INDIAN HISTORY Part 25 The Golden Guptas Section III: Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya

Canberra, 29 January 2014

Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya (375-415 A.D)

At the end of Samudra Gupta’s reign the Gupta Empire was undoubtedly the most powerful and prosperous in the sub-continent. This envious position was achieved through two conscious and concerted activities of the dynasty—first was the minor conquests of Chandra Gupta I, followed by the aggressive and spectacular conquests of Samudra Gupta; and second, the strategic matrimonial alliances that three generations of the Guptas formed with older lineages and the more powerful of the vassal states surrounding them.

Accepted history states that Emperor Samudra Gupta, the Chakravartin of Arya-Varta, was succeeded to the throne by his son by Queen Datta Devi, the anointed heir apparent Chandra Gupta II, who later claimed the title ‘Vikramaditya’, or ‘the sun of valour’. However, there is a mystery that surrounds this sanitised version of events. There is a story that Samudra Gupta was succeeded to the throne by one Rama Gupta, probably the eldest of all his sons, who is reported to have been a weak and indecisive ruler. He was defeated in battle, captured and imprisoned by the Shakas, known also as the Western Satraps who were feudatories of the Kushans. The condition for Rama Gupta’s release was set as his surrendering his wife Dhruva Devi, considered to be one of the most beautiful of women, to the Shaka chief. Rama Gupta is supposed to have agreed to this condition. His younger brother, Chandra, was incensed with this abject capitulation and dressed as the queen gained access to the Shaka chief. He thereafter killed the Shaka chief and rescued his brother, avenging the insult to the family. The enmity that followed between the brothers resulted in Rama Gupta being killed and Chandra Gupta ascending the throne. He subsequently married the widow, Dhruva Devi. [At this time in Indian history, marrying a widowed sister-in-law was not a significant issue from a societal point of view. Censures regarding such a marriage was a later Hindu imposition.] Two independent sources reinforce the authenticity of this story. First, coins bearing king Rama Gupta’s name have been excavated, confirming his accession to the throne even if for a very limited time, along with coins that proclaim Dhruva Devi as the wife of Chandra Gupta. Second, the playwright Vishakadatta wrote a play called Devi-Chandra Gupta, detailing the same story, two centuries after the events were supposed to have taken place.

There is another aspect to this story that must be mentioned to ensure that there is no bias in the recounting of this episode, irrespective of the glory and accolades that Chandra Gupta II went on to collect. The story could well have been concocted in an attempt to smooth over and legitimise an otherwise unsavoury episode of a succession struggle culminating in fratricide. The play, written nearly two hundred years later could be considered a continuation of the ‘white-wash’ job with the aim to justify a younger brother usurping the throne, especially since he went on to become a great ruler of the dynasty. In any case, the Shaka episode must have some truth to it, perhaps in terms of a Shaka insurrection at the death of Samudra Gupta, which could also be corroborated by the fact that the major campaign of Chandra Gupta II was mounted against the Shakas.

The Shaka Campaign

 The inscriptions around Sanchi mention that Chandra Gupta II spend a number of years of his rule in Eastern Malwa. The Shaka Campaign is considered to have been conducted from 388-401 A.D., and is the greatest military achievement of Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya’s rule. The reason for the Gupta attack, other than the story of Rama Gupta and the need to revenge an insult, could be considered the norm of the time: a rich neighbour was always fair game for conquest, if one felt up to it and the Shaka kingdom was certainly rich. Since his father had successfully established a large empire through the conquest of the immediate neighbours it is also possible that Chandra Gupta II may have been interested in uprooting foreigners from the Indian mainland since the Shakas visibly differed in terms of race, creed, customs, and manners with the rest of India. It is obvious that although the Vikramaditya was a follower of Vishnu, he was extremely tolerant of the followers of both Buddhism and Jainism. However, the tolerance must not have extended to the foreign rulers and their religious practices. They had to be ‘violently uprooted’ as special cases.
Chandra Gupta II conquered the entire territory held by the Shaka Satraps and annexed it to the Gupta kingdom. The place where the decisive battle, in which the Shakas were finally and conclusively defeated, was fought was either Balkh in North West India or Mathura, which was under Kushan control until then. This battle would have taken place around 395 A.D., when the Satrap Rudrasimha III, son of Satyasimha, was attacked, defeated, dethroned and beheaded. This battle was the culmination of an extended campaign and the completion of the conquest. The Western Satraps are not heard of again in Indian history—the last vestiges of foreign rule in ancient India having been eradicated. However, the incorporation of the conquered territory into the Gupta Empire took a bit longer and it was only in 409 A.D. that Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya’s silver coins replaced those of the Shakas in common usage.

The Western Satraps

The Western satraps had been ruling parts of North and Western India and surrounds—the geographical area of their direct influence being ever-changing—for about 500 years before they were vanquished by Chandra Gupta II. They comprised two distinct dynasties.

The first was the dynasty of the Kshaharata Satraps of Maharashtra, established in the 1st century A.D. with their capital around the today’s town of Nasik. However, they did not last very long. In approximately 126 A.D., they were destroyed and their dominions annexed to his kingdom by the Andhra king, Gautamiputra.
The second was the dynasty to the west, founded by the Shaka chief Chastana, again in the 1st century A.D., but later than the Kshaharatas, with Ujjain in Malwa as their capital. Ujjain was the one of the oldest cities in India and the principle depot for trade between the Western sea ports and interior India. It was also a traditional and famous seat of learning, also at that time being the Indian equivalent of Greenwich from which the longitudes were measured. Centuries later the city was the capital of the Scindias for a short period of time, and the city still exists in modern India with the same name. Chastana’s grandson Rudradaman I extended the dynastic territorial holding immensely. Around 135-150 A.D. he reclaimed the lands lost by the Kshaharatas from the Andhra king Pulamayi II, Gautamiputra’s son.

Rudradaman I established his control over Saurashtra, Malwa, Kachchh, Sind, and some parts of the Konkan in Western India. The Shakas ruled this extensive area till defeated by Chandra Gupta II.
The subjugation and uprooting of the Shaka dynasty founded by Chastana, gave Chandra Gupta II complete control of the Peninsula of Saurashtra and Kathiawar. This annexation provided exceptional wealth to the Gupta treasuries and also brought large tracts of fertile lands under direct Gupta rule. More importantly, it opened the sea ports of the Western coast of the sub-continent to the single paramount power of the time, placing the Gupta Emperor in direct contact with Europe through the sea-borne trade with Egypt. This facilitated the exchange of ideas and a flow of mutual influence.

The Mehrauli Pillar Inscriptions

Inscriptions that have been found on a pillar situated in Mehrauli states that Chandra Gupta II crossed the Sindhu (Indus) River and conquered the country of the Vahlikas, a clan taken to be of Bactrian origin. There is also a possibility that this has reference to a rebellion by the Kushans at the death of Samudra Gupta fuelled by the perceived ineptness of Rama Gupta that led to his defeat. Chandra Gupta II would have quelled it and re-established the Gupta authority over the region. However, the inscription mentions only a ‘Chandra’, which does not conclusively prove the inscription to be regarding Vikramaditya. It could well have been referring to Vikramaditya’s grandfather, or either Chandra Varman or Chandra Sena, both of whom have been attested as kings of smaller holdings, and ruling around the same period. The fact is that clear identification of the king who defeated the Bactrian clan is lost in perpetuity. Similarly the technology that the Gupta ironsmiths and smelters used to create the iron pillar that still stands in Mehrauli has also been lost to antiquity.

The Iron Pillar of Mehrauli

The pillar is 7.21 meters high and rests on a grid of iron bars that have been soldered with lead into the pre-dressed stone pavement. The diameter is 420 mm at the bottom tapering to 306 mm at the top. The obelisk is 98 percent wrought iron. Its purity and treatment is such that even after being subjected to more than 1600 Indian monsoons, it remains rust-resistant and without pitting with the inscriptions still very clearly legible. There is a school of thought that the pillar was initially erected at the Udayagiri caves near Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh. This is probably true since it was Chandra Gupta II, who had the pillar constructed and Udayagiri is closely associated with him and the worship of Vishnu during the Gupta period. There is also an ancient tradition of mining and working iron in central India that lends more authenticity to this claim. In the 13th century, the king of Delhi, Iltutmish, is known to have attacked and sacked Vidisha and it is more than probable that he brought the pillar to Delhi as a trophy.

There are a number of inscriptions on the pillar, the oldest proclaiming in Sanskrit, written in the Gupta-Brahmi script, that it was erected by ‘Candra’ in honour of Vishnu. The king in question is now generally identified as Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya. In 1903, Pandit Banke Rai translated the primary inscription thus, ‘He, on whose arm fame was inscribed by the sword, when in battle in the Vanga countries [Bengal], he kneaded and turned back with [his] breast the enemies who, uniting together, came against [him]; He, by whom, having crossed in warfare the seven mouths of the [River] Sindhu, the Vahlikas were conquered; He, by the breezes of whose prowess the southern ocean is still perfumed; He, the remnant of the great zeal of whose energy, which utterly destroyed [his] enemies, like the remnant of the great glowing heat of a burned-out fire in a great forest, even now leaves not the earth; though He, the king, as if wearied, has quit this earth, and has gone to the other world, moving in [bodily] from the land [of paradise] won by [the merit of his] actions, [but] remaining on [this] earth by [the memory of his] fame; by Him, the king, who attained sole supreme sovereignty in the world, acquired by his own arm and [enjoyed] for a very long time; [and] who, having the name Chandra, carried a beauty of countenance like [the beauty of] the full-moon, having in faith fixed his mind upon [the god] Vishnu, this lofty standard of the divine Vishnu was set up on the hill [called] Vishnupada.’

While it strains credibility to believe that Chandra Gupta II conquered lands across the Hindu-Kush Mountains, there is certainty, confirmed by other sources also, that Vanga, or Bengal, was firmly and fully under Gupta rule. The Guptas were thus the first North Indian dynasty to control the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta fully. Being more technologically advanced than the clans and tribes that had so far ruled the region, the Guptas accelerated the process of draining the delta and making it more accessible to settlement. They also introduced a more stable administrative system in the region. From the ruins of the Gupta Empire, few centuries later, the first historical states of East and Central Bengal emerged, Vanga being the most prominent of the lot.

Dynastic Alliances

The Gupta Emperors were well aware of the importance of trade for the prosperity of the country and also the need to maintain cordial relations with strong neighbours in order to ensure the peaceful progress of trading activities. Chandra Gupta I, the patriarch of the dynasty, had consolidated his position through a marital alliance and therefore it seems that the Gupta monarchs understood the advantages of making alliances rather than opting for military action, especially if the opponent was strong enough to resist the imperial Gupta power. Even before the conquests that brought the western ports within the Gupta Empire, the kingdom had been trading cotton from Bengal, scents and unguents from the hills of the Himalayas, and spices from the southern holdings in return for gold that increased the wealth of the nation. With control of the ports, Gupta trade took on an international maritime hue. International trade had been conducted through the Western coast into Central India for some time. However, the Western Satraps who controlled the ports were embroiled in wars and contests with the Satavahanas who ruled in the interior, to the detriment of trade and prosperity for both parties. The Guptas faced a similar challenge after they took over the territories of the Satraps with the interior kingdom of the Vakatakas. However, in this instance war was not the outcome since the Guptas opted to accept a dynastic alliance.

Instead of embarking on another military campaign, Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya gave his daughter, Prabhavati Gupta, in marriage to Rudrasena II who was the king of the Vakatakas. There was Gupta precedence for this initiative. During his conquests, Samudra Gupta had defeated and ‘violently exterminated’ the Nagas, a dynasty of ancient lineage. The Nagas had been subjugated by the Kushans, but had re-established themselves in Mathura and the south of the River Yamuna after the collapse of the Kushan Empire in India. After the Nagas were defeated by his father, Vikramaditya married a Naga princess, Kubera Naga, to consolidate the empire and to avoid rebellions. In the case of the alliance with the Vakatakas, king Rudrasena II died soon after his marriage and the kingdom came under the regency of Queen Prabhavati Gupta from 390-410 A.D. The queen followed Gupta policies in the governance of the Vakataka kingdom, making it an ally and associate of the Gupta Empire. This period is at times referred to as the Gupta-Vakataka age in some historical texts. Following the same tradition, Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya’s son, Kumara Gupta, also married the daughter of King Kakusta Varman of the Kadamba dynasty ruling in northern Karanataka with his capital at Banavasi. This alliance is mentioned in the Talgunda inscription.

Vikramaditya – The Person

Like his father before him, Chandra Gupta II was a great swordsman and personally extremely courageous. He was a strong and vigorous ruler who also possessed the virtues of a just monarch. He was a warrior, diplomat, and statesman, creating alliances when required to further the prosperity of the kingdom. After the conquest of Western India he established diplomatic relations with Ardashir, King of Persia, furthering trade and exchange of ideas. He was also a renowned patron of the arts and culture and the famous Navaratnas, or Nine Jewels, lived in his court. It is possible that Chandra Gupta II was perhaps vainglorious: he loved exalted titles, assuming the title of Vikramaditya, Maharajadhiraja, and Paramabhagavata. But then he had the right to be proud! The unparalleled strength and prosperity of the Gupta kingdom during Vikramaditya’s reign is attested by the fine gold and silver coins that were minted during the period.

The Navaratnas (Nine Gems) of Vikramaditya’s Court

As a patron of art and learning, Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya attracted the best and the brightest from across his vast empire to reside and work in his court. Nine very renowned scholars have been reported as having lived in the Gupta court and are known even today as the Navaratnas or Nine Gems. They are, (in no specific order): Dhanvantari, an early medical practitioner and perhaps the first surgeon in the world, regarded as the founder of the Ayurvedic system of medicine; Kshapanaka, who could also have been a Jain monk called Siddhasena the author of Dvathrishatikas and a prominent astrologer; Amarasimha, a Sanskrit grammarian and poet who wrote the Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit, (the book contains 10,000 words and is arranged, like other contemporary works of its class, in metre to aid memory and comprises three books, therefore at times called Trikhanda, or the Tripartite); Shanku, an expert in geography and the least known of the nine; Vetalabhatta, a Maga Brahmin and the author of a sixteen stanza tribute to Vikramaditya, Niti-pradeepa, or the Lamp of Conduct, also renowned for his expertise in black magic and the tantric sciences; Ghatakarpara, a great sculptor and architect as well as a poet of renown; Kalidasa, perhaps the most famous of the nine, regarded as the greatest Sanskrit poet and dramatist who wrote three famous plays, two epic poems, and two lyrical poems, (plays—Malavikaagnimitram (Malavika and Agnimitra), Abhijanashakuntalam (Shakuntala), and Vikramorvasiyam (The Story of Urvashi and Pururavas); epic poems—Raghuvamsa (The Dynasty of Raghu), and Kumarasamdhava (The Birth of Kumara); lyrical poems—Meghaduta (The Cloud Messanger), and Rtusamhara (The Exposition of the Seasons)); Varahamihira, a great astronomer and mathematician who compiled the astrological compendium Pancha Siddhantika that contains the knowledge of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Indian astronomical calculations, and also the Brihat-Samhita; and Vararuchi, a poet and grammarian of repute who is also considered the founder of the Vikrama Era in starting from 57 B.C.

The Shifting Capital

Pataliputra was the official capital of the Gupta dynasty. However, it was situated in the extreme east of the empire and its remoteness made it difficult to respond rapidly to challenges in the outskirts of the kingdom. The empire was far-flung and the semi-isolation of the capital caused a great deal of inconvenience to the ruling monarch, so much so that Samudra Gupta did not reside there after his conquests. Ayodhya, the legendary capital of Lord Ram was more central and served as the headquarters for both Samudra Gupta and Chandra Gupta II for brief periods during their reigns. Chandra Gupta II established a mint for copper coins in Ayodhya, which was one of the premier cities of the Guptas throughout the 5th century.

Kausambhi, on the highroad between Ujjain and Northern India was also the residence of the monarchs on a regular basis. Samudra Gupta’s modified Asoka pillar, the Allahabad Pillar, is considered to have been originally erected here. The fact is that the real capital of medieval monarchs, who were without exception despotic in their rule, was where ever the king established his court, however temporarily. This was true of all medieval kings of calibre across the world. It also remains a fact that Pataliputra continued to thrive throughout the Gupta reign, with or without the king in residence, till it was reduced by the Huns in the 6th century.

The Restoration of Ayodhya

The tale of the founding of modern Ayodhya, from the ruins of Lord Ram’s glorious capital, is first mentioned in a text dating to the 14th century. The story is the same as the myth that has been carried forward by bards in the oral tradition and perhaps dates back much further. It is recited even today by the local bards who now double as tourist guides to Lord Ram’s capital. As quoted by Michael Wood on page 182 of his rambling travelogue, The Story of India, the current bard’s version goes:
‘Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was a great king called Vikramaditya. One day Vikramaditya came hunting along the Sarayu River. Then his horse suddenly pulled to a halt, hearing strange voices, and would go no further. The king picked his way through the jungle on the ill there and found the ruins of an ancient city. He cleared the ruins and then a rishi [a holy man who has renounced normal living] appeared before him, who told him this was none other than Ayodhya, the sacred city of Lord Ram, which had existed in the Tetra Yuga. Then the rishi disappeared. So it was Vikramaditya who announced the discovery of Ayodhya, and he ordered its restoration for our time—to rebuild the city and bring back the rule of Ram.’

Fa-Hein’s Visit

Fa-Hein (also known as Fa-Hsien, Faxian, etc.)—the first of the three renowned Chinese pilgrim travellers to visit India between the 5th and 7th centuries in search of knowledge, manuscripts and relics—travelled around the sub-continent during the reign of Chandra Gupta II. He lived in the kingdom for around 10 years, probably 400-410 A.D., and his writings provide a contemporary account of the state of the nation from the perspective of an intelligent and articulate foreigner. Although his records are fully focused on Buddhist religious work, he also noted some everyday facts and happenings, which provide a vivid picture of the life and times of Vikramaditya, both from the viewpoint of the ruling class as well as from that of the normal populace. The basic picture that emerges from Fa-Hein’s writings is that of a happy country—rich, peaceful, and prosperous.

Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya was succeeded to the throne by his son through Dhruva Devi, Kumara Gupta, in 415 A.D.

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 Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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