The Gupta Dynasty

The Gupta dynasty is believed to have started as a wealthy family from either Magadha or Prayaga (now eastern Uttar Pradesh). During the late third century, this family rose in prominence until it was able to claim the local rulership of Magadha. The third Gupta king, Chandra Gupta I, is given credit for founding of the dynasty in 320 AD, though it is not clear whether this year marks the accession of Chandra Gupta or the year his kingdom achieved full independent status.

In the following decades, the Guptas expanded their control over the surrounding kingdoms either through militaristic expansion or by means of marriage alliances. Chandra Gupta appointed his son, Samudra Gupta, to the throne sometime around the year 330. The new king established the city of Pataliputra as the Gupta capital, and from this administrative base the empire continued to grow. By approximately 380, it had expanded to include a number of smaller kingdoms to the east (into what is now Myanmar), all territories north to the Himalayas (including Nepal), and the entire Indus Valley region to the west. In some of the more remote areas, the Guptas reinstalled defeated rulers and allowed them to continue to run the territory as a tributary state.

Literary and archeological evidence dating from this period depicts a ruling class as interested in cultural developments as they were in expanding their political control. In fact the Gupta period is considered something of a golden age, marked by great achievements in literature, music, art, architecture, and philosophy. Fa Xian, a Chinese pilgrim who traveled to Gupta India in the early fifth century, wrote of beautiful cities, fine hospitals and universities, and described a content and prosperous people.

Due to a renewal of interest in Hinduism under the Guptas, some scholars date the decline of Buddhism in northern India to their reign. While it is true that Buddhism received less royal patronage under the Guptas than it had under the preceding Mauryan and Kushan Empires, its decline is more accurately dated to the post-Gupta period. In terms of intercultural influence, no style had a greater impact on East and Central Asian Buddhist arts than that developed in Gupta-era India. This situation inspired Sherman E. Lee to refer to the style of sculpture developed under the Guptas as "the International Style."

Sometime around the year 450 the Gupta Empire faced with a new threat. A group called the Hunas, known to Byzantine sources as the Hephthalites(1), began to assert themselves in the empire's northwest. After decades of peace Gupta military prowess had diminished, and when the Hephthalites launched a full-scale invasion around 480, the empire's resistance proved ineffective. The invaders swiftly conquered the tributary states in the northwest and soon pushed into the heart of Gupta-controlled territory. By 520 the Gupta Empire was reduced to a small kingdom on the fringe of their once vast realm, and now it was they who were forced to pay tribute to their conquerors. By the mid-sixth century the Gupta dynasty dissolved entirely.

(1) E.V Zeimal notes that "Hunas" was used to refer to both the Hephthalites and the Kidaras, a people who ruled regions now in modern Pakistan and Afghanistan in the late fourth and early fifth (Zeimal, E.V. "The Kidarite Kingdom in Central Asia." History of Civilizations of Central Asia, vol. 3 (Paris: UNESCO, 1996), p. 123). "Hunas" thus may have been a general name given to any people populating the northwestern frontier of the Gupta Empire.