Hearts of Gold, Times of Gold

India’s first Golden Age: Indo-Sanskritic Culture Reaches its Climax, c. 320 – 550 CE.

In Which The Indians establish their second great empire, awakening a sleeping giant of religio-cultural power and inaugurating one of the greatest cultural renaissances in human history

One of Indian and indeed global history’s most interesting quirks is how certain themes and patterns repeat with slight variations, like patterns in a mandala, owing perhaps to some of the distinct religious and cultural practices of the subcontinent; or perhaps to the whimsy of fate and coincidence. A very interesting example: c. 320 BCE, Chandragupta Maurya declared himself Mauryan emperor in Pataliputra on the Ganga. And, c. 320 CE, Chandra-Gupta I declared himself Gupta emperor in Pataliputra on the Ganga.


Gupta depiction of the boar-god Varaha at Udayagiri. Like Varaha figuratively lifted the earth, the Guptas figuratively lifted Hinduism and indigenous culture from a churning ocean and elevated them to their pinnacle.

Under the imperial Gupta dynasty, a process that began in my last article reached its climax. The many foreign tribes who had made India a melting pot of civilizations were gradually subdued and a new culture that was, for the first time, recognizably Indian began to emerge. If not for the peace, patronage, and sophistication of the Gupta era, the culture of India and the world would be very different; but, like every Golden Age in human history, the Guptas carried with them the seeds of their own destruction and introduced systems of inequality that would ossify and cripple the subcontinent in a few centuries. Let’s begin!

Subcontinental Subjugation

It is a relatively unknown fact that were it not for a woman, the imperial Guptas would probably not have existed, and I do not mean that in only the maternal sense.

“It is a relatively unknown fact that were it not for a woman, the imperial Guptas would probably not have existed..”


The Gupta Empire at its greatest extent, with the great southern expedition of Samudragupta marked.

There was a young king named Chandra-Gupta, who had inherited and conquered slices of the Gangetic Valley, and dearly felt the need to convey the inheritance to the next generation. He selected, for this great honour, a princess of a very ancient and distinguished clan, who had fallen on hard times: Kumaradevi Lichchavi. As a dowry, he demanded and received the ancient Mauryan capital of Pataliputra. He evidently now felt powerful enough to assume the title of Great King-of-Kings (Maharaja-dhi-raja), the Indian equivalent of Emperor. This done, he and his successors set off to earn the title on a nearly unparalleled programme of conquest.

What sets the Gupta conquest apart from all that had happened in North India over the last few centuries? Firstly, there is the superficial fact that they were indubitably of subcontinental origin. Secondly, the entire dynasty was Hindu and patronized Hindu royal traditions. Thirdly, unlike Asoka Maurya, the Guptas were not interested in direct administration beyond a point: they wanted tribute and acknowledgement of their power. Nor did they share his benevolent spirit or guilt at the use of violence. Fourthly and most importantly: these men of violence were also extremely sophisticated men of culture.

By the death of Chandra-Gupta I, Gupta power stretched from Pataliputra across the Gangetic Plains, having driven out the weakening Kushans. Next in line to the throne (after the by-now usual Indian royal post-mortem civil war) was Samudra-Gupta, his chosen heir, whose armies, suitably, flooded across the subcontinent (“Samudra” means “ocean” in many Indic languages). Starting from  a camp near modern Delhi, he uprooted existing kingdoms and assumed direct control over most of North India. But, apparently, this was nowhere near enough for him.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Starting from the eastern coast, Samudragupta led his forces south, through Orissa and Andhra (map included above), smashing to pieces the ego and the armies of every king on the way. Finally, at Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, he smote King Vishnugopa Pallava‘s crown and pride to the dust. It was a moment of truth for the subcontinent. Would Samudragupta, like Asoka Maurya, bring the entire subcontinent under his personal rule, or would he satisfy himself with eternal fame and be content with tribute and influence? Wisely perhaps, the emperor chose the latter and crowned the kings he had defeated as his sworn vassals. This done, he returned to Pataliputra and assumed the title and imperial umbrella of a Chakravartina previously benevolent title which to earlier Buddhists had meant “Turner of the Wheel of Law” but now meant “World-Conquering-Monarch“.



Chandragupta II ” Vikramaditya” as a Lion-Slayer. Rev: The goddess Durga.

His death and the eventual succession of his son are somewhat murky. Some numismatic evidence points to Samudragupta’s actual successor having been one Rama-Gupta, but, after a murder (romantic sources say over a woman) or a civil war, the excellent Chandra-Gupta II, the most powerful of Gupta emperors, came to the throne. His daughter Prabhavati-Gupta was married off to Rudrasena II of the Vakataka Kingdom, the successors of the Satavahanas in the Deccan, and with their aid, he finally smashed the Western Kshatrapas, Indo-Scythians whom we first met nearly 400 years ago in my last article, and incorporated Gujarat, Saurashtra, and Malwa into the empire. Next he defeated a Bengali tribal confederacy and brought it, with Assam, firmly into the ambit of the subcontinent; continuing in his father’s footsteps, we are told, he crossed the Indus and pacified the barbarians across the Khyber pass before finally returning to rule.

The emperor’s son-in-law, King Rudrasena, mysteriously expired at a young and promising age, and his Gupta queen took over as regent for her two sons, which meant de facto that it was really the emperor at Pataliputra calling the shots in the Vakataka kingdom. (Nevertheless, it can hardly have been easy for a young woman to rule in her own right at the time, even if she was a Gupta. Sadly we have almost no information on this interesting figure.) It was the royal Vakatakas who were primarily responsible for the marvellous caves at Ajanta, and who are therefore a gold mine of information on India at the time.

The Gupta Empire had reached its territorial, economic and cultural pinnacle: Chandra-Gupta II took on the title of VikramadityaSun of Power“. The Roman Empire in the West was in terminal decline and the Han dynasty in China had fallen into chaos; India was now the greatest power in the world, bursting at the seams with gold and artistic endeavour.

Sun of Power: The Culture of Gupta India


Vishnu as depicted in the Gupta temple at Deogarh. The worship of Vishnu became immensely popular under Gupta patronage.

Now that I’ve set the stage, let’s talk about culture in this golden age. In my last article, When in India, do as the Indians do, I discussed the process of Sanskritization, where Brahmanical Hindu culture spread across the subcontinent, offering legitimacy and sanctified kingship in return for an adherence to caste and ritualistic sacrifice. The process involved a great deal of cultural give-and-take but really quite contributed to the earthy, local feel of Hinduism: an immeasurable number of local tribal deities were incorporated into the pantheon and began to be worshipped in new ways. Depending on the polity in question, the incorporated deity’s place in the pantheon varied. The pastoral deity Gopala, for example, merged with the older heroic demigod Vasudeva to form the legendary Krishna, while the tribal boar-god Varaha was given attributes of a saviour. Both were then worshipped as avataras of the newly prominent Vishnu the Preserver, a personal favourite of the Gupta monarchs (presumably his exalted position in the Hindu pantheon appealed to emperors who saw themselves as exalted among Indian kings). An expanded philosophy of divinity began to portray  all gods as an aspect of a transcendent One, and interesting ideas of the Male and the Female, the Mother and the Father, merged with and gradually assimilated earlier Buddhist ideals of purity, hedonism, and abstinence. Nature gods and fantastical beings, fertility, sex, temptation, renunciation, enlightenment: ideas gradually shaped over centuries of interaction with local and foreign cultures finally obtained royal sanction, and were solidified with oral and written productions. Most importantly, the depiction of Hindu gods in statues stems from the Gupta period, influenced by Mahayana Buddhist ideals. Without temples and deities, modern day Hinduism would not even exist, being the core of contemporary Hindu belief. The Guptas finally turned Hinduism into an instrument of royal power, something that appealed to both the elite and the masses, a fusion of Rig Vedic shamanism/ sacrifice and deeper philosophical and artistic ideas borrowed from other sects.

“The Guptas finally turned Hinduism into an instrument of royal power, something that appealed to both the elite and the masses, a fusion of.. Vedic sacrifice and deeper ideas..”


Krishna battling the horse-demon Keshi. 5th century Gupta depiction.

In the time of the ancient Aryans, Brahmans had often claimed dignities and respect that they did not actually receive (why would so many have turned to Buddhism otherwise?). But at last, there was a real necessity for divine sanction to justify the cycles of peace and violence which Indian rulers were busy unleashing on each other, and for the obscene wealth and inequality which was the order of the day. Brahmanism shrewdly provided this, by claiming the “divinely ordained” caste system, which Buddhism could not or would not do. In return, its vision of an ideal world, with Brahmans firmly on top, gained royal support.

Thus did the status of the three “twice-born castes”- the Brahmanas (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors) and Vaishyas (merchants and farmers) begin to increase by leaps and bounds, at the expense of the rapidly-ostracized shudras (menial workers). The economy was more prosperous than ever, but the wealthy were getting wealthier and were busy exploiting the lowly, now with spiritual sanction to stymie any bleeding hearts. If that is not the greatest possible proof in human history that “trickle-down economics” does not work, I don’t know what is.

Ajanta Cave 1 paintings, walls

Royal bath of a KingFrom the Ajanta Caves.

But even though caste finally had royal approval, it didn’t solidify overnight (in fact it is debatable how solid it was until the British showed up and bungled it completely by officializing it in the name of “respecting religious sentiments”, as if Indians only cared about keeping the gods happy). The subcontinent was still home to a stunning array of religious practices. On the one hand, there were Samudra-Gupta and his successors, who performed the ancient asvamedha horse-sacrifice and donated thousands of gold coins and cows to “needy” Brahmans; and on the other hand the small daily offerings of flowers to the little stream outside one’s house, and rare pilgrimages to the Buddha’s birthplace if you could afford it, because at least the highways were kept safe by the imperial majesties in their ivory towers, even if they took all your money to do it.

“… At least the highways were kept safe by the imperial majesties in their ivory towers, even if they took all your money to do it.”


Illustration of the Ramayana by Sahib Din, 1652Kausalya, Rama’s mother, is depicted slaying the horse to the left and lying beside it to the right.

According to the Rig Veda, the sacred oral tradition of the semi-barbaric nomadic Aryans, this is how the asvamedha worked. A white horse was set free to roam around for an entire year, followed by a king’s army (ostensibly to protect it but more likely to guide it to a suitably safe destination). If it entered enemy territory, the enemy would either have to fight the army or submit to the king’s authority. At the end of the year, assuming the horse and army were still standing, they would return to a great sacrificial pavilion where,  (Squeamish readers may wish to avert their eyes) the horse, a goat, and a bovine were ritually purified, the chief queen “spent the night with the horse” (please don’t make me elaborate) indicating its power and virility entering the royal bloodline, and then the three animals were dismembered, quartered, and offered to the four cardinal directions, after which the king was crowned as an undisputed monarch. The Rig Veda even mentions a purushamedha  or man-sacrifice, but this was believed even in 1500 BCE to be figurative and not literal. (Squeamish readers may continue reading) Of course there was debate on the practice even in the later Vedas, Upanishads and Brahmanas condemning the ritual as barbarism (the atheistic Carvaka school denounced the authors of the Veda as “buffoons, knaves, and demons“), and some evidence to suggest a stone horse was actually used.

“.. There was debate on the practice.. condemning the ritual as barbarism.. denounced the authors of the Veda as buffoons, knaves and demons.”

But my point is that even within “Hindu tradition” there were violent, bestial voices and sensitive, progressive ones. Massive, conspicuous consumption was a symbol of royal power and lived alongside small roadside shrines to gods of crossroads and trees. This bewildering array of voices, of culture in flux, of life in motion, is still visible in the ancient cave paintings at Ajanta.


Royal Procession at Ajanta. Take as long as you want. Soak it all in.

A brief note on the appreciation of Indian art: the forced perspectives take some getting used to, but they are meant to allow the artist to showcase more of his subject. Observe the composition of the work, the matching of the colours, the tiny details crammed into the painting, and above all, try to comprehend its soul and spirit. Now let’s get back to Ajanta.

The paintings, commissioned under Vakataka royal patronage, are in a rock-cut Buddhist monastery, and are a window to India’s soul. The markets, the palaces, the ceremonies, the talking animals, the gods, the night-prowling demons, intricate floral and geometric patters, hairstyles, costumes, jewellery, musical instruments, the palm fronds, the flowers, the jungle, the sheer breathtaking detail and joy of being alive: a frozen gateway, as it were, to a people and a way of life that are dead and gone but still alive in our minds and hearts. It is enough to bring a tear to one’s eyes, to think of all that we had that we have now lost to the sands of time, terrible restorations, DSLR camera flashes, and government apathy. If an out-of-the-way monastery could afford art on such a scale, the opulence of the imperial palace in Pataliputra defies the imagination.

“A frozen gateway.. to a people and a way of life that are dead and gone but still alive in our minds and hearts.”

The Ajanta paintings belong to the Amaravati/Gupta school of art. Like many of India’s cultural products of the time, this style crossed the seas with Gupta merchant seafarers and artisans to the kingdoms of southeast Asia. The attention to detail, careful selection of colour, and vibrant composition can be seen reflected everywhere in Asian art from Tibet to Japan. But even this was not the most significant Indian export under the Guptas; that is coming soon.

Contrast the elegant jewellery and expressions of the Bodhisattvas above to the gaudy opulence of modern TV and film depictions.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Gupta emperors, as I said earlier, were men of great sophistication. In fact, Samudragupta is (according to his own court poet) a most accomplished poet in Sanskrit, despite the fact that his body was “adorned with the marks of hundreds of scars”. His coins depict him in martial poses but also with a veena (gallery in previous section). Oddly for an Indian he is quite concerned with proclaiming his matrilineal descent and addresses himself as Lichchhavayah, or son of the Licchavi (his mother, Kumaradevi), possibly because his father, the progenitor of the imperial Gupta line, was in fact of low birth?


Samudragupta-issued coin of his parents Chandra-Gupta I and Kumaradevi Lichchavi. Rev. “Lichchavayah” in Brahmi script.

Samudragupta’s filial affection, however, seems to be the exception and not the rule. Women’s voices, like those of the lower classes, are by this time largely absent from the Indian discourse. They are well-represented in paintings but clearly as objects of desire or curiosity. The artist loves women but not as equals: they are expected to be faithful, beautiful and obedient like Sita in the Ramayana. In coins they are either goddesses or model queens, and, speaking of queens, Gupta emperors had a habit of forming “bedroom alliances” by marrying multiple eligible princesses of different kingdoms, which was the norm in Indian society. Of course it goes without saying that there were exceptions to the rule, like Chandra-Gupta II’s daughter Prabhavati (mentioned above), but it is perhaps significant that her own words, unlike her father’s, have not survived.

“Women’s voices, like those of the lower classes, are by this time largely absent from the Indian discourse.”


Gupta-era depiction of a scene from the Ramayana.

It’s quite possible that the Gupta ideal of kingship- cultural sophistication, military prestige, and Brahminical patronage- was shaped by and shaped later depictions of ideal kings and legendary rulers. This concern for ideal kingship is recorded not only in the Ramayana, a legendary depiction of the demigod Rama: an ideal son, husband and king (and avatar of Vishnu) of which the earliest written version dates from the late Gupta period, but also in the works of the great playwright Kalidasa (who puts Shakespeare to shame in terms of the sheer human pathos and purple prose of his work) who in his Raghuvamsa describes Rama’s ancestor Raghu in terms that would almost perfectly describe any great Gupta emperor.  And, speaking of plays: an interesting feature of Indian plays of the time (aside from their very explicit eroticism) is the fact that they are bilingual. The male characters speak courtly Sanskrit, the females, children and lower classes speak Prakrit and are addressed in Prakrit by their men. If this is a reflection of life at the time, as drama tends to be, it’s significant how the very language that Indians spoke ingrained inequality from childhood.


The Iron Pillar and the Qutb Minar.

The emperors were not, however, narrow-minded individuals. Chandra-Gupta II’s heir, Kumara-Gupta, was one of the first patrons of the great university of Nalanda in Bihar, one of the greatest universities in global history with students from across the  world. Nor did they neglect the ancient and distinguished universities of Taxila, with Gupta mathematicians discovering, as we are taught in school, the concept of zero, and metalworkers attaining a high degree of skill in the casting of gold and other metals. (A 6-tonne Gupta iron pillar now at Mehrauli in Delhi has only slightly rusted in 1600 years of Indian weather, and even survived a cannonade ordered by the Persian conqueror Nadir Shah in 1739 CE. It mutely proclaims the glory of Chandra-Gupta II to this day). The immense cultural bloom of the time is visible, as I have discussed, in paintings, academia, numismatics, and religion, but let’s talk now of yet another aspect.


The Gupta Buddha. Arguably the greatest depiction in stone of the Buddha, and my personal favourite.

Gupta sculpture, as I mentioned in my latest article, is an Indian interpretation and refinement of the concern with human perfection first introduced by the Indo-Greek Gandhara school of art, and this is clearly visible in Gupta-era depictions of the Buddha, possibly the most beautiful depictions of The Enlightened One ever seen. (The Guptas were Hindu but were very religiously tolerant and were happy to patronise other sects.) The faces are serene, the lines of the body clear and well-formed, the folds of cloth well-realised. A careful arrangement of geometric lines and patterns indicates deeper meanings: nirvana for the Buddha, the heat and dust of combat in the carving of Krishna and Keshi above.

Like Amaravati art, Gupta sculpture too was exported to Southeast Asia, again influencing both religious and secular art. It wasn’t merely sculpture but even architectural and broader cultural ideas that were exported, with Indianised kingdoms and temples attested to from the 400s CE, and some Hindu traditions still kept alive and well today by native, non-Indian Hindus. Hinduism and Sanskritization being relatively assimilative, present-day local observances and beliefs vary greatly from Indian Hinduism.

The kingdom of Ayutthaya in Thailand was named after Rama’s birthplace, Ayodhya. Sanskritized rituals, dances and epics proliferated from Burma to Java, with an interesting mix of cultures from Indian traders who settled down, and local rulers who turned to Brahmanism for legitimacy and support for their rule. Without the mighty Gupta cultural juggernaut, it’s unlikely that there would have been Indian trade on that scale in the first place, and even more unlikely that local rulers would have accepted the foreign culture of a bunch of merchants who worshipped fire. The Gupta experiment with visual, royal Hinduism changed India and indeed Asia forever; it will always remain their greatest and longest-lasting achievement.

“The Gupta experiment with visual, royal Hinduism changed India and indeed Asia forever; it will always remain their greatest and longest-lasting achievement.”


The Great Temple of Vishnu at Angkor in Cambodia, the largest in the world, follows on earlier Gupta innovations of iconography, sculpture, and temple design.

Imperial Sunset


The Silk Road at its peak between the Roman, Gupta and Chinese Empires.

The Silk Road, that massive superhighway of goods and gold stretching from Rome to India to China, began to unravel owing to the actions of the Han emperors in China, hundreds of years ago. They had attacked a neighbouring nomadic tribe, who fled and attacked their neighbours in an escalating domino effect; many of these tribes had settled in South Asia and had been assimilated. But there was one tribe that did not want to settle, a tribe unimaginably barbaric and violent: the Huns.


Gupta cavalry and elephants smash a Hunnic horde.

The Great Hunnic Horde split into two: one group headed for Europe, driving before it the Alans, Magyars, and Goths, who successively attacked and brought the Western Roman Empire to its knees. Meanwhile the Eastern Roman Empire was too busy fighting Persia to trade; the Han dynasty collapsed, sending China into chaos. The great trade links between the world’s three superpowers were severed. The other Hunnic horde, the White Huns or Sveta Huna as they came to be called, headed for India and ran headlong into the last great Gupta emperor, named after the Hindu god of war: Skanda-Gupta, who smashed and scattered them to the winds.

Not even the Roman emperors had been able to defeat the Huns in pitched combat. But repeated Hunnic invasions forced Skandagupta to devalue currency to pay his army, since he could no longer rely on immense east-west trade. Hyperinflation combined with local rebellions from former subject kings brought the empire to its knees within decades of Skandagupta’s death; the Huns stormed in and brutally sacked and pillaged wherever they saw fit. The Guptas, to their credit, never stopped fighting. Under their last significant ruler, Narasimha-Gupta, they formed a coalition with their erstwhile vassal, King Yasovarman of Malwa, and drove the Huns out of India, saving it from a Dark Age like that into which Europe had just descended. The Huns fled to Kashmir and sacked it, then they headed to Gandhara and sacked it, then their khan died and the horde dispersed.


Skanda-Gupta as an archer, a heavily devalued coin. He still holds the by-now quite beleaguered imperial Garuda standard.

The Huns would never again be a threat to South Asia. But, sadly, neither would the Gupta emperors, who subsided into ignominy at Pataliputra until their unceremonious ouster by the last North Indian chakravartin: Coming up in my next article. Stay tuned! 🙂

Prequel: When in India, do as the Indians do

Sequel: The Secret History of the Emperor Harsha, Part I.


  1. Basham, A.L. and Rizvi, S.A.A. (1956). The Wonder That Was India. Sidgwick and Jackson.
  2. Thapar, R. (2015). The Penguin History of Early India: From the origins to AD 1300. Penguin UK.
  3. Doniger, W. (2009). The Hindus: an Alternative History. Penguin.
  4. Eraly, A. (2011). The First Spring: the Golden Age of India. Penguin Books India.
  5. Coin Photographs: The Coin India Virtual Museum
  6. Ajanta Cave Paintings: Wikimedia Commons and Ajantacaves.org

When in India, do as the Indians do

The Evolution of Culture in South Asia, c. 180 BCE – 300 CE

In which the Indians establish a precedent for cultural assimilation which becomes their brand image until 2014

When we last left the Subcontinent, the Mauryan Wheel of Law had ceased to turn as the Indo-Greek kingdoms  began their conquest of the Punjab and Gangetic Valley, and local kingdoms and identities began to reassert themselves in former imperial territories.


The Indo-Greek King Menander Soter (Milinda) debates with the Buddhist monk Nagasena

This essay attempts to cover nearly five hundred years of history, almost triple the timescale of my older ones. In order to prevent my untimely demise at the hands of irate readers, therefore, I present instead of a dry, dynastic history of practically identical monarchs (with which the Internet abounds) a cultural history of the subcontinent, tracing the social intermingling and the intellectual diversity to which it was home. I begin chronologically with the Greeks and Scythians in the North and then examine the indigenous culture of the South, before returning to the Kushanas in the North and setting the stage for the Indian Golden Age under the Gupta emperors. Let’s begin!

Barbarians and Buddhism


Menander as represented on the Bharhut stupa. In one hand is an ivy branch (symbol of the Greek god Dionysos) and on his sword is the Buddhist triratna symbol.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, with the demise of Alexander the Great, his Persian, Afghan, and Baloch territories were disputed between the Mauryas and the Seleucids. After the death of Asoka Maurya, these territories were taken over by assorted Greek generals and administrators, who at various times were forced into a single mighty state (“The Indo-Greek Kingdom”), notably under the most interesting ruler King Menander I “Soter” (“The Saviour”), a Buddhist who is supposed to have converted after a stimulating debate with the teacher Nagasena.

Known as “Yavanas” in Sanskrit (from Persian Yona, Greek Ionia), the Greeks were a very important component of the consciousness of the subcontinent. Not only were they rulers and soldiers, but traders and  artists as well. The Gandhara school of art, which I have mentioned earlier, was a result of the interaction and likely intermarriage of Greek and Indian artisanal families.

Indo-Greek art is thick with little symbols which are testament to the influence these two cultures had on each other. I could dig up hundreds of examples: Bodhisattvas and Buddhas with Greek bodies and flowing robes; Indian gods with Greek beards pursuing Indo-Greek apsara-nymphs, and so on. But I’ve chosen the below image in particular:


Two Aristocratic Gandhara Ladies

Two Aristocratic Gandharan Ladies” is a masterpiece on many levels. It represents two ladies, evidently high-born and wealthy; sisters perhaps, or friends. Their features are a curious blend of Indian and Greek. Elegant hand gestures complement truly Indian proportions of breast and waist, their posture and brows delicately Greek. Their elaborately done-up hair is midway between the two but their jewellery and costumes are Indian; the drapery and folds of the cloth are again Greek. Imagine them in Menander’s capital, Sagala (Sialkot): a paradise of gardens, groves, lakes and tanks. The streets and squares are well-laid; the mansions of the aristocracy, to which they belong, are “aloft like the mountain peaks of the Himalayas”; there are hundreds of alm-halls for the monks; people throng the streets irrespective of caste, creed or colour; preachers from every sect and creed of the subcontinent debate and teach in the streets. Our ladies shop for muslin and silk; they inhale the scent of flowers and perfumes; they admire jewels set in warm gold, which glitter and glow in the sun, like the sun. The Buddhist Milinda-Panha (“Questions of Menander”) proclaims it an equal to Alakamanda, mythical capital of the god of wealth.

“Imagine them in Menander’s capital.. a paradise of gardens, groves, lakes and tanks.. the mansions of the aristocracy… are aloft like the mountain peaks of the Himalayas.”

It is difficult to underestimate the influence that the Indo-Greeks had on the culture of the subcontinent. Our aesthetic sense, the bedrock of everything from paintings to temple construction, is shaped by it; its idealised proportions, serene expressions, detailed folds of cloth, Indo-Corinthian columns, or even erotic courtship are reflected in one way or another in almost every subsequent production, usually by further refinement, idealisation, and elaboration.

Observe above the similarity in expression and the relative proportions of the facial features (eyes, brows, lips) between the former, a painting of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara from Ajanta, c. 6th century CE; and the latter, a Gandharan Buddha c. 1st century BCE/CE.

Scythians and Sakas


South Asia 50-100 BCE, depicting the many conflicting states and tribes of the time

Roughly around the time the imperial Maurya dynasty finally collapsed in India, the imperial Han Dynasty in China sent a great military expedition against their barbarian neighbours. Though they could not have known it at the time, this event set off one of the greatest migrations in human history. A tidal wave of nomadic peoples, each fleeing from their neighbours to the east, headed to the West; the migration would end nearly 600 years later with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Gupta Empire in the Indian subcontinent, at a time when the Han Dynasty fell in chaos.

“The consequences of conquest come back to haunt us all in the end: the fabric of human history connects all peoples and races, and is too complex for us to ever comprehend or predict.”                                                                                                   -Me

Of these many nomadic peoples, three are especially important to the story of India, and each of them will follow and topple the previous one, with interesting effects on Indian culture and economy. The first of these were the Scythian hordes or “Sakas”. They were fleeing the Kushanas (Yuezhi), and arrived at the borders of the Indo-Greek kingdoms around 80 BCE. Initially the Saka chiefs were overawed by the power of the kings, and swore fealty to them. But the tribes eventually swelled in numbers and ambition and began to unify and conquer their overlords. A few decades later, under King Azes I, they had conquered Gandhara and Punjab; they then headed to Gujarat and the Gangetic plain, supposedly even sacking the old Mauryan capital at Pataliputra.


Saka and Indo-Greek cavalry in combat

The Scythians then settled down and became “Sakas” to their new Indian subjects. The kings established two major satrapies, in the Persian style: one at Mathura (ruled by the Northern Satrap or, as rendered in Indian languages, Kshatrapa), and another, much more prominent one at Gujarat under the Western Maha Kshatrapa, which became increasingly prominent as the King and then the Northern Satrapy were uprooted by the Yuezhi (“Kushanas”) who were hot on their tail. But more on that later.


An Indo-Scythian couple inspect their herds

Under the Sakas, there was of course the usual intermingling of races and costumes but in addition a patronage of indigenous art. Some Sakas were pagan, some Buddhist, and some Hindu; their ideas of nature-gods fused with and helped in the evolution of existing subcontinental religious observances. They inaugurated an era of timekeeping (the Saka era); their style of minting coins (copied from the Greeks) was further copied by many subsequent Indian rulers; their pastoral, horse-rearing culture is sure to have had an effect on the development of later militaristic castes. In addition, their close genealogical ties to the tribes who were by now masters of Central Asia further promoted Silk Road trade in the subcontinent, as did their development of the great port of Bhrigukachchha (Barygaza) in Gujarat, a major entrepot for Roman trade. Their complete assimilation in the subcontinent can be deduced from an inscription by the Western Maha Kshatrapa Rudradaman I, c. 130 CE, which he had carved on a great dam at Junagadh, constructed under Chandragupta Maurya about 400 years prior and finally restored by himself.

Be it accomplished! The Mahakshatrapa Rudradaman.. he who was resorted to by all castes and chosen as their lord to protect them.. who has attained wide fame by studying and remembering, by the knowledge and practice of, grammar, music, logic and other great sciences; who..”

Rudradaman I. Compare the excellent depiction of facial features to the coins of Antialkidas.

The list of Rudradaman’s most excellent qualities continues at length in true Indian style: he could be any Indian king were it not for the fact that he is, patrilineally, a Saka. Even more important: the inscription is in pure Sanskrit, of which Rudradaman was apparently a great scholar. Why is this important? Because, it seems, the Sakas turned to patronage of Brahmans and the culture of the elite to bolster their rule. Asoka Maurya had spoken to his subjects in Prakrit, for he had no need to pander to anyone, being immensely popular with the Buddhist masses. The Saka usage of Sanskrit is quite possibly an effort to seek legitimacy by hearkening back to traditions of language and art that had been the preserve of the upper castes. It is quite possible that this reflects the growing power, at last, of Brahmanism. The Saka precedent of “respecting” what was earlier a very amorphous caste system would be followed for hundreds of years, most damagingly by the British.

Satavahanas and Sanskritization

Gautamiputra Satakarni

Gautamiputra Satakarni (seated, center right) celebrates his defeat of the Scythian hordes


My own sketch of the Amaravati Stupa

By the end of the reign of Asoka Maurya, urbanization had just taken off in South India, with the Tamil poets of the deep South beginning to compose the great corpus of poetry, the Sangam literature. Having come into contact with the North, South Indian urban centers grew in leaps and bounds, fuelled by the immense profits of trade with the East and the West. Thanks to the efforts of Asoka, Buddhism was quite popular. Despite the political uncertainty of the times, Indian artisanal goods consistently improved in quality over the next few centuries; penetration of trade links continued at a tremendous pace; merchant classes grew more and more influential. How did this happen?

Working professionals formed trading conglomerates to ensure quality standards and uniform pricing, and make consensual representations to a plurality of petty rulers. Within a few generations, guild families were intermarrying and providing cheap credit to such inductees to form new family businesses. Their economic power was sufficient for them to extend independent patronage to artists  and religious institutions such as the Buddhist Sangha: notable examples of these are the Amaravati school of art, arguably one of the most influential art styles in human history, and the magnificent Amaravati Stupa.


Possible Satavahana princess, from one of the earliest caves in Ajanta

Economic prosperity and political power developed apace. After suffering a shocking blow under the Saka hordes at the turn of the first millennium CE, the Satavahana tribe of Andhra had, under their greatest ruler, Gautamiputra Satakarni, unified most of the Deccan and defeated not only the Sakas but the Greeks (Yavanas) and Parthians (Pahlavas) as well. This unified kingdom was ruled by a central king-of-kings (rajaraja or rajadhiraja) who had subdued a number of petty local rajas and thus could not rely on the central bureaucracy to maintain power, as the Mauryas had. Thus the Satavahanas, like the Sakas, began to overawe their trembling vassals through immense Hindu ceremonies such as the Asvamedha or horse sacrifice, and trumpet their splendour by patronizing poor Brahmans. The powerful specialized guilds needed to be kept happy; thus they were turned into jati and eventually moved from Buddhism to a place in the caste system, a part of the edifice of royal power.

“This unified kingdom.. could not rely on the central bureaucracy to maintain power. Thus the Satavahanas… moved from Buddhism to a place in the caste system, a part of the edifice of royal power.”

But, just to clarify, the brutally oppressive system of later years was nowhere in sight yet. Caste was at this point still quite flexible as Sanskrit/Hindu culture began to spread through the subcontinent and reach accommodations with local traditions, cults, and elites (a process called “Sanskritization“). At this point Buddhism is still the religion of the  majority: the socio-economic conditions are not yet ripe for rigidity, but the seeds have just been sown.

Kushanas and Cosmopolitanism

Let’s summarise the evolution of the subcontinent so far.

  • North: Highly cosmopolitan, urbanized and religiously fluid owing to the multitude of foreign contacts; beginnings of Brahminical patronage and a shift to Hinduism. Buddhism still predominant; prosperity from land-based trade along the nascent Silk Road.
  • South: Beginning to diverge from the North ethnically and politically under local rulers; rapid Sanskritization of elites and kings causing a wane in the influence of Buddhism; prosperity from East-West trade along the coast; urbanization moving inland.

Bust of a Kushan Prince

Particularly eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that I mentioned a tribe called the Yuezhi, who were hot on the tails of the Sakas. For a brief while they focussed their attentions on petty tribal infighting while raiding the Parthian empire in Persia, and then turned their attentions back to their ancestral enemies, the Sakas, who had by this time settled down and become thoroughly Indian. Under a succession of martial kings, beginning with a certain Kujula Kadphises, the Yuezhi wiped out the Saka kingdom and the Northern Kshatrapa at Mathura. Wisely enough, the Western Kshatrapa swore fealty and was spared by the new “Kushan” Kingdom.



Possible reconstruction of the Great Stupa at Purushapura: 700 feet high with great bells and streamers at every tier

The Kushanas reached their apex under King Kanishka, a descendant of the aforementioned Kujula. His kingdom, stretching from Central Asia to Pataliputra, provided a stable haven for the development of the Silk Road trade route and benefited immensely from it. In fact, contemporary Roman writers bemoan the immense drain of gold from their empire (which was enjoying an era of peace and prosperity under the excellent emperors Trajan and Hadrian) to India at around this time. More important to the history of humankind is Kanishka’s religious and cultural syncretism. As cosmopolitanism reached its peak in Gandhara, Kanishka’s empire bore emblems of Greek, Buddhist, Hindu, and even some Persian culture; he patronized both the elegant Gandhara and the solid Mathura schools of art. At his massive capital, Purushapura (“City of Men/ City of Man”: modern Peshawar), he ordered the construction of the greatest Buddhist monument ever built. An 87-metre wide, 210-metre tall stupa that dwarfed even the Amaravati stupa in comparison, this multi-storied marvel was studded with jewels and gold and could be seen from miles away. Unfortunately for posterity, this wonder of the ancient world has not survived, and all we know of it comes from a tale by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang 500 years later.

“Of all the Stupas in the world.. not one comes close to this in grandeur. Everybody agrees that this is the most wonderful Stupa in the whole of the inhabited world..”



Mahayana Buddhist coin of Kanishka with Greco-Kushan script. Obv: Shahenshah Kanishka the Kushan; Rev: “BODDO” or Buddha.

Buddhism had begun its journey from philosophy to religion from the time of Asoka Maurya and the Second Buddhist Council; Kanishka ordered a Fourth Buddhist Council which definitively founded the Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) school of Buddhism, which worshipped the Buddha as a deity in addition to assorted Bodhisattvas such as Avalokitesvara and Vajrapani, with its own distinctive stories, scriptures, and pantheon. Kanishka’s control of the Silk Road, and his personal patronage, helped disseminate this and ensured that it was the dominant school of thought for centuries in countries as far-flung as Japan, Tibet and China.

Prosperous but not decadent; intellectually vital; religiously syncretic; ethnically diverse; artistically sophisticated; the subcontinent had an unmistakable cosmopolitanism that, arguably, was never repeated in its history. There is great glory and sophistication yet to come in my story, but the deep connections that South Asia (not just India) once had with the world in general and with Central Asia and Afghanistan in particular are, like Kanishka’s stupa, no more  than rubble and ash.

Prelude to the Golden Guptas

With the death of Kanishka, the Kushan Kingdom began to unravel under pressure from the Sassanid dynasty of Persia. Meanwhile, after Rudradaman delivered a death-blow to the Satavahanas, the Western Kshatrapas too were in decline. The time was ripe for a reassertion of the indigenous culture of the subcontinent, much enriched in art, culture and wealth by its experience of foreign contact. Wealth flowed freely in the cities, the populace was thriving as never before, Brahmanism had evolved into a formidable royal tool. Petty princes abounded across the subcontinent, and the precedent for their subjugation had been set. It was time for someone to follow in the footsteps of Chandragupta Maurya and Gautamiputra Satakarni.


There was Samudragupta! Equal to the gods.. By whom the whole tribe of kings on Earth were overthrown.. Whose deeds in battle are kindled with prowess.. around whom Fortune circles.”

It was time for India’s Golden Age. And, as the Roman Empire declined in the West and Han China subsided into chaos, India would do what neither of these powers could: break the power of the Huns and keep alight the flames of civilization as the greatest imperial power of its time. Stay tuned for more!

Sequel: Hearts of Gold, Times of Gold

Prequel: Pax Maurya, or, Mauryan Peace

Pax Maurya, or, Mauryan Peace

Asoka Maurya and the fall of the Empire, c. 300 – 180 BCE.

In which the Indians, having founded an empire, experiment with organised religion.

He who had once held the world in the palm of his hand, died with no more than half a plum to his name.


The Gateway to Asoka Maurya’s Great Stupa at Sanchi, built to house relics of the Buddha

Asoka Maurya, a colossus in global, Indian, and Buddhist history, occupies a similar position in Buddhism to that of the Roman emperor Constantine (the first to proclaim tolerance for Roman Christians) in Christianity. Buddhist writers generally present Asoka as a wicked monster redeemed  and turned into an angel only by Buddhism. Therefore, I’ll make a distinction between religious and non-religious sources in this essay.

“Asoka Maurya.. occupies a similar position in Buddhism to that of the Roman emperor Constantine in Christianity”.

My aim here is to present Asoka as a human, and not as an apotheosized figure as most school textbooks do. I argue that far from being the Perfect Human Being that he is generally assumed to be, the real figure is far more compelling. The first part of this post discusses his traumatic formative years. An interlude of sorts discusses in further detail the immensity of his vision, with a word-picture of which I am rather proud. The third section discusses the culture of South Asia at the time and anticipates future changes. The fourth traces the fall of the Mauryas, Edward Gibbon style.

Finally, for a life as dramatic, eventful and eventually tragic as Asoka’s, there is an inexplicable paucity of great artwork (excepting Hutchinson’s excellent Story of the Nations, and the excellent work of the Sri Lankan artist Prasanna Weerakkody, who graciously provided the featured image for this essay). While it’s something I aim to eventually address with my own work, I apologize in advance for the preponderance of black and white imagery.

Asoka the Terrible: 304-260 BCE


Asoka as depicted on the Sanchi Stupa, with two of his wives

Propaganda aside, Asoka Maurya (ironically, the name means “Without Sorrow“), born to the emperor Bindusara “Slayer-of-Foes” Maurya, grandson of the conqueror Chandragupta Maurya, did not seem destined for greatness at birth. He was short and not particularly good-looking, with rough skin that made him the laughing stock of the royal maidens. His mother was not of great rank compared to the emperor’s other queens. Nor was he the eldest son, for there were a number of older half-brothers better qualified (in age and paternal affection) to be next in line for the throne.

He is not likely to have led a life with plenty of parental affection. This manifested, like with so many neglected children, in a myriad of generally debauched habits, including cruelty to captured enemies, a general addiction to hunting, and supposedly even some twisted S&M including the burning of members of his harem.

“The emperor, apparently, saw potential in this dissolute son.”


Bollywood depiction of an aged Bindusara Maurya. Among other mistakes, ancient Indian queens rarely wore so much clothing. 😛

The emperor, apparently, saw potential in this dissolute son and selected him for advancement (or, possibly, humiliation?). He was dispatched to be the governor of the western provincial capital at Ujjayini (Ujjain), while his elder half-brother and heir-apparent Susima Maurya was dispatched to the grand northern capital at Takshasila (Taxila). Asoka distinguished himself through astute negotiations with the disaffected populace of his province, securing it for his father. (I should probably also mention that he took the daughter of a local merchant as a lover and fathered two children.) Susima, however, ended up causing a revolt which the aging emperor managed to put down.

Asoka’s time at Ujjain was to prove in retrospect the happiest of his life, for terrible news soon came to him from his network of friendly merchants and travellers. The old emperor, it was rumoured, was dead. Prince Susima, as heir apparent, had been summoned to quietly assume power before the news could spread, and he was on his way to the imperial capital, Pataliputra,with an army.

Asoka moved quickly. Leaving behind conjugal happiness in the pursuit of power, he collected a small force of loyal troops and marched for the capital at speed, while sending messages promising favour and advancement to the ministers of the empire. When Susima arrived at the city, perfumed, bedecked and prepared for his coronation, he found Asoka’s banners flying from the walls and his half-brother sitting on an elephant in front of the ceremonial gate, surrounded by the imperial guard and his troops. Infuriated, he threw caution to the winds and charged his own elephant towards the upstart. Seconds before he made contact, the ground gave way and he fell into the pit of live coals that Asoka had prepared and concealed in front of his position.

“When Susima arrived.. perfumed, bedecked, and prepared for his coronation, he found Asoka’s banners flying from the walls.”

In the space of four years Asoka consolidated the empire and defeated all other claimants. His grandfather had conquered North India, and his father, the South; the ambitious, brash new emperor needed an equal achievement. Kalinga (Orissa) had never truly submitted to the authority of the Mauryan emperors, and its position as an independent port on the eastern coast threatened Mauryan dominance of sea trade. Asoka, therefore, determined to conquer it and set forth with a massive army.


A CG rendering of Mauryan infantry. based on inscriptions from the Sanchi and Barhut stupas

The conquest of Kalinga is infamous not only due to its portrayal in Buddhist sources but also due to Asoka’s own well-documented regret at its outcome. He was victorious, but only at a terrible cost. Hundreds of thousands of people supposedly died, and what portions of the population were still alive at the end of it were uprooted and scattered across the empire to permanently extinguish all possibility of rebellion.

If it was any consolation to the dead, it was to prove, one way or another, a turning point in the history of the world, for the unthinkable happened: Asoka the Terrible called for peace and an end to war in his empire.

Interlude: The Idea of Empire

The Kalinga war had ended with a sobering realisation for the emperor: clearly the amount of military force required to keep together the tremendous patchwork of client states, directly administered territory, and tribes that composed the empire was simply unsustainable. The borders and administration needed to be consolidated; more importantly, his subjects needed to have something to unify them, something more than the threat of force. And so he turned, like Constantine would centuries later, to a spiritual movement, and adapted it to an imperial power structure.

“…He turned to a spiritual movement, and adapted it to an imperial power structure.”

doadwSouth Asia was not lacking for interesting religious sects. Asoka’s own grandfather, it will be recalled, was a Jain; his father Bindusara professed adherence to the Ajivika sect (which held that there was no free will and that all was preordained). The cities of the Gangetic plain were in the immense intellectual ferment that always seems to accompany the economic success which washes away older systems of production. Imagine, for a moment, the crowds of Buddhist monks in saffron robes and Jain monks in white robes begging for alms in Pataliputra, while an atheist and Brahman debate in the marketplace; nearby a Greek merchant with a retinue of Bactrians burns incense in a temple of the demigod Vasudeva, who he sees as a form of Hercules. A Persian prayer-house next door is home to a fire altar where merchants pray to the immortal deity Ahura Mazda. The riverbank of the Ganga, a brisk walk away, is thickly populated with people performing their morning ablutions and praying for the remission of their sins, while naked ascetics tell them that all religion is folly since everything that one does is preordained anyway.

“Imagine, for a moment, the crowds of Buddhist monks in saffron robes and Jain monks in white robes begging for alms in Pataliputra..”


Asoka sets up a pillar edict, with Buddhist missionaries in attendance

Of the bewildering variety available to him, the vessel that the emperor chose was Buddhism, a spiritual creed which ignored the older Brahminical caste system and preached the cessation of earthly suffering and the attainment of enlightenment via the control of desire. It already had a network of monasteries across the subcontinent, with bands of preaching monks who would make a great mouthpiece. Furthermore, Buddhism was inherently a religion of peace and was immensely popular with the wealthy mercantile classes, who were ostracized in the Brahminical system. Asoka therefore called a great Buddhist council at Pataliputra, which expelled heretics and established a single “orthodoxy”. By bestowing them with immense endowments, opening monasteries, building monuments at their holy sites, and funding successful proselytization abroad (especially, as we shall see, in China), Asoka quickly propelled Buddhism to the status of a world religion.

However, it is doubtful how devoted a Buddhist Asoka actually was. None of his edicts explicitly mention that he was Buddhist. In addition, Asoka’s concept of Dhamma, to which his edicts refer a number of times, is a political concept that is clearly meant to secure the loyalty of a multitude of subject peoples – a lowest common denominator, as it were, that all his subjects could get behind. Having decided upon a foundation for the empire, Asoka had his words, his vision, and his accomplishments carved into great rocks and pillars that he caused to be set up across his dominions: the world’s first great propagandist.

The Beloved of the Gods, King Priyadarsin, speaks thus… the sound of the drum has been replaced by the sound of the Dharma!

His words speak to us from centuries away as clear as the day he wrote them. There is no trace of courtly grammar and stiffness in what he says: he sounds, as he claims, like a father speaking to his children; oddly human, and a bit of a do-gooder despite all he had been through in life. Asoka Maurya was indeed one for the ages.

Asoka the Peaceful: 260 – 232 BCE

ashoka2So we finally arrive at what I’ve been promising my eager readers for the last couple of weeks: a discussion of the culture and administration of South Asia under the Mauryas.

Firstly, the empire itself was divided into five provinces with relatively independent governors directly responsible to the emperor, akin to the Persian system of Cyrus the Great. Modern Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Punjab, the Gandhara Province, were administered from the great university city of Taksashila, connected to the imperial capital at Pataliputra by the Uttarapatha, an extremely important (and ancient) highway now known as the Grand Trunk Road. At the border of South Asia and the Greek kingdoms of Bactria, Gandhara became home to the beautiful school of art of the same name, which fused Indian, Greek and Persian elements. The universities of the province had been responsible, about a century earlier, for the codification of Sanskrit grammar under the great teacher Panini. (It is only after Panini’s work that Sanskrit truly takes on its name, meaning “refined, artificial” as opposed to other dialects, collectively called Prakrit, meaning “coarse, natural”). Gandhara was a highly cosmopolitan and prosperous province, with Indian, Greek, and Afghan subjects, as evidenced by Asoka’s trilingual inscriptions there.


The great University at Taxila, one of the earliest known centers of higher learning

Further south was the Western Province, with its urban centers concentrated around Ujjain, though the Mauryas claimed suzerainty over client states as far away as Balochistan, Gujarat and Sindh (the lack of concentrated urban centers may be inferred from the relative lack of Asokan inscriptions, as one may reasonably assume that Asoka only ordered an inscription if he considered that there would be people to read it). This province, already prosperous with trade, had further attention lavished on it by Asoka, who set up religious endowments on every imperial tour.

South of the Narmada was the Deccan Province with its capital at Suvarnagiri in Karnataka. A sphere of Mauryan territory  surrounded by vassal tribes and chiefdoms (such as the Satavahanas in Andhra), Asoka’s promulgation of Buddhism was to become immensely important there once the province broke free in the declining years of the empire.

Heading north along the East coast, we arrive at the province of Kalinga: Asoka’s largest addition to the empire. Administered from Tosali, in his edicts in the area Asoka repents for the bloodshed and violence he caused but never says that the conquest of Kalinga itself was wrong. Nor does he allow the displaced peoples to return to their homeland. So yet again we see the contradictions inherent in this figure: his words are that of one who genuinely believes in his ideas of good and evil. In one edict he brags, with childlike innocence, that he’s cut down on the amount of meat consumed in the palace; yet at the same time he is no fool. Regretfully he must maintain, just in case, his iron grip on the empire.


Tribals rejoice as Asoka’s envoy declares peace after the Kalinga War

Mauryan imperialism until Asoka was in keeping with the spirit of the times: namely, the control of as much territory as it could get. After Kalinga, however, what set it apart from its contemporaries in China and the Greco-Mediterranean world  was not only its long peace but also the benevolence of the state: Asoka’s stated tolerance, philanthropism and infrastructure investment. Compare this to China, which had just formed its own first empire under the infamously cruel Qin Shi Huangdi, who burnt books and established a highly extractive centralised bureaucracy (which became the defining feature of Chinese imperialism); or the Mediterranean, which the successors of Alexander had carved up among themselves, and where they were now carving up each other with incessant wars.

In terms of its treatment of women, the Mauryan empire was quite similar to other contemporary states. What few sources we have of the time mention only the Mauryan queens and princesses, who were generally seen as childbearers, connivers, or models of virtue. Like in almost every Indian state, there was apparently no limit to royal polygamy: always an indicator of misogyny. In the Buddhist Sangha, of course, nuns or “bhikkhunis” were respected, but could not participate in the great theological debates of the time which resulted in the Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhist philosophy.

A singular oddity, which became a sort of Indian tradition, is that Mauryan imperial bodyguards were exclusively female. Perhaps, considering the regicidal behaviour of the Praetorian Guard in Rome centuries later, it was a wise decision.

Racism at least in urban centers is not attested to, but Asoka’s paternalistic, patronizing attitude to tribal vassals is evident from his inscriptions. It is unlikely that caste counted for too much in an empire whose founder might have been from a tribe of peacock-tamers: “Mayura” is Sanskrit for “peacock”.  The social conditions needed for the solidification of caste and dogma did not yet exist, though the Buddhist Sangha, at least, had already departed alarmingly from the teachings of the Buddha.


Fa Hsien at the ruins of Asoka’s palace, 407 CE

Finally, we arrive at the imperial capital province of Pataliputra itself, consisting of the lush, wealthy Gangetic valley. The province was directly administered, in true Chanakyan style, with every functionary from ministers to spies. (Something that is not taught in schools is that the Mauryan state ran brothels, where the prostitutes would loyally report everything they heard to the imperial spymasters). This great city on the Ganga was the jewel of almost every succeeding pan-Indian empire for hundreds of years. An immense parallelogram, 1.5 miles by 9 miles, the city walls were pierced by 64 gates and washed by the holy Ganga. The imperial palace occupied pride of place: seven hundred years later, a Chinese Buddhist monk, Fa Hsien, who paid a visit to the homeland of Buddhism (perhaps Asoka would have been proud?), was awed by the immense ruins of the place and was convinced it had been built by spirits. Now all of it lies in silt at the bottom of the Ganga, slumbering.


Decline and Fall : 238 – 180  BCE

Buddhist sources, for understandable reasons, claim that Asoka in his old age continued to give away all the resources of the empire to the Sangha. Worried, his ministers cut off his access to the treasury. The old man retired to his quarters, but he had already given away all his possessions. All that was left was a plum, of which he had had a bite for breakfast. He told his servant to make it into a stew and serve it to a monk; and, happy at last, the old emperor smiled and died.

The real story, however, is rather more complex.


Asoka’s Queen (1910), by Abanindranath Tagore

In his declining years, Asoka was much plagued by palace intrigues. His favourite son and heir presumptive, Kunala, had been blinded supposedly by one of the emperor’s jealous young wives. Meanwhile, older and more distant relatives, in charge of various provinces, played a game of their own, supporting one heir, and then another. Kunala’s son Dasaratha was chosen as a compromise candidate but was emperor only in Pataliputra. In the West his cousin Samprati Maurya ruled from Ujjain; his uncle Jalauka declared himself King of Kashmir; another cousin, Virasena Maurya, declared independence in Gandhara and went to war with the Greek kingdoms that had recently broken free of Seleucid rule in Bactria.



1st century BCE Satavahana depiction of Asoka as a chakravartin

In the South the Satavahana dynasty of Amaravati (Andhra Pradesh), who had been loyal to Asoka, broke free and set out to conquer the Deccan territories. Kalinga, of course, did not remain loyal for long either. It appears that without a ruler of Asoka’s charisma, there was little to hold the empire together, despite the efforts of Asoka’s Dharma. The lack of a truly central bureaucracy and uniform set of laws (especially governing succession) was something for which every Indian empire henceforth would inevitably pay a price. Yet the feudal system had its own merits: as a fierce sense of independence grew in every region; local cultures, languages and art bloomed into splendour, as I’ll show in my next post.

“The lack of a truly central bureaucracy and uniform set of laws… was something for which every Indian empire henceforth would inevitably pay a price.”

Meanwhile the authority of the emperors continued to decline at a tremendous pace. Virasena Maurya of Gandhara had angered the Indo-Greek kingdoms, who stormed into Punjab and raided ever deeper into the Gangetic heartland. The last emperor, Brihadratha Maurya, was defeated by the brilliant general King Demetrius “Aniketos”(“The Undefeated”), and his prestige never recovered. His commander-in-chief, the Brahmin general Pusyamitra Sunga, assassinated him during a military parade.

Thus did the first great imperial Indian dynasty pass into dust and the myth-smoke.

In my next article I’ll discuss India’s Age of Paradox: without an imperial power, the subcontinent was still flourishing and ALIVE like it had never been before. What is it about the lack of paternalistic centralism that helps us prosper? Stay tuned to find out!

Sequel: When in India, do as the Indians do

Prequel: Gloria Maurya, or, Mauryan Glory


  1. Thapar, R. (1973). Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. Oxford University Press.
  2. Allen, C. (2012). Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor. Hachette UK.
  3. Keay, J. (2011). India: A History. Revised and Updated. Grove/Atlantic, Inc..
  4. Thapar, R. (2015). The Penguin history of early India: From the origins to AD 1300. Penguin UK.
  5. Basham, A. L., & Rizvi, S. A. A. (1956). The Wonder that was India. Sidgwick and Jackson.
  6. Featured image: “Maha Bo” Embassy Gift of the Sri Maha bodhi by Emperor Ashoka of India to King Devanampiyatissa of Lanka, by Prasanna Weerakkody. 8’x4’ feet, Acrylic on canvas.Sri Lankan High Commission in Delhi, India. Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/prasannaweerakkody.paintings/?fref=ts 



Gloria Maurya, or, Mauryan Glory

The Establishment of the Mauryan Empire, c. 320 BCE.

In Which the Indians find themselves at the wrong end of some rather pointy sticks (not kebabs) which introduce them to Mediterranean culture.

There was once a man who was convinced he was a god. Others were equally convinced he was a megalomaniac, and a drunkard.

He had already conquered the largest empire in the world but he wanted more. Stories were whispered to him of a nation at the edge of the world, of a mighty river with immensely wealthy kingdoms on the banks, of naked ascetics who had attained the inner peace which he, perhaps, truly craved. So off he went, dragging his exhausted troops along, supplemented with some natives of this land of which he had heard, who had formerly fought for the Persians.


It seemed this land, India, would not be too hard to conquer: the very first king he encountered, Ambhi (Omphis) of Taksasila (Taxila) surrendered to him abjectly with gifts of gold and livestock. The god-on-earth was generous: he repaid the gifts and confirmed his new ally in his position as King. Then he crossed over into what the locals called “The Land of the Five Rivers”. And there, Alexander the Great, King of Kings, faced the deadliest battle of his career.

The Battle of the Hydaspes River

The Paurava Raja had gathered a great army intent on stopping this bloodthirsty conqueror at the river Hydaspes (Jhelum). Crossing in daylight would be suicide, as Alexander’s troops would be exposed to a hail of missiles and die before they even made contact with the enemy. So he ordered them, oddly enough, to party.

For three days and three nights, the Macedonian (Greek) camp echoed with the sound of music and feasting, while Alexander led cavalry sorties up and down river to find a crossing point. His lieutenants would draw the Raja’s attention by pretending to cross the river at the primary ford (where the majority of his army was), and pulling back at the last moment. Eventually the Raja was convinced that the Greeks were cowards and had no intention of fighting. Then, on a rainy night in 326 BC, Alexander and about 11,000 troops crossed the Hydaspes at a ford they had found.

Eventually the Raja was convinced that the Greeks were cowards and had no intention of fighting.

The shocked Indians turned their troops to face the threat. The Raja sent his son and a detachment of chariots to prevent the crossing. The river banks turned into a hell of mud and blood, the chariots were bogged down and immobilized. The prince was dragged off his chariot and slaughtered. His troops fled. The rest of the Indian army waited in grim anticipation.


Alexander at the Hydaspes. Contrast the discipline and armour of the Macedonian and Indian lines

Alexander had no intention of facing his opponent’s 200 war elephants head on. Instead, he ordered forward a detachment of horse archers to weaken the Indian left flank. Then, he personally led forward heavy cavalry and pike detachments. As the Indian left began to falter, the elephants charged Alexander’s center, inflicting heavy casualties. The mahouts drove them perpendicular to the pike phalanxes, shattering the Greek pikes. However, the beasts were soon maddened by the darts flung by Alexander’s skirmishers, and the combined effect of hundreds of twenty-foot pikes drove them insane with rage. As they turned back and charged their own lines, the rest of Alexander’s army, which had crossed under the cover of the noise of the storm and the battle, appeared to the rear of the Indian lines.

Though surrounded, the Raja refused to surrender. He ordered his army into a double phalanx, to face the enemy on both sides. In the utter butchery of the battle, the Indian discipline crumbled under the feet of mad elephants, bloodthirsty Greek cavalry, and rank upon rank of well-drilled pikemen stamping them into mud, blood and death. The army shattered and yet the Raja fought on.


Romantic 19th-century depiction of the surrender of the Paurava Raja

Then, some sources tell us, one of Alexander’s young Indian mercenaries, Sandrocottus/Sandrokoptos, rode up to the Raja’s elephant and convinced him to stand down. The King was taken to the King-of-Kings in chains. “How do you wish me to treat you?”, demanded the conqueror. “Treat me like a King!” demanded the 7-foot tall Indian. Impressed with his courage (or was it caste pride? Keay speculates all that the Raja insisted on was being treated by the Kshatriya code of honour), the Greeks installed him as the governor, or satrap, of the Punjab province. Thus did Indians first taste an organized empire, and the culture and military strategy of the Mediterranean.


An “Indian Julius Caesar”

At this point we must leave Alexander, for his story diverges from that which I wish to tell. (He died either of poison or disease, and his empire was divided amongst his generals). The mercenary Sandrocottus, though, has a fascinating life ahead of him. In case you haven’t guessed already: Sandrocottus or Sandrokoptos is merely the Greek rendering of the Indian Chandragupta

The Gangetic Plains were ruled by the Nanda dynasty of Pataliputra, by all accounts immensely unpopular with their subjects (history is written by the victors: one has to wonder if that was just how Chandragupta portrayed them to disguise his ambition). An apocryphal tale relates how Chandragupta’s initial attack was defeated, and he obtained inspiration by watching a mother scold a child who had burnt its fingers by eating its flatbread from the center and not from the edges. (The same story is told of Alfred the Great as well).

chandragupta_mauryan_empire_305_bcIrrespective of how he did it (an alliance of unhappy Nanda vassals led by his Greek-drilled troops perhaps?), Chandragupta Maurya had, like his idol Alexander’s conquest of Persia, overrun the entirety of North India in about six years. Then, he promptly uprooted the feudal structure of the older kingdom, instituting provinces, governors, and a civilian bureaucracy on a Greco-Persian model. India, then, had its first Empire; Chandragupta secured his western provinces by defeating Seleukos “Nikator” (“The Victorious”), the most powerful of Alexander’s successors, expanding the empire into Afghanistan and Baluchistan, and adding Greeks and Afghans to his rapidly-expanding repertoire of subjects.

Chandragupta’s fame is nearly equaled by that of his supposed mentor, Kautilya, whose Arthashastra is a book of cold-blooded political calculation and tenets of rule that would probably cause Machiavelli to quake in his boots. (Kautilya was actually a proven and successful administrator, whereas Machiavelli ended his career as a failed diplomat. Yet, oddly enough, Machiavelli is the global political mastermind, but outside of India, whoever heard of Chanakya/Kautilya? 😛 )

“.. Oddly enough, Machiavelli is the global political mastermind, but outside of India, whoever heard of Chanakya?”


Victorian depiction of Chandragupta Maurya entertaining his wives

Another (probably spurious) tale tells us that Chanakya aimed to protect Chandragupta from poisoning by feeding him incrementally larger doses of poison each day (which is supposedly the same thing that Mithridates VI “Eupator” of Pontus did to himself). Interesting how stories and patterns reverberate across cultures, isn’t it? One day, Chandragupta, not knowing about the poison, shared some of his food with his pregnant wife. She died, but they were able to save the child. Asphyxiation in the womb had left him with a blue mark (bindu) on his forehead, and so “Bindusara” he was named. (It is unknown what consequences Chanakya faced from the probably infuriated and/or despondent emperor).

After an illustrious career, the old Chandragupta, apparently, decided on a quiet retirement. He headed south, beyond the limits of his empire, to the Jain monastery of Sravanabelagola in Karnataka. There, after a few years of asceticism, he ritually starved himself to death. Compare this to Alexander’s death as a bloated, half-mad shell of a man: the conflict between renunciation and temporal satisfaction is an interesting and recurring theme in Indian history.


The cave where Chandragupta is supposed to have died

Bindusara “Amitraghata” (“Slayer of Enemies”) Maurya, 22, was now emperor. He maintained friendly relations with the Hellenic world (they called him “Amitrochates”).  His programme of conquest pushed the imperial borders all the way down to Tamil Nadu (the early Sangam literature, that immense corpus of Tamil poetry, mentions the white pennants of the Mauryan chariots as they thundered across the land). Governors were installed, and wealth poured into the immense capital of Pataliputra on the Ganga. Imperial highways encouraged trade and the subcontinent began to flourish. As the emperor aged, he sent his sons to govern provinces in order to prepare them to take over on his eventual death.

Two of these sons, Susima and Asoka, are especially important to the story of India. In my next post, I’ll discuss possibly the most famous of Indian rulers, and how he literally changed the world.

Continue reading

India: An Introduction

In which the Author Explores his rather fuzzy motivations

Let me tell you a story. ashokanpillar

In Allahabad stands a pillar. It is crowned by a carven lion, slouched with barely-concealed fury and great elegance, glowering at those who approach. The lion is carved in a style distinctly reminiscent of the great Persian capital of Persepolis, and there are elements of Greek sculpture in its musculature and of Indian art in its stylized mane.


Ashoka as a Chakravartin

This pillar was commissioned by a man who spanned an empire stretching from Afghanistan to the furthest south of the subcontinent, a man yet humble enough not to call himself (as later Indian rulers would) “rajadhiraja” (King of Kings) or even chakravartin. This man in his carvings calls himself nothing more than the raja of Magadha. This man was the Mauryan emperor Ashoka.

A little below that are the engravings of another man, one to whom the appellations of rajadhiraja, paramarajadhiraja, and even rajarajadhiraja (King of King of Kings, or Emperor of Emperors) are plentifully applied. This man rampaged across the Gangetic Plains and most of the rest of India, drawing a galaxy of lesser rulers into orbit around him. He was the great-grandfather of one of the few commanders in human history that was able to defeat the might of the Huns (those barbarians who had humbled even the Romans); from his capital at Pataliputra on the Ganga, his campaigns had “scented the breezes of the Southern Sea”; he was an “Indian Napoleon”. This man was the Gupta emperor Samudra-Gupta.


Jahangir on a Lion Hunt

On top of Ashoka’s are the engravings of yet another man, a patron of Sanskrit and the arts responsible for one of the most beautiful cultural blooms in the history of the subcontinent, a man whose son built the most glorious of Indian monuments, whose father had humbled the mighty Rajputs and inaugurated the most prosperous Indian polity since the time of our first pillar-engraver. This man was the Mughal emperor Jahangir.

I’ve mentioned this pillar for three reasons. To me, India is a country with history, culture, and interesting stories literally just around the corner wherever I go, a country where our history and heritage lies slumbering behind the smoke and noise of our thriving cities. Few other countries have a history as illustrious, a culture so refined; yet in our drab and pedantic textbooks there is no hint of this vibrance, and we rush to dismiss our own roots as too obscure for enjoyment. I want this series of articles to go towards dispelling that notion at least a little.

Now, my reasons. Firstly, note that the Indian idea of an emperor is not like the European conception of an absolute ruler, but is instead defined in opposition to other kings, Direct administration is not the goal of an Indian sovereign: how much more prestigious to have lesser kings accept your suzerainty! The emperor turns the Wheel of Law, as the chakravartin, and is the centre of the raja-mandala, with lesser rulers paying tribute to him. His righteousness and force of arms run his empire, not his shrewd managing of the economy and efficient administration.

Secondly, the pillar is a fascinating example of three rulers, the scions of the three greatest of Indian dynasties, who could not understand the words of those who came before, who came from vastly different backgrounds, and yet appropriated the majesty of their predecessors to leave their own mark in time.

Thirdly, it makes for a rather good story. 😛

My next article will start out my study of India with the imperial Mauryas: stay tuned!

Sequel: Gloria Maurya, or, Mauryan Glory