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Chapter: 6th Social Science : History : Term 3 Unit 3 : The Age of Empires: Guptas and Vardhanas

The Age of Empires: Guptas and Vardhanas

Learning Objectives • To know the establishment of Gupta dynasty and the empire-building efforts of Gupta rulers • To understand the polity, economy and society under Guptas • To get familiar with the contributions of the Guptas to art, architecture, literature, education, science and technology • To explore the signification of the reign of Harsha Vardhana

Unit 3

The Age of Empires: Guptas and Vardhanas


Learning Objectives

• To know the establishment of Gupta dynasty and the empire-building efforts of Gupta rulers

• To understand the polity, economy and society under Guptas

• To  get  familiar  with  the  contributions  of  the  Guptas  to  art,  architecture,  literature,  education, science and technology

• To explore the signification of the reign of Harsha Vardhana



By the end of the 3rd century, the powerful empires established by the Kushanas in the north and Satavahanas in the south had lost their greatness and strength. After the decline of Kushanas and Satavahanas, Chandragupta carved out a kingdom and establish his dynastic rule, which lasted for about two hundred years. After the downfall of the Guptas and thereafter and interregnum of nearly 50 years, Harsha of Vardhana dynasty ruled North India from 606 to 647 A.D (CE).



Archaeological Sources

* Gold, silver and copper coins issued by Gupta rulers.

* Allahabad Pillar Inscription of Samudragupta.

* The Mehrauli Iron Pillar Inscription. „

* Udayagiri Cave Inscription, MathuraStone Inscription and Sanchi Stone Inscription of Chandragupta II.

* Bhitari Pillar Inscription of Skandagupta.

* The Gadhwa Stone Inscription.

* Madubhan Copper Plate Inscription

* Sonpat Copper Plate

* Nalanda Inscription on clay seal


Literary Sources

* Vishnu, Matsya, Vayu and Bhagavata Puranas and Niti Sastras of Narada

* Visakhadatta’s Devichandraguptam and Mudrarakshasa and Bana’s Harshacharita

* Dramas of Kalidasa

* Accounts of Chinese Buddhist monk Fahien who visited India during the reign of Chandragupta II.

* Harsha’s Ratnavali, Nagananda, Priyadharshika

* Hiuen-Tsang's Si-Yu-Ki


Foundation of the Gupta Dynasty

Sri Gupta is considered to be the founder of the Gupta dynasty. He is believed to have reigned over parts of present-day Bengal and Bihar. He was the first Gupta ruler to be featured on coins. He was succeeded by his son Ghatotkacha. Both are mentioned as Maharajas in inscriptions.


Chandragupta I  (c. 319–335 AD(CE))

Chandragupta I married Kumaradevi of the famous and powerful Lichchhavi family. Having gained the support of this family, Chandragupta could eliminate various small states in northern India and crown himself the monarch of a larger kingdom. The gold coins attributed to Chandragupta bear the images of Chandragupta, Kumaradevi and the legend ‘Lichchhavayah’.

Lichchhavi was an old gana–sanga and its territory lay between the Ganges and the Nepal Terai.


Samudragupta (c. 335–380)

Samudragupta, son of Chandragupta I, was the greatest ruler of the dynasty. The Prayog Prashasti, composed by Samudragupta’s court poet Harisena was engraved on Allahabad Pillar. This Allahabad Pillar inscription is the main source of information for Samudragupta’s reign.

Prashasti Prashasti is a Sanskrit word, meaning commendation or ‘in praise of’. Court poets flattered their kings listing out their achievements. These accounts were later engraved on pillars so that the people could read them.


Consolidation of Gupta Dynasty

Samudragupta was a great general and when he became emperor, he carried on a vigorous campaign all over the country and even in the south. In the southern Pallava kingdom, the king who was defeated by Samudragupta was Vishnugopa.

Samudragupta conquered nine kingdoms in northern India. He reduced 12 rulers of the southern India to the status of feudatories and forced them to pay tribute. He received homage from the rulers of East Bengal, Assam, Nepal, the eastern part of Punjab and various tribes of Rajasthan.

Samudragupta was a devotee of Vishnu. He revived the Vedic practice of performing horse sacrifice to commemorate victories in wars. He issued gold coins and in one of them, he is portrayed playing harp (veenai). Samudragupta was not only a great conqueror but a lover of poetry and music and for this, he earned the title ‘Kaviraja’.

Srimeghavarman, the Buddhist king of Ceylon, was a contemporary of Samudragupta.


Chandragupta II (c.380 - 415)

Chandragupta II was the son of Samudragupta. He was also known as Vikramaditya. He conquered western Malwa and Gujarat by defeating the Saka rulers. He maintained friendly relationship with the rulers of southern India. The iron pillar near Qutub Minar is believed to have been built by Vikramaditya. Fahien, a Buddhist scholar from China, visited India during his reign. Vikramaditya is said to have assembled the greatest writers and artists (Navaratna [Nine Jewels]) in his court. Kalidasa is said to be one among them.

The surnames of Chandragupta II were Vikramaditya, Narendrachandra, Simhachandra, Narendrasimha, Vikrama Devaraja, Devagupta and Devasri.

Chandragupta II was succeeded by his son Kumaragupta I, who built the famous Nalanda University.

Kumaragupta’s successor Skandagupta had to face a new threat in the form of the invasion of Huns. He defeated them and drove them away. But after twelve years, they came again and broke the back of the Gupta Empire. The last of the great Guptas was Baladitya, assumed to have been Narasimha Gupta I.


During the reign of Chandragupta II, the Buddhist monk Fahien visited India. His travel accounts provided us information about the socio-economic, religious and moralconditions of the people of the Gupta age. According to Fahien, the people of Magadha were happy and prosperous, that justice was mildly administered and there was no death penalty. Gaya was desolated. Kapilavasthu had become a jungle, but at Pataliputra people were rich and prosperous.

He was himself attracted towards Buddhism. He was paying tribute to Mihirakula but was distressed by his hostility towards Buddhism. So he stopped paying tribute. Though Baladitya succeeded in imprisoning him, Mihirakula turned treacherous and drove away Baladitya from Magadha. After Baladitya, the great Gupta Empire faded away.

The last recognised king of the Gupta Empire was Vishnugupta.


Gupta Polity

The divine theory of kingship (the concept that king is the representative of God on earth and so he is answerable only to God and not to anyone else) was practised by the Gupta rulers. The Gupta kings wielded enormous power in political, administrative, military and judicial spheres. The Gupta king was assisted by a council of mantris (ministers). The council consisted of princes, high officials and feudatories. A large number of officials were employed by the Gupta rulers to carry on the day-to-day administration of the country. High-ranking officials were called dandanayakas and mahadandanayakas.

The Gupta Empire was divided into provinces known as deshas or bhuktis. They were administered by the governors, designated as uparikas. The province was divided into districts such as vishyas and they were controlled by the officers known as vishyapatis. At the village level, there were functionaries such as gramika and gramadhyaksha.

The extensive empire shows the important role of military organisation. Seals and inscriptions mentioned military designations as baladhikrita and mahabaladhikrita (commander of infantry and cavalry respectively). The system of espionage included spies known as dutakas.


Society and Economy

Land and Peasants

Nitisara, authored by Kamandaka, emphasises the importance of the royal treasury and mentions various sources of revenue. The military campaigns of kings like Samudragupta were financed through revenue surpluses. Land tax was the main revenue to the government. The condition of peasants was pathetic. They were required to pay various taxes. They were reduced to the position of serfs.


Trade and Commerce

The  contribution  of  the  traders  for  the  development  of  Gupta’s  economy  was  very  impressive.  There  were  two  types  of  traders,  namely  Sresti and Sarthavaha.

Nalanda University

* Nalanda University flourished under the patronage of the Gupta Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries and later under emperor Harsha of Kanauj.

* At Nalanda, Buddhism was the main subject of study. Other subjects like Yoga, Vedic literature and Medicine were also taught.

* Hiuen Tsang spent many years studying Buddhism in the University.Eight Mahapatashalas and three large Nalanda Universit libraries were situated on the campus.

* Nalanda was ravaged and destroyed by Mamluks (Turkish Muslims) under Bhaktiyar Khalji.

* Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Who were the Huns? Huns were the nomadic tribes, who, under their great Attila, were terrorising Rome and Constantinople. Associated with these tribes were the White Huns who came to India through Central Asia. They undertook regular invasions and were giving trouble to all Indian frontier states. After defeating Skandagupta, they spread across Central India. Their chief, Toromana, crowned himself as king. After him, his son Mihirakula ruled the captured territories. Finally, Yasodharman, ruler of Malwa in Central India, defeated them and ended their rule.

Trade items ranged from daily products to valuable and luxury goods. The important trade goods were pepper, gold, copper, iron, horses and elephants. Lending money at a high rate of interest was in practice during Gupta period.

The Guptas developed roadways connecting different parts of the country. Pataliputra, Ujjain, Benaras, Mathura were the famous trade centres. Ports in western (Kalyan, Mangalore, Malabar) and eastern (Tamralipti in Bengal) coasts of India facilitated trade.

Samudragupta introduced the Gupta monetary system. Kushana coins provided inspiration to Samudragupta. The Gupta gold coins were known as Dinara. Guptas issued many gold coins but comparatively fewer silver and copper coins. However, the post-Gupta period saw a fall in the circulation of gold coins, indicating the decline in the prosperity of the empire.



* Mining and metallurgy were the most flourishing industries during the Guptaperiod.

* The most important evidence of development in metallurgy was the Mehrauli Iron Pillar installed by King Chandragupta in Delhi. This monolithic iron pillar has lasted through the centuries without rusting.

The metals used by them were: iron, gold, copper, tin, lead, brass, bronze, bell- metal, mica, manganese and red chalk.



The society that adhered to four varna system was patriarchal. According to laws of Manu, which was in force, women should be under the protection of their father, husband or eldest son. Polygamy was widely prevalent. The kings and feudatory lords often had more than one wife. Inscriptions refer to Kubernaga and Dhrubaswamini as the queens of Chandragupta II. Sati was practised during the Gupta rule.



Slavery was not institutionalised in India, as in the West. But there are references to the existence of various categories of slaves during the Gupta age.



There was revival of Vedic religion and Vedic rites. Samudragupta and Kumaragupta I performed Asvamedha Yagna (a horse sacrifice ritual). We notice the beginning of image worship and the emergence of two sects, namely Vaishnavism and Saivism, during the Gupta period. Buddhism also continued to flourish though it split into two sects, namely Hinayana and Mahayana.


Art and Architecture

The Guptas were the first to construct temples, which evolved from the earlier tradition of rock-cut shrines. Adorned with towers and elaborate carvings, these temples were dedicated to all Hindu deities.

The most notable rock-cut caves are found at Ajanta and Ellora (Maharashtra) , Bagh (Madhya Pradesh) and Udaygiri (Odisha) . The structural temples built during this period resemble the characteristic features of the Dravidian style.

Two remarkable examples of Gupta metal sculpture are (i) a copper image of Buddha about 18 feet high at Nalanda and (ii) Sultanganj Buddha seven-and-a-half feet in height. The most important examples of the Gupta paintings are found on the Fresco of the Ajanta caves and the Bagh cave in Gwalior.



Though the language spoken by the people was Prakrit, the Guptas made Sanskrit the official language and all their epigraphic records are in Sanskrit. The Gupta period also saw the development of Sanskrit grammar based on the grammar of Panini and Patanjali who wrote Ashtadhyayi and Mahabhashya respectively.

A Buddhist scholar from Bengal, Chandrogomia, composed a book on grammar titled Chandravyakaranam. Kalidasa’s famous dramas were Sakunthala, Malavikagnimitra and Vikramaoorvashiyam. Other significant works of Kalidasa were Meghaduta, Raghuvamsa, Kumarasambava and Ritusamhara.


Mathematics, Astronomy and Medicine

* Invention of zero and the consequent evolution of the decimal system were the legacy of Guptas to the modern world. Aryabhatta, Varahamihira and Brahmagupta were foremost astronomers and mathematicians of the time.

* Aryabhatta, in his book Surya Siddhanta, explained the true causes of solar and lunar eclipses. He was the first Indian astronomer to declare that the earth revolves around its own axis.

* Dhanvantri was a famous scholar in the field of medicine. He was a specialist in Ayurveda. Charaka was a medical scientist. Susruta was the first Indian to explain the process of surgery.


Vardhana Dynasty

The founder of the Vardhana or Pushyabhuti dynasty ruled from Thaneswar. Pushyabhuti served as a military general under the Guptas and rose to power after the fall of the Guptas. With the accession of Prabakaravardhana, the Pushyabhuti family became strong and powerful.

Rajavardhana, the eldest son of Prabhakaravardhana, ascended the throne after his father’sdeath. Rajavardhana's sister Rajayashri's husband, Raja of Kanauj, was killed by the Gauda ruler Sasanka of Bengal. Sasanka also imprisoned Rajayashri. Rajavardhana, I the process of retrieving his sister was treacherously killed by Sasanka. This resulted in his younger brother Harshavardhana becoming king of Thaneswar.

The notables of the Kanauj kingdom also invited Harsha to take its crown. After becoming the ruler of the both Thaneswar and Kanauj, Harsha shifted his capital from Thaneswar to Kanauj.


Conquest of Harshavardhana

* The most popular king of the vardhana dynasty was Harshavardhana. Harsha ruled for 41 years. His feudatories included those of Jalandhar, Kashmir, Nepal and Valabhi. Sasanka of Bengal remained hostile to him.

* It was Harsha who unified most of northern India. But the extension of his authority in the south was checked by  Chalukya  king  Pulikesin  II.  The  kingdom  of  Harsha  disintegrated  rapidly   into   small   states   after   his  death  in  648  AD  (CE). He  maintained  a  cordial  relationship  with the rulers of Iran and China.

Harsha  met  the  Chinese  traveller,  Hiuen  Tsang,  at  Kajangala  near  Rajmahal (Jharkhand) for the first time.



The emperor was assisted by a council of ministers. The prime minister occupied the most important position in the council of ministers. Bhaga, Hiranya andBali were the three kinds of tax collected during Harsha’s reign. Criminal law was more severe than that of the Gupta age. Life imprisonment was the punishment for violation of the laws and for plotting against the king.

Perfect law and order prevailed throughout the empire. Harsha paid great attention to discipline and strength of the army. Harsha built charitable institutions for the stay of the travellers, and to care for the sick and the poor.


Religious Policy

Harsha was the worshipper of Shiva in the beginning, but he embraced Buddhism under the influence of his sister Rajyashri and the Buddhist monk and traveller Hiuen Tsang. He belonged to Mahayana school of thought. Harsha treated Vedic scholars and Buddhist monks alike and distributed charities equally to them. He was the last Buddhist sovereign in India. As a pious Buddhist, Harsha stopped the killing of animals for food.

Hiuen Tsang, the ‘prince of pilgrims’, visited India during Harsha’s reign. His Si-Yu-Ki provides detailed information about the social, economic, religious and cultural conditions of India during Harsha’s time. Hiuen Tsang tells us how Harsha, though a Buddhist, went to participate in the great kumbhamela held at Prayag.

He was noted for his policy of religious toleration and used to worship the images of Buddha, Shiva and Sun simultaneously. He summoned two Buddhist assemblies, one at Kanauj and another at Prayag.

The assembly at Kanauj was attended by 20 kings. A large number of Buddhist, Jain and Vedic scholars attended the assembly. A golden statue of Buddha was consecrated in a monastery and a small statue of Buddha (three feet) was carried in a procession.

In the assembly at Prayag, Harsha distributed his wealth among the Buddhists, Vedic scholars and poor people. Harsha offered fabulous gifts to the Buddhist monks on all the four days of the assembly.


Art and Literature

Harsha, himself a poet and dramatist, gathered around him a best of poets and artists. Harsha’s popular works are Ratnavali, Nagananda and Priyadharshika. His royal court was adorned by Banabhatta, Mayura, Hardatta and Jayasena.

Temples and monasteries functioned as centres of learning. Kanauj became a famous city. Harsha constructed a large number of viharas, monasteries and stupas on the bank of the Ganges. The Nalanda University, a university and monastery combined, was said to have had 10,000 students and monks in residence, when Hiuen Tsang visited the university.


Chandragupta I was the contemporary of Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor, who founded Constantinople.

Harsha’s time coincided with a early days of Tang Dynasty of China. Their capital(Xi’an) was a great centre of art and learning.



* Sri Gupta was the founder of Gupta dynasty

* Chandragupta I, Samudragupta and Chandragupta II were the great kings of Gupta dynasty

* Vishnugupta was the last recognised king of Gupta Empire

* Divine Right Theory of kingship was practised by the Gupta rulers

* Mining and metallurgy were the most flourishing industries during the Gupta Period

* The society that adhered to four varna system was patriarchal

* There was a revival of Vedic religion and Vedic rites

* The Guptas were the first to construct temples which evolved from the earlier tradition of rock-cut shrines

*Aryabhatta, Varahamihira and Brahmagupta were foremost astronomers and mathematicians of the time

 * Harsha was a prominent ruler of Vardhana dynasty and was elevated to the position of an emperor

* Harsha was a great artist and dramatist and contributed to the development of literature and art

* Hiuen Tsang visited Nalanda and wrote his useful travel accounts, which help us understand the condition of India during Harsha’s reign

* Harsha, though a strong follower of Buddhism, also promoted Vedic religion




1. Engraved carved/inscribed பொறிக்கப்பட்ட (செதுக்கிய)

2. Flattered lavish insincere praise and compliments upon (someone) especially to further one’s own interest முகஸ்துதி

3. Collapse fall சரிவு

4. Pathetic pitiful பரிதாபகரமான

5. adhered to abide by, bound by பின்பற்றப்பட்ட

6. pastoral land land or farm used for grazing cattle மேய்ச்சல் நிலம்

7. Portrayed depicted in a work of art or literature சித்தரிக்கப்பட்டுள்ளது

8. Desolated made unfit for habitation பாழடைந்த





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