Chapter 10: GUPTA EMPIRE


  • In 4 Century AD, a new dynasty emerged over Magadha and ruled a large part of North India. Their rule lasted for over 200 years. The rule of the Guptans over North India is often described as an imperial government. The centralised control which was a characteristic of an imperial empire was absent in the Guptan age and the empire was decentralised as compared to the Mauryan empire. The Guptan empire was also marked as the period of Classical age of India as Hinduism established its rule firmly over the country during this period. But in parts of deccan empire it was the post guptan age that saw evolution of a high level of civilization.

  • India had multitude of weak kingdoms as well as new kingdoms during the 4th century AD. The kushanas and shakas continued to rule but their territories were truncated and kingdoms weakened. Many new kingdoms were emerging in areas of Punjab and Sind. The Vakatakas were ruling in Vidharbha after the satavahanas had disappeared around 3rd century AD. In the south in tamil region the Pallavas were emerging. Also in Bengal, Odisa and the forest areas of Madhya Pradesh many new kingdoms were ruling that had not existed before.

  • The Guptan kings were powerful and conquered North India but they had to face considerable opposition from Central Asia especially the Huns. The last powerful king of gupta Skandagupta was able to keep the huns under check but latter rulers failed and the empire could not extend in Punjab and Sindh.

  • Guptan policy was to restore the kingdom which was won under conquest to the local chief after he excepted their suzerainty. This meant that there was limited central control and the empire had weak foundations. The empire began to disintegrate as local chieftains became powerful and asserted their independence under weak central rulers.

Guptan administration

  • Guptan kings adopted titles such as Chakravarti, parambha taraka probably to distinguish themselves from lesser known kings in the empire. They did not possess a large standing army and depended largely on armies supplied by the feudatories. Bengal, bihar and UP were the areas directly controlled by them and so in these areas there was an organised system of administration.

  • Gupta territories were divided into provinces each under the administration of a governor. The provinces were further divided into districts and the lowest unit of administration was a village. The village was headed by a Gramapati. There was an intermediate level of administration betwen a village and a district. Gramapati resolved disputes and also administered villages with the assistance of the village elderly. The guptan kings had less control over the officials compared to the mauryans. Officials were paid in cash for military service and also by land grants or in kind. The kings also continued the practice that had started under the Satvahana dynasty of giving land grants to priest and temples.

  • The farmers under this lands were now under the mastery of the new owners and had to bear the burden of forced labor and other explitations. Granted lands were also freed from the burden on administrative activities of the empire. The priest and temples also got police and administrative powers over such lands.

  • Land revenue was a major source of income for the state besides fines. The guptan kings had a proper department for the measurement and assessment of land as well as collection of land revenue. Kalidasa states that one sixth of the land produce should be claimed as state revenue.

  • The traders also were leveid with tax for selling of commodities from one marketplace to another. Non payment of taxes meant a heavy penalty of upto eight times the tax.

  • The treasury income was treated as the personal income of the king He also had the right to impose forced labor and other contributions on his subjects.

  • Besides the kings treasury had a monopoly over digging mines, salt exploration and treasures troves.

Trade - Guptan Age

  • The trade with the Western Asia and the roman empire declined and so also the tax revenues associated with it. The Hun invasion of the Romans caused their end and Gupta empire suffered from this. However, trade activities were diverted to South east Asian countries.

  • The ports on the East were trading with the South East Asian nations and those on the west traded with Mediterrenean and west Asian countries. Ports further south were outside the control of the Gupta empire.

  • Guptan issued and minted the largest amount of gold coins along with copper coins. However, cowries or shells were the common medium of exchange and the gold or other coins were not used in daily transactions.

  • Towns that were active centers of production during the post mauryan age experienced decay and desertion. The pre kushana and kushana and the satvahana towns also began to decay.

  • The urban decline took place in two phases. The first coincided with the rise of guptans. The habitational deposits at all such sites are thinner compared to those of the earlier centuries and yielded poorer or lesser material remains. The spatial spread of urban centers and civic amenities is nowhere near the scale of the Kushana period. In the second phase of the decay these centers ceased to be towns.

  • The decline in towns and cities is reflected in the contemporary literature and inscriptions as well. There was a general decline in crafts, commodities, manufacturing of gems and beads etc.


  • Standard of living was high. A prosperous town dweller lived in luxury with extravagance like jewels and clothes. Outskirts of the towns were the dwellings of the outcasts whose poverty attracted the attention of the Fa Hien. The number of villages outnumbered the towns. According to accounts of foreign travellers the villages were prosperous.

  • The position of shudras were improved and they could listen to epics lie Mahabharat. The shudras were agriculturalists and this was significant change from other periods where they were slaves and servants of the three upper classes.

  • The status of women declined and certain features seen in the society were emergence of sati, early marriage of women and lack of access to formal education for them. Sati was believed to remain confined to the upper classes.

  • There was no right to inherit property of father. The gotra could also change after marriage. Thus the patriarchal system was strong in this period.

  • The caste system was changing due to the entry and assimilation of foreigners into the indian society. They mostly were treated as kshatriyas. Tribals also became a part of the society as they came into contact with the mainstream due to land grants given to temples and priests. They were assimilated as shudras.

  • Trade guilds prospered in this period. Due to the hereditary nature of this guilds, they also were treated as castes. The handicrafts like goldsmiths had a higher status that artisans of pottery etc. Intercaste marriages were censored.

  • Untouchability which had emerged during the early christian era also got a definite shape. Many of the castes that had a low status in the society were pushed into untouchability. This included tribals, hunters, craftsmen etc. A social hierarchy was observed even in the untouchables.

  • The restrictions imposed on them were mentioned in the foreign travellers accounts. The rise of the number of untouchables was believed to be due to the inclusion of tribals with the mainstream. It is believed that they resisted acculturation and so were gradually outcast from the society. They were dispossessed of their lands and were forced to settle outside cities.


  • Buddhism and hinduism emerged as the religions which received broad support. However while hindusim received patronage and developed into a form that continues to remain in existence till today. Buddhism acquired a form that led to its decline. Jainism remained confined to the trading community and christianity to the malabar region.

  • Bhakti cult emerged in hindusim which focused on worsip and devotion. Role of priests declined and anyone could have access to gods through their devotion. Shakti cult also emerged that believed that male could only be activated by union with female. Hence goddess worship emerged and consorts of the male gods such as Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh were worshipped. The female gods which were important in the rituals and traditions of the Harappan society became a part of the hindu society also.

  • Hindusim also acquired other forms such as tantrism, animal sacrifices and religious sexuality.

The Gupta's occupied the Magadha city and started their Empire. The coins issued give some information about their rituals and titles. The works of the rulers are mentioned in the Iron pillars erected by the rulers. 

Chronology of Gupta kings

Chandragupta – I:

The Gupta era started in 320 AD. Chandragupta was famous for extensive conquests.


He was the greatest of the Gupta emperors. He had complete control over North India from Taxila to Bengal. The policy regarding South India was different. He defeated the kings but handed them back their Empires. He only wanted them to acknowledge his suzerainty. He issued gold and silver coins depicting his conquests.

He is known as Indian Napoleon.

He was tolerant of other religions. He promoted music, poets and Sanskrit literature. He was an ardent follower of Vaishnavism.

Chandragupta – II:

The military genius of his father was inherited by him. He undertook military campaigns against the southern satraps in Maharashtra. The defeat of the Sakas brought the Arabian Sea as part of the kingdom. External trade with the Roman Empire also increased. This increased wealth of the Empire.

Fa - Hien the Chinese pilgrim visited during his reign. He wrote about the religious, social and economic conditions of the Gupta.

Successors of Chandragupta and their achievements:

  1. Kumargupta: Founded Nalanda University. It was a Mahayana university.
  2. Skandagupta: fought and defeated the Huns.

The successors of Gupta’s couldn’t save the Empire from Huns.

Because of the high level of cultural progress the Gupta period is known as the golden age.

Features of Gupta Age:

1.    Hereditary monarchy with king as head. King is assisted by a council.

2.    Kingdom divided into provinces. Provinces into city and districts with their own administrative machinery.

3.    Fa Hien's account claimed that Gupta administration was mild. Negligible crime was seen. Punishments were not severe. Civil liberties were present. Administration was lenient than the Mauryan’s.

4.    Women status was poor. They were thoroughly subjugated to men. Caste system was also rigid. The lower castes were oppressed. Brahmins were favoured by kings.

5.    Brahmanism and its form Shaivism and Vaishnavism flourished in this time. Most of the kings were Vaishnavaites. They performed sacrifices and gave donations. Buddhism and Jainism declined in the Gangetic valley.

6.    The arts, science and culture flourished during this period and hence it’s called a golden age. This was due to culmination of various intellectual activities.

Art and Architecture:

1.Temple building styles like the Dravidian and the Nagara evolved during this period. However most of the work was destroyed by the Hun invasions.

2.No influence of Gandhar style but little of Greek style on sculptures.

3.The craftsmen became experts in art of crafting metal statues and pillars. The statue of Buddha and the Delhi iron pillar are good examples.

4.Coinage also saw great progress. Gold, silver and copper coins of different varieties were issued.

5.Sanskrit literature flourished and new script Nagari evolved from Brahmi script. Best works of Sanskrit were done in this period.

6.The example of literary works done in this period are Kalidasa – Shakuntala, Panchatantra stories, final touches to Purana, Epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

7.Brilliant activity was achieved in the fields of science, mathematics, astronomy, medicine. Aryabhatta and Varahamihir wrote books on astronomy. Vagbhata wrote on medicine.


Nalanda University:

It was a residential University where education, lodging and boarding were free. Although it was a Mahayana university, it gave education about all religious doctrines.

In addition it had other subjects like science, astronomy, medicine. More than lectures discussions played an important role. It was an institution of advanced learning and research. It had a great library and classrooms. Discipline was strict.

It was popular from the fact that it attracted scholars all over Asia.

Taxila University:

      1.      Located at junction of Central Asia and South Asia.

2.      Not considered a university a modern sense as teachers living there didn’t have official membership of colleges.

3.      No purpose built lecture halls and Residential quarters.

  • Large scale land granst became common and this led to a society of lord vassal or feudal nature. There were a sizeable number of intermediaries and a large body of impoverished peasantry. Samantas became the ruling landed aristocracy, brahman landlords now kept their priestly functions aside and devoted more time towards management of land and people. In later times they were conferred titles such as Thakur, Raut and Nayaka.

  • A persons status in the society did not depend upon his birth but the land that he possessed. The possession of land transformed the social status of communities. This also created a new change in the society. the community that was called shudras or untouchables were now agriculture workers and their distinction with the vaishyas blurred. Both these classes were treated as shudras ritually and legally.

  • As the brahmanical order spread to Bengal and southern India the main varnas that dominated were brahmanas and shudras. The intermediary varnas were absent. This was because tribals and non brahmanical communities were admitted to the society as shudras. The kshatriyas never crystallised into a tangible community and vaishya became more of a status that could be claimed by shudras during times of greater prosperity.

  • Another trend noticed during the post gupta period was the division of brahman into many classes of Brahmans. The transfers of lands to various officials, Brahmans and others led to emergence of a new class of people. These were the record keepers or scribes. These would later on become a separate class with marriage restrictions. They also would emerge as occupiers of high ranking positions at the administration. Position of women in the society however continued to decline.

Developments in Religion in the Post Guptan Period

  • The important development was that a devotee was considered to be bound by a god head by devotion and the god head was worshipped in the form of images. Image worship became prominent and shaivism and vaishnavism gathered a large following. The other religions such as buddhism and jainism also developed this form of worship. Buddhists worshipped not only buddha and boddhisattas but a host of other idols. Jains also worshipped the tirthankars, minor deities and other objects.

  • The brahmans also built up a pantheon of other deities by assimilating gods and goddesses from many sources to meet the challenges of heretical sects which were opposed to buddhism. The brahmanical order was challenged by some groups in shaivism such as lingayats. These groups attacked the vedic supremacy and the theory of rebirth and also attacked religious hypocrisy.

  • Bhakti movements in the south also started due to the grip of brahmans on the society. These movements emphasised the importance of devotion as a path to god and opposed casteism and dominion of brahmans.

  • Nayanars and Alvars were the two major groups in the south who led this movement. They belonged to people mostly from the so called lower castes. They sang praises and hymns in simple tamil language and this was easily understood. Singing of hymns was also accompanied by dancing and dance became more sophisticated with time. Trained dancers were kept at temples to perform during rituals. Tamil bhakti movement also acquired a aggressive militancy against the heterodox sects which had to beat a retreat from the south. A revolutionary feature of the Nayanars and alwars was that even women were present in them as saints.