Indian History Part 25 THE GOLDEN GUPTAS Section IV: End of Empire

Canberra, 7 February 2014

Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya left the Empire in an exalted state in terms of its national power, prosperity of both the kingdom and the people as well as the stability of governance. The borders were secure, trade with Egypt and even Europe was thriving, and there were no internal revolts or insurgencies of any note. This period is also considered the Golden Age in the history of India for a number of reasons—for the first time in centuries the entire sub-continent was free of foreign rule; the Guptas had subdued petty kingdoms and unified the North India as no other dynasty had managed to do until then; their efficient system of administration brought about peace and stability; and the conquest of Saurashtra provided an added impetus to foreign trade and commerce leading to increased wealth and domestic prosperity. Perhaps the most important factor for this period to be considered of a ‘Golden Hue’ was the distinctly secular nature of the government. While Vedic Hinduism was revived as the primary religion of the land, the rulers continued to be benevolent to other religions, a policy that became a hallmark of all great Indian monarchs who followed. Along with the revival of religion, Hindu culture also blossomed during this period, and notable intellectual progress was made—works on polity, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, philosophy and other subjects are unrivalled. Sanskrit literary achievements of the period have not been surpassed. By any measure, it was indeed the Golden Age.

The Decline and Fall of the Dynasty  

Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya was succeeded on the throne by Kumara Gupta I (called one ‘I’ to distinguish him from his great-grandson of the same name) who ruled from 415-455. It is a measure of the tranquillity and stability of the State that in this instance there is no mention of a succession struggle, actual or contrived. Kumara Gupta I ruled for 40 years and it can be presumed that the empire did not face any challenges for the greater part of his reign. This is corroborated by the coins of the period that have been discovered and inscriptions left behind. He is also reported to have carried out the Aswamedha, or ‘horse sacrifice’, to assert his paramount sovereignty over the Empire and outlying provinces, most probably not directly ruled, but paying tribute to the Gupta Empire. Surprisingly for an emperor who ruled for nearly half a century, there is an extraordinary dearth of records of events that mark the reign of Kumara Gupta.

There is a report that in 450 the Guptas were defeated in war by a nation referred to as Pushyamitra, probably from the Narmada region. There is only very limited information regarding this conflict as well as the identity of this nation that rose up to confront the mighty Guptas and succeeded to a degree. The shock of the defeat brought about considerable instability to the Empire and could also have hastened the demise of Kumara Gupta, whose death has been fixed at having occurred in 455. The defeat was avenged by the crown prince Skanda Gupta, who succeeded to the throne. Towards the end of Kumara Gupta I’s rule, in the middle of the 5th century, the Hun hordes also erupted through the North West passes into mainland India. It can be said with certainty that the date of Kumara Gupta’s death also marks the beginning of the decline of this illustrious dynasty.

The Huns who came to India were a branch of the White Huns—the Hephtalites from Central Asia. They were at times referred to as Hunas in Indian sources. The origins of the White Huns continue to be a mystery even today. There is a strong possibility that they were an Iranian nomadic tribe. It is however certain that they were the last distinctly different group, in terms of ethnicity and language, to attack India before the onslaught of the Turkic nomads began a few centuries later. The term White Hun is a label used by the Roman historian Procopius to distinguish this group from the true Huns, in all probability to indicate the white bodies typical of the Iranian plateau. [A brief history of the Huns will be provided in another part.]

The Guptas succeeded in keeping the Huns at bay for some time and up to a point. During the same period the Chinese rulers were also successful in keeping the marauding hordes away from their kingdom. Some historians opine that the fury of the Hun assault on Europe was a reaction to the resistance they met in these two kingdoms. When the Huns turned towards India again they had been weakened by the fierce conflicts in Europe and they entered India in the same pattern as the Shakas and the Kushans, in a more controlled manner. However, there was one fundamental difference—the Huns did not have any ambition to establish or extend their national territory, they were in India purely for loot and plunder. Once again this was a trend that continued for a few centuries more in attacks against India, indicating the perception of India being wealthy and also easy to plunder.

As king, Skanda Gupta effectively contained the Pushyamitra challenge and then turned his attention to the Hun invasion. Skanda Gupta was an experienced and mature individual with a touch of brilliance in military matters. He conclusively defeated the barbarians and India was saved, for the time being at least. This victory was celebrated by erecting a pillar in Bhittari in Ghazipur, which contains a detailed inscription of the defeat of the Huns. Skanda Gupta’s inscriptions provide a chronology of the repeated Hun invasions and his efforts to safeguard the kingdom. An inscription in Saurashtra dated 458. once again details the defeat of the barbarians and provides information that the viceroy of the West, Parnadatta, rebuilt the embankment of the lake in Girnar Hills and constructed a temple to Vishnu. The location of another column in a village east of Gorakhpur, in combination with the geographical site of inscriptions further in the west testifies to Skanda Gupta’s rule across the entire extended Gupta Empire.

A temple to the Sun God built in 465 in Bulundhshahr is the last testament of the tranquillity that prevailed during most of Skanda Gupta’s reign. Few years later the Huns were back and in a ferocious attack occupied Gandhara and North West Punjab, ousting the diminished Kushans from their traditional seat of power. The White Huns appointed a Tegin, or viceroy, to rule Gandhara. By 470 they had started making further inroads into the interior of Gupta India. The Tegin was Toramana, who was a vassal of the White Hun king and responsible for carrying the war into the Gupta Empire. By this time Skanda Gupta was hard put to contain the Hun attacks. Although the Huns were defeated in most of the conflicts, they were still able to carry out certain amount of plunder and the Gupta Empire was bleeding, both in terms of treasure and lives. [This is true of all low intensity wars where the attacking force is able to inflict a greater proportion of damage on the more static and conventional defending armies. Even today, fighting an irregular army is costly in terms of treasure and lives.]

The financial hardship that the Gupta Empire was facing is clearly demonstrated by the lessening of the gold content, from 108 to 73 grains each, in the coins minted during this period. Subsequently the coinage suffered further and extreme debasement. Skanda Gupta died around 480 and the Empire perished, but the dynasty remained. The Guptas continued to rule mainly the eastern provinces of the Empire as independent rulers with Magadha at the core for several more generations. There was a brief period of hiatus after the death of Skanda Gupta, who left no male heir capable of shouldering the burden brought about by the Hun incursions and rising to the challenge of protecting the Empire. This was a time of extreme existentialist crisis and the dynasty failed to produce a capable ruler to hold the Empire together. Pura Gupta a brother of Skanda Gupta, and the son of Kumara Gupta I and Queen Ananda, ascended the throne and ruled for a brief period. The only noteworthy deed of his reign was his attempt to restore the purity of Gupta coinage to its original glory, an attempt that was only partially successful.

In 485, Pura Gupta was succeeded to the throne by his son Narasimha Gupta Baladitya. The Empire had shrunk considerably by this time. However, Narasimha Gupta was able to stave off further Hun incursions into the core areas of the Gupta kingdom. From a large empire, the Gupta territorial holdings had been reduced to the size of a kingdom by this stage. Narasimha Gupta was Buddhist and built a brick temple 300 feet high in Nalanda. The Chinese traveller Hiuen-Tsang mentions elaborate and intricate designs on this temple and of the use of gold and gems to detail delicate designs. Narasimha Gupta’s son Kumara Gupta II inherited the throne around 535, indicating a long rule by Narasimha Gupta, even if the size of the kingdom was considerably diminished in comparison to his stalwart ancestors. There are no clear descriptions available of Kumara Gupta II’s rule, but it is certain that by this time the Gupta dominion was very restricted. Kumara Gupta II, or perhaps his father, could be considered the last of the ‘Imperial Guptas’.

The Later Guptas of Magadha

The first half of the 6th century the Guptas were in the throes of instability with a succession of weak and ineffectual rulers coming to the throne. The liberal and benevolent polity of the Golden Gupta state had by now become a distant dream of the past. Although the Huns had been checked in 460, at great cost to the Empire, they returned around 500 under Toramana, a ferocious war lord. The imperial line of Gupta succession from this period onwards is obscure and only marked by the transition of power between 11 Gupta princes who seems to have ruled Magadha and the surrounding areas, essentially becoming local rulers like so many others of the time. There is evidence that they shared the rule the province, on and off, with another dynasty of rajas—a clan called Maukhari with their kings names ending with ‘varman’. This is significant since the same title or surname was also used by the Pallava dynasty to the south who were contemporaries of the Guptas.

The most illustrious of the later Guptas was Adityasena Gupta who asserted Gupta independence after the death of Hrashavardhana in 647. [The rise and rule of Harshvardhna is covered in a subsequent part.] Adityasena was presumptuous enough in his claim to greatness that he is supposed to have performed the aswamedha horse sacrifice. However, it must be remembered that the significance and status of the sacrifice had gradually been eroded with a number of lesser kings also performing the sacrifice in a limited manner. It is more than likely that the aswamedha of Aditysena Gupta would also have fallen into this category. The last king of the Gupta dynasty was Jivita Gupta II who was defeated and vanquished by the Pala king of Bengal in the late 8th century. This event marked the beginning of the Bengal kingdoms. There are no significant events that have been recorded during this period, and it can be safely assumed that the erstwhile empire of the Guptas was in a state of flux, insecurity and confusion. This was a situation tailor-made for the rise of other powerful, ambitious, and competent kings bent on establishing their own dynasties.

Their golden reputation fades from history as the famous gold coinage, debased under Skanga Gupta, becomes crudely cast, increasingly stereotypes, of rare occurrence, and then non-existent.

John Keay, India: A History, p 144.

In Malwa there are records of another set of ‘Gupta’ kings—Budha Gupta and Bhanu Gupta—who ruled from 484 to 510. It is believed that they could have been Samudra Gupta’s heirs and provincial viceroys in that region who declared independence from the core family as the primary monarch became unable to control the outlying provinces because of their declining power. It is also highly likely that they accepted a subordinate status from the Hun Chiefs in return for being allowed a certain amount of autonomy in their rule independent of the Gupta dynasty.

The Valabhi Dynasty

At the end of 5th century, Bhatarka, the chief of the Maitraka clan broke away from being a tributary to the Guptas and founded a kingdom in Valabhi in the east of the Saurashtra Peninsula. This event is also corroborative proof of the declining Gupta power and the reduction of their sphere of influence. The loss of the Western ports and the associated reduction in income to the State would have added to the financial woes brought on by the conflict with the Huns. The Valabhi dynasty lasted well into the 8th century, till 770, when they were destroyed by Arab invaders. There is also a theory that they were destroyed by the Gujjars before the arrival of the Arabs. In either case, they ruled for more than 150 years, becoming a noticeable part of the history of the region. Considering the time that the patriarch of the clan declared independence, it is almost certain that the earlier rulers of the dynasty were only semi-independent and would have paid tribute to the Huns, operating in an autonomous manner under Hun directions. After the destruction of the Huns they became truly independent and influenced the course of events in Western India.

The Chinese pilgrim traveller, Hieun Tsang visited the kingdom in 7th century and reported Valabhi as a nation of great wealth. He also compared the city, also presumably called Valabhi, favourably with the great education centre at Nalanda and reported the presence of a large number of students. Two distinguished and acknowledged Buddhist teachers—Gunamati and Sthiramati—is reported to have been in residence in Valabhi in the 6th century. After the destruction of the city by invaders—Arab or Gujjar—the city was not rebuilt to its original glory and gradually deteriorated becoming ruins. The ruins of Valabhi can today be found, mostly underground, at Wala about 30 kilometres north-west of the town on Bhavnagar.

Exchange of Buddhist Monks and Pilgrim Travellers

From the time of Fa Hien during early Gupta period, there was a stream of Buddhist monks and pilgrims who travelled across the Indian sub-continent and left behind a large volume of writing that provides insights into the way of life of the time. While their writings were clearly oriented towards detailing the religious processes and associated issues, they also inadvertently provide a broad description of the practices of the people, their beliefs, customs, and traditions. Even when the Gupta Empire went into decline, the reputation of the kingdom as a centre of Buddhist learning was not affected.

Nalanda was by this time well-established as the foremost centre of education, and continued to prosper till the Muslim invasions in 12th century. During the course of the Islamic onslaught the monasteries, and perhaps more damaging, their extensive libraries were burned down, creating an irreplaceable loss of rich history and knowledge.

The reverence in which the ‘holy land’ of the birth of Buddha was held was demonstrated by the first Liang Emperor of China Wu-Ti or Hsiao Yen—who ruled from 502 to 549—sending a mission to Magadha in 539 to collect Buddhist texts and manuscripts and also requesting the services of a competent translator to be made available. The Magadhan king, presumably Kumara Gupta II, loaned the services of a learned monk, Paramartha who went to China with a large quantity of manuscripts. He reached Canton in 546 and was presented to the Emperor in 548. He continued to live in Canton thereafter and died at the age of 70 in 569.

A number of Indian Buddhist monks visited China thereafter. Bodhidharma, reported to be the son of a South Indian king whose name cannot be ascertained, is one of the more famous monks to have reached China and is reported to have become the patriarch of a monastery. He reached China in 520 and settled in Lo Yang. There are a number of stories of his performing miracles that have been passed down the ages. However, other details of his stay in China are scant.

The Causes for the Downfall

The decline and the final downfall of the Guptas was not a sudden cataclysmic event, but a gradual process brought about through external intrusions, internal revolts and civil strife that a weakened central administration was unable to contain. This situation was obviously exacerbated by a combination of lacklustre kings without vision who were neither statesmen nor warriors of note, and the decline in the prosperity and wealth of the nation brought about through expenditure in wars of necessity. The Gupta Empire can be counted as one the world’s great classical empires, having made amazing advances in science, art and literature. Although it survived longer than many of the contemporary classical empires like the Han kingdom of China, it finally succumbed to the same internal and external pressures that have brought down other empires throughout history.

It is seen that a dynasty that has established itself reaches the zenith of its power around the third or fourth generation, when the wars to consolidate and expand the empire have been fought and won and the monarch turns his attention to cultural and aesthetic development. At this stage a certain amount of indolence sets in with a commensurate loss of the king’s direct involvement in the day-to-day administration of the empire. If critically analysed, this point in the dynasties good fortunes can be pinpointed as the beginning of the decline. In parallel, assured stability and prosperity for the common people also tends to blunt the aggressive edge of the community, detracting from its ability to be militarily competitive. This loss of cutting edge military prowess was especially significant in the early and medieval times, since the security of the State was primarily dependent on the military forces winning battles, campaigns and wars. This malaise injected itself into the Gupta polity towards the end of Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya’s reign.

Internally, the dynasty grew weak from succession struggles that seem to have become endemic towards the rule of the later Guptas. Taking advantage of the confusion in the capital during these internecine conflicts, a number of tributary states declared independence and by around 500, it had become difficult for the Gupta king to even collect taxes to fund its huge bureaucracy. Along with the drain on resources brought about by foreign invasions, mainly those of the Huns, the situation became precarious to say the least. It was no surprise that the later Guptas were ruling kingdoms that progressively diminished in size and stature beneath the umbrella of the old glory of Magadha.

A glorious empire, the likes of which had not been seen in the sub-continent before, and would not be seen for a full ten centuries into the future, crumbled like so many others in the world, not in a celebration of glory, but without even a whimper of resistance! The sands of time echo with such events at distressingly regular intervals.

© [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 Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. 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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