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Gupta Empire [300-550 AD]

Different rulers in Gupta period

Gupta period witnessed two major kingdoms. Guptas in northern part of subcontinent and Vakatakas in Deccan region. There were also independent developments in South India but we will discuss that in separate article. Although various rulers ruled in different parts of India, due to prominence of Guptas, whole period of history is called as ‘Gupta Period’.

Guptas were earlier feudatories of Kushanas, they emerged on political scene during 3rd century AD and quickly established vast empire under Samudragupta.
Guptas were of vaisya origin. Gupta kingdom was centred in madhyadesh UP, Bihar region of today. They had access to rich, fertile region of Gangetic plains. There were also iron mines at kingdom. Coupled with imperialist attitude of rules, they were able to establish vast empire.

Different rulers in Gupta period

1. Gupta Rulers

1.1 Sri Gupta – founder

Chandragupta I and Ghatoktacha were his two sons.

2. Chandragupta I

He held matrimonial alliances with Licchavi princess from Nepal called Kumaradevi.
Started Gupta era (320 AD onwards).
Iron Pillar at Delhi (Ashoka Pillar / Mehrauli Pillar) was made during his reign

3. Samudragupta

  1. Also called as Napolean of India due to his expansionist attitude.
  2. Known for his imperialism. He was also called Sarvarajochchetta. (He defeated all kings).
  3. His Allahabad pillar inscription, (Prayag Prahasthi) which was inscibed by his minister Harisena. In this inscription Samudragupta is called Licchavi Dohitra (Son of Licchavi princess). This also talks about military exploits of Samudragupta. It tells that he defeated 9 rulers of Aryavrata.
  4. He defeated Kushanas and Shakas, he brought under his control, all the frontier states like Bihar, Bengal, Assam, Nepal, Punjab.
  5. He also established Suzereignty south of Vindhyas.
  6. His coins are very important. Asvamedha type of coins. Vina player type of coins – he is playing vina. Tiger slayer coins.

4. Chandragupta II / Vikramaditya

He is known for various things.

  1. Navaratnas lived in his court – Kalidas, Amarsinha, Kamantaka etc.
  2. Fa-Hien visited during his period.
  3. Mehrauli iron pillar erected under him. It shows level of scientific advancement during that time.

5. Kumaragupta

  1. Kumaragupta’s Bhittari inscription is famous, which says son of Kumaragupta – Skandagupta defeated Hunas.
  2. He was the one who founded Nalanda university.

6. Skandagupta

1st he defeated Hunas.
He also repaired Junagarh lake.
Last important ruler under Guptas.
Later around 485 AD, Hunas defeated Guptas and acquired Malwa region.

7. Visnugupta – Last Gupta Ruler

7.1 Fa Heins’ visit

Fa Hein during Chandragupta II, however still he does not mention King’s name. It is said that he was more objective in his approach and rather than focussing on political conditions, his accounts mention more of social-religious-economic conditions. (unlike Huan Tsang who glorifies Harsha un-proportionately).
He visited many places like Mathura, Pataliputra, Kannauj, Peshavar, Taxila etc.
He has mentioned Ashoka’s palace at Pataliputra.

8. Polity

  1. Kings was highy powerful with titles like Maharajadhiraja, Paramabhattarika, Parameshvar. It was semi-divine monarchy.
  2. Centralized administration existed with officers like Kumaramatyas to look after the affairs of state.
  3. Each kingdom was divided into provinces called Bhuktis, to be headed by Uparika.
  4. Each bhukti was divided into districts called Vishya and headed by Vishyapati.
  5. Since they were themselves feudatories, they would be relying on feudal chiefs. Feudal elements were quiet prominent during Gupta period.
  6. The major part of the Gupta empire was held by feudatory chiefs. That is the reason Gupta rulers did not require as many officials as in Mauryan times.
  7. Public highways were secure, reflecting peace and stability in the empire.
  8. Land grants would be given in large numbers, reflecting welfare approach of the rulers.

9. Punishment

  1. Punishment was in terms of payment of fine. Only for the repeated offenders, their hands would be cut.
  2. Corporal punishment was largely absent.

10. Revenue Administration

  1. Land revenue formed the major part of revenue with 1/4th to 1/6th of produce taken from farmers.
  2. Vishthi – Forced labour could also be asked from the people from for serving the army officials.

11. Judiciary

  1. The judicial system was highly developed during Gupta period with clear demarkation of civil and criminal laws. During this age, for the first time lawbooks were compiled. However equality before law did not existed.

12. Urban Administration

The professional bodies like Nagarshresthi (head of city bankers), Sarthavaha (head of mobile guilds), Pratham kayastha (head of scribes). They used to participate in the city administration.

13. Society

  1. Mostly people were vegetarians.
  2. Many rich people were benevolent to distribute medicines and to construct dharmashalas for the travellers.
  3. Chandalas – who would live on the outskirts of cities and towns. They were outcasted from the society and would have to beat a drum before coming to main area. They were treated as untouchables.
  4. Fa Hein also writes that Position of sudras improved because of participation in agriculture and they had got right to listen Ramayana and Mahabharata.
  5. Condition of women worsened with Child Marriage and Sati being highly common. Woman was considered as property of men.

14. Religion

  1. Buddhism and Hinduism, both were popular.
  2. Both the internal and external trade were in progressive stage. Indians would carry out large sea voyages.
  3. Vaisnavism emerged during this period.Vishnu as the central deity.Concept of incarnation of Visnu into 10 avatars.
  4. It is free from complex rituals and ceremonies.
  5. It also minimizes the role of priestly class.Shakti Worship.
  6. Worship of goddesses in the form of Durga, Amba, Laxm

14.1 Gupta Economy

  1. Expansion of agriculture with increased practice of land grants.
  2. Land grants were given so that new area could be brought under cultivation.
  3. Bramhanas would be given Agrahara (land grants).Land grants would be given independently to secular parties also.
  4. There was high trade even during this period but as compared to post Mauryan, however there would be decline eventually.
  5. Gold coins were in large number but copper coins were not used so frequently i.e. On one hand there was barter system and on other hand there were lot of coins. It reflects lack of access of money to common people.
  6. Fa-Hein as in fact said that Cowry shells were used more by common people than coins.
  7. In the later period, trade and economic strength declined because of rise of feudal conditions and lack of currency of common use. Hence the urban centres also declined.
  8. The purity of coins also started decreasing in the later period.

15. Vakataka Dynasty

Conemporary of Guptas. And successor of Satavahanas in Deccan. Vakatakas ruled in Maharashtra and parts of MP from 3rd to 5th century AD. There were two branches of dynasty – Pravarapur and Vatsagulma.

16. Important Rulers

Vindhyashakti was founder.
Pravarsena I, who expanded the kingdom from Bundelkhand in North to present day Andhrapradesh in South.
Harishena – he expanded the kingdom to highest level.

17. Contribution of Vakatakas

In economy, they promoted expansion of trade and commerce. Controlled the trade routes. They promoted expansion of cultivation. They donated land grants to bramhins and officials, promoted feudalism.
They did not issue many coins

18. Religion

They were patrons of Bramhinical religion, Vishnu and Shiva being main deities.
They performed sacrifices and promoted Hindu culture.
They provided protection to Buddhism and Jainism also.

19. Literature

  1. Pravarsena wrote SETUBANDA.
  2. Kalidas wrote MEGHADUTAM under them. (Earlier Kalidas was under Vakatas but Chandragupta II took him to his court where he wrote remaining works.)
  3. Prakrit language is used in most of the inscriptions.

20. Architecture

They patronized Ajanta school of paintings.
Rock cut vihara of Ajanta cave 11 built by Varahadeva, who was minister of Harishena.
Many Bramhinical temples were also constructed under Vakatakas.

Please visit next page for Art & Architecture of Guptas

21. Art, Architecture & Literature under Guptas

Nagara school of temple architecture evolved during this age.

Sculptures – Benaras school emerged, though Mathura school also continued.
Copper statue of Buddha found at Sultanganj is the most evident feature. 6 feet high Bronze statue.
Life size images made of stone as well as metals.
Simple, sober, graceful, representing the synthesis between symbolism of Kushanas and nudity of early medieval times.
Marble images also found.

Sultanganj Buddha Statue

22. Paintings and Caves

Cave no. 10, 16, 17 of Ajanta belongs to Gupta period.
Cave 16 – dying princess.
Cave 17 – mother and child.

Bagh caves in  also constructed during this period. In Madhya Pradesh
Rang Mahal has multiple paintings.
Varamihir wrote the book Brihatsamhita, in which he has mentioned various pastes called Yamralepa, which were used to make paintings.

For detailed discussion of Ajanta caves, please visit Important Themes of Ancient India.

23. Music and Dance

Vina used to be played as seen from Vina playing coin of Samudragupta.
Devadasi tradition, where devadasis were maintained in Mahakali temple of Ujjain to entertain people and deities with music and dance.

Miniature art riched high level of excellence under Guptas, which is reflected through their coins.

24. Gupta Coins

  1. The gold coins of Guptas called Dinaras were issued in largest number. Coins play a significant role in reconstructing politiko administrative economic social and religious life under Gupta.
  2. Territorial extent of empire is known from coins.
  3. Names of kings are mentioned on the coins.
  4. Chronology of the Gupta age could be reconstructed through them.
  5. Titles of rulers like Vikramaditya written on coins of Chandragupta II.
  6. Spirit of imperialism is also reflected through coins, like Ashvamedha type of coin of Samudragupta.
  7. Foreign relations like Licchavi Dohitra, written on Samudragupta coins.

25. Art & Culture through Coins

  1. Miniature art and veena as instrument.
  2. Chandragupta I having image of Godess Durga riding on lion on his coins.
  3. Garuda as royal emblem on coins.

26. Economy though Coins

Material culture is reflected through their coins, so the decline of Guptas can be seen through coins after the reign of Kumar Gupta I, having high level of impurity in the coins.

Ashvamedha coin

Literature / It will be updated soon.

Please visit timeline of ancient India for detailed information.

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