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.
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!
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..”
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.
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 Chakravartin: a previously benevolent title which to earlier Buddhists had meant “Turner of the Wheel of Law” but now meant “World-Conquering-Monarch“.
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 Vikramaditya, “Sun 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
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..”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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’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.”
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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
- Basham, A.L. and Rizvi, S.A.A. (1956). The Wonder That Was India. Sidgwick and Jackson.
- Thapar, R. (2015). The Penguin History of Early India: From the origins to AD 1300. Penguin UK.
- Doniger, W. (2009). The Hindus: an Alternative History. Penguin.
- Eraly, A. (2011). The First Spring: the Golden Age of India. Penguin Books India.
- Coin Photographs: The Coin India Virtual Museum
- Ajanta Cave Paintings: Wikimedia Commons and Ajantacaves.org