Gupta Empire- Some Interesting Facts
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Ancient and Medieval History

Gupta Empire- Some Interesting Facts

All the aspirants who are preparing for the civil services examination must be aware of how much Indian history is important and is the major part of the syllabus. 

In the 4th century AD a new dynasty, the Guptas, arose in Magadha. The Gupta empire is one of the major parts of ancient history. 

In this article, we are going to discuss some important and interesting facts about the Gupta empire.

The Gupta Empire

  • It was not as large as the Mauryan Empire but it kept North India politically united for more than a century, from AD 335 to 455.
  • This period is referred to as the “Classical Age” or “Golden Age” of ancient India and was the most prosperous era in Indian history.
  • Gupta Empire may have been of Vaisya origin.
  • UP was the centre Point of the Gupta Empire.
  • The Guptas were possibly the feudatories of the Kushans in Uttar Pradesh
  • Their basic strength was because of horses.

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Gupta Empire- Some Interesting Facts

The Guptas enjoyed certain material advantages like –

  • The fertile land of MP, Bihar and UP
  • Iron ores
  • Proximity to silk trade route and Byzantine empire (Roman empire)

Guptas set up their rule over –

  • Anuganga (the middle Gangetic basin), Prayag (modern Allahabad), Saketa (modern Ayodhya)
  • Gupta Dynasty was started by Sri Gupta.
  • He was a feudatory of Kushans and not a sovereign ruler. 
  • Ghatotkacha was the son of Sri Gupta and he succeeded him after his death

Chandragupta -I

Gupta Empire- Some Interesting Facts

  • Chandragupta, I was the first independent ruler of the Gupta Dynasty.
  • First Gupta ruler to assume the title of Maharajadhiraja.
  • He strengthens his kingdom by a matrimonial alliance with the powerful family of Lichchhavis who was the rulers of Mithila.
  • His marriage to Lichchhvi princess Kumaradevi, brought to him enormous power, resources and prestige.
  • The Guptas were possibly vaisyas.
  • He seems to have been a ruler of considerable importance because he started the Gupta era in A.D. 319-20, which marked the date of his accession.

Samudragupta

  • It is written on an Ashokan pillar. It is of great historical importance as details of three kings are engraved on it.
  • 1st - Ashoka, who initially established it.
  • 2nd - Samudragupta, who got his account written on it in Sanskrit
  • 3rd - Jahangir, who got his account inscribed in Persian.
  • According to Prayag Prashasti: Samudragupta defeated 9 kings of Aryavrata, (the most famous of them being Nag dynasty), 18 kings of central India(most famous being Atvika (a forest tribe), 12 kings of Southern India – most famous of them being Pallavas.
  • The Gupta kingdom was enlarged enormously by Chandragupta I’s son and successor Samudragupta (A.D. 335-380).
  • Samudragupta delighted in violence and conquest. (Opposite to Ashoka's policy of peace and non-aggression)
  • His court poet Harisena wrote a glowing account of the military exploits of his patron in Allahabad’s inscription (Prayag Prashasti)
  • The best source to know about Samudragupta is the Prayag Prashasti in Allahabad.
  • He had close contact with the kingdom of Ceylon and South-East Asian colonies. 
  • The eulogy of Harisena describes him as the hero of 100 battles. 

Gupta Empire- Some Interesting Facts

  • He performed Ashvamedha Yajna, this has been testified by a seal of Samudragupta bearing a Horse.
  • This was probably the first Ashvamedha after Pushyamitra Shunga.
  • Vincent Arthur Smith called him the Napoleon of India.
  • The defeated king had to come personally to his court at least once a year, generally on his birthday.
  • They had to get their daughter married to Samudragupta.
  • He minted several types of gold coins with different images. His own image with goddess Lakshmi as he claimed he is an Avatar of Vishnu on earth.
  • His greatest achievement was the political unification of most of India or Aryavarta into a formidable power.
  • Coin issued by Samudragupta
  • Images of ‘Garuda’ were also minted.
  • Images showing him playing the Veena and doing Ashvameghayajna.

Titles given: 

  • King of poets  (Prayag Prasasti)
  • Param Bhagwat (Nalanda copper plate)
  • Ashwamedha Parakrama 
  • Sarva-raj-occhetta: Uprooter of all king
  • Samudragupta was a Vaishnavite.

Chandragupta II

Gupta Empire- Some Interesting Facts

  • He adopted the title of Vikramaditya. 1st Ujjain ruler to do so
  • He extended the limits of his empire by marriage alliance and conquests.
  • By marrying his daughter (Prabhavati) to the Vakataka prince, he exercised indirect control over the Vakataka kingdom in central India.
  • This move helped him later to conquer western malwa and Gujarat from Shakas.
  • He issued silver coins. He was the first Gupta king to do so.
  • He made Ujjain his second Capital.
  • He was a great patron of art and literature. It is believed that he had Navratnas in his court. It is a matter of debate whether Aryabhatta was in his court or not.
  • Chandragupta’s inscription has been found in Udaigiri and Khandgiri.
  • The Mahrauli Iron Pillar in Delhi credits Chandragupta.
  • Fa Hien: the first Chinese pilgrim who came to India during 399 – 412 AD. i.e. during Chandragupta II reign.
  • He came through land and returned through the sea route via Srilanka.
  • He came to collect the Holy Buddhist texts.
  • He visited several important Buddhist sites and cities, including Patliputra and praised the beauty of the throne of Chandragupta Maurya.
  • He wrote about different Buddhist sects in India.
  • He wrote about Indian society, there were things that he praised like Cultural diversity and certain things that he criticized like untouchability.
  • However, he did write about the moral character of Indians which he thought was good.

Nine Gems/Navaratnas of Chandragupta II:

Kalidasa :

  • was a famous Sanskrit writer and poet in the court of Chandragupta II (Vikramaditya).
  • Commonly regarded as the greatest poet in the Sanskrit language.
  • Author of three famous plays: Abhijnanasakuntalam (tells the story of King Dushyanta and Shakuntala), Malavikagnimitram (story love of King Agnimitra with Malavika), Vikramorvasiyam (the love story of King Pururavas and celestial fairy Urvashi)
  • Kalidasa was also the author of two famous Sanskrit epic poems: a) Raghuvamsa ("Raghu Dynasty ") and b) Kumarasambhava.
  • Vetala Bhatta- a magician 
  • Varahamihira- 
  • An Indian astronomer, astrologer and mathematician of the Gupta era. 
  • He is famously known for his great work Pancha Siddhantika, a book on mathematical astronomy. 
  • His other important contribution to the Indian Sanskrit literature is the Brihat-Samhita, an encyclopedia of astrology and other subjects of human interest.

Vararuchi:

  • Grammarian and Sanskrit scholar, author of Prakrit Prakasha, which is the first Grammar of Prakrit Language.

Amarasimha:

  • Was a Sanskrit lexicographer and a poet and his Amarkosha is a vocabulary of Sanskrit roots, homonyms and synonyms.

Dhanvantari- Physician

  • is regarded as one of the world’s first surgeons and medical practitioner from the Gupta era. 
  • He is considered the original exponent of Ayurveda.
  • He is also worshipped as the God of Medicine.
  • Sushruta, the author of the famous Sushruta Samhita was a student of Dhanvantari.
  • He is also credited for the discovery of the antiseptic properties of turmeric and the preservative properties of salt.
  • Dhanvantari is considered to be the pioneer of modern plastic surgery.
  • Kshapanak- the Astrologer, wrote Jyotishashtra
  • Shanku- great scholar and was the author of Shilpashastra.

Kumaragupta I

  • Chandragupta II was succeeded by his son Kumaragupta I
  • Worshiper of god Kartikeya.
  • His inscription has been found from several of UP and MP like Mathura and Mansor.
  • During his period, the Huns (Central Asian tribe) made their first attack in India.
  • During his period the famous Nalanda Buddhist monastery and University was built. He donated one village to it.
  • Titles: Mahendraditya, Mahendra Singh and Ashvamedha Mahendra 

Skandagupta

  • last ruler of the Gupta dynasty
  • During his reign, the Gupta empire was invaded by the Huns. He succeeded in defeating the Huns.
  • The continuous attacks of the Huns weakened the empire and adversely affected its economy. The gold coinage of Skandagupta bears testimony to this.

Titles:

  • Vikramaditya and Kramaditya (coins), param Bhagavata (coins), Sharkropama (kahaum Pillar Inscription), Devaraja (Arya Manjushri Mula Kalpa) etc.

Gupta administration

  • Unlike Mauryan and Nandas Empire who were centralists, the model of Guptas was different and this difference lied in decentralized administration.
  • Gupta kings adapted pompous titles such as Paramesvara, Maharajadhiraja and Paramabhattaraka. 
  • This signifies that they ruled over lesser kings in their Empire.
  • King was considered divine. In ancient time, this theory was accepted in China and Persia as well. Samudragupta claimed he was the avatar of Vishnu on earth.
  • Kingship was hereditary.
  • There was no fixed rule for succession. (primogeniture not fixed)
  • King was an absolute monarch.
  • The largest number of gold coins is found from this period.
  • The violators of the guild were punished by fine or ex-communication.

Army

  • The numerical strength - unknown.
  • A standing army was maintained. Feudatories occasionally supplemented the forces.
  • Cavalry came to the forefront.
  • Horse archery became prominent in military tactics.

Taxation system

  • Land taxation keeps on increasing
  • Taxation on trade and commerce decreased
  • Taxation rate – ¼ to 1/6 of produce.
  • Local people had to feed the army when it passes through the countryside
  • Villagers were subjected to forced labour called vishti for serving the royal army and officials.

There were several types of taxes in the Gupta era as follows:

  • Bali: Bali which was voluntary in the Maurya era and was given to the King became compulsory in Gupta Era.
  • Bhaga: King’s share in all products of the cultivators. It was 1/6th part of the produce.
  • Bhoga: Bhoga refers to the tax in kind of gifts, flowers, woods, fruits etc.
  • Hiranya: This was the tax paid in cash (Gold) {Hiranya means Gold}
  • Bhaga: Bhaga denotes tax on forests, fruits, etc.
  • Halivakara: Halivakra was a kind of tax slab, those who owned a plough used to pay tax.
  • Kara: It might have been some irregular tax charged from villagers.
  • Udinanga: It might be a social security kind of tax.

Judicial system

  • More developed than earlier times
  • Several law books compiled
  • 1st-time demarcation of criminal and civil laws
  • Criminal law – theft and adultery
  • Civil law – disputes regarding various types of property
  • Elaborate laws laid down about inheritance
  • Like earlier time many laws continued to be based on differences in varnas.
  • It was the duty of the king to uphold the law.
  • The king tried cases with the help of Brahmana priests.
  • During this period autonomous trading bodies called ‘guilds’ were active.
  • Rules were made by the guilds for the member of the guilds like fixing the price, quality of goods and obligations of the members. 
  • Guilds used to interfere in some personal issues as well.
  • Guilds of artisans, merchants and others- governed by their own laws.
  • Seals from Vaishali and from Bihta near Allahabad indicate that these guilds flourished exceedingly well in Gupta times.

Bureaucracy

  • The ministers could hold more than one post, unlike the Mauryan administration.
  • The post of some ministers and officers was also hereditary.
  • The officers were also paid inland. This was the first time in history when officers were paid in the form of land. This led to the rise of feudalism. 
  • The Brahmins got land grants with the power to punish the people to maintain law and order.
  • These villages were called Agrahara village or Brahmadeya Village.
  • The Guptas as compared to Mauryas had a small size bureaucracy and the administration was more decentralized

Provincial and Local administration

  • The empire was divided as –
  • Divisions (bhuktis) → districts (vishayas) → vithis → villages.

Order of their officers –

  • Uparika (for bhuktis)→ Vishayapati (for Vaisayas)
  • Gupta rulers did not require as many officials as the Mauryan did because much of the imperial administration was managed by feudatories and beneficiaries

Economy

  • It is argued by many scholars that the state was the exclusive owner of the land. 
  • The most decisive argument in favour of the exclusive state ownership of land is in the Paharpur Copperplate inscription of Buddhagupta.

From the economic standpoint, the land was classified into 5 groups:

  • Kshetra Bhoomi: cultivable land
  • Khila: wasteland
  • Vastu Bhoomi: habitable land
  • Charagah Bhhomi: pasture land
  • Aprahata Bhoomi: Forest land
  • Gold coins: largest in number but not pure as Kushans
  • Served to pay officers, meet the need of sale and purchase of lands
  • Silver coins – issued after the conquest of Gujarat for local exchange
  • Copper coins – very few
  • Gold, silver and copper were used in making ornaments and issuing coins.
  • The Gold coins show the pomp, power and prosperity of the empire.
  • The decline in long-distance foreign trade.
  • Eastern Roman Empire learnt from the Chinese the art of growing Silk. This adversely affected the export trade of India.
  • The Gupta period had many cloth centres and the silk industry witnessed a significant development during this period.
  • The Mandsor Inscriptions gives an account that the Gupta people were helped to a great extent for the growth of the Silk Industry.
  • In Gupta Era, the activities of Guilds were increased and these activities are recorded in various literature, inscription, clay seals etc.
  • There is a mention of the Guild of architects in Raghuvamsa. 
  • The Indore Copperplate inscription mentions a guild of oilmen.

The port of the east coast:

  • Tamralipti, Ghantashala and Kandura- handled the North-Indian trade with SouthEast Asia

The ports of the West coast:

  • Bharoach, Chaul, Kalyan and Cambay- traded with the Mediterranean and West Asia.

Social Developments

  • Land grants to the Brahmanas on a large scale mean that the Brahmana supremacy continued in Gupta times.

The Guptas made three types of grants.

  • First was the religious grants to brahmans, individually or collectively, known as brahmadeya grants.
  • The second was the grants to institutions such as temples and monasteries known as devagrahara or devadana.
  • The third was secular grants to crown officers, craft guilds or also military commanders on rare occasions.
  • The Varna system begins to get modified owing to the proliferation of castes. this was chiefly due to three factors:
  • A large number of foreigners had been assimilated into the Indian society primarily and were known as Kshatriyas
  • There was a large absorption of tribal people into Brahmanical society through land grants.
  • The acculturated tribes were absorbed into the Shudra Varna.
  • Guilds of craftsmen were often transformed into castes as a result of the decline of trade and urban centres and the localised character of crafts.

Also Read: Religious Movements: Medieval History

Caste System

The castes proliferated into numerous sub-castes. Professions were determined by caste though not very rigidly.

Gupta Empire- Some Interesting Facts

  • Brahmans: followed trade, architecture and service as professions. They had even become kings.
  • Vaishyas: The Gupta emperors were Vaishyas.
  • Kshatriyas: they followed commercial and industrial vocations.
  • Shudras: There were many sub-castes among the Vaishyas and Shudras than among the higher castes. Sudras also could become traders and agriculturists like the Vaishyas.

Untouchables: 

  • Lived outside the main settlements. 
  • They were engaged in hunting, fishery, scavenging and similar professions.

Family System

  • The joint family system was prevalent.
  • Partitions or the nuclear family in the lifetime of the father was not approved.
  • Ownership of the property was vested in the father but the rights of sons and brothers to the property were also recognized.
  • Adoption was not very much approved.
  • The head of the family governed the family unit.
  • Patriarchal system - The male members dominated the family and society.

Position of Women under Gupta Empire

  • Though women were subordinate to men in society, yet their position was no less significant.
  • They were given education but they could not recite the Vedic mantras.
  • Child marriages: common.
  • Purdah system: begun among the higher castes.
  • Widow Remarriage: allowed sometimes.
  • Sati system: can also be seen.
  • Ideally, the woman was regarded as Shakti, the energizing principle.
  • A woman was considered as Saraswati and Goddess Kali, creator and destroyer.
  • They not only participated in public life but there is also reference to women teachers.
  • Permitted to listen to the epics and the Puranas. 
  • They could also worship a new god called Krishna.
  • Upper caste women were treated as property by their husbands.
  • They were completely dependent on their husband for livelihood and it was expected that they would follow her husband to the next world.

Buddhism and Bhagavatism

  • No longer received royal patronage.
  • According to Fa Hien, Buddhism flourished but in reality, it was not so important in the Gupta period as it was in the days of Asoka and Kanishka.
  • Instead, Buddhism had been replaced by Bhagavatism
  • Two Gods who commanded were - Vishnu and Shiva.
  • Vishnu emerged as the god of devotion and represented as the saviour of the varna system.
  • Vishnu Purana: Compilation of legends about Vishnu
  • Vishnu Smriti: A law book was also named after this god.
  • 4th century AD: Bhagavad Gita, philosophical text, which taught devotion to Lord Krishna.
  • Idol Worship: became a common feature from this period.
  • The Gupta kings followed a policy of tolerance towards the different religious sects.

Literature:

  • The Gupta age was a golden period of literature. Gupta literature can be broadly classified into
  • Religious literature
  • Secular literature
  • Religious Literature
  • Puranas (It literally means the ‘Past’)
  • There are 18 Puranas written in the ancient period, some before Guptas, some during Guptas and some post Guptas.
  • They are written in Chaste Sanskrit and are tales of Gods and Goddesses.

Some of the important Puranas are:

  • Adi purana, Agni Purana, Matsya Purana, Bhagwati Purana, Bhavisya Purana, Shiv Purana.

Buddhist texts:

  • Abhidharma Kosha (Dignaga), Visuddhimagga (Buddhaghosa)
  • Jain texts: Nyayavartam (Sidhssena)

Secular Literature:

  • Ritusamhar (first poetry), Meghadutam, Kumarasam-bhavam, Raghuvansam, Malavikagnimitra (first drama), Abhijnana Shakuntalam (Kalidasa), Mudraraksha (Vishakhadatta), Panchtantra (Vishnu Sharma), Kamasutra (Vatsyayan)

Smritis

  • Literally, it means ‘Memory’.
  • These are the law books written in Gupta and pre- Gupta period.
  • Manu Smriti: the oldest Smriti wrote during the post-Mauryan period. It is the most comprehensive law book of ancient time.

Paintings During Gupta Period

  • They are found in Ajanta and Bagh caves.
  • Ajanta’s Rock-cut caves were built during 2nd C – 7th C AD. They were patronized by different rulers and followers of Buddhism.
  • 25 caves are Vihara type (Where monks could live and pray) and 4 are Chaitya type.
  • The paintings are found on the walls and ceilings of these caves.
  • Most famous paintings have been found from caves 16, 17 and 19.
  • Natural colours from vegetation were used.

Reasons of decline

Huna invasion

  • Huna invasion made them weak
  • Use stirrups made of metal by Hunas so they can move quickly. 
  • Excellent archers of Hunas

Loss of Malwa and Yashodharman

  • Malwa which was closer to port was lost.
  • Though Yashodharman had overthrown Hunas, he had given a severe blow to Guptas

Rise of feudatories

They tended to become independent

Other reasons

  • By 550 AD,  Bihar and Uttar Pradesh had passed out of Gupta's hands.
  • The loss of western India deprived the Guptas of the rich revenues from trade and commerce and crippled them economically.
  • Difficult to maintain a large army
  • Land grants had reduced the revenues
  • The decline of foreign trade had affected income
  • No demand for cloth produced by them.

Arguments in favour of Gupta rule:

  • There were political units, foreign rule was completely removed and peace and prosperity prevailed.
  • The enlightened character of the government, i.e. taxes were light, mild punishment etc
  • Revival of Hinduism but there was tolerance of all other regions.
  • The use of Sanskrit developed and art and literature flourished during the period
  • Great personage like Kalidasa, Amarsinha, Dhanvantari, Aryabhata, Varahamihira etc living during this period.

Arguments against Gupta rule:

  • Existence of too many feudatories
  • Absence of a large central army
  • Development of feudal elements (Increasing land grants, Sub-infeudation etc)
  • The decline of trade and Guilds
  • The decline of urban centres
  • Increasing Varna distinction and social disorder
  • The decline in the status of women.
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