Ancient History Notes for UPSC [Part 10] Gupta Empire

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GUPTA EMPIRE- 4rd to 6th century CE

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The empire was established after the Kushans and Satvahanas declined. Political stability was maintained in north by Kushans and by Satavahanas in south. After their decline in about 230 AD, central India was ruled by Murundas till 250 CE and after them, the Guptas took over. They are considered to be of Vaishya caste.

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The first important king of Guptas was Chandragupta I (319 CE to 335 CE). He married a Lichchavi princess, which shows royal relations. He was succeeded by his son Samudragupta.

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Samudragupta (335 CE-380 CE) Samudragupta enlarged the empire. He ruled from the Shaka and Kushan areas till the Pallavas of Kanchi. His poet Harishena mentions the pursuits of Samudragupta at the elaborate Sanskrit panegyric at the Allahabad pillar of Ashoka. Harisena describes Samudragupta as an ideal king and a splendid warrior.

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Pursuits of Samudragupta

  • Conquest of North India- Line 21 refers to Samudragupta violently exterminating kings of Aryavarta and subjugating kings of forests. It refers to names of kings like Rudrasena possibly of Vakatakas, Achyuta of Ahichhatra, Nagadatta of Padmavati, etc. Thus, areas from Mathura and Padmavati till areas of Bengal came under his control.
  • Conquest of east and west- Line 22 talks of various rulers paying tributes and obeying the orders of Samudragupta and perform obescience before him. These were not conquered rukers but merely subjugates. These include eastern kingdoms like Samatata of south eastern Bengal, Kamarupa of Assam and in the west, Kartripura of Punjab and a number of Ganas like Malavas, Arjunayas, Yaudheyas, Madrakas, etc.
  • Conquest of south- Line 19 and 20 talk of conquest of Dakshinapatha. It names kings of Kosala, Vengi, Kanchi, Kairala, etc. They were not annexed given the distance between Gangetic valley and these kingdoms. But they accepted Gupta suzereignty
  • Fight with foreigners- In line 23, Harisena talks of kings ready to give all service to Samudragupta, requesting to use his Garuda seal and enter into matrimonial alliances. These include foreign rulers with epithets Daivaputra, Shahi, Shahnushahi, Shaka-Murunda, etc. King Meghavarman of Sri Lanka had also sent an emissary to build a rest place for Sri Lankan pilgrims at Bodh Gaya.

Thus, Samudragupta was successful in establishing a network of political relations of paramountcy and subordination. The conquests of Samudragupta mention that he got tributes from territories he couldn’t annex, mainly in the Deccan and south. Thus, Samudragupta adopted a dual policy of anexation.

Thus, it can be argued that Samudragupta as an emperor was just a short-lived phenomenon with actual control being limited only to Gangetic plains. It can also be argued that Samudragupta broke down entire kingdoms of Rajasthan which acted as a buffer for Gangetic kingdoms, thus paving way for Huna invasion.

Chandragupta II (380 CE – 412 CE)A story in a play Devi-Chandragupta says that Samudragupta’s successor was Ramagupta. He was defeated by the Shakas where he accepted to surrender his wife Dhruvadevi. This enraged his younger brother Chandragupta who killed the Shaka king, killed his own brother Ramagupta and married Dhruvadevi. Coins of Chandragupta and Dhruvadevi have been found. He is known as a connoisseur of music and arts. He married off his daughter Prabhavati to a Vakataka prince Rudrasena II. After the death of the prince, Prabhavati was ruling on the behalf of her adolescent son. Chandragupta was ruling indirectly through his daughter. Thus he had sway in north india as well as central india. He also conquered the Shaka kingdom of Gujarat and Malwa. The city of Ujjain became prosperous under his reign. He adopted the title of Vikramaditya. Poets like Kalidasa and Amarsimha existed in his reign. Chinese traveler Fa- Hsien also visited during his reign.

His successor Kumaragupta (412AD to 454 AD) barely managed to keep the Hunas of central Asia in the northwest. However, his successors were not capable of doing this and the Hunas invaded north-India.

Last Gupta ruler Skandagupta ruled up to 467AD but the kingdom was almost overthrown by the Hunas and it’s influence reduced.

The kingdom stayed relevant till the middle of 6th century CE. With their excellent horsemanship and war techniques, Hunas overran the western territory of the Guptas. Huna invasion broke the Gupta power and gave way to smaller kingdoms. King Yashodharman of Malwa defeated the Hunas in 532 CE and established his sway in entire north India, as seen from his pillars. This resulted in declining Gupta influence in the Ganga- Yamuna doab. The governors of Bengal declared independence. The Maukharis established their sway in UP and Bihar with their capital at Kanauj. The princes of Thaneshwar also established their kingdom in Haryana. The rulers of Valabhi declared independence. By the rule of Skandagupta in 467 CE, there was hardly any Gupta coin issued.

Guptas as Golden Age – it has been argued that Gupta age is the golden age of India when majority of the population was relatively well off than the preceding ages.

  • The development in architecture, literature, etc is seen in this age.
  • New forms of literature came up in Sanskrit.
  • It also saw excellent development in Shramanic literature of Buddhists.
  • However, critics argue that Gupta age is just one of the classical ages that have passed in India, the first one being Mauryan times and post-Mauryan times.
  • It has also been argued that India whole didn’t have a Golden Age but the age differed according to regional empires.
  • It has also been argued that it is called Golden Age only due to renaissance of Brahminism and Sanskrit literature.
  • Critics say only the elite were well off, not the common people. Horizontal excavations show a dichotomy between scriptures and archaeology.
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Huna Invasion

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  • They are mentioned to be a white hephthalite tribe of central Asia who had invaded Bactria and other provinces during the times of Kumaragupta.
  • The Guptas had somehow kept them beyond Hindukush.
  • But later on, they invaded north India.
  • Their sole intention was loot unlike the Shakas and Kushanas.
  • They were responsible for the decline of the Gupta empire post Skandagupta after 467 CE.
  • The earliest known king of the Hunas was Tormana. He was shrewd to build an empire from Central Asia to Pataliputra in a short period of time.
  • He did not change the systems of administration and kept the rights of nobles and feudal lords intact.
  • This resulted in establishing Hunas in India. 8th century text Kuvalayamala mentions Toramana converting to Jainism.
  • His son was Mihirakula around 515 CE.
  • Xuanzang mentions Sakala aa the capital of Mihirkula.
  • He captured many surrounding areas. Being violent in nature, he issued orders to destroy all priesrs and to overthrow the law of Buddha.
  • Kalhana’s Rajataragini mentions cruelty of Mihirkula and also his rule over Kashmir and Gandhara. He says that Brahmins of Kashmir took grants from
  • Hunas who were iconoclasts and hated Buddhism.
  • Their raids continued until king Yashodharman of Malwa reduced the influence of Mihirakula to Kashmir and Gandhara in 532 CE.
  • Mandsaur inscription talks of Mihirkula bowing head at the feet of Yashidharman.
  • There are references to the battle between Maukhari king Ishanvarman and Mihirkula where elephants of former trampled the army of Hunas.
  • By 567 CE, the invading Turks and armies of Persia reduced influence of Hunas in central Asia. Soon the empire crumbled and finally, the Hunas assimilated in India.

Ill effects- weakened unity, formation of small states, ruins and loot, destruction of art and architecture, it ultimateky brout chaos and confusion till Harsha united India again.

Features of Gupta Age

Features of Gupta empire
  • Gupta coins were meticulous and made up of gold. This shows great development in minting.
  • Feudatories existed. The Gupta kings adorned titles like Maharajadhiraja, Paramaeshvara, etc suggesting they ruled over small kings. Samudragupta had subjected many to become his vassals. The vassals would give him taxes, etc and got in return, charters permitting them to rule their area. There existed Samantas or subordinate rulers.
  • Grants were given to Brahmins (agrahara) and merchants. They consisted of entire villages. The royal officers and army was not permitted in these areas. They also had tax sops. This reduced the scope of tax collection. The Gaya and Nalanda plates of samudragupta giving away a village to a Brahman. He asked the people to obey him and also give Meya and Hiranya tax to him. Another example is the Bhitari inscription of Skandagupta where he gifts a village for a Vishnu temple. However, overall the Gupta were not much into land grants.
  • Promotion of agriculture was the main duty of the State during Mauryan times. However, lands were granted to intermediaries whose duty was to oversee the cultivation and related issues. Another feature of decentralization. Although this may have given rise to landlords.
  • Guilds of merchants became very common. The guilds exerted pressure and also had certain privileges. Guilds of different artisans have been found at Bhita, Vaishali, Bulandshahr, Indore, Malwa, etc.
  • Guptas did not have a vast bureaucracy like the Mauryas. The Kumaramatyas and Ayuktakas were responsible for collecting taxes. Considerable autonomy was given to them which made the Gupta empire a decentralized one. Some posts became hereditary which resulted in loss of royal control. The taxes were one fourth to one sixth of income. Villagers also were subjected to force labour for royal purposes. Army was to be fed when they passed the village. In the taxation system, some classes like priests were granted concessions. The officials are said to have been paid in cash.
  • For the first time, proper codified laws were put in place. Law books containing civil and criminal laws were made. An efficient judiciary with the help of priests was established. The law differentiated people according to the varna. Laws related to land use, the quality of land, exemptions from taxations came up.
  • Village heads started to gain special importance. The village heads called Gram-Adhyaksha used to run the administration with the help of elders. This led to village autonomy. Similarly, city councils were run by Nagarshreshthin. The difference was that Mauryas used to appoint members to the councils whereas Guptas let the local representatives take the lead. However, some entrepreneurs were placed in city councils for economic advantage.
  • Casteism increased to some extent. Fa-hsein mentions the Chandalas staying outside the village and dealing with meat and flesh. Although one good development was that women and shudras were allowed to listen to Puranas. The peculiar form of Hinduism that we see today took shape in the Gupta period.
Difference between Mauryas and Guptas
Difference between Mauryas and Guptas

Centralized vs Decentralized, large bureaucracy of Mauryas but less in Guptas due to delegation of power to vassal kings like samudragupta in Bengal. Profound provincial admin with importance to village heads, princes as provincial heads in Mauryas vs vassal kings in Guptas,Mauryas had advanced city admin but had central control while Guptas let local reprsentatives take lead like in Adhikarana, Judiciary- proper codified civil and criminal laws.

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Gupta Administration

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King- Divine origin of the king was stressed. His main duty was maintainance of Varnashrama Dharma. He became the de-jure owner of all land. He adopted titles like Maharajadhiraja, Parameshvara, etc

• Council of ministers – The council of ministers are not clearly mentioned.

The Allahabad Prashasti refers to the council as Sabha. Officers like Sandhivigrahika might be ministers for War and peace. The posts seemed to be hereditary. Kumaramatyas or princes as ministers.

Admininstrative Divisions of Gupta Empire 

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  • Guptas divided their kingdom into multiple provinces. The provinces were known as Bhukti with their head as Uparika.
  • The regions divided as Bhukti seem to be in Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Saurashtra, etc. The very name Bhukti might suggest the lands were given for being enjoyed than governed.
  • The Uparika was appointed directly by the king. The Damodarpur plates of Kumargupta I talk of appointing governor of Pundravardhana by Kumargupta I.

Sometimes Uparika had titles like Maharaja like in case of Maharaja Surashmichandra in Eran pillar inscription. The Uparika could be a vassal king.

  • The Bhuktis were further divided into Vishayas or districts whose number is unknown. They were headed by Vishayapati. The Indore plates of Skandagupta suggest that he was directly appointed by the king, however, possibility of him being appointed by governor Uparika is large.
  • The district administration was all inclusive. The office of the district was called Adhikarana. Damodarpur plates of Kumargupta I show the Adhikarana of Kotivarsha consisted of 5 members – Vishayapati, Nagar Shreshtin, Sarthavaha or caravan trader, Prathama Kulika or main artisan and Prathama Kayastha or main scribe.
  • Lower administrative units were divided into groups of settlements called as either Vithi, Bhumi, Petha, etc admimistered by Ayuktakas or VithiMahattaras. At village level, heads were called Gramika or Gramadhyaksha. Sanchi inscription of Chandragupta I states the village governed by PanchaMandali or early system of Panchayat.

Military administration of  Gupta Empire

  • King maintained a standing army supplemented by the army of the vassals.
  • The word Senapati does not occur in context of head of army. However, designations like Mahabaladhikrita might be the commander-in-chief.
  • Vaishali seals have names like Bhatashvapati which might mean head of cavalry and infantry.
  • The Kumaramatyas and Amatyas also undertook military functions.

Revenue Administration of Gupta Empire

  • 5th century text Kamandaka’s Nitisara says a king’s tax system should be like milking a cow. It needs tendering at times and only then can it be milked.
  • The tax system of Guptas was not as elaborate as mentioned in the Arthashastra. However, taxes like bali, bhaga, Kara, bhoga, Hiranya are mentioned.
  • Bhaga meant 1/6th of produce according to Narada smriti
  • Bali might mean taxes for religious purposes
  • Bhoga might mean periodical supplies of fruits, firewood, etc to the king
  • ii might mean king’s share in agricultural produce.
  • Shaulkika is mentioned in a Bihar stone pillar which means custom duties and tolls were also collected.
  • The Pustapala elaborately maintained all the land record while the Hiranyasamudayika might have collected all the dues.
  • Probably, vassal kings collected these taxes and paid a tribute to the king.

Judicial system during Gupta period

  • Gupta polity is characterized by its well structured judicial system.
  • The highest rank judge was known as Dandanayaka or Mahadandanayaka. The Allahabad Prashati says that Harisena himself was a Dandanayaka. Perhaps, they decided on the most important cases of the kingdom.
  • Upinder Singh believes a second layer of judiciary was at the district level i.e Adhikarana. It might have sorted all cases related to land.
  • Given the village autonomy, certain petty offences and civil cases might be sorted at village level.

Economic Conditions- Agriculture-

  • Agriculture advanced in Gupta ages. Wastelands were given as grants to bring them under cultivation.
  • Amarkosha mentions crops like rice, wheat, barley, sugarcane, peas, oilseeds, spices, fruits, vegetables, etc indicating a wide range of subsistence base.
  • Irrigation facilities were also good. Sudarshan lake was yet again repaired in times of Skandagupta.


  • Multiple crafts existed and flourished that led to trade and commerce.
  • The Chammak plates of Pravarsena II mention a settlement of leather workers Pattan plates mention gold smiths
  • Amar Kosha mentions metals like gold, silver, lead, iron, copper, brass, etc. The iron pillar at Mehrauli dating to 4th century is a testimony to the progress in Metallurgy
  • Amarkosha mentions multiple words related to textiles of cotton, wool and silk. The Mandasore inscription of silk weavers talks of the beauty of silk.
  • However, the import of silk could be less because of collapse of Roman trade and end of Han dynasty in China in 230CE.
  • Varahamihira’ s Brihat Samhita also mentions precious stones like diamond, rubies, etc and their qualities.


  • Guilds and merchant corporations flourished in Gupta period also, as in the older ages.
  • Narada and Brihaspati Smritis mention guilds conducting their own judicial functions and also the philantropic activities like building temples, gardens and resting places.
  • The guilds were chief contributors of wealth in the Gupta economy. Unlike the Mauryas, they enjoyed considerable freedom under the decentralized structure.


  • Flourishing trade with south east Asia and Persia, Arabia on west sustained the traders.
  • Ports like Kalyana, Chaul, Mangalore, etc are mentioned. Fa Xian refers to Tamralipti as a flourishing port in Bengal.
  • China trade- it was briefly disrupted due to fall of Han dynasty. However, it resumed and articles exported include rare gems, textiles, saffron, spices, etc.
  • Trade with SE asia flourished. Artifacts found in Irrawaddy, Mekong basin. Sangam sources like Manimekalai and Silappadikaram talk of sea voyages to Java and Myanmar.
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Coins– Guptas mainly issued gold coins. However, Chandragupta II issued silver coins while Kumaragupta issued copper coins. They were debased later on due to bad financial conditions.

Growth of cities

  • Multiple cities find mention in inscriptions. Cities like Vaishali, Ujjain, Svabhognagara, Indrapura, etc are mentioned to be bustling cities.
  • Sangam texts like Manimekalai and Silappadikaram mention bustling markets in Puhar and Madurai.
  • Guilds and trade with foreign countries are also testimonies of urban population.

Urban history of Guptas

  • The urbanization debate was started by RS Sharma who believed that pinnacle of urbanization took place in 200BCE to 300CE followed by a period of decay afterwards.
  • Shrimali has concluded from Vakataka inscriptions that the economy was a village based, small scale, non-monetary economy with contracting urbanization.
  • However, texts like Brihatsamhita mention opulent courts, kings, nobles and their lifestyles. Similarly, Amarkosha mentions multiple crafts and kinds of articles that are characteristic to an urban society.
  • The very composition of sophisticated literature in all languages in different genres itself testifies an urban outlook.
  • Moreover, in South India, the tamil epics like Silappadikaram mentions markets in Puhar and Madurai that sold flowers, aromatics, garlands, wine, cloth, garments, etc.
  • Existence of guilds and trade with foreign countries
  • Archaeology also testifies up to certain extent. Excavation at Basarh near Vaishali has yield seals and sealings of merchant guilds and big brick structures. However, no coins have been found.

It has also been argued that the flourishing of stupas, Viharas and Chaityas like Sanchi and Ajanta, universities like Nalanda shows urban centers existed due to symbiotic relationship between Buddhist Sangha with urban centers.

  • Faxian’s observations.


  • After the Kushanas, the coins of the Guptas are most revealing. They reveal the overall condition of the economy, religious beliefs, notion of kingship, etc.
  • The earlier Gupta coins are similar to Kushana coins due to both being contemporary. The one side of coin has king offering incense in the altar is seen in Gupta coins too.
  • However, later Gupta coins show complete indianization. Greek legends disappear and peacock cap disappears.
  • New type of artistic styles are introduced – archer type, tiger slayer, lion slayer, elephant type, horse type, etc.
  • Example- Samudragupta’s coins are mostly in Ashvamedha type, tiger slayer, horsemen, etc while that of Kumargupta I are in elephant rider type mostly.
  • Gupta coins were mostly in gold but Chandragupta II introduced silver coins after conquest of western Kshatrapas for maintaining continuity of silver coins used in that region. It was Kumargupta I who used silver coins in home provinces of Guptas.
  • Copper coins were also introduced by Kumargupta I
  • Allan, in his Catalogue of coins of Gupta dynasties has even suggested that some coins of Chandragupta I and his wife were struck by their son Samudragupta as commemoration.
  • Religious beliefs- Ambika on lion, Laxmi on Lotus.
  • In the last stages of Gupta empire, the economy was in a bad shape.
  • RS Sharma has argued that the Gupta and Post Gupta era saw decline in monetary economy. This can be seen from very less copper and silver coins and subsequent debasing of gold coins.

Gupta Society- Social Structure-

  • Caste system became even more rigid and discriminatory.
  • According to Varahamihira, a brahmana should have a house of 5 rooms, kshatriya of 4, vaishya of 3 and shudra of 2. The penal laws were different for different Varna
  • Brihaspati Sutra says a son of a Dvija from a shudra woman had no share in landed property
  • Overall, there was fear of varna system of messing up. The Epics and Puranas of this age talk of Kali age where Mlechha kings will rule, varnas wont follow their duties, women would be unchaste, etc.
  • The situation arose due to multiple invading tribes assimilating in the society, growth of multiple castes based on occupations like Kayasthas, etc. Even the forest tribes were assimilating in the settled varna order.

Condition of women

  • The society became rigid . The inferior status of women continued like the earlier ages.
  • Texts like Kamasutra, Amarkosha talk of a dutiful wife and the ideal way of life as a subordinate to her husband, fulfilling all his wishes.
  • The concept of Sati and Devadasi came up. The first memorial of Sati is seen in Eran in 510CE.
  • Education was confined to the upper classes only


  • The condition worsened for the untouchables. They are called impure, heterodox, untrue, thieves, etc
  • Faxian talks of the Chandalas need to strike a piece of wood so that others could get out of their way.
  • A Sangam texts also says that the water touched by a Pulaiya is unfit for consumption by upper castes.


Narada and Brihaspati Smriti lay down rules for hiring of slaves for various jobs and their payment.

  • The Narada Smriti talks of 15 kinds of slaves acquired mainly in war, as debt defaulters or voluntary enslavement.
  • The son born to a slave was also a slave of the master. Only the master could set it free.
  • Overall, rules to protect the rights of the slave were also set.

Standard of living– It was marked by general prosperity. The people in cities lived in lavish houses. Agricultural income also brought prosperity to people.