The Guptas – Part 1


Foundation of the Empire

Barnett writes, “The Gupta period is in the annals of the classical India similar to what the Periclean age is in the history of Greece”. This dynasty freed India from foreign shackles of Kushana-Sassnian and broke the Huns who were invincible throughout Asia and Europe. This is probably the dynasty which gave Vikramaditya, an immortal legendary ruler of India.

Like any other dynasties of India, the history of the Imperial Gupta dynasty is a dark cloud. Though we might know the first ruler of this dynasty however their origin and rise to king-hood is obscured in mystery. However study of the Guptas has held a very prime position in Indian history and correctly pointed out by V A Smith, who states,”With the accession of the Guptas, light again dawns, the veil of oblivion is lifted and the history of India regains unity and interest”.

There are many sources of information available for the Gupta history. These can be classified in three main categories literary, epigraphic and numismatic. Many epigraphs and coins of the Gupta dynasty are available which we will take into our study in later chapters. Let’s have a look at literary sources.

Literary Sources – Following sources can be referred for the history of the Guptas.

  1. PuranasVishnu Purana and Vayu Purana mentions the Guptas however the information from the Puranas should be taken with restrictions as these literary works do not provide any date or much information on history.
  2. Devi-Chandraguptam – Written by Visakhadatta, probably the same author who composed Mudrarakshasa. The story is about two brothers, Ramagupta and Chandragupta, in which the former surrender his queen to the enemies in a treat while the latter rescued her and won over the hearts of people. Though it is available only in fragments however A S Altekar utilized Mujmal-ul-Tawarikh of Abul Hassan Ali (1126-93 CE) to reconstruct the plot of Devi-Chandraguptam as this Persian work is supposedly inspired by the Indian play and narrates a similar story.
  3. Kaumudi-Mahotsava – Composed by a lady, by name Kishorika, daughter of Krshivala. K P Jayaswal has given much importance to this play in reconstructing the history of the Guptas. The play is about a Chandasena who took Magadha throne with help of Lichchhavis however he lost it in the last to its legitimate heir.
  4. Harsha-charita – Composed by Bana in seventh century. Provides information on Saka defeat by the Guptas.
  5. Manju-sri-mulakalpa – A Mahayana chronicle which mentions succession of imperial powers of India from 700 BCE to 750 CE without a break.
  6. Chinese AccountsI-Tsing, Fahien and Hiuen Tsang visited India during the Gupta rule. There travelogues provide information about land and people of those times.

In this study, we will look at the various studies carried out by different eminent scholars and see if there is some consensus among them on various controversies associated with the Gupta dynasty. We will also try to construct a genealogy while studying various facts about the Guptas. As I am not a scholar hence I am doubtful if I can put my opinion on any statement so I will only say that which theory seems most probable in my view. This study is not to criticize any of the esteemed scholar as I have no intention and courage to do so, it is just to look the diversity in the opinions on the Gupta dynasty.

Political condition before the GuptasMauryas were the first known Imperial rulers of India who consolidated many small kingdoms under a single umbrella. In their epoch, they enjoyed a rule over a vast region which approximately extends from Persia to Mysore during the time of Ashoka The Great. However soon after his death, in about 185 BCE,  the Maurya kingdom was disintegrated into several smaller kingdoms. The western part went into the control of foreign invaders, mostly Greeks and Sakas. Kalinga, which was won over by Ashoka, was independent again under a mighty king, Kharavela. Central part, comprising of Magadha, went to Shungas and later to Kanvas. Satavahanas (Andhras) took over the Kanvas in about 28 BCE.

North-western part of India faced maximum trouble as it was exposed to foreign invasions. The first invasion was from Greeks when Alexander The Great came till Indus and inflicted defeat to many small kingdoms located on the banks of this river and its tributaries. However Greeks were not able to retain this region for long as they faced mighty Sakas who came from China-Mongolia region. Kushana, another tribe of the same region, took over the Sakas in first century CE and formed the foundation of a stable empire in India under their leader Kadphises I. The most celebrated Kushana ruler, Kanishka, consolidated this empire by 78 CE and extended his boundaries from Gandhara to Varanasi and probably beyond. It was long assumed that the early Imperial Kushana empire was restricted to western India only with Mathura as their capital. However findings of their coins in far off areas like Bihar, Bengal and Orissa suggests that their dominion was extended till eastern part of India as well. They would have started their rule in western India however with time they would surely have penetrated towards eastern part as well. However it seems that they did not rule this eastern region directly but under their Kshatrapas. A Sarnath inscription (EI Vol VIII, p 173), dated 81 CE, gives name of a Mahakshatrapa (Great Satrap), Kharapallana, who was ruling over north eastern India and a kshatrapa (Satrap) under him, Vanashpara, in-charge of Varanasi.

Though Sakas were won over by the Kushanas however their satraps were still ruling from western India as two of their lines are clearly visible. A line ruling over Gujarat was exterminated by a Satavahana king, Gautamiputra Sri Satkarni, in about 124 CE. Another line was ruling over Ujjain under the tile of Western Kshtrapa. Their leader, Rudradaman I, defeated the Satavahana king, Pulumayi, and got back Gujarat region which was lost by earlier line. Western Kshtrapas  were ruling till the time of the Gupta king Chandragupta II.

Three Naga families were ruling from Mathura, Padmavati and Dhara in western India during the later Imperial Kushanas. During the same period Bharashivas were ruling in central India as supported by copper plate grants of Vakataka kings. Eastern part was under the rule of Lichchhavis. Guptas might be a small feudatory under the early Imperial Kushanas and when their power declined, they rose against them to assert their independence.

Gupta (275-300 CE) – As per Allahabad Pillar Inscription, Gupta was the first king and probably the founder of the Imperial Gupta dynasty. He is referred as a maharaja. Nothing much is known about him or his reign as no inscription of his is found. He has not been referred in any literary work or Puranas. We can only say that he might have had a peaceful rule over a small territory. This is the real history of his, now let’s see various theories proposed by various scholars.

Proper Name of the king: Gupta or Sri-Gupta – The Allahabad Pillar Inscription of Samudragupta mentions the name of the king as maharaja-sri-Gupta. Lassen suggests that the proper name of the king should be taken as Gupta as ‘sri’ would have been added as an honorific title. J F Fleet, R K Mookerji, D R Bhandarkar, O P Singh, A N Dandekar agree on Gupta as the proper name. However R D Banerji takes Sri-Gupta as the proper name.

Confusion arose when a reference of I-Tsing came into light. I-Tsing, a Chinese pilgrim, who traveled in India during 672 CE mentions that a king named Sri-Gupta constructed a Buddhist temple near Mrgasikhavana about five hundred years back. Is this Sri-Gupta  same as Gupta of the Gupta dynasty? J F Fleet has rejected this on two counts. First the name mentioned by the pilgrim is Sri-Gupta but not Gupta and second placing him 500 years before the time of I-Tsing will put his rule too early than his proper period.

D R Bhandarkar, R D Banerji, R K Mookerji, D K Ganguly, O P Singh identify Sri-Gupta of I-Tsing with Gupta of the Gupta dynasty. Bhandarkar mentions that it is seen that ‘sri’ is used as an honorific title by the Chinese travelers in many instances hence it is probable that I-Tsing was referring to Gupta only. Ganguly mentions that ‘sri’ is prefixed with all the king names in all the Gupta inscriptions hence it is probable that the Chinese pilgrim mistook this ‘sri’ as an integral part of the name.  

A N Dandekar states that Sri-Gupta of I-Tsing and Gupta of Allahabad Pillar Inscription are different persons. His argument is that if we believe in one statement of I-Tsing that Sri-Gupta constructed a temple then we should also believe in his another statement that Sri-Gupta built it 500 years before. He thus suggests that Sri-Gupta could be the grandfather of Gupta and would have ruled in second century CE.

My opinions is that as there is no other ruler with name Sri-Gupta or Gupta in same period hence it is sensible to accept this identification that the proper name of the first Gupta king was Gupta and he is the same person referred as Sri-Gupta by I-Tsing.

Origin of the Guptas – Who were these Guptas and what’s there origin, cast etc? Vishnu Purana suggests that names ending with Gupta are characteristics of Vaishya and Sudra castes however there are instances when many Brahamana people also have suffix gupta. K P Jayaswal points to Kaumudi Mahotasava which mentions that Chandasena was a karaskara, a lower order of the Hindu society, and was adopted by the king of Magadha. Jayaswal identifies Chandasena with Chandragupta I of the Gupta dynasty. But many scholars like O P Singh, D K Ganguly, R K Mookerji, D R Bhandarkar, A N Dandekar do not agree with Jayaswal. D K Ganguly rejects the historicity of Kaumudi Mahotsava as the story narrated there does not match correctly with the Gupta history. Singh says if the strict varna rules were followed in the soceity, would it be possible for a Brahmana king to adopt a child of some low caste? It seems to be a very improbable act. Hence it can be ruled out that the Guptas were from low order society.  

Pune plates of Prabhavatigupta mentions Guptas to be of Dharani gotra. H C Raycahudhuri states that the Guptas were probably related to queen Dharani of Agnimitra. This is the only proper source which gives information of the origin of the Guptas hence we can securely take them to be of Dharani gotra.

Royal Status Allahabad Pillar Inscription attributes title of maharaja (king) with Gupta and his son, Ghatotkacha, but maharajadhiraja (King of Kings) with Chandragupta I. This suggests that there is some significant difference in between these two titles. R D Banerji mentions that neither Gupta nor his son were people of much importance as both are titled as maharaja and this title had declined very much in importance during the fourth century CE. Thus the ancestors of Chandragupta I were people of no great importance in Magadha. They might be some petty chiefs or they were attributed as maharaja in the inscription out of courtesy.

Maharaja seems to be a small title in comparison to maharajadhiraja however the comparison should be made with the rule of Chandragupta I.  It is probable that Gupta might be an influential king but lesser in comparison to his grandson, Chandragupta I. I-Tsing mentions that Sri-Gupta was the king of Magadha and donated 24 villages to a temple which proves that Gupta was an influential king and was ruling over a considerable region.

Homeland & Kingdom –  Vishnu-Purana has the following shloka for the Guptas; “Anu-Gangam Prayagam=ca Magadha Guptas=ca Magadhan bhoksyanti”. It mentions Prayaga (present Allahabad) and Magadha to be enjoyed by the Gupta kings. Vayu-Puarana has similar shloka with little change; “Anu-Ganga-Prayagam=ca Saketam Magadhams=tatha | Etan Janapadan sarvan bhoksyante Gupta-vamsajah ||”. This includes Saketa (present Lucknow) also in the Gupta dominion.  

F E Pargitar, S Chattopadhyaya and S R Goyal suggest to take Anu-Ganga as a separate entity like Prayaga however H C Raychaudhuri, B P Sinha and P L Gupta think otherwise. D K Ganguly proves with application of Sanskrit grammar that Anu-Ganga cannot be taken as an entity. He further mentions that as its identification is not known so we better skip it from the list of places.

F E Pargitar mentions that the limits specified in the Puranas refer to the kingdom of Chandragupta I as it is very small for Samudragupta but too large for Gupta. This is accepted by J Allan as well. Maghadha is an ancient Indian kingdom which has been associated with the Mauryas, Sungas and Kanvas. Was Magadha associated with the Guptas from the start? J Allan mentions that Gupta’s territory was around Pataliputra (present Patna) which was his capital also. 

I-Tsing while mentioning the king Sri-Gupta refers him as the king of Pataliputra. But as mentioned above, I-Tsing wrote his memoir based upon local stories and in that case how much importance should be given for an event which happened about 400 years before. It could be that the Guptas got Magadha during Chandrgupta’s time, as suggested by R D Banerji, and all his ancestors were automatically got attached to it though they might not be ruling over it. Banerji mentions that Magadha was not with the Guptas before Chandragupta I liberated it from the hands of Kshatrapas who were ruling under the Kushanas.

S R Goyal associates Allahabad as the homeland of the Guptas as most of their coins and inscriptions have been discovered in this part of Uttar Pradesh. He is right about the inscriptions as many of these are found in this region however their coins have been discovered in bulk at Bengal and Bihar also. B P Sinha puts them to Mathura-Ayodhya region as he mentions that the Guptas were Jats from Mathura based upon a reference from Arya-Manjushri-Mulakalpa. However D K Ganguly states that this Jat association is due to a misinterpreted phrase from Arya-Manjushri-Mulakalpa hence not tenable.

Limit of his kingdom may be based upon the identification of Mrgasikhavana which was mentioned by I-Tsing. Mrgasikhavana is located more than forty stages/yojana (1 yojana = 9.5 km) east of Nalanda while descending Ganges. D C Ganguly locates it in Murshidabad district of West BengalS Chattopadhyaya in Maldah district of West Bengal and R C Majumdar in Rajshahi district of Bangladesh. Foucher mentions a Mrgasthapana-Stupa of Varendra in Rajshahi district. R C Majumdar and D K Ganguly proposes that Mrgasthapana-Stupa is same as Mrgasikhavana of I-Tsing.

H C Raychaudhuri mentions that the Guptas were originally ruling over Magadha with Prayaga and Kosala later added to their kingdom during the reign of Chandragupta I. R K Mookerji supports Raychaudhuri and further mentions that all the villages which were granted by Sri-Gupta of I-Tsing are located near Magadha but his kingdom was extended till Murshidabad where the temple mentioned by I-Tsing is located.

From all above points, it seems that Magadha might be the original region associated with Gupta. As none of the Gupta record mentions capture of Magadha hence it may be assumed that they were ruling here from start. His southern limit would be Varendra (Murshidabad) in Bangladesh. He might have enjoyed rule over Prayaga or Saketa however considering his royal status with Chandragupta I, it seems that he might not be ruling over such a vast area hence we may exclude Saketa and Prayaga from his kingdom.

Period I-Tsing mentions that Sri-Gupta built the temple five hundred years before his visit. He visited in about 671-72 CE and probably composed his travelogue in 692-95 CE. J F Fleet assigns Gupta to early third century CE hence he rejected the identification of Sri-Gupta with Gupta. Chavannes mentions that the statement of I-Tsing should not be taken too literally. His statements are based upon traditions and stories narrated by the locals hence mentioning that the temple was constructed about 500 years back was probably to suggest the antiquity of the structure.  

D R Bhandarkar, R K Mookerji, D K Ganguly agrees with this statement of Chavannes. In this case, the period given by Fleet, 275-300 CE, stays as it is. J Allan accepts the period defined by Fleet. O P Singh assigns period between 240-280 CE to Gupta. Gupta Era was started from 320 CE when Chandragupta I sat on the throne. Not much is known about Gupta and his successor, Ghatotkacha. In these circumstances, a reign of 25 years on average can be assigned to a king. In this case, Gupta would have ruled from 270-295 CE. Hence we may accept the period of 275-300 CE as proposed by Fleet.

Ghatotkacha (300-320 CE) – As per Allahabad Pillar Inscription, Ghatotkacha was the son of Gupta and the father of Chandragupta I. He is also referred as maharaja similar to Gupta. Not much is known about him as his case is similar to that of Gupta, no inscription, no reference in literature. It may be  assumed that he would have ruled over the same region as that of Gupta. Let’s check few theories related to him.

Ghatotkachagupta of seal – Dr Bloch suggests that a seal found in Vaisali may be associated with this king as the seal reads ‘Sri-Ghatotkacaguptasya’. V A Smith agrees however  D R Bhandarkar suggests that the place from where a seal was found was an office of a seal maker and it is highly unlikely that he would have in his possession a seal of king which ruled a century earlier. Hence identifying Sri-Ghatotkacaguptasya with Ghatotkacha is not correct. Another point is that Vaisali was not with the Guptas till the marriage of the Lichchhavi princess with Chandragupta I. Also the seal does not prefix the name with maharaja which is most necessary for royal seals.

Ghatotkacha or Kacha –  There are few Gupta gold coins found with legend Kacha. Some scholars have suggested that this Kacha may be a short form of Ghatotkacha. However J Allan mentions that the Guptas struck coins only from the reign of Samudragupta as very striking similarities are observed between his coins and the coins of later Kushanas. It is suggested that Samudragupta would have copied the coins of Kushanas when he defeated them during his Aryavarta conquest.

Another evidence comes from the weight of coins. A S Altekar mentions that the weight of the coins increased with successive rulers thus coins of Samudragupta weigh less than the coins of his successors. The weight of Kacha coins is between those of Samduragupta and Chandragupta II. In this case, Kacha would be either contemporary of Samudragupta or ruled after him. Hence identifying him with Ghatotkacha would be a wrong assumption.  

Dr Bloch points to a coin in Leningrad Museum which has a legend ‘Ghato’. He tries to assign it to Ghatotkacha however scholars reject this identification as Gupta coins were started only during Samudragupta’s reign.


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