Indian History: Part 25 THE GOLDEN GUPTAS Section I: An Empire is Establsihed

Canberra, 14 January 2014

The decline and passage into oblivion of the Kushan dynasty marked the beginning of yet another period in Indian history about which little or no verifiable knowledge is available, and even the limited information is often incoherent. There is no fully verifiable information even today regarding the events that took place in the sub-continent, especially in North India, during this period. By 3rd century A.D. the entire land mass was divided into small kingdoms ruled by minor kings and tribal chieftains. Only towards the period of transition from the 3rd to the 4th century did this opaque veil of ignorance and obscurity lift, gradually flooding the recollection of Indian history with the light of information and permitting it to regain its perspicacity. Ancient Indian history has always suffered from a vagueness in its inability to determine the chronology of events and perhaps even more importantly being unable to corroborate the dates of events in a conclusive manner, mainly because different dynasties tended to use different eras to mark their history.
History, it is said, rhymes but does not normally repeat itself. This adage is emphatically proven with the story two of the greatest dynasties of Indian history: The Mauryas and the Guptas. A Chandragupta founded the Maurya dynasty in 320 B.C.; exactly six hundred years later another Chandra Gupta founded the Gupta dynasty, in 320 A.D (the name has been phonetically dismembered, since ‘Gupta’ in this case is considered the surname. The same format is followed for all the rulers of the dynasty). A coincidence that cannot be ignored.

Sources of Information

Extraneous data has a bearing on the obscure history regarding the beginning of the Gupta dynasty and also provides inputs and details of their subsequent imperial rule. Although the timeline of dynastic succession is at times ill-defined, the Gupta rule is an important epoch in Indian history. The material available can be placed into four categories: inscriptions, written records, local traditions, and coins.


The primary source in terms of inscriptions is the Allahabad manifesto—superscribed on an Asokan pillar—of Samudra Gupta. Samudra Gupta is the fourth ruler of the lineage, but considered the second of the imperial Guptas. The details provided in the Allahabad pillar have been described in the next chapter dealing with the rule of Samudra Gupta. In addition, the Mathura inscription from the Katra mound provides details of Samudra Gupta’s parentage. The genealogy of the family, down to seven generations of the line, is further expanded in the Bhitari monolith in Ghazipur and its counterpart in Bihar. The Bhitari monolith is made of red sandstone and has a bell shaped capital on top. A number of artefacts with the names of various Gupta emperors on them found in the general area could mean that Bhitari was one of the royal residences of the dynasty. The Udayagiri caves, near Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, is one of the important archaeological sites of the Gupta period. It contains important inscriptions regarding the rule of the Gupta dynasty, particularly during the reigns of Chandra Gupta II and Kumara Gupta I. Gupta inscriptions have also been discovered and deciphered in the monolith of Kuhaon in Gorakhpur, and in the northern face of the Girnar Rock in the Junagadh district of Gujarat.

There is also a copper plate of a land grant that was discovered in Indore that provide information regarding the dynasty. However, scholars tend to consider these type of plates as having lesser authenticity and even term them ‘quasi-monumental documents’. The fundamental reason for this relative insignificance of land grant plates is the fact that in a number of cases it has been found that the date of the document and that of the signature of the granting authority have centuries in variance. This dichotomy could be attributed to the tendency in the beneficiary families to ante-date the grant to reinforce their claim to the land in question. From a historian’s perspective this trend diminishes the value of such evidence, making it necessary to corroborate information from these plates with other sources. In terms of inscriptions, the most trusted data are the ones that are gathered from writings on stone, which need not be only on specially erected pillars, but also to be found on the walls of buildings, as well as within temples or caves, made to commemorate an event of even purely local significance.

Written Records

Written history in the established proper sense of the term was not an art that was well-practised in ancient India. The available written material of the Gupta period are mostly from the Puranas, which are more prophetic in nature than a factual record of the unfolding of actual events. They occasionally mention some event, normally culled from local stories and lore, passed on orally and committed to writing only at a much later stage. Their veracity therefore becomes questionable. Later-day writings of learned people, travellers and monks also provide information regarding the Gupta rule. These are dominated by the travelogues of three famous Chinese monks of whom only one came into the sub-continent during the Gupta rule and of the Arab scholar Al-Biruni. The other two Chinese as well as Al-Biruni travelled the country at a later time and in all four cases, the interpretations of events are purely according to the writer. Therefore, bias in the reporting and analysis cannot be ruled out and these reports can never be considered perfectly accurate.

The Vishnu-Purana clearly mentions the rule of the Gupta kings. One statement in it can be translated as, ‘The nine Nagas will reign in Padmavati, Kantipuri and Mathura; and the Guptas of Magadha along the Ganges to Prayaga.’ Here the nine Nagas (or Nakas as they are called in some translations) were an obscure tribe and for that reason called ‘gupta-vansas’, literally meaning ‘secret races’ (the word gupta in Sanskrit means secret, and is not to be confused with the title ‘Gupta’ of the dynasty being examined). They were supposed to be nine families who ruled various districts, independent of each other. The Vayu-Purana elaborates further on the statement in the Vishnu-Purana and states, ‘Princes of the Gupta race will possess all these countries [the holding of the Nagas], the banks of the Ganges to Prayaga, and Saketa, and Magadha (the Magadhas).’ [Note the predictive text in both the translations] The book also goes on to state that the title of Gupta is best fitted to be used for the Vaisya and Sudra castes.

The Raja Tarangani, a compilation of accounts made across a period of time and arranged by Kalhana Pandit in 1148 A.D., deals primarily with the history of the kingdom of Kashmir. Although there is no direct mention of the Gupta rule in the book, it provides a complete and relatively authentic account of the dominant Scythian brotherhood that ruled the region between Bhawalpur and Mathura before the Gupta period. The reference to the Gupta rule is restricted to indirect indications of their decline and the subsequent rise of the king of Ujjain, Harsha Vardhana, mentioned in the book as Vikramaditya.

By far the most accurate account of the Gupta rules is provided by Al-Biruni (Full name: Abu Rihan Muhammad bin Ahmed al Biruni al Khwdrizmi) who was an astronomer, geometrician and historian. He was born around 970 A.D. and came to India as part of the broader suite of people who came with Mahmud of Ghazni in his invasion of the sub-continent—not to participate in the devastating plunder that took place, but to investigate the science and learning of the land. He stayed in India for 40 years and obtained in-depth knowledge of Indian philosophy, religion and beliefs. It has been opined that he was the only early Arab writer who investigated the antiquities of the East in the true spirit of historical criticism. He has been acclaimed for his intimate and authentic knowledge of the technicality of ancient Indian chronology, an aspect that is of the highest importance in establishing the early civilizational developments in the sub-continent. Al-Biruni died in 1038-39 A.D. His book Tarikh-i-Hind gives the most believable dates of the Gupta dynasty reign that have been further authenticated by other scholars. The first translation of the book was into French by M Reinaud in 1844 A.D.

Local Traditions

Historical accounts have been preserved in different parts of India through local traditions of oral recitation, popular theatre and also some forms of folk dances. The oral traditions were carried forward by bards who recited or sang poems and songs that extoled the heroic deeds of ancient and even contemporary kings, gradually embellishing and developing them into folklore and legend. Such folklore can be used to confirm the findings of other sources and this is also the case with Al-Biruni’s written records. A number of stories, told in different parts of India, authenticate the observations of this erudite Arab scholar. The local historical narratives provide insights into the transfer of power that took place at a particular time; the delegation of authority by a ruling king to his sons and other princes; and also the duration of a particular king’s rule. The information provided through the local traditions is often very broad-based and the descriptions of a more precise nature would have to be obtained from corroborated inscriptions and coins.

The Rise of Valabhi: As told by the Bards of Saurashtra

The Bards of Saurashtra recite a poem that provides information regarding the rise of the kingdom with Valabhi as its capital thus:

‘The Gupta kings were the rulers of the region between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. One of the kings send his son, Kumara-pala Gupta, to conquer Saurashtra, who after victory placed his viceroy Chakrapani, son of Prandat, on the throne to reign as provincial governor from the city of Wamanasthali (modern day Wanthali). Having installed Chakrapani as governor, Kumara-pala Gupta returned to his father’s kingdom. Kumara-pala ascended the throne on the death of his father, 23 years after his conquest of Saurashtra. Kumara-pala Gupta reigned for 20 years and on his death was succeeded by his son Skanda Gupta. However, Skanda Gupta was a weak king, both in intellect and military prowess, and his Senapati (commander of the army) called Bhattaraka, belonging to the Gehlot race, took over the rule of Saurashtra with the help of the forces under his command. Two years after this take over, Skanda Gupta died and Bhattaraka assumed the title of King of Saurashtra and founded the city of Valabhinagar as the capital, having placed a governor to administer Wamanasthali. This was the beginning of the rise of Valabhi, since the Gupta kings were by then dethroned by foreign invaders.’

Very broadly this story corresponds to the events in history as they unfolded; an account of part of the genealogy of the Gupta dynasty; and accurate information regarding the length of the reign of two Gupta rulers. Such information becomes invaluable when other sources are being corroborated to establish the authenticity of some details.


There is still confusion regarding the dating of the coins, which cover the Gupta period and the years immediately preceding and following it, that have been discovered. The reason is that there were four eras that were established during the last few centuries B.C. and the early years of the Christian era: the Seleucidian Era starts its count from 312 B.C.; the relatively newly discovered Parthian Era commenced in 248 B.C.; the Vikramaditya Era from 57 B.C.; and the Saka Era from 78 A.D. In addition, the Bactrian Greeks adopted the Indian Loka Kala, which is different to all of the above, and also used a simplified manner of writing the dates. They mention only the last two digits of the year while recording a date, in a practice similar to how today, the year is written by giving only 14, to depict the year 2014 A.D.

The Kushan kings continued to use the Seleucidian Era for their chronicles, although the date of Saka Era emerges from the coronation of the illustrious Kanishka of the Kushan dynasty. However, their use of the Seleucidian Era also confirms the beginning of the Saka Era. This correlation also assists in confirming the date of the earliest epigraph of Chandra Gupta II, with other evidences that suggest the date 82 Saka Era, corresponding to 160 A.D. The Gupta dynasty has left behind numerous gold and silver coins that attest to their greatness and also provide an insight into the claims, actual and imaginary, of the conquests and other deeds of the various kings. There is even a coin of the first established king of the dynasty, Sri Gupta, although this was possibly minted later by more illustrious successors. The doubt regarding the authenticity of the antiquity of the coin arises since it states that Sri Gupta was a ‘great king’, while in actuality he was just a minor king of an insignificant principality and could not have assumed the title of greatness. However, the Gupta coins provide a wealth of information regarding the dynasty’s rule.

The Gupta Clan Rises from Obscurity

It is certain that the Gupta clan emerged from obscure beginnings as there is only limited evidence to understand or trace their origin and antecedents. There are two opinions regarding their origins—one that they ruled a minor principality around Prayag in Uttar Pradesh as the vassals of the Nagas, which was also one of the many small states that sprang up at the fall of the Kushan Empire in the Western Gangetic plain; and the other, that they ruled the Murshidabad region of Bengal. There is evidence of Sri Gupta having built a temple in Mrighashivana which is in Varendri or Varendra Bhumi in Bengal. There are differences of opinion regarding whether the Guptas spread east from around Magadha or west from Bengal. Essentially, parts of Bengal and Bihar was under the sway of the Guptas in the initial years of their rule. In the absence of any conclusive evidence, it is not possible to resolve the issue—whether they moved west from Bengal or east from Magadha—and either could be correct. However, the fact remains that the Guptas had no pretensions to renown, or even restricted celebrity, in the beginning.

There are various opinions regarding the ancestry of the Guptas—that they belonged to the Gahoi Vaishya community of Bundelkhand and were rebels who rose to fight oppression of the ruling clan; that they were from the Dharana Gotra, which is one of seventeen gotras that are part of the Agrawal Vaishya community; that they were Brahmans, stemming from the matrimonial alliances that they forged with the Vakataka dynasty at a slightly later stage; and that they were the descendants of the Abhira-Guptas of Nepal.

Considering the different claims, it is possible to state with more than enough authority, only that they were from the Vaisya caste, as the surname suggests. There is on-going controversy regarding the term ‘Gupta’, whether it was originally a family name or that of the clan, especially since the second ruler of the line did not use the title/surname. However, since all the following rulers used ‘Gupta’ as their title, scholars are in general agreement that they could be called the ‘Imperial Gupta dynasty’ with Chandra Gupta I, the third king of the clan, being considered the first emperor of the dynasty.

The first known king of the dynasty was Sri Gupta whose most likely time of reign was 240-280 A.D. There is an opinion that he was only known by his title Gupta during his lifetime, becoming Sri Gupta only in later accounts with the honorific ‘Sri’ being added to increase his stature as the earliest known ancestor or paterfamilias of what became an illustrious dynasty. His son and successor was Gatotkacha who ruled approximately from 280-319 A.D. It is very likely that even during Gatotkacha’s reign they continued to be feudatories of the Kushans and although titled ‘Maharajas’, they could not have been anything more than local chieftains. As mentioned earlier Sri Gupta is known for building a temple for Chinese Buddhists to worship, which was first discovered in the 5th century when it was already in ruins.

Chandra Gupta I

The Gupta dynasty came into its own with the accession of Chandra Gupta I, historically designated the ‘First’ to distinguish him from a grandson of the same name who was designated the ‘Second’. Around 308 A.D. Chandra Gupta I had married Kumara Devi a princess from the Lichchhavi clan, which was an ancient and established Gana-Sangha of North Bihar. Once again the vagaries brought about through the lack of information impinge on having a clearer understanding of the background to the events that led to this marriage. There is a gap of nearly eight centuries between the rule of Ajatashatru and the marriage of Kumara Devi wherein the history of the Lichchhavi tribe is completely lost. Other than for their having established a dynasty in Nepal, there are no details available of the tribe, their chronology, or the events that took place within the clan. However, there is surety that the Lichchhavi clan had an illustrious pedigree, which was coveted by the unknown minor chieftains and obscure clans. Marriage to this tribe therefore gave a stamp of approval to Chandra Gupta I, a local king ruling a small principality near Pataliputra or thereabouts. The historical uncertainty regarding the location of the Gupta kingdom is itself an indicator of the low political status of the clan at that time. They were just one of many unknown feudatories.

The Lichchhavi alliance was certainly politically advantageous to the Guptas, and they made full use of the connection to further their status in the region. Chandra Gupta’s successor, his son through his Lichchhavi queen styled himself as the ‘son of a Lichchhavi princess’ rather than as the ‘son of a Gupta king’! [The import of this action must be understood within the constraints of the time, when paternal affiliations were paramount and the mother was normally not even mentioned by name.] Essentially, Chandra Gupta’s dowry was valuable influence that made him relatively more important than his contemporaries. It is also conceivable that he could have also become the master of Magadha through the marriage, since the principality was at that time held by the Lichchhavi clan who were traditional enemies of Sunga dynasty that had usurped the kingdom from the weakened Mauryas. The Lichchhavi tribe was a martial race—at least in part the ancestors of the modern Ghurkhas, renowned across the world for their fighting spirit. They were now allied to the Aryan Guptas, creating a combination of Indian statecraft and the martial vigour of an indomitable hill tribe, which became the spearhead that the Guptas needed to recover the lost glory of Magadha. There is also a possibility that the Lichchhavi clan and the Guptas ruled adjoining territories that came together under the Gupta flag after Chandra Gupta’s marriage to Kumara Devi. The fundamental dynamism demonstrated by Chandra Gupta I, the founder of this much admired dynasty, adds strength to this belief.

There is no doubt that the Lichchhavi connection raised Chandra Gupta I to a new and higher status. He struck coins in joint name with his queen Kumara Devi, an unprecedented development at that time. He was also the first in his dynasty to strike independent coins, further emphasising the Lichchhavi importance in generating general acceptance for his doing so. In fact, it could well be that the coins in the joint name were created to subdue any objection that may have arisen from neighbours and rivals. There are three reasons for Chandra Gupta I to be considered the founder of the Imperial Gupta dynasty. One, he assumed a new and more exalted title than that of a mere maharaja; two, the later Gupta chronology was calculated from the date of his accession to the throne; and three, through marriage and his own conquests, he acquired and held more territory than what he had inherited. The last point is illustrative: all kings of the time were intent on increasing their territorial holdings through conquest, although pragmatic calculations made most of them to remain satisfied with the defence of their own borders from other more ambitious kings and ensuring that their territorial holdings were not diminished. Therefore, embarking on successful campaigns and annexing territory through military victory was a direct indication of increasing power and glory. Chandra Gupta’s father and grandfather fell into the category of pragmatic and cautious rulers and therefore are discounted as the founders of the illustrious dynasty that was to follow. Their claim to glory is purely that of being the ancestors of great kings.

Life and Times

Chandra Gupta I ascended the throne and his coronation was held on 26 February 320 A.D. from which date the Gupta Era is calculated. However, this particular Era did not take hold in common usage for long and went into disuse after being in vogue for a few centuries. [This is a relief since the prevailing confusion regarding dates would only have increased in complexity with the introduction of a fifth Era into the mix.] Soon after assuming the throne Chandra Gupta embarked on a campaign to extend his kingdom and annexed the lands along the Gangetic valley westwards as far as the junction of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna, up to today’s Allahabad. With these conquests he ruled the entire region consisting of Magadha, Saketa and Prayaga that formed a swath of a popular and fertile territory. At this stage he considered himself of sufficient stature to assume the title of Maharaja-Adhiraja, the Great King of Kings. However, not much significance should be attached to this assumption of an exalted title, since a number of other contemporary rulers also used the title, whether deserved or not.

More than the assumption of this high-sounding title, it is the establishment of a new era, however short lived its usage, commencing with his coronation that testifies to the increased and enhanced political importance of Chandra Gupta I and that of the clan as a whole. Historically the establishment of a new era to honour the arrival of another rising star in the Indian firmament was a time honoured tradition. Further, in those uncertain times where patricide was a common enough occurrence, he took the unusual step of proclaiming the heir to the imperial throne, once again an attestation of his own grip on power, individual status and self-confidence. The power of the Gupta throne at that time was to a certain extend also derived from its association with Magadha and Pataliputra. Chandra Gupta I selected Prince Samudra Gupta, his son by his Lichchhavi queen Kumara Devi, as his successor and heir apparent. This paternal favouritism was well justified by the young prince’s acknowledged prowess and skill in both the arts of war and peace. Chandra Gupta is believed to have died around 335 A.D.

Although Samudra Gupta had been anointed the preferred successor, like in so many other cases in history, the succession was contested by a rival prince known to history only as Kacha. Few rare coins attesting to the rule of Kacha has been found and therefore the story of a rivalry cannot be entirely dismissed, although it is not corroborated by any other evidence. The conjunctures are that, Kacha could have been an older half-brother of Samudra Gupta; he may have been the governor of an outlying province of the Gupta kingdom who declared temporary independence and was immediately subdued; or that he could have ruled some part of the kingdom for a limited time. There is another school of thought that Kacha was the king’s personal name and Samudra Gupta a title that he acquired after his conquests. This theory is articulated by the fact that the coins issued in the name of Kacha also describes him as the ‘exterminator of all kings’, an epithet that can only be attributed to Samudra Gupta among all Gupta kings. In any case, it is certain that if Kacha was another prince and that if he ruled at all, it was only for an insignificant period and Samudra Gupta can safely be considered the immediate successor to Chandra Gupta I.

Chandra Gupta I has distinct similarities with the earlier Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya dynasty—the rhyming of history, alluded to earlier, continues. Both share a shadowy and at times opaque past, but both went on to found great Indian dynasties. Both have a reputation of having successfully conquered important kingdoms, but have left behind almost no evidence to conclusively prove these assertions. Finally, while both were obviously visionary kings of great dynamism, vigour, and calibre, they also share the misfortune of having produced progeny who upstaged them by becoming much more illustrious in their rule, than any level that their fathers could have even dreamed about. The emperors in question—Asoka the Great and Samudra Gupta the ‘son of a Lichchhavi Princess’, also called the Great.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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