The Gupta Empire

c. 320 - 550 CE

Gupta Empire Hindu Art. Christian Haugen on

In about 320 CE, the chief of a small kingdom called Magadha in southeastern India set out to conquer the neighboring kingdoms of Prayaga and Saketa.  He used a combination of military might and marriage alliances to expand his kingdom into an empire.  His name was Chandragupta I, and through his conquests, he formed the Gupta Empire.

Many scholars believe that Chandragupta's family was from the Vaishya caste, which was the third tier out of four in the traditional Hindu caste system.

  If so, this was a major departure from Hindu tradition, in which the Brahmin priestly caste and the Kshatriya warrior/princely class generally held religious and secular power over the lower castes.  In any case, Chandragupta rose from relative obscurity to reunite much of the Indian subcontinent, which had fragmented five centuries earlier after the fall of the Mauryan Empire in 185 BCE. 

Chandragupta's son, Samudragupta (r. 335 - 380), was a brilliant warrior and statesman, sometimes called the "Napoleon of India."  Samudragupta, however, never faced a Waterloo, and would pass on a greatly expanded Gupta Empire to his sons.  He extended the empire to the Deccan Plateau in the south, Punjab in the north, and Assam in the east.  Samudragupta also was a talented poet and musician.  His successor was Ramagupta, an ineffectual ruler, who was soon deposed and assassinated by his brother, Chandragupta II.

Chandragupta II, r. 380 - 415, expanded the empire still further, to its greatest extent.  He conquered much of Gujarat in western India.  Like his grandfather, Chandragupta II also used marriage alliances to expand the empire, marrying into control of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.  The city of Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh became a second capital for the Gupta Empire, which was based at Pataliputra in the north.


Kumaragupta I succeeded his father in 415 and ruled for forty years.  His son, Skandagupta (r. 455 - 467), is considered the last of the great Gupta rulers.  During his reign, the Gupta Empire first faced incursions by the Huns, who would eventually bring down the empire.  After him, lesser emperors including Narasimhagupta, Kumaragupta II, Buddhagupta, and Vishnugupta ruled over the decline of the Gupta Empire.  Although the late Gupta ruler Narasimhagupta managed to drive the Huns out of northern India in 528 CE, the effort and expense doomed the dynasty.  The last recognized emperor of the Gupta Empire is Vishnupta, who ruled from about 540 until the empire collapsed around 550.

The Gupta Dynasty ruled over what is often called the Golden Age of classical India.  India was tied by trade to other great classical empires of the day, the Han Dynasty in China and the Roman Empire to the west.  A Chinese pilgrim to India, Fa Hsien, noted that Gupta law was exceptionally generous; crimes were punished only with fines. 

The rulers sponsored all kinds of advances in science, painting, textiles, architecture, and literature. Gupta artists created marvelous sculptures, paintings, palaces, and temples.

  New forms of music and dance, some of which are still performed today, flourished under Gupta patronage.  The emperors also founded free hospitals for their citizens, as well as monasteries and universities.  The classical Sanskrit language reached it apogee during this period, as well, with poets such as Kalidasa and Dandi.  Scientific and mathematical advances include the invention of the number zero, Aryabhata's incredibly accurate calculation of pi as 3.1416, and his equally amazing calculation that the solar year is 365.358 days long.

Although the Gupta Empire lasted only about 230 years, it represented one of the high points of Indian culture.  Its influence continues to be felt in art, dance, mathematics, and many other fields, not just in India but across Asia and around the world.