbarians. Some writers hold that he lost his life while trying to stem the mighty flood of invaders. He died in 468 A.D. and with him the glory of Gupta rule departed forever. 

Political System and administration of Guptas

  • The gupta empire was the largest empire formed after mauryas in north India which was achieved due to the policy of war & conquest of Gupta rulers. Though the area under their direct administration was limited the neighbouring states acted as their vassals and many foreign states in south and north west paid homage to them.
  • The Gupta rulers through their extensive military campaigns established a political relationship of paramountcy and subordination with other rulers.
  • Titles like Maharaja dhiraja , Vikramaditya, Parambhattaraka were used to show their imperial status.
  • The amatyas and sachivas were the ministers who were the incharge of various departments.
  • The offices were generally hereditary and interchangeable.
  • Some offices were Mahasandhivihrahika (War&peace), Mahadandanayka(Military commander), Mahapratihara (Chief of palace guards) and Mahabaladhikrita ( commander in chief).
  • Empire divided into provinces called Bhukti governed by an officer called Uparika who was directly appointed by the king.
  • Provinces were further divided into districts called Vishayas governed by an officer called Vishaypati. Damodarpur copper plate of Kumargupta I reigns shows that Vishaypatis were assisted by prominent town members in their administrative duties.
  • Administrative unit below vishayas were pithi, petha,bhumika and village units were governed by Mahattaras.
  • Empire was not a pan India empire.
  • Monarch reigned supreme yet his powers were restricted by Brahmanical laws and injunctions.
  • The Gupta administration was a combination of both centralisation and decentralisation.
  • Decentralisation got momentum in later periods when monarchs became weak.
Historian R.S Sharma has called Gupta period a proto-feudal model.

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