After the Kushans arose a new empire, which controlled a good part of the former Kushan and Satvahana empires. This was the Gupta empire, which had Prayag as its capital. Their basic strength the use of horses. The Guptas enjoyed certain material advantages. The centre of their operations lay in Madhyadesh covering Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They could exploit the iron ores of central India and south Bihar. Further, they benefited from silk trade in their proximity, which was carried with the Eastern Roman or the Byzantine Empire. Due to all these, the Guptas were able to expand fast and over time, theirs became an all-India empire.
The first important king of the Guptas was Chandargupta I. He was a very powerful ruler and started an era called the Gupta Era (AD 319-20 ), which marks the date of his ascension.
Samudragupta, Chandargupta I’s son enlarged the Gupta kingdom considerably. Samudragupta was a brave warrior and delighted in violence, just the opposite of Ashoka. His court poet Harisen, glowingly talks of his military adventures in the Allahabad Inscription, which he conducted using his powerful navy in India and Sri Lanka. It is said that Samudragupta never knew defeat and his influence was felt across the whole India and even outside. For these reasons, historians call him the “Napoleon of India”.
The reign of Chandragupta II (AD 380-412) saw the peak of the Gupta empire. He extended the empire with conquests and marital alliances. He conquered the western coast of India, which gave him important material advantages in terms of business. He made Ujjain his second capital and adopted the title Vikramaditya and his court had celebrated scholars including Kalidass and Amarsimha. At this time, the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsein visited India and wrote a detailed account of his reign.
The last important Gupta ruler Skandgupta’s successors could not meet the Huns challenge from Central Asia, leading to the Guptas’ fall. Although the Gupta rule lingered on until 550 AD, the imperial glory had vanished a century earlier.
The Guptas adopted high-sounding titles like parmeshwara maharajadhiraja, which indicates that they ruled over lesser kings. The Gupta bureaucracy was not as big as the Mauryas. A major part of the empire was governed by feudatory chiefs. Land grants, started by the Satvahanas became a regular feature. Since much royal administration was done by feudatories, they did not require as many officers.
The Guptas issued the largest number of gold coins (dinara) in ancient India. Brahiminical supremacy continued and the Guptas were staunch brahimnists, using Sanskrit as a court language. Bhagvatism or the worship of Vishnu received a tremendous boost in these times. It was marked by bhakti and ahimsa. It had overshadowed the Mahayana Buddhism by the Gupta Age. Idol worship in temples became quite common from this time.
This is known as the Golden Age of ancient India. Both Samudragupta and Chandragupta were great patrons of art and literature. Samudragupta himself was a talented accomplished veena player, as shown in his coins. Beautiful images of the Buddha were made in Mathura and Sarnath during this time. The Ajanta paintings, which depict the Jataka stories (earlier life of the Buddha) were made during the Gupta Age, though they did not patronize it. In the field of metallurgy, the Gupta Age is unparalleled. The Iron Pillar in Mehrauli is intact even today after so many centuries.
The Gupta period is well-known for great Sanskrit literature. Kalidasa, Shudrak, Bhavbhuti, Patanajli and Panini belonged to this period. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata were also complied during this time (4th century AD). Many legendary scientists including Aryabhatta and Vrahimira lived at this time whose contributions to mathematics and astronomy remain significant even today.