The word ‘Gupta’ is considered to have been derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Goptri’ meaning ‘military governor.’ As a surname, Gupta was used by many communities in India and predominantly so by the Vaish community in Northern India. Vaish ranks third following the superior castes of Brahman and Khatri. Vaish are basically agriculturists. The Gupta kingdom was founded by Maharaja Sri Gupta somewhere near 320 CE and existed from 320 to 550 CE. The Gupta rule is considered the Golden Age in the history of India. The Gupta Era produced great people like: Kalidas, Varahamihira, Aryabhata, Vishnu Sharma, and Vatsyayana. The world famous Ajanta cave paintings were made during this period. The Ajanta Caves are located at a distance of about 104 kilometers from the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, India. The caves are cut rock Buddhist monasteries and contain exquisite paintings relating to Buddha. According to the Archeological Survey of India, the Ajanta paintings are ‘The finest, surviving examples of Indian art, particularly painting.’ The Ajanta Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 and open a window to visualize the Gupta kingdom in retrospective.
1. King Sri Gupta
Although the origin of the Gupta dynasty is not known exactly, it is generally accepted that Maharaja Sri-Gupta founded it somewhere in or around 250 AD. A Chinese monk, Fa-Tsiang visited India in AD 672 and mentioned regarding Maharaja Sri-Gupta who had built a temple for the Chinese pilgrims near Mrigasikhavana. He had also mentioned that income from 40 villages was reserved for the running of this temple. A copper inscription of Prabhavati Gupta, who was a daughter of Chandra Gupta, states that Maharaja Sri Gupta was the founder of the Gupta Dynasty. It is considered that Sri Gupta ruled from 250 AD to 279 AD. In the early years of the Gupta dynasty, its jurisdiction included only Bihar and Bengal, and the first capital of the Gupta regime was Pataliputra. An historian, A. K. Narain, opined that Maharaja Sri Gupta was either a Buddhist, as might be inferred from his interest in building the Buddhist temple, or he might have been a Hindu.
Ghatotkacha was the son of Maharaja Sri Gupta who ruled from 280 to 319 AD. His period seems to extraordinarily shrouded in mystery as very little information is available about his regime. Neither any coinage of his time is available, nor do the Ajanta cave paintings reflect upon this period. The only thing he is famous for is that he was the son of Maharaja Sri Gupta, the founder of the Gupta kingdom, and that he was the father of Chandargupta Î™, one of the greatest among the Gupta Kings. He was probably named after Ghatotkacha, a character from Mahabharata, one of the two great Hindu epics, the other being Ramayana.
3. Chandra Gupta
Chandra Gupta was son and successor of Ghatotkacha, the Gupta Maharaja. Unlike his two ancestors who were inscribed as Maharaja, Chandra Gupta was inscribed as Maharajadhiraj, the King of Kings. It is on this account that some historians credit Chandra Gupta as the real founder of the Gupta Dynasty. Chandra Gupta succeeded his father, Ghatotkacha, after his death in 319 AD. Chandra Gupta married Kumaradevi who brought with her the Kingdom of Magadha as a dowry. He expanded his regime, made foreign alliances, and the issuance of a series of golden coinage in his time reflects upon the prosperity of his kingdom. It was long after that Ashoka, a powerful king, ruled over a large territory in India. Historians attribute the Gupta Era to Chandra Gupta. The era started on February 26, 320 AD. Chandra Gupta died in 335 AD.
Samudragupta succeeded Chandargupta Î™ and ruled the Gupta Kingdom from 335 to 375. He was not the eldest of his brothers, but on account of his potential, was handpicked by his father to succeed. He is considered one of the greatest military experts of Indian history. The historian V. A. Smith called him the Napoleon of India on account of his hegemony. Some people consider that his era was the second golden age of India. He is ranked with Ashoka in respect to power, though in ideology he differed from Ashoka who preferred peace and non-violence while Samudragupta was aggressive and mercurial in nature. His name, Samudra, means sea, and he was perhaps named due to his being powerful, huge, and restless like a sea.
5. Chandargupta Vikramaditya
Chandargupta Vikramaditya standing in Sanskrit for Chandargupta II the Great was one the most powerful Gupta Kings. He was son of the previous King Samudragupt the Great. He ruled from 380 to 413 BC. The kingdom progressed in architecture, sculpture, and arts during this period and was at a peak according to some historians. He valued the artists who were paid for their work in his period, an unheard practice at that time. He subjugated Gujarat, Saurahtra, and Malwa to his rule. He was very selective about his courtiers and allowed the company to consist of only people of exceptionally high caliber and worth. Nine of his courtiers are known as the nine gems. Not excluding the others, they included the genius Kalidas, the Sanskrit grammarian Amara Sinha, and the astronomer-mathematician Varahamihira. The Iron Pillar of Delhi was erected in his time, and the prosperity is evident from the gold coinage of his period.
6. Kumaragupta I
Kumaragupta I, also known as Mahedraditya, was the son and successor of Chandargupta II and reigned from 415 to 455 BC. He was a capable ruler and kept the kingdom intact as left by his father. His kingdom extended from Kathiawar to Bengal and from Narmanda to the Himalayas. During the last days of his reign, he faced rebellion of the central Indian Pushyamitras and was also invaded by the white Huns. However, he successfully aborted both the threats and offered horse sacrifice, Ashvamedha, and celebrated the victory. On this occasion he issued new coins with the images of Lord Kartikeya.
Little is known about the past history of Skandagupta, but historians agree that he was the last of the great Gupta kings prior to the decline of the Gupta Era. According to some sources, he was a self-promoted general. He had to face rebellions of the central Indian Pushyamitras and the Hunas. He is known as a great warrior as he defeated the rebellious Pushyamitras and the Hunas in 455. Although he came out as victor, the cost of the victory was too heavy to let the state prosper or even to be sustained. Skandagupta rule was the end stage of the great Gupta Era, and it was the beginning of its decline.
Purugupta was the son of Gupta king Kumaragupta I and queen Anantadevi. He was the successor of his step-brother, Skandagupta. No documentary evidence in the form of inscriptions is found about his reign. The Bhitari silver-copper seal of his grandson is an important source of his rule. Clay tablets of his sons Narasimhagupta and Budhagupta also throw some light upon his kingdom. The inscription on the Saranath Buddha image suggests that he was succeeded by Kumaragupta II.
Vishnugupta is one of the last Gupta kings. He ruled for 10 years from 540 to 550. An archaeological find from the excavations of 1928 in Nalanda, in the form of a clay seal, reveals his ancestry. He was son of Kumaragupta III who was the son of Narasimhagupta Baladitya. One of the important signs of the declining dynasties is the unavailability of some reliable information about them. It applies in the case of Vishnugupta and the Gupta rulers following him.
10. Narasimhagupta Baladitya
Narasimhagupta Baladitya was the son of Purugupta, and he ruled Northern India and was considered to be the successor of Budhagupta. In alliance with Yasodharman of Malwa, he expelled the Hunas and white Huns from the North Indian plains. Archaeological finds from the excavations in Nalanda include his clay seals. According to the information received from these seals, his queen was Shrimitradevi. He was succeeded by his son Kumaragupta III who fought and defeated Mihirkula, the Huna ruler. The battle was fought on the delta of the Ganga-Brahmaputra Rivers.
The rise and fall of the nations has much to do with their rulers. Nations emerge by virture of their efforts and unity of purpose in the followings of great leaders. It is the leaders who play a pivotal role in making the nations, and not the least important is the role of courtiers and the followers of these leaders who make them despots as is their wont. According to Thomas Jefferson, ‘It is the old practice of despots to use a part of the people to keep the rest in order.’ It is, in fact, this effort of keeping the others ‘in order’ that culminates into the fall of great empires and kingdoms, like the Gupta kings, who faded out as if they were never there.