The five centuries which passed between the decline of the first great Indian empire of the Mauryas and the emergence of the great empire of the Guptas has often been described as a dark period in Indian history when foreign dynasties fought each other for short-lived and ephemeral supremacy over northern India.

By: Ganesh Dutt

Posted on: 27/10/2020 View : 85


The splendour of the ‘dark period’

The five centuries which passed between the decline of the first great Indian empire of the Mauryas and the emergence of the great empire of the Guptas has often been described as a dark period in Indian history when foreign dynasties fought each other for short-lived and ephemeral supremacy over northern India. Apart from Kanishka’s Indo-Central Asian empire which could claim to be similar in size to Han China, the Parthians of Persia and to the contemporary Roman empire, this period did lack the glamour of large empires. But this ‘dark period’, particularly the first two centuries AD, was a period of intensive economic and cultural contact among the various parts of the Eurasian continent. India played a very active role in stimulating these contacts. Buddhism, which had been fostered by Indian rulers since the days of Ashoka, was greatly aided by the international connections of the IndoGreeks and the Kushanas and thus rose to prominence in Central Asia. South India was establishing its important links with the West and with Southeast Asia in this period. These links, especially those with Southeast Asia, proved to be very important for the future course of Asian history.

But India itself also experienced important social and cultural changes in this period. For centuries Buddhism had enjoyed royal patronage. This was partly due to the fact that the foreign rulers of India found Buddhism more accessible than orthodox Hinduism with its caste barriers. The Vedic Brahmins had been pushed into the background by the course of historical development although Hinduism as such did not experience a decline. On the contrary, new popular cults arose around gods like Shiva, Krishna and Vishnu-Vasudeva who had played only a marginal role in an earlier age. The competition between Buddhism, which dominated the royal courts and cities, and orthodox Brahminism, which was still represented by numerous Brahmin families everywhere, left enough scope for these new cults to gain footholds of their own. Of great importance for the further development of Hinduism and particularly for the Hindu idea of kingship was the Kushana rulers’ identification with certain Hindu gods—they were actually believed to attain a complete identity with the respective god after their death.

Religious legitimation was of greater importance to these foreign rulers than to other Indian kings. Menander’s ashes had been distributed according to the Buddhist fashion, and Kanishka was identified with Mithras, but Wima Kadphises and Huvishka were closer to Shiva as shown by the images on their coins. Huvishka’s coins provide a regular almanac of the iconography of the early Shiva cult. The deification of the ruler which was so prevalent in the Roman and Hellenistic world as well as among the Iranians was thus introduced into India and left a mark on the future development of Hindu kingship.

Another feature of crucial importance for the future political development of India was the organisation of the Shaka and Kushana empires. They were not centralised as the Maurya empire had been, but were based on the large-scale incorporation of local rulers. In subsequent centuries many regional empires of India were organised on this pattern.

The best-known contribution of the ‘dark period’ was, of course, to Indian art. After the early sculptures of the Mauryas which were greatly influenced by the Iranian style, a new Indian style had first emerged under the Shungas and their successors in the Buddhist monuments of Bharhut and Sanchi which particularly showed a new style of relief sculpture. The merger of the Gandhara school of art, with its Graeco-Roman style, and the Mathura school of art which included ‘archaic’ Indian elements and became the centre of Indo-Kushana art, finally led to the rise of the Sarnath school of art. This school then set the pattern of the classical Gupta style.

Less well-known, but much more important for the future development of Hindu society, was the compilation of the authoritative Hindu law books (dharmashastra), the foremost of them being the Code of Manu which probably originated in the second or third century AD. After the breakdown of the Maurya and Shunga empires, there must have been a period of uncertainty which led to a renewed interest in traditional social norms. These were then codified so as to remain inviolate for all times to come. If we add to this the resurgence of Sanskrit, as testified by Rudradaman’s famous rock inscription of the second century AD, we see that this ‘dark period’ actually contained all the elements of the classical culture of the Gupta age. Thus the much maligned ‘dark period’ was actually the harbinger of the classical age.


Like the Mauryas a few centuries earlier, the imperial Guptas made a permanent impact on Indian history. In his Allahabad inscription, Samudragupta, the first great ruler of this dynasty, mentions one Maharaja Shri Gupta and one Ghatotkacha as his ancestors. But, except for these names, nothing else is mentioned in any other Gupta inscription nor have any coins been found which bear their names. They were probably local princelings somewhere around Allahabad or Varanasi. The Puranas report that the early Guptas controlled the area along the Ganges from Prayag (Allahabad) to Magadha. But Pataliputra and the centre of Magadha were certainly not within their reach.

The dynasty stepped into the limelight of history with Chandragupta I (AD 320 to about 335) who married a Licchavi princess. This marriage must have greatly contributed to the rise of the Guptas because the Licchavis were a mighty clan controlling most of north Bihar ever since the days of the Buddha. Chandragupta’s coins show the king and his queen, Kumaradevi, and on the reverse a goddess seated on a lion with the legend ‘Licchavi’. Samudragupta was also aware of the importance of this connection and in his famous Allahabad inscription he called himself ‘son of the daughter of the Licchavi’ rather than ‘son of the Gupta’. Chandragupta introduced a new era starting with his coronation in AD 320 and he also assumed the title ‘Overlord of great kings’ (maharajaadhiraja).

Chandragupta’s son, Samudragupta (c. AD 335–375), earned a reputation as one of the greatest conquerors of Indian history. This is mainly due to the fact that his famous Allahabad inscription on an old Ashokan pillar withstood the ravages of time and thus preserved a glorious account of his deeds.1 The inscription, which is undated, was perhaps initially located at Kausambi. It contains a long list of all kings and realms subdued by Samudragupta. Only half of the names on this list can be identified, but the rest provide us with a clear picture of Samudragupta’s policy of conquest and annexation. In the ‘land of the Aryas’ (aryavarta) he uprooted (unmulya) many kings and princes between west Bengal in the east, Mathura in the west and Vidisha in the southwest and annexed their realms. The old kingdom of Panchala north of the Ganges and many Naga (Snake) dynasties which had arisen in the area from Mathura to Vidisha after the decline of the Kushanas were eliminated in this way. The conquest of Pataliputra was also achieved in this first great campaign.

The most famous campaign of Samudragupta was aimed at southern India. Altogether twelve kings and princes of the South (dakshinapatha) are listed among those whom he subdued at that time. Many of them are known only due to their inclusion in this list which is thus one of the most important documents for the early history of southern India. In Dakshina Koshala he defeated King Mahendra, then he crossed the great forest region (Kalahandi and Koraput Districts of western Orissa) so as to reach the coast of Kalinga. In this region he defeated four rulers, among them Mahendra of Pishtapura in the Godaveri Delta and Hastivarman of Vengi. His final great success in the south was the defeat of King Vishnugopa of Kanchipuram. The inscription states that Samudragupta ‘defeated, released and reinstated’ all these kings thus showing his royal mercy. But this is probably a euphemism typical of the campaigns of early medieval Indian kings who were more interested in conquest as such than in the annexation of distant realms which they could not have controlled anyway. We may therefore assume that those southern kings ruled their realms undisturbed after Samudragupta had returned to the north where he celebrated his imperial round of conquest (digvijaya) with a great horse sacrifice (ashvamedha). On this occasion he issued gold coins showing the sacrificial horse and on the reverse his chief queen. The coins have the legend: ‘After conquering the earth the Great King of Kings with the strength of an invincible hero is going to conquer the heavens.’ His grandson, Kumaragupta, praised him many decades later as the great renewer of the horse sacrifice which had been forgotten and neglected for such a long time. This shows that the Guptas consciously strove to renew the old Hindu institutions of kingship.

The Allahabad inscription also lists fourteen realms and tribes whose rulers are described as ‘border kings’ (pratyanta-nripati). These rulers paid tribute (kara) to Samudragupta and were prepared to follow his orders (ajna) and to show their obedience (pramana) by attending his court. The list includes Samatata (southeast Bengal), Kamarupa (Assam), and Nepal as well as tribal chieftaincies in eastern Rajasthan and northern Madhya Pradesh (e.g. Malwas, Abhiras and Yaudehas). Furthermore some jungle rajas (atavikaraja) are mentioned whom Samudragupta had made his servants (paricaraka). The jungle rajas probably lived in the Vindhya mountains. Later inscriptions also mention eighteen such ‘forest states’ in this area. Another group of kings listed in the inscription are those independent rulers who lived beyond the realms of the border kings. The Kushanas (the Daivaputra Shahi Shahanushahi mentioned in the previous chapter), the Shakas, Murundas, as well as Simhala (Sri Lanka) and the inhabitants of ‘all islands’ are referred to in this context. It is stated that these independent rulers sent embassies to Samudragupta’s court, donated girls for his harem and asked him for charters with the imperial Garuda Seal which would certify their legitimate title to their respective realms.

The Shakas or Kshatrapas of western India were subdued only by Samudragupta’s successor after a long struggle. The Kushanas in northwestern India, Gandhara and Afghanistan were certainly beyond Samudragupta’s reach but they must have been interested in good diplomatic relations with him. The reference to Sri Lanka and the inhabitants of all islands seems to be rather strange in this context, but there is fortunately some Chinese evidence for Sri Lanka’s relations with Samudragupta. According to a Chinese report, King Meghavanna of Sri Lanka had asked Samudragupta for his permission to build a monastery and a guesthouse for Buddhist pilgrims at Bodh Gaya. For this purpose Meghavanna must have sent an embassy with presents to Samudragupta which he considered to be a tribute just as the Chinese emperor would have done in a similar context. Diplomatic relations were established in this way without any effect on the actual exercise of political control.

The structure of the Gupta empire

From the very beginning, the Gupta empire revealed a structure which it retained even at the height of its expansion (see Map 6) and which served as a blueprint for all medieval kingdoms of India. The centre of the empire was a core area in which Samudragupta had uprooted all earlier rulers in two destructive wars (prasabha-uddharana, i.e. violent elimination). This area was under the direct administration of royal officers. Beyond this area lived the border kings some of whom Samudragupta even reinstated after they had been presumably subdued by some of their rivals. These border kings paid tribute and were obliged to attend Samudragupta’s court. In contrast with medieval European vassals they were obviously not obliged to join Samudragupta’s army in a war. Thus they were not real vassals but, at the most, tributary princes. In subsequent centuries these tributary neighbours were called Samantas and rose to high positions at the imperial court thus coming closer to the ideal type of a feudal vassal.

Between the realms of the border kings and the core region of the empire there were some areas inhabited by tribes which had hardly been subdued. Of course, Samudragupta claimed that he had made all forest rulers his servants, but he probably could not expect any tribute from them. At the most, he could prevent them from disturbing the peace of the people in the core region. Beyond the forest rulers and the tributary kings were the realms of the independent kings who, at the most, entered into diplomatic relations with the Guptas. In the course of further development several regions of the Gupta empire, e.g. Pundravardhana in Bengal and Avanti with its ancient capital Ujjain, emerged as powerful centres. Some historians therefore prefer to speak of a multicentred rather than a unitary structure of the Gupta state. The subsequent balance of power of medieval regional kingdoms was foreshadowed in this way.