Indian History Part 25 THE GOLDEN GUPTAS Section II: Samudra Gupta the Great

Canberra, 20 January 2014

Samudra Gupta the Great (335-375 A.D.)

 Samudra Gupta, the fourth king of the Gupta dynasty, ushered in the Golden Age of ancient India and could be considered the greatest amongst the Gupta emperors. [His successor, Chandra Gupta II also known as Vikramaditya, after whom the Indian Navy’s third aircraft carrier is named, is considered by some as the greatest Gupta ruler, and is probably the best known. However, in relative terms Samudra Gupta stands head and shoulders above his son in terms of accomplishments. Vikramaditya’s reputation is a belief built up through folklore and fairy tales.] Although not the eldest son of his father, he was anointed the heir apparent by Chandra Gupta I because of his demonstrated leadership qualities and other kingly virtues. This obviously led to a nascent succession struggle, which Samudra Gupta seems to have overcome without any difficulty, so much so that his ascension to the throne is considered by historians to have been seamless with his father’s death. From the date of his accession Samudra Gupta assumed the role of an aggressively ambitious monarch and immediately plunged into war with his neighbours. In ancient and medieval times all capable kings were expected to increase their territorial holdings through wars of aggression. Across the world, not only were such enterprises not condemned, but was considered a necessity to establish the rule of a newly crowned king. [The political incorrectness and the global condemnation that accompanies any nation that is accused of being the aggressor even when a territorial dispute exists, let alone starting a war of annexation, is of relatively recent origin.] The resounding success that he achieved in his endeavours to expand his inheritance through conquest and annexation makes him one of the greatest military geniuses in Indian history.

When he had almost completed his campaigns, he caused a panegyric of his military achievements to be engraved on an already existing Asoka pillar that had already been in existence for six centuries. The pillar is currently displayed in Allahabad. This lengthy eulogy by the poet laureate of his court, Harishena, provides detailed information of the military campaigns of Samudra Gupta. Like the inscriptions of Kharavela in earlier times, even Samudra Gupta’s acclamation puts forward extravagant claims of conquest. However, unlike in the case of Kharavela, Samudra Gupta’s claims of victory are substantiated by other epigraphic and numismatic evidence. The inscription is written in a script called Gupta Brahmi and is composed in a combination of classical Sanskrit poetry and prose. The original translation of the write up is credited to James Prinsep who also discovered and translated the majority of Asokan edicts.

The Allahabad Pillar

The Samudra Gupta Pillar, currently kept in Allahabad was originally an Asokan pillar created in 232 B.C. in the 27th year of Asoka’s reign. The Asokan edict on the pillar proclaims as yet under developed Buddhist tendencies of the emperor, although it advocates simpler doctrines towards living one’s life. [The Asokan edicts were notably exhortations to his people to lead a pious and moral life and only occasionally engage in providing details of his rule.]

Alexander Cunningham, considered to be the father of Indian archaeology, deduced in the 19th century that this pillar had initially been erected in Kaushambi and had been shifted downstream at a later date. The Muslim rulers who came to rule North India centuries later had shifted a number of these ancient pillars to different places as a demonstration of their power and a show of force. The Allahabad pillar had been shifted by the great Mughal Akbar in the 16th century to the Allahabad fort and his son Jahangir had added his own inscription along with those of Samudra Gupta. Another example of the transportation of Asoka pillars is the truncated pillar that is seen in Feroze Shah’s palace today, which had originally stood at Khizrabad, a place much further upstream in the path of the Yamuna River.

“Akbar’s son Jahangir would add his own inscription to those of Asoka and Samudra Gupta; and thus it is that scions of each of north India’s three greatest dynasties—Maurya, Gupta and Mughal—share adjacent column inches in the heart of Allahabad, a city whose further claim to fame is as the home of a fourth great dynasty, that of the Nehru-Gandhis.”

John Keay, India: A History, pg 136-137

The Asoka-Samudra Gupta-Jahangir pillar was again uprooted sometime in the 18th century and Prinsep and his colleagues discovered it half buried in the ground. It was re-erected at Allahabad with a new, ‘supposedly’ lion capital, on the top of the pillar.

The inscription is dated around 365-370 A.D. towards the later part of Samudra Gupta’s reign and it was obviously done after all major military campaigns had been successfully completed. The inscription divides the campaigns into four distinct groups, listed below in the probable order in which they were conducted:

• first, against nine named and some unnamed kings in the Gangetic plain to the west of the original Gupta holdings;
• second, against 11 kings of South India;
• third, against the chiefs of the forest tribes ; and
• fourth, against the rulers of the frontier kingdoms and the gana-sanghs, or republics.

The eulogy also provides details of the diplomatic overtures made by the Gupta emperor to kings of countries that were geographically too far away to initiate or effect military conquest.

Western Conquests

Almost immediately on assuming the throne, Samudra Gupta embarked on a campaign against the lesser kingdoms to the west of Magadha. The names of the nine kings who were defeated and their kingdoms annexed to the Gupta empire have been given as Achyuta, Balvarman, Chandravarman, Ganapati Naga, Matila, Nandin, Nagadatta, Nagasena, and Rudradeva. Nagasena of Mathura, Achyuta of Ahichchhata, modern day Ramnagar and Bareilly districts of Uttar Pradesh, and an unnamed prince of the Kota family were all killed during the battles to annex their kingdoms. The defeated kings were treated very harshly—the term used in the inscription to describe the actions taken being ‘forcibly rooted up’—and all the territories attached directly to the Gupta kingdom. Although the exact locations of all the nine kings have not been provided, Ganapati Naga is confirmed as having ruled from his capital at Padmavati, or Narawar, that still exists in Madhya Pradesh. On the completion of these victories and with a greatly enlarged kingdom, Samudra Gupta turned his attention to the south and Peninsular India.

 The Southern Campaign

 The task of conquering South India demanded boldness in the design of the enterprise, complete mastery of organisation, and the ability to devise and execute military plans in a sure-footed and confident manner. Samudra Gupta was not only up to the task, but exceled in all three aspects. Throughout the Southern Campaign Samudra Gupta followed the three-fold principle of conquest—grahana, the capture of the enemy king; moksha, liberation; and amigraha, the reinstatement of the deposed king. Adoption of this principle had a salutary effect and directly impacted the success of his southern conquests. He commenced his southward journey by marching through the Chota Nagpur plateau towards the east coast and attacking South Kosala in the Mahanadi valley. The core of the Kosala kingdom was based around the districts of Bilaspur, Raipur, and Sambalpur. The Guptas deposed King Mahendra of Kosala and subsequently went on to subdue a number of chiefs ruling the inhospitable and backward areas of Orissa. The principle chief of the region was one Vyaghara Raja, or ‘Tiger Chief’, of Mahakantara, the forest region of Jeypore in Orissa, who was defeated. This chief is never mentioned in any of the annals before or after this brief interaction with Samudra Gupta and vanishes into the mist of ambiguity that so often surrounds Indian historical narrative.
Samudra Gupta continued his march southwards through the east coast, conquering all kings and kingdoms on his way. The details of this triumphant march is listed in the Allahabad pillar: he vanquished the chieftain, Mahendragiri, ruling from Pishtapura (now Pithapuram in the Godavari district) the capital of Kalinga; conquered the hill forts of Svamidatta of Kotturam (Kothoor) in Ganjam; defeated king Mantaraja who ruled the territory on the banks of the Kolleru (Colair) lake; subjugated the neighbouring king Hastivarman of Vengi, who was probably a Pallava prince ruling the region between Krishna and Godavari rivers; and overwhelmed the Pallava rulers Nilaraja of Avamukta and Vishnugopa ruling around Kanchipuram to the south-west of Madras (Chennai).

At this stage Samudra Gupta turned west and defeated Ugrasena, the king of Palakka in Nellore district; Kuvera, ruler of Devarashtra in Vizhagapatam district; and Dhananjaya of Kushalapura in North Arcot. He then returned home to his capital through western Deccan, the modern Mahratta country, and crossing Khandesh. This campaign that included marching nearly 3000 miles through inhospitable terrain and hostile countryside lasted over two years and was concluded in 350 A.D. The most notable aspect of this campaign is that Samudra Gupta made no attempt to permanently annex the defeated kingdoms to the Gupta Empire, but only sought temporary submission of the rulers in keeping with the three-fold principle that he adopted. The rulers were almost always reinstated to their thrones. This is in sharp contrast to his earlier westward march in which he had uprooted the established kings and chieftains, demolishing their dynasties and bringing their holdings into direct Gupta control. It is certain that the great king realised the logistical difficulties in imposing direct rule of these far-flung southern territories from his capital in the north-east of the country and therefore opted to leave them as tributary kingdoms. He however, exacted a great deal of tribute in gold and other treasure from each conquest to enhance Gupta wealth. This could be considered a master stroke by a military genius and statesman.

Campaign against the Forest Kingdoms

These kingdoms were also called Atavika kingdoms and Samudra Gupta is reported to have reduced ‘all’ forest-states to complete subjugation. A copper plate inscription of Parvrajaka, the king of Basti, names 18 forest kingdoms/states that were defeated by the Gupta king.

Subjugating the Frontier Kingdoms

Samudra Gupta’s actions against the frontier kingdoms can be divided into action in the east and north, and to the campaign in the west and north. To the east he annexed the area known as Samatata, the delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers including the site of Kolkata; Kamarupa, the districts of Guwahati on both sides of the Brahmaputra; and the area known as Davaka, which consists of the northern districts between the Kamarupa and Samatata. Towards the north, Nepal the mountain kingdom and the abode of his mother’s clan was permitted to retain its autonomy under the suzerainty of the paramount power of the Guptas. Considering Samudra Gupta’s pride at being the son of a Lichchhavi princess, it is highly unlikely that any tributes were demanded or paid by the rulers of Nepal. The king moved further west along the foothills and subdued the kingdom of Kartripura consisting of the areas of Kumaon, Almora, Garwal and Kangra in the lower ranges of Western Himalayas.

Towards the west, the Gupta Emperor entered Punjab and then moved towards Eastern Rajputana and Malwa, all under the control of tribes and clans still following the old gana-sankha, or republican, institutions and traditions. According to Harishena’s writing, he ‘exterminated’ the Yaudheyas whose kingdom straddled the Sutlej River. Thereafter the conquering Guptas defeated the Arjunayanas, Malavas, and the Abiras who were settled in Rajputana and Malwa, thus ending the 500-year rule of the Saka’s in Ujjain. Nine age-old Gana-sanghas accepted Gupta overlordship and gradually faded from the landscape. After this capitulation, the gana-sanghas—that had held its own for a millennium against all attacks on them and had also provided a viable alternative to the entrenched and individualistic system of monarchy—ceased to exist as an independent polity. It is somewhat perplexing that on the one hand Samudra Gupta proclaimed his being the son of a Lichchhavi princess almost as a badge of honour and on the other forgot the antecedents of the Lichchhavis as a powerful Gana sangha themselves, almost single-handedly driving the concept to oblivion. More important was the fact that these invasions broke the power of the chieftains ruling in North Rajasthan, who had traditionally been the bulwark against foreign invasions into the sub-continent emanating through the Khyber and Bolan Passes. Their vanquishment had unfortunate consequences for later Gupta rulers who did not have the advantage of a unique barrier to stop the invasion of the Huns since on their own they did not have the capacity to deter or contain the onslaught.

The Empire

By the end of his conquests, Samudra Gupta had unquestioned control over the region that in ancient times was called Arya-Varta, the Aryan homeland, which became his core territorial holding. The area included the modern states of West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Eastern Rajasthan. [The names of the newly formed states such as Jharkhand and Uttaranchal of the Republic of India is not being mentioned separately in this count.] These states account for the most fertile and populous areas of North India. Essentially Samudra Gupta’s direct rule covered an area that ran from the Hooghly in the east to the Chambal in the west, and from the foothills of the Himalayas in the north to the River Narmada in the south—a vast empire by any reckoning.

While this area was under direct Gupta rule, Samudra Gupta’s sovereignty and irresistible might was also acknowledged by the Kushans ruling in Gandhara and Kabul; the descendants of the great Satrap Rudradaman ruling in Gujarat and parts of Malwa; the chiefs and princes of the frontier kingdoms of Assam and the Gangetic delta; the king of Nepal in the southern slopes of the Himalayas; and by the king of Ceylon and ‘other islands’. It is possible that these other islands that are mentioned could be references to the Indianised kingdoms of South-East Asia.

The Interaction with Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

Around the year 360 A.D. the king of Ceylon Siri Meghavarna (ruled for 27 years from 352-379 A.D.) send two Buddhist monks, one of whom was his brother, to pay homage to the Buddha by visiting a monastery built by Asoka Maurya to the east of the sacred tree in Bodh Gaya. In what can only be terms as a strange development, the monks apparently found Indian hospitality lacking and insufficient and found it difficult to find a place to stay in comfort during their sojourn in India. On their return to Sri Lanka they complained to the king. [Obviously because the brother had direct access to the ruler, which may not have been the case for normal pilgrims.] The king decided to resolve the issue by founding a monastery near the holy place in India for his subjects to stay in comfort during their pilgrimages. Towards this end, he send a mission to Samudra Gupta’s court laden with gems and other valuables seeking permission to found a monastery in what effectively was Gupta territory.

Samudra Gupta was flattered by this attention from a distant kingdom and in his heightened state of power could well have imagined that the gifts were tributes. In any case permission was granted to construct a monastery. Meghvarna decided to build near the scared tree and erected a splendid convent to the north of it, the completion of which has been recorded in a copper plate. The building has been described as being three stories high, with six halls, adorned by three towers with subsidiary stupas, and protected by a strong wall 30 to 40 feet high all around. It was very artistically decorated and contained a statue of the Buddha made in gold and silver and studded with gems.

Hiuen Tsang the Chinese traveller-pilgrim visited the monastery in the 7th century and reported that there were about 1000 monks of the Sthavira school of Mahayana Buddhism in residence at that time. Today, the site where the monastery existed is an extensive mound.

After six centuries of Asoka the Maury’a rule, Samudra Gupta stood on the threshold of a pan-Indian Empire. He proclaimed the universality of his empire by reviving and performing the ancient rite of Aswamedha (the horse sacrifice), perhaps for the first time after the one conducted by Pushyamitra Shunga centuries back. The ceremony was conducted with appropriate splendour with reports that 100,000 cows were gifted, presumably to Brahmans as was the custom of the period, and that millions of gold and silver coins were distributed. A small number of coins minted for the occasion has been found and reveal the Vaishnavite leanings of the Emperor. However, the term conqueror as appropriate to a devotee-king of Vishnu is not seen in the coins leading to the belief that Samudra Gupta had grown sufficiently vain to consider himself the incarnation of the deity itself. The coins also depict the Garuda of Vishnu, the on-umbrella insignia of the Samrat, and the wheel turning pose of the Chakravartin. Another memorial to the event is a carved stone figure of a horse that was discovered in northern Oudh and is currently on display at the Lucknow Museum. Traces of the brief inscription on the horse carving refers to Samudra Gupta and the Aswamedha.

After that he proclimed himself a chkravartin (universal ruler), and a new tone appears in Indian kingship: he was a mortal only in celebrating the rites of the observances of mankind, but otherwise a god dwelling on Earth.

Michael Wood, The Story of India, pg 187

In his acclaimed book on the history of Medieval India, Vincent Smith an acknowledged historian of great merit, calls Samudra Gupta the ‘Napoleon of Ancient India’. This is also echoed in some other publications. There is complete injustice in this comparison for a number of reasons. First, is that a comparison of this sort lessens the greatness of the person being compared to the original. Since Samudra Gupta lived centuries before Napoleon burst onto the European theatre, he should have been considered the original. Therefore, the comparison smacks of the arrogance of Euro-centric scholars in considering the oriental king a lesser person and a copy of someone who lived at a later date! Samudra Gupta was in fact a far greater conqueror and an even more astute statesman than Napoleon could ever imagine to have been. Second, the Gupta Emperor’s greatness lies in the fact that he never met his Waterloo, because he refused to overextend himself in any of his campaigns or annexations. Third, Samudra Gupta was a strategic genius who could be considered better than any other conqueror the world has seen because of the manner in which he consolidated his conquests and administered his greatly expanded kingdom.

The Emperor

Like Asoka, Samudra Gupta also remained unknown till the early 1900s, although there was no confusion regarding his name or antecedents, once he was ‘discovered’. His fame was uncovered through extremely diligent archaeological research and the detailed study of obscure inscriptions that were then corroborated through aligning them with the available narrative of events. Court eulogies that celebrate the rule of a king are prone to exaggerations and at times display almost total bias in their praise for the benevolence of the ruler. This is a universal truth in the study of history. [Even today, ‘official’ biographies of prominent persons tend to be one-sided in laying out the greatness of the personality while giving short shrift to the human frailties and weaknesses that form an integral part of any person, irrespective of his/her calibre as a professional.] Therefore, the writings regarding Samudra Gupta, especially the ones by his court poet, must also be assessed accordingly.

There is however no doubt that Samudra Gupta was a greatly gifted and exceptionally capable ruler. He was a great patron of the arts and the renowned Buddhist author Vasubandhu is considered to be one of the beneficiaries of Samudra Gupta’s largess. He cultivated learned people and regularly interacted with them, displaying an acute and extremely polished intellect. He is reported to have been proficient in song and music and devoted to their practice as an individual. This devotion of the Emperor to the pursuit of music is confirmed by some rare coins that have been unearthed which show Samudra Gupta seated on a high-backed couch playing the Indian lute, the veena. He is also reported to have been a poet of note. While there are no surviving examples of the King’s poetry, the testimony to his highly developed aesthetic sense leads one to believe that he would have indulged in poetry and that he would have been at least a passably good poet. On the whole, the picture that emerges is of a man of genius, well-versed in the art of war, at home with the arts, with a keen understanding of the more esoteric and creative aspects of human pursuits.


His governance style has been recorded in rich but allusive phrasing, written more in rhetoric than with a direct connection to reality. Although he defeated most of his contemporary kings in battle and could have annexed their territories, he chose not to do so. Samudra Gupta made no attempt at annexing the conquered territories beyond the immediate region of Arya-Varta, instead imposing one-time tributes, reinstating the defeated kings, and withdrawing the Gupta forces. After exacting tributes from the defeated rulers, he left them to continue their rule with almost no bureaucratic intervention or continued intrusion into the domestic affairs of the vassal state. This process essentially created a web of feudatory states around the core Gupta Empire. This is in sharp contrast to the Mauryan administration which was minutely intrusive and micro-managing at the height of its power.

But unlike the directly administered empire of the Mauryas, this was at best a web of feudatory arrangements and one which, lacking an obvious bureaucratic structure, left the sovereignty of the feudatories intact.

John Keay, India: A History, pg 139

Matrimonial alliances held a conspicuous place in the Gupta foreign policy: the dynasty came into prominence through an alliance with the respected Lichchhavi tribe when Chandra Gupta I married the princess Kumara Devi; Samudra Gupta himself accepted alliances from a number of lesser kings; and as will be seen in the next part, his son Chandra Gupta II continued the tradition by himself marrying a Naga princess and giving his own daughter in marriage to the neighbouring Vakataka king.

A Pan-Indian Empire?

The Allahabad pillar inscriptions that provide unquestionable information regarding Samudra Gupta’s campaigns clearly refute the assertions by some historians that India was only conquered by foreigners. Samudra Gupta did indeed conquer the whole of the sub-continent. However, his conquest was of limited political influence and significance and not a lasting legacy. A number of Indian historians have attempted to give a nationalistic twist to the creation of the Gupta Empire, especially the conquering march of Samudra Gupta. His failure, or more correctly reluctance, to consolidate his conquests to create an extensive empire has been explained away by these fervent proponents of new found nationalism as being the result of Samudra Gupta’s more lofty ideals and ambition to create a brotherhood based on non-aggression to create a pan-Indian Empire. Nothing could be further from the truth and rings completely false. There is no doubt that Samudra Gupta was one of the most aggressive of monarchs to have ruled in India; he was never an advocate of non-violence or ahimsa. His conquests have to be understood for what they were—the deeper design of the Gupta conquests was always dynastic gratification and not wedded to some obtuse nationalistic concept of a pan-Indian empire. The Gupta aggression was always about the betterment of the dynastic fortunes and nothing else.

Comparison between the Maurya Empire and that built by the Guptas six centuries later is inevitable. However, if the realities of the individual situations are considered pragmatically, one fundamental difference comes up that automatically precludes any such attempt. The difference is this: the Maurya conquest of 4th century B.C. was conducted against mostly politically virgin territory wherein there was no properly formed states that existed as independent entities. The Asokan edicts mention the names of a number of foreign kings but not that of one single Indian king or monarch. They mention only clans and ruling families like the Cholas or the Keralaputras. In essence, the Mauryans were pioneering the development of the concept of statehood through settling and administering loosely held territories by bringing them within a strong and centralised control. In contrast, 600 years later, the Guptas faced a similar situation only in the less settled areas of Bengal and further east. In these areas they followed a similar policy to that of the Mauryas, directly administering the conquered areas. Everywhere else they faced established and confident states ruled by strong-willed kings, willing to fight to defend their kingdom and people, and with their own administrative systems, taxation processes and other vestiges that make a territorial holding into a viable kingdom. It is obvious that the Guptas recognised the difficulty in imposing their own system over the prevailing local traditions. Further, they were also aware of the even greater difficulty of controlling the rebellions that were sure to follow the departure of the Gupta armies. Under these circumstances, the obvious and wise choice was to accept the tributes paid after a victory that increased the wealth of their core nation in the north-east of the sub-continent. Asoka Maurya, ‘the beloved of the Gods’, therefore was only a raja or king and came close to renouncing his conquests and kingdom; whereas Samudra Gupta the Great was mahrajadhiraja, ‘the king of kings’ who revelled in his conquests and wealth. There is no common ground for comparison between the two.


Samudra Gupta was proclaimed a ‘chakravartin’, or world ruler, on completion of the Aswamedha sacrifice. To be a chakravartin it was not necessary to have sustained direct governance over vast and far flung areas—the concept only needed nominal submission to the sovereignty of the chakravartin by vassal kings. Such submission normally was in the form of representative attendance in the chakravartin’s court on ceremonial occasions. The requirement was for sufficient number of kingdoms to accept the sovereignty without it having to be enforced as such and the status of the chakravartin depended as much on the status and number of the rajas surviving as independent rulers while also willing to pay tribute and accept his suzerainty. This situation validated and magnified the threefold principle of conquest. There was a vested interest for the conquering Emperor to reinstate the defeated kings to their throne.

The exact year of Samudra Gupta’s death is not known, although it is certain that he lived a long life and that his reign was one of uninterrupted prosperity and peace for nearly half a century. In keeping with his sagacious nature, he attempted to make the transition of the crown to the next generation as smooth as possible by nominating his son through Queen Datta Devi, already the crown prince, as his successor. The short struggle he faced when coming to power could also have influenced the ageing monarch’s decision to lay the foundations for a smooth succession. There is a story of his immediate successor, Rama Gupta, being weak and being forced into a dishonourable treaty by the Saka Satraps. This could only mean either that Samudra Gupta did not fully subjugate the Sakas, contrary to what has been mentioned in the inscriptions, or that the Sakas, occupying an area far away from the centre of power were quick to revolt at the demise of the old king. The final subjugation of the Sakas and the conquest of Malwa and Gujarat was left to his successor.

Samudra Gupta’s beautifully minted gold coins provide the initial impetus to name the Gupta dynasty ‘Golden’.

© [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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