The Great Gupta Empire

A.D. 308 TO A.D. 450

The curtain rises again upon a wedding; the wedding of Princess Kumari

Devi. Eight hundred years before, King Bimbi-sara of the Sesu-naga

dynasty had strengthened his hold on Magadha by marrying her

ancestress, a princess of that Lichchavi clan which for centuries has

held strong grip on a vast tract of country spreading far into the

Nepaul hills.

/> This kingdom of the Lichchavis had given Bimbi-sara much trouble. It

was to check the inroads of the bold hill folk that he first built the

watch fort of Pataliputra, the modern Patna. Of the history of the

warlike clan during these long intervening years nothing is known; but

they must have kept their independence, for Princess Kumari Devi

(which, by the way, is tautological, since Kumari means princess, the

whole name therefore standing as Princess-Goddess) appears from the

obscure as a person of importance, apparently an heiress. Whether she

was the reigning princess history sayeth not; but it appears not

unlikely that this was the case, and that at the time the Lichchavis,

instead of being checked by, were in possession of, Pataliputra.

Be that as it may, the Goddess-Princess chose to marry one

Chandra-gupta, a mere local chief of whose father and grandfather only

the names have been preserved. Possibly he was good-looking; let us

hope so! From the character of his son, Samudra-gupta, it is

reasonable to suppose that he rose above the common herd of

princelings in both intelligence and accomplishments; though, on the

other hand, these might have been derived from the princess.

Scarcely, however; unless the fairy god-mother had worked hard, since

the bride's race warrants us in presupposing beauty. Even now, says a

contemporary witness, "the delicate features and brilliantly fair

complexion of the Lichchavi women are remarkable."

Anyhow, the immediate result of what must have been a love match was

the appearance for the first and last time in Indian History of a

veritable Prince Consort, who, though calling himself king, struck

coins which bore the name of his queen as well as his own, and whose

son claimed succession as the "son of the daughter of the Lichchavis."

Indeed, save as husband and father, Chandra-gupta, the first of the

Gupta race, has little claim on attention. After the fashion of Prince

Consorts, he is more or less of a figure-head, though the prospects of

his dynasty were considered sufficiently dignified and secure to

permit of his coronation date being made the beginning of yet another

of the many Indian eras; one which has, however, passed entirely out

of use.

Chandra-gupta seems to have died when still quite a young man, leaving

his son, apparently quite a boy, to reign in his stead.

A precocious stripling this Samudra-gupta, who was to fill the throne

of India as it has seldom been filled for more than half a century.

Possibly there may have been some interval of Regency with the

Queen-Mother at its back, but one of the most curious features in this

fifty-year-long reign, is that we know nothing of it from the words of

any historian, that we gather no allusion to it from any

contemporaneous literature. Our knowledge, which year by year

increases, comes from coins, from inscriptions; notably from a pillar

which now stands in the fort at Allahabad. Originally incised and set

up by Asoka six centuries earlier, Samudra-gupta's court panegyrist

has used its waste space for a record of his master's great deeds. A

quaint contrast; since these were chiefly bloody wars, and Asoka

everywhere was a peace propagandist.

In truth, Samudra-gupta appears to have been an Indian Alexander. What

he saw he coveted, what he coveted he conquered. From this same pillar

we learn that his empire included all India as far south as Malabar,

as far north as Assam and Nepaul. It was thus larger than any since

the days of Asoka, though the southward sweep of Samudra-gupta's

victorious armies cannot, in the nature of things, have been much more

than a raid. A campaign, involving fully 3,000 miles of marching,

which cannot have occupied less than three years, and the furthest

limit of which lands one more than 1,200 miles from one's base, must

be a mere march to victory and a retreat with spoils.

The record of this march is fairly complete. The courtly panegyrist's

stilted verses tell us in detail of Tiger-Kings subdued, of homage and

tribute; but, so far as this slight history is concerned, all we need

picture to ourselves is an apparently invincible hero, laden with loot

from all the treasures of the south.

With honour also, for he made many treaties with foreign powers.

One gives us a quaint picture of the time. The Buddhist king of Ceylon

sent two monks, one the king's brother, to visit the monastery which

pious King Asoka of olden days had built by the sacred Bo tree at


Now, India being at this time Brahmanical, the worthy brothers met

with scant courtesy, and on return complained that they had literally

found no place at the holy shrine wherein to lay their heads. The

Buddhist king, therefore, anxious to redress this anomaly, despatched

an embassy to Samudra-gupta, asking leave to found a rest-house for

the use of pious pilgrims, and sent with it rich jewels and gifts

galore. These were duly accepted by the Hindoo as tribute, and

gracious permission given. Whereupon the decision to build a special

monastery close to the sacred tree was duly engraved on a copper

plate, and, in due time, carried out by the erection of what was

described two centuries later by the Chinese pilgrim, Hiuen T'sang (to

whose literary labours we of to-day owe nearly all our knowledge of

India in these far ages), as having three stories, six halls, three

towers, and accommodation for a thousand monks,

"on which the utmost skill of the artist has been employed; the

ornamentation is in the richest colours, and the statue of Buddha is

cast of gold and silver, decorated with gems and precious stones."

Natheless this was the golden age of the Hindoo, not of the Buddhist,

and, imitating Push[^y]a-mitra, who overset the Buddhist Maurya

dynasty, Samudra-gupta determined to proclaim his supremacy by the

ancient Horse sacrifice. So once more the doomed charger, followed by

an army, set out on its wanderings for a year. This we know by reason

of a few rare coins bearing the effigy of the victim standing before

the altar, encircled by an explanatory legend, which have survived

time, to be discovered of late years. There is also a rudely-carven

stone horse now standing at the door of the Museum in Lucknow, which

some archaeologists label as belonging to Samudra-gupta's great


But the coins of this king are somewhat lavish of information.

Several, which represent him playing on a lyre, remain a proof that

the court panegyrist was not a wholesale flatterer in counting him

musician. This, again, gives ground for belief that he was also, as is

claimed for him, a poet. That he took delight in patronising art of

all kinds is proved beyond doubt by the great number of eminent

men whose works date from the reign of Samudra-gupta, and his

son Chandra-gupta II., who, on his coronation, took the name of

Vikramaditya; the latter being, of course, the one associated in the

mind of every Hindu of to-day with the splendid renaissance of national

learning and art, on which they love to dwell. To them Vikramaditya is

synonymous with the zenith of Hindu glory; but it is open to doubt

whether the hero's father may not lay claim to a lion's share of the

record of great achievements. We know of a certainty that he was

sufficiently notable as musician to warrant his coins being stamped

with majesty in that role; his poet-laureate tells us of keen

intellect, love of study, and skill in argument. Is not this sufficient

to make us at any rate date the beginning of the Renaissance from the

days of Samudra-gupta?

Be that as it may, it is abundantly clear that in him we are dealing

with another of those rare kings, who are kings indeed by right of

their personal supremacy.

India is curiously fruitful in them, and, so far as we have come in

Indian history, their individualities stand forth all the stronger in

contrast with the mists and shadows which surround them. Bhishma,

Chandra-gupta, Asoka, Kanishka, Samudra-gupta--we gauge our admiring

interest by our desire to know what manner of men these were in

feature and form. But Fate, for the most part, denies us even the

scant suggestion of a rude coin. She does so here. Whether Samudra

inherited his mother's beauty is for the present an unanswerable

question. We do not know even the year of his passing, still

less the manner of it: the story goes on without a pause to

Chandra-gupta-Vikramaditya, his son, whose fame, until lately, quite

overwhelmed all memory of his father; that father who conquered India,

who allied himself with foreign powers, who made the subsequent

achievements of his son possible.

The question which besets us now is the extent to which

Chandra-gupta-Vikramaditya's fame is really his own; how much of it is

due to the fact that we possess of his reign and administration an

almost unique record in the account given of his travels and sojourn

in India by the Buddhist pilgrim from China, Fa-Hien? This gives us

information which fails us in the reigns of other kings. How much,

again, of this Vikramaditya's fame belongs by right to that other

mythical Vikramaditya of before-Christ days? That nameless king who

flits like a Will-o'-the-Wisp through the mists of early Indian


How much, again, is rightfully due to his father--that striking

personality which historians have forgotten, but which now comes

surging through the shadows, a veritable man indeed?

Who can say? All we know is that the Gupta dynasty was a mighty one;

that it still serves the modern Hindu as a model of good government,

just as the Mahomedan still points with pride to Akbar's rule.

What, then, were the salient points of this beloved control? Judging

by Fa-Hien's account they may be summed up in personal liberty. The

subject was left largely to follow his own intentions, and the

criminal law was singularly lenient. This was rendered possible by the

wide acceptation amongst the masses of Buddha's gospel of good-will;

for although Brahmanical Hinduism had ousted Buddhist dogma, it had

scarcely touched its ethics. Capital punishment was unknown; there was

no need for an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. "Throughout the

country," we read, "no one kills any living thing."

An easy kingdom in good sooth to rule! According to our traveller, the

people seem to have vied with each other in virtue. All sorts of

charitable institutions existed, and the description of a free

hospital, endowed by benevolence, is worth quoting:--

"Hither come all poor or helpless patients suffering from every sort

of infirmity. They are well taken care of, and a doctor attends to

them, food and medicine being given according to their wants. Thus

they are made quite comfortable, and when they are well they may go


Thus, once more, the East saw light sooner than the West; for the

first hospital in Europe only struggled into existence more than five

hundred years after this one at Magadha.

But the chief glory of the Gupta empire was its patronage of the arts

and sciences. Every pundit in India knows the verse which names the

"nine gems of Vikramaditya's court"; those learned men amongst whom

Kalidasa, the author of "Sakuntala" (so far as fame goes, the

Shakspeare of India), stood foremost. Poets, astronomers, grammarians,

physicians, helped to make up the nawa-ratani, as it is called, and

the extraordinary literary activity of the century and a quarter (from

A.D. 330 to 455), during which long period Samudra, Chandra, and his

son, Kumara, reigned, is most remarkable. The revival of Sanskrit, the

sacred language of the Brahmans, points to an upheaval of Hindu

religious thought, and so does the almost endless sacred literature,

which, still surviving, is referred to the golden age of the Guptas.

The Puranas in their present form, the metrical version of the Code of

Manu, some of the Dharm-shastras, and, in fact, most of the classical

Sanskrit literature, belong to this period.

Architecture was also revolutionised. As Buddhism slipped from the

grip of the people under pressure from the ever-growing power of the

Brahmans, the very forms of its sacred buildings gave way to something

which, more ornate, less self-evident, served to reflect the new and

elaborate pretensions of the priesthood. Mr Cunningham gives us

somewhere the seven characteristics of the Gupta style of

architecture; but it is more easily summed up for the average beholder

in the words "cucumber and gourd." These names serve well to recall

the tall, curved vimanas, or towers, exactly like two-thirds of a

cucumber stuck in the ground, and surmounted by a flat, gourd-like

"Amalika," so called because of its resemblance to the fruit of that


That such buildings are interesting may be conceded, but that any one

can call the collection of pickle-bottles (for that is practically the

effect of them) at-let us say-Bhuvan-eshwar beautiful, passes


Exquisite they are in detail, perfect in the design and execution of

their ornamentation, but the form of these temples leaves much to be

desired. The flat blob at the top seems to crush down the vague

aspirings of the cucumber, which, even if unstopped, must ere long

have ended in an earthward curve again.

To return to history.

Chandra-gupta-Vikramaditya died in A.D. 413. His greatest military

achievement was the overthrow of the Saka dynasty in Kathiawar, and

the annexation of Malwa to the already enormous empire left him by his

father. In other ways we have large choice of prowess. All the tales

which linger to this day on the lips of India concerning Rajah

Bikra- or Vikra-majit are at our disposal.

Of his son Kumara we at present know little, save that he reigned

successfully for not less than forty years, keeping his kingdom

intact, remaining true to its traditions.

Perhaps some day his fame also will rise from its grave, and coin or

inscription may prove him true unit of the Great Trio of Gupta

emperors. This much we may guess: he was his grandmother's darling,

for he bears her name in masculine dress.