The second decade of the 4th century CE saw the rise of one of the greatest and most celebrated dynasties of India – that of the Guptas. This dynasty, which dominated the Indian subcontinent for the next two and a quarter centuries, is said to have ushered in a Golden Age, which at its zenith saw literature, art, science, architecture, philosophy, religion and statecraft flourish. It was an era of great stability and prosperity and cultural evolution.
But what were the events that led to the founding of this mighty Empire and the cultural awakening that it brought about?
By the end of the 3rd century CE, the mighty empire of the Kushanas was a gently fading memory. At its very zenith, the Kushana Empire (1st to 3rd century CE) had spread from Afghanistan in the north-west all the way to Bengal in the east, and it was the largest known Empire in Ancient India after that built by Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (r. 269-232 BCE). But their heyday came to an end when, after the last mighty Kushana Emperor Vasudeva (191-232 CE), the Empire split into the Western and Eastern halves.
The Western half comprised the Afghan realms, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and parts of Punjab and Kashmir. The Eastern half was made up of the Ganga-Yamuna Doab and Eastern Punjab. The Eastern Empire, with its capital in Mathura, now no longer enjoyed the wealth that had flowed from its western provinces and this brought the economy to a staggering halt. The last of the imperial Kushana rulers was Vaishishika (247-265 CE), a pale shadow of his great predecessors. After him, the Kushanas were no longer a power to be reckoned with.
The end of the Kushana Era in Northern India, around 250-270 CE, led to the disintegration of the Empire and the rise of a large number of small states and city-states. Every single vassal, ally and local lord dreamt of independent rule and the whole of the Northern plains of India fractured along clan lines and power centres. The various vassals and governors of the Kushanas (like the Nagas of Padmavati, Yaudheyas, Lichchhavis etc.) declared independence as did the numerous older states/tribes which had been amalgamated into the Empire. The warp and weft of the fabric of Northern India changed dramatically with the fall of the Kushana Empire.
Meanwhile, in the West, the rise of the Sassanian Empire (224-641 CE) of Persia, which stretched from Asia Minor to the banks of the Indus River, hastened this event. In 224 CE, Ardashir V of the Kingdom of Pars threw off the yoke of the weak Parthian monarch Artabanus IV in the Battle of Hormozdgan (224 CE) and crowned himself Emperor Ardashir I of the Sassanian dynasty. He soon arrived in Sindh and, after subjugating the Western Kushanas, declared himself ‘Kushanshah’. These Kushanas became his vassals.
The Sassanians soon expanded their Empire all the way to the Indus by the end of the 3rd CE, and all subsequent Indian Empires had to content themselves with the lands to the east of the Indus. The Sassanian King Shahpur I (240-270 CE) comprehensively defeated the Western Kushanas and swallowed their Empire. This brought an end to this branch of the Kushanas.
Many of the earlier republics dating back to the Mahajanapada period of the 6th and 5th century BCE had survived with different degrees of independence as part of the Magadhan Empire, and they had also in the post-Mauryan phase continued with similar arrangements as a part of the Indo-Greek and Kushana Empires. This list includes the Lichchhavis and the Malwas. In return for their subservience and allegiance, they were allowed to have limited autonomy.
These republics had existed from the time of the Second Urbanisation, earlier than 500 BCE, and had been subjugated and amalgamated into the various iterations of the Magadhan State, from Bimbisara (c. 543 – 491 BCE) to Ashoka. These included not just the Mahajanapadas but also numerous smaller states like the Nagas of Mathura, the Yaudheyas of Punjab-Haryana, the Arjunayanas and the Pauravas of Western Uttar Pradesh, the Audumbaras of Punjab and the Sibis and the Malwas of Southern Rajasthan. Many of the city-states like Kashi (Varanasi), Mathura (in UP), Eran (in Madhya Pradesh) and Tripuri (in MP) were also a part of this process.
The Madras of the Punjab were a great warrior tribe mentioned in the epics, and in Sanskrit and Pali works. It was a Madra princess who became one of Bimbisara’s three wives, thereby giving him access to the trade route to Gandhara. This is just one of the tribes of the undivided Punjab near modern Sialkot in Pakistan (ancient Sagala, this was also their capital city) that was at various times independent and at other times a vassal state. The Madras too rose to independence in the post-Kushana period till their eventual subjugation by the Guptas in the 4th century CE.
The Yaudheyas, who first find mention in the Junagadh inscription of the Western Kshatrapa ruler Rudradaman (130-150 CE), were a fierce republican state located in Northern Rajasthan and Southern Punjab-Haryana. They are known from their coinage and find mention in inscriptions of the Kshatrapas and the Guptas. They were known as fierce fighters and were supposed to have twice defeated the Satavahana king Satakarni.
South of the Yaudheyas, in the region of Chittor in Rajasthan, we have the remnants of the Sibis, and to their south-west, in Northern Madhya Pradesh we have the Malwa republic. The Malwas, known to us from the time of Alexander the Great, had moved from the NWFP and ultimately made their home in the region that bears their name to this day – the Malwa plateau (parts of present-day Western Madhya Pradesh and South-Eastern Rajasthan). After the fall of the Kushana Empire, the Malwas quickly reasserted their independence. The Arjunayanas of Punjab rose to power after the collapse of the Mauryan Empire and soon carved out a principality for themselves where they ruled independently or as vassals all the way till the 4th century CE.
The region of Gujarat, Kutch, Southern Rajasthan, North-Western Maharashtra and Western Madhya Pradesh was firmly in the hands of the Western Kshatrapas (35-405 CE). This was the last unified bastion. They were in the aftermath of the Kushana Empire, the one stable state in Western India and lasted till they were totally conquered and integrated into the Gupta Empire in 412 CE.
Their neighbours, the Satavahanas (100 BCE – 3rd CE), were already on the decline at the beginning of the 3rd century CE, thanks in large measure to the decline in Indo-Roman trade, which formed a huge part of their economic wealth. By 225 CE, they ceased to be a force to reckon with. The Satavahana feudatories, the Chutus of Banavasi (in Karnataka) and the Ikshavakus in Andhra Pradesh, soon declared their independence and created their own states. The Ikshavakus ruled for 100 glorious years before they too fell to the vagaries of time and the swords of their neighbours.
In Tamil Nadu, we see the arrival of what appears to be the first non-local dynasty, that of the Pallavas (previously, only the local Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas had ruled the southern-most tip of India). We also begin to see the advent of the Kalabhras of the Bengaluru region and the Shalankayana rulers of Vengi, who succeed the short-lived Ikshavaku state. The Kalabhras were perhaps the most interesting as they repeatedly penetrated deep into Southern India and brought much patronage to Jainism.
In the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, the late 3rd century CE saw the rise of the Vakataka Empire under their founder Vindhyashakti (250-270 CE), who soon wrested control of Eastern Maharashtra (from the local chieftains and petty kingdoms in Vidarbha) and laid the foundation of an Empire which was enlarged by his successor Pravarasena I into a massive state stretching from the Narmada to Andhra Pradesh, and from Vidarbha to the mountains of the Western Ghats.
While all this was brewing in the Western and Southern parts of India, the North and the East were undergoing their own fractionalisation. The region that we know of as Assam today saw the rise of the earliest organised states we know of, in the kingdoms of Kamarupa and Davaka (circa 300 CE). Davaka, which lay to the east of Kamarupa in the Brahmaputra Valley, was soon absorbed into the Kamarupa state as it expanded eastwards. But it was in the extreme north of the Ganga Valley that we see perhaps the beginnings of the most important of all the players of this time, the kingdom of the Lichchhavis.
The Lichchhavi state can trace its history to the time of the Mahajanapadas. According to historians, the Lichchhavis occupied the region of Magadha and the areas north of it all the way to the Kathmandu Valley. The Lichchhavis were a very important dynasty in pre-Buddhist and Buddhist times, and the Buddha himself belonged to one of their clans and was conceived and born in their territory. They disappeared in the ensuing Magadhan period and re-emerged from relative obscurity in the 2nd-3rd century CE, and went on to play a very critical role in the formation of the Gupta Empire (late 3rd – 6th century CE).
Other historians place them around Vidisha (in present-day MP) during this period, and thus there is some confusion as to their precise origin. Regardless, this does not take away anything from their importance in what was to come. The discovery of the statue of King Jayavarman, dated to 185 CE, from Kathmandu in 1991, is seen by many to have put paid to all the claims that they did not rule here.
The 3rd century CE was a period of great religious upheaval in Northern India. Buddhism had almost lost its scriptures as they had never been written down, and the Sri Lankan ruler Vattagamini-Abhaya (89-77 BCE) forced the monks to transcribe the texts. Before this, Buddhist scripture was memorised, not written, as the Buddha had said “nothing is permanent”. This allowed the tweaking of the Tripitakas or The Three Baskets (the texts ascribed to the Buddha directly) and interpolations.
For 500 years, groups of monks memorised the Three Baskets and other texts. Massive famines in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BCE-CE led to monks dying for lack of alms. Only royal donations kept them going; the king demanded that they write the scriptures if he had to help them further. They did write them but by now there were multiple versions. This led to a large-scale ripple effect of transcription of texts, which had been oral for 500 years.
There was much confusion as the myriad versions did not always agree, thanks to later interpolations. The Kushana Emperor Kanishka called the 4th Buddhist Council to help the Sharvastivadin sect (a very important and powerful Buddhist sect in the 1st century CE) to bring order to the Abhidhamma Pitaka (one of the Tripitakas, they contain detailed scholastic presentations of doctrinal material appearing in the Buddhist sutras).
Buddhism in the 3rd century CE was on the decline in many subtle ways in the Ganga Yamuna Doab. It was doing well in Central India, Southern India, Sri Lanka and the Tibetan region but it was, in many ways, not half as robust as it had been only a century ago. This is perhaps why we see the rise of Hinduism during this era. This, the rise of Hinduism, of course, is seen on the coins of the Kushana Emperors.
Jainism too had undergone a similar crisis and a huge schism led to the creation of the Shwetambara and Digambara sects. The texts were lost in many cases and it was only in the 2nd/3rd century CE that the great Jaina Acharya Kundakunda reorganised the scriptures of the Digambara Jains, leading to a resurgence. The Shwetambaras had to wait till the Council of Vallabhi (modern Vallabhipur near Bhavnagar in Gujarat) in the 5th century CE for their religious reorganisation.
The Sanskrit language seemed to have lost its place among the various regional Prakrits and Apabrhamshas (languages spoken in Northern India before the rise of modern languages) of the Buddhist Age, but it made a silent comeback as a liturgical language and was soon seen to be rising to what would be its greatest and golden age.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Northern India (historians are still not sure exactly where), in either Bengal or the lower Ganga Valley, rose a small kingdom known as the Gupta state under its first ruler Sri Gupta some time in the very late 3rd century CE. The only thing of note that we know about Sri Gupta, apart from the Allahabad Prashasthi of Samudra Gupta, is from the writings of the Chinese Traveller Yijing/It-Sing, who came to India in 673 CE to study Buddhism at Nalanda for 11 years.
He tells us that Sri Gupta built a temple for Chinese Buddhist travellers in the east of India, at a place called Mrigashikhavana. Since we know that Yijing came via the sea route, this would logically be in Bengal and this would agree well with some of the postulations that the early Gupta state emerged here.
Hiuen Tsang, who came to India after Yijing, also mentions the Chinese temple and places it more than 40 yojanas (a yojana was an ancient measure of distance and was 8-12 km long) to the East of Nalanda, and along the Ganges, thus also placing it firmly in Bengal (actually in modern-day Bangladesh). Sri Gupta was followed by his son Ghatotkacha Gupta. Both these rulers used the title ‘Maharaja’ and Ghatotkacha forged a marital alliance with the very powerful Lichchhavis by marrying his son Chandra Gupta I (319-335/350 CE) to their princess Kumaradevi.
This event is important because it is the only time that the family of the bride is ever mentioned in Gupta records. Emperor Samudra Gupta, son of Chandra Gupta I, proudly calls himself Lichchhavi-dauhitra – ‘grandson of the Lichchhavis’. Thus Ghatotkacha’s main claim to historic fame is his forging of a marital alliance for his heir, with the Lichchhavis, perhaps the most powerful clan and kingdom in an era of fractured, small polities.
The very nature of this alliance is seen in the Arthashastra of Kautilya (3rd to 4th century BCE), where he makes it very clear that a king bent on conquest must make an alliance to safeguard himself from attack and to strengthen himself. We don’t know if the Guptas’ alliance with the Lichchhavis took place after subjugating or threatening the Lichchhavis or through clever political manipulation to cement a political alliance with them. What we do know is that this consolidated the position of Ghatotkacha Gupta’s heir, Chandra Gupta I, in a manner that allowed him to carve out the beginnings of the fledgling Gupta Empire in 318-319 CE, and to lay the basic foundation of what his son transformed, from a fledgling state into a mighty Empire, by systematically conquering all the states in Northern India, from Assam to Punjab and Gujarat.
This article is part of our 'The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material - archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
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