The Gupta Dynasty (320-550)
Under Chandragupta I (320-335), empire was
revived in the north. Like Chandragupta Maurya, he first conquered
Magadha, set up his capital where the Mauryan capital had stood
(Patna), and from this base consolidated a kingdom over the eastern
portion of northern India. In addition, Chandragupta revived many of
Asoka's principles of government. It was his son, however,
Samudragupta (335-376), and later his grandson, Chandragupta II
(376-415), who extended the kingdom into an empire over the whole of
the north and the western Deccan. Chandragupta II was the greatest of
the Gupta kings; called Vikramaditya ("The Sun of Power"), he presided
over the greatest cultural age in India.
This period is regarded as the golden age of Indian
culture. The high points of this cultural creativity are magnificent
and creative architecture, sculpture, and painting. The
wall-paintings of Ajanta Cave in the central Deccan are considered
among the greatest and most powerful works of Indian art. The
paintings in the cave represent the various lives of the Buddha, but
also are the best source we have of the daily life in India at the
time. There are forty-eight caves making up Ajanta, most of which were
carved out of the rock between 460 and 480, and they are filled with
Buddhist sculptures. The rock temple at Elephanta (near Bombay)
contains a powerful, eighteen foot statue of the three-headed Shiva,
one of the principle Hindu gods. Each head represents one of Shiva's
roles: that of creating, that of preserving, and that of destroying.
The period also saw dynamic building of Hindu temples. All of these
temples contain a hall and a tower.
The greatest writer of the time was Kalidasa.
Poetry in the Gupta age tended towards a few genres: religious and
meditative poetry, lyric poetry, narrative histories (the most popular
of the secular literatures), and drama. Kalidasa excelled at lyric
poetry, but he is best known for his dramas. We have three of his
plays; all of them are suffused with epic heroism, with comedy, and
with erotics. The plays all involve misunderstanding and conflict, but
they all end with unity, order, and resolution.
The Guptas tended to allow kings to remain as vassal
kings; unlike the Mauryas, they did not consolidate every kingdom into
a single administrative unit. This would be the model for later Mughal
rule and British rule built off of the Mughal paradigm.
The Guptas fell prey, however, to a wave of
migrations by the Huns, a people who originally lived north of China.
The Hun migrations would push all the way to the doors of Rome.
Beginning in the 400's, the Huns began to put pressure on the Guptas.
In 480 they conquered the Guptas and took over northern India. Western
India was overrun by 500, and the last of the Gupta kings, presiding
over a vastly dimished kingdom, perished in 550. A strange thing
happened to the Huns in India as well as in Europe. Over the decades
they gradually assimilated into the indigenous population and their
Harsha, who was a descendant of the Guptas, quickly
moved to reestablish an Indian empire. From 606-647, he ruled over an
empire in northern India. Harsha was perhaps one of the greatest
conquerors of Indian history, and unlike all of his conquering
predecessors, he was a brilliant administrator. He was also a great
patron of culture. His capital city, Kanauj, extended for four or five
miles along the Ganges River and was filled with magnificent
buildings. Only one fourth of the taxes he collected went to
administration of the government. The remainder went to charity,
rewards, and especially to culture: art, literature, music, and
Because of extensive trade, the culture of India
became the dominant culture around the Bay of Bengal, profoundly and
deeply influencing the cultures of Burma, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. In
many ways, the period during and following the Gupta dynasty was the
period of "Greater India," a period of cultural activity in India and
surrounding countries building off of the base of Indian culture. This
medieval flowering of Indian culture would radically change course in
the Indian Middle Ages. From the north came Muslim conquerors out of
Afghanistan, and the age of Muslim rule began in 1100.