The Gupta dynasty was founded in 320 c.e. when a north Indian prince named Chandragupta crowned himself Great King of Kings in the ancient Mauryan capital Pataliputra. The dynasty was consolidated by his son, Samudragupta, but reached its peak under the founder’s grandson, Chandragupta II.
Whereas the Greek ambassador Megasthenes wrote an account of India under Emperor Chandragupta Maurya in the fourth century b.c.e., a Chinese Buddhist monk named Fa Xian (Fa-hsien) did so for fifth-century c.e. India.
Fa Xian traveled around India for six years during Chandragupta II’s reign and recorded his impressions; his work, A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, has survived. He found Pataliputra a rich city where hospitals provided care for the poor without charge. Buddhism still flourished, but Hinduism was regaining vitality.
He also noted the presence of Untouchables on the edges of cities, carrying out menial tasks and having to sound gongs as they walked to warn others of their polluting presence. He admired the piety and prosperity of Indians and the leniency of Indian laws.
A passage from his work said: “The king governs without decapitation or [other] corporal punishments. Criminals are simply fined, lightly or heavily, according to the circumstances [of each case] ... Throughout the country the people do not kill any living things, nor eat onion or garlic ... they do not keep pigs and fowls, and do not sell live cattle; in the market there are no butchers’ shops and no dealers in intoxicating drink ... [In the towns] the inhabitants are rich and prosperous, and vie with one another in the practice of benevolence and righteousness.”
The Gupta era was noted for its artistic refinement, the excellence of its bronze sculptures, and architecture, including magnificent temples and cave temples.
Indian merchants and missionaries traveled widely by sea in Southeast Asia and by land via the Silk Road to Central Asia and China. Chandragupta II’s reign represented the apogee of the Gupta dynasty.