Indian merchants and religious teachers traveled widely throughout Southeast Asia, where India’s civilizing influence became deeply felt. Our documentary knowledge of the Gupta era comes from inscriptions on some columns and monuments, coins minted by various monarchs, and the writing of a Chinese monk, Fa Xian (Fa-hsien).
India was politically fragmented and suffered from invasions after the fall of the Mauryan Empire in 184 b.c.e., and few historical documents survived. However, despite the disruptions, culture flourished.
Greeks, Scythians, and Bactrians established states in the borderlands of the Indian subcontinent, as did the Yuezhi (Yuehchih), a people who fled the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) on China’s frontier to present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they established the Kushan Empire.
The Kushan Empire lay on the Silk Road that linked ancient cultures and assimilated Indian, Persian, and Greco-Roman artistic styles and produced great Buddhist works of art that influenced religious art in China and Japan.
In 320 c.e. a prince named Chandragupta (not related to the founder of the Mauryan dynasty) founded a new dynasty. He secured power in the Ganges Valley with a combination of war and a marriage alliance with a princess of an important clan and crowned himself King of Kings at Pataliputra (now Patna, also capital of the Mauryan dynasty).
His son and successor Samudragupta (r. 335–376 c.e.) warred to secure obedience of most regions of northern India and southward to the Deccan Plateau. His son was Chandragupta II (r. 376–415 c.e.), whose reign was the high-water mark of the Gupta dynasty.
His son, Kumaragupta I (r. 416–454 c.e.), was the last great ruler of the dynasty and had to deal with the first of another series of barbarian invaders, called the Huna in India, a Central Asian people known as the White Huns in the Byzantine Empire. They were among a great wave of Turko-Mongols who were invading Asia and Europe at the time.
The first wave of Huna crossed the Hindu Kush to raid the plains of India, weakening Gupta power and shrinking its control over the provinces. Another wave of Huna invaders starting around 500 c.e. dealt the deathblow to the Gupta Empire, which had entirely vanished by 550 c.e.
India prospered under the Guptas. Agriculture thrived, producing a large number of staple and cash crops. Many artisans, organized into guilds, practiced their crafts in the cities.
The state derived revenue primarily from taxing farm products; it also taxed trade and owned all salt and mineral operations and some industrial enterprises. Commerce was mainly conducted in government-minted coins. The names of rulers on Gupta coins are useful in establishing the dates of their reigns.
With a flourishing economy, the Gupta monarchs lavished their support on Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religions. Religious art and architecture thrived, and the Hindu temple emerged as India’s classic architectural form. Some temples were dedicated to a particular deity: Vishnu, Shiva, and the mother goddess being the most popular. The Gupta era was also the apogee of cave paintings and architecture.
The cave temples dedicated to Hinduism and Buddhism at Ajanta and Ellora survive with sculptures and frescoes of religious and lay figures that reflect fashions of the Gupta court. Gupta bronze and stone sculptures are the finest of India and became models for artists throughout much of Southeast Asia, especially in Cambodia, Sumatra, and Java.
The Guptas were however less successful than the Mauryans in two important respects. Territorially, the Gupta Empire did not control southern India, nor did it control the crucial northwestern region, from which all early invaders entered India.
Nor did it succeed in establishing a centralized system of government, as had the Mauryans. They had to be content with a feudal-type relationship with the regional rulers of their empire, except for the central Magadha region, which they ruled directly.
Nevertheless, the early Gupta dynasty is important politically because it united much of India, which had been divided for more than five centuries since the fall of the Mauryan Empire. It is important culturally because it became India’s classical age and established the standard in culture and the arts that later eras looked to for inspiration and emulation.