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Guptan Empire


GUPTAN EMPIRE A powerful imperial polity based in northern and central India between the fourth and sixth centuries a.d., the Guptan empire was often regarded as embodying a classical age of Indian art and literature. The Guptan period witnessed the crystallization of a cultural and political order that would set a pattern for centuries to come. In the third century a.d., the Sassanian empire in west Asia effectively curtailed Kushana power, and in India a number of principalities that formerly owed allegiance to them became independent. The Gupta family seems to have been among these groups, though its origins are obscure. The Guptas may have ruled in the region of Magadha or, more likely, in the western Gangetic Plain. The first important king of the family was Chandragupta I (reigned a.d. 320–335), who married into the well-established and prestigious Licchavi dynasty of northern India. Chandragupta I ruled along the Ganges (Ganga) River from Magadha in the east to Saketa and Prayāga in the west. The famous "Guptan era" used to date inscriptions between the fourth and sixth centuries begins with his accession to throne. His son Samudragupta (reigned a.d. 350–375) seems to have inherited the crown amid controversy. He may not have been the eldest son, and his Allahabad pillar inscription makes much of him being "selected" by his father over others of "equal birth." Contemporary coins mention another Guptan prince named Kacha who was probably a rival. Samudragupta's political capabilities, however, are hardly in doubt. According to the long eulogistic introduction composed by his courtier Harisena on the Allahabad pillar, Samudragupta conquered numerous kings through a performance of a digvijaya, or "conquest of the directions." These included: rulers of the northern Gangetic region, who were "violently uprooted"; forest or tribal chiefs in central India, who "were made into servants"; and kings of southern and eastern India, who were "captured and released," that is, defeated but allowed to retain their kingdoms, and who, like other kings of eastern and western India (notably the Shakas and Kushanas), paid homage to Samudragupta. Perhaps more important than the extent of Samudragupta's conquests is the political structure it implied, since in all but the most proximate regions of his empire, he allowed defeated or submissive kings to retain their kingdoms in return for some form of service. These services, which are formally mentioned for the first time in the Allahabad inscription, included, variously, the paying of tribute, court attendance, the gift of maidens, and the offering of military assistance. While the Guptan monarch took imperial titles like "Great King over Kings" (mahārājādhirāja) and "Supreme Lord" (paramabhattāraka), subordinate rulers were permitted only more modest titles like "Great King" (mahārāja).

Samudragupta was succeeded by his son Chandragupta II (reigned a.d. 375–415) who also seems to have risen to the throne through the elimination of a rival, one Rāmagupta, whose existence is attested by coins and literary sources. A marriage between Chandragupta II's daughter Prabhāvatīguptā and the Vākātaka king Rudrasena II secured the southern borders of the newly founded Guptan settlements in middle India at Udayagiri and Arikana. Chandragupta II's major military campaign was fought against the Shakas in western India, and he took the title Vikramāditya (Sun of Prowess), perhaps to commemorate his success against them.

A notable feature of early Guptan political culture is its attempt to invoke the bygone imperium of the Mauryas. This is suggested not only by the use of the name "Chandragupta," the founder of the Mauryan empire, but also by supplementing Mauryan rock faces and pillars with Guptan royal inscriptions, as well as imitating Mauryan lion capitals. The famous text on statecraft, the Artha Shāstra, which was attributed to the minister of the Mauryan king Chandragupta, also seems to have been reworked during the Guptan period by one Visnugupta. The reasons for such an evocation are unclear, for in many ways Guptan imperial culture was also innovative and formative. Imperial terminology and protocols of service, deference, alliance, and war were standardized by the end of the Guptan period and remained largely stable (with some modification) for nearly a millennium. Religiously, the period saw a great consolidation and bid for court patronage of the theistic cults, Shaivism and Vaishnavism. The transition to Sanskrit as a courtly language, which had begun during Kushana and Shaka times, was completed by the fourth century, and from Guptan times, both the practice and patronage of the arts (literature, music, and drama) became the sine qua non of aristocratic and urban existence. Samudragupta, for example, is praised in his inscriptions as proficient at both prose and poetry and is depicted on his coins seated, playing a lyre. The famous Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa, author of a number of poems and dramas, also lived at the court of Samudragupta's son Chandragupta II. Vātsyāyana, author of the treatise on romantic love called the Kāma Sūtra, also probably lived in the Guptan period.

The structure of the Guptan empire was less "centralized" than the Mauryan, and although some officials remained the same, there was an expansion in both palace personnel and lesser, semiautonomous officials. Two characteristics of Guptan polity may be noted. First, landed lords became the essential building blocks of polity, either as subordinate kings who retained patrimonial lands or palace servants who were deeded property and over generations came to wield effective lordship. Second, the importance of such landed lords as political subordinates and royal servants meant that kings employed men who had significant local power bases, and who were often more than ready to assert autonomy in moments of imperial weakness. These processes taken together are thought to herald an epoch of "Indian feudalism."

The latter half of the fifth century saw a slow decline of Guptan fortunes. Chandragupta II was succeeded by Kumāragupta (reigned a.d. 415–454 ), who fought off a branch of the White Huns, or Hephthalites (known as the Hūnas in Indian sources), from the northwest. Kumāragupta's successors were less fortunate, and due in part to internal problems, Guptan power slowly shrank in the next fifty years, until at the end of the fifth century the Hūnas were able to enter northern India. We find Hūna inscriptions in Arikana, the erstwhile city of the Guptas in central India, dated at the beginning of the sixth century. As Guptan power contracted and finally disappeared entirely in the first half of the next (sixth) century, a number of smaller kingdoms, formerly subordinate to the Guptas, asserted independence. These families most typically adopted Guptan political vocabulary and thus ensured a lasting legacy for the dynasty down to the thirteenth century.

Daud Ali

See alsoArtha Shāstra ; Kaālidāsa


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Gupta, P. L. The Imperial Guptas. 2 vols. Varanasi: Vishwavidyalaya Prakashan, 1974–1979.

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Smith, Bardwell. Essays on Gupta Culture. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1983.

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