48 The Gupta Empire

A map showing the maximum extent of the Gupta Empire in northern India, c. 320–550 CE.
Arab Hafez | Public Domain

The Gupta Empire stretched across northern, central and parts of southern India between c. 320 and 550 CE. The period is noted for its achievements in the arts, architecture, sciences, religion, and philosophy. Chandragupta I (320–335 CE) started a rapid expansion of the Gupta Empire and soon established himself as the first sovereign ruler of the empire. It marked the end of 500 hundred years of domination of the provincial powers and resulting disquiet that began with the fall of the Mauryas. Even more importantly, it began a period of overall prosperity and growth that continued for the next two and half centuries which came to be known as a “Golden Age” in India’s history.(15) The empire declined slowly under a succession of weak rulers until it collapsed around 550 CE.(13)

Great tact and foresight were shown in the governance of the vast empire. The efficiency of their martial system was well known. The large kingdom was divided into smaller pradesha (provinces) and administrative heads were appointed to take care of them. The kings maintained discipline and transparency in the bureaucratic process. Criminal law was mild, capital punishment was unheard of and judicial torture was not practiced. Fa Hien called the cities of Mathura and Pataliputra as picturesque with the latter being described as a city of flowers. People could move around freely. Law and order reigned and, according to Fa Hien, incidents of theft and burglary were rare.

People led a simple life. Commodities were affordable and all around prosperity ensured that their requirements were met easily. They preferred vegetarianism and shunned alcoholic beverages. Gold and silver coins were issued in great numbers which is a general indicative of the health of the economy. Trade and commerce flourished both within the country and outside. Silk, cotton, spices, medicine, priceless gemstones, pearl, precious metal and steel were exported by sea.

Highly evolved steelcraft led everyone to a belief that Indian iron was not subject to corrosion. The 7 m (23 ft) high Iron Pillar in Qutub complex, Delhi, built around 402 CE, is a testimony to this fact. Trade relations with Middle East improved. Ivory, tortoise shell etc. from Africa, silk and some medicinal plants from China and the Far East were high on the list of imports. Food, grain, spices, salt, gems and gold bullion were primary commodities of inland trade.(15)

The Puranas of Vyasa were compiled during this period and the famous caves of Ajanta and Ellora, with their elaborate carvings and vaulted rooms, were also begun. Kalidasa the poet and playwright wrote his masterpiece Shakuntala and the Kamasutra was also written, or compiled from earlier works, by Vatsyayana. Varahamihira explored astronomy at the same time as Aryabhatta, the mathematician, made his own discoveries in the field and also recognized the importance of the concept of zero, which he is credited with inventing.(13)

Gupta kings knew that the well-being of the empire lie in maintaining a cordial relationship between the various communities. They were devout Vaishnava (Hindus who worship the Supreme Creator as Vishnu) themselves, yet that did not prevent them from being tolerant towards the believers of Buddhism and Jainism. Buddhist monasteries received liberal donations. Yijing observed how the Gupta kings erected inns and rest houses for Buddhist monks and other pilgrims. As a pre-eminent site of education and cultural exchange Nalanda prospered under their patronage. Jainism flourished in northern Bengal, Gorakhpur, Udayagiri and Gujarat. Several Jain establishments existed across the empire and Jain councils were a regular occurrence.(15)

Head of a Bodhisattva, Pakistan or Afghanistan Gandharan region 4th-6th century CE. Stucco with traces of pigment.
Mary Harrsch | CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


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