Life in the Gupta Age

Revision or Short Notes

Arora IAS

System of Administration

  • In contrast to the Maurya rulers, the Gupta kings adopted pompous titles such as parameshvara, maharajadhiraja, and paramabhattaraka which signify that they ruled over many lesser kings in their empire. Kingship was hereditary, but royal power was limited by the want of a firm adherence to primogeniture.
  • During the Gupta period land taxes increased in number, and those on trade and commerce decreased. Probably the king collected taxes varying from one fourth to one-sixth of the produce.
  • In central and western India, the villagers were also subjected to forced labour called vishti by the royal army and officials. The Gupta bureaucracy was not as elaborate as that of the Mauryas. The most important officers in the Gupta empire were the kumaramatya
  • They were appointed by the king in the home provinces and possibly paid in cash. The Guptas organized a system of provincial and local administration. The empire was divided into divisions called bhuktis, and each bhukti was placed under the charge of an uparika.
  • The bhuktis were divided into districts (vishayas), which were placed under the charge of a vishayapati. In eastern India, the vishayas were divided into vithis, which again were subdivided into villages. The sealings from Vaishali show that artisans, merchants, and the head of the guild served on the same corporate body, and in this capacity they obviously conducted the affairs of the town.


  • The administrative board of the district of Kotivarsha in north Bengal (Bangladesh) included the chief merchant, the chief trader, and the chief artisan. Their consent to land transactions was considered necessary. Artisans and bankers were organized into their own separate guilds.
  • At Mandasor in Malwa and at Indore, silk weavers maintained their own guilds. In the district of Bulandshahar in western UP, the oil-pressers were organized into guilds. It seems that these guilds, especially those of merchants, enjoyed certain immunities.
  • The major part of the empire was held by feudatory chiefs, many of whom had been subjugated by Samudragupta. The vassals who lived on the edge of the empire had three obligations to fulfil.The second important feudal development that surfaced under the Guptas was the grant of fiscal and administrative concessions to priests and administrators.
  • Started in the Deccan by the Satavahanas, the practice became a regular affair in Gupta times, particularly in MP.

Trends in Trade and the Agrarian Economy

  • In ancient India, the Guptas issued the largest number of gold coins, which were called dinaras in their inscriptions. Regular in size and weight, they appear in many types and sub-types. They vividly portray Gupta kings, indicating the latter’s love for war and art.
  • After the conquest of Gujarat, the Guptas issued a large number of silver coins mainly for local exchange, in which silver occupied an important position under the Western Kshatrapas.
  • Till AD 550 India carried on some trade with the eastern Roman or Byzantine empire, to which it exported silk. Around AD 550, the people of the eastern Roman empire learnt from the Chinese the art of growing silk, which adversely affected India’s export trade.
  • Even before the mid-sixth century, the demand for Indian silk abroad had slackened. In the mid-fifth century, a guild of silk weavers left their original home in western India in the state of Lata in Gujarat and migrated to Mandasor in Malwa where they abandoned their original occupation and adopted other professions.
  • The striking development of the Gupta period, especially in eastern and central MP, was the emergence of priestly landlords at the cost of local peasants.

Social Developments

  • The brahmanas accumulated wealth on account of the numerous land grants made to them and therefore claimed many privileges, which are listed in the Narada Smriti, the lawbook of Narada, a work of about the fifth century.
  • The Hunas, who came to India towards the close of the fifth century, eventually came to be recognized as one of the thirty-six clans of the Rajputs. Even now some Rajputs bear the title Hun.
  • The first example of the immolation of a widow after the death of her husband occurred during the Gupta period in AD 510.
  • The Chinese Buddhist monk Fa Xian ( fifth century CE) wrote that “untouchables” had to sound a clapper in the streets so that people could avoid seeing them. Another Chinese pilgrim, Xuan Zang (c. seventh century), observed that executioners and scavengers were forced to live outside the city. [NCERT CLASS-XII CHAPTER-3]

The State of Buddhism

  • Buddhism ceased to receive royal patronage during the Gupta period. Fahsien gives the impression that this religion was flourishing, but in reality it was not as important during the Gupta period as it had been in the days of Ashoka and Kanishka. However, some stupas and viharas were constructed, and Nalanda became a centre of Buddhist education.
  • The iron pillar at Mehrauli, Delhi, is a remarkable example of the skill of Indian crafts persons. It is made of iron, 7.2. m high, and weighs over 3 tonnes. It was made about 1500 years ago. The word stupa means a mound. While there are several kinds of stupas, round and tall, big and small, these have certain common features. Generally, there is a small box placed at the centre or heart of the stupa. This may contain bodily remains (such as teeth, bone or ashes) of the Buddha or his followers, or things they used, as well as precious stones, and coins. This box, known as a relic casket, was covered with earth. [NCERT CLASS-VI CHAPTER-12]
  • Often, a path, known as the pradakshina patha, was laid around the stupa. This was surrounded with railings. Entrance to the path was through gateways. Devotees walked around the stupa, in a clockwise direction, as a mark of devotion. Both railings and gateways were often decorated with sculpture. [NCERT CLASS-VI CHAPTER-12]
  • The most important part of the temple was the room known as the garbhagriha, where the image of the chief deity was placed. At Bhitargaon, a tower, known as the shikhara, was built on top of the garbhagriha, to mark this out as a sacred place. Building shikharas required careful planning. Most temples also had a space known as the mandapa. It was a hall where people could assemble. [NCERT CLASS-VI CHAPTER-12]
  • Monolithic temples at Mahabalipuram. Each of these was carved out of a huge, single piece of stone (that is why they are known as monoliths). While brick structures are built up by adding layers of bricks from the bottom upwards, in this case the stone cutters had to work from top downwards. [NCERT CLASS-VI CHAPTER-12]
  • Ajanta-Most of these were monasteries for Buddhist monks, and some of them were decorated with paintings. Here are some examples. As the caves are dark inside, most of these paintings were done in the light of torches. The colours, which are vivid even after 1500 years, were made of plants and minerals. [NCERT CLASS-VI CHAPTER-12]

The Origin and Growth of Bhagavatism

  • Bhagavatism originated in post-Maurya times and centred around the worship of Vishnu or Bhagavata. Vishnu was a minor god in Vedic times. He represented the sun and also the fertility cult. By the second century BC he was merged with a god called Narayana, and came to be known as Narayana–Vishnu.
  • Originally Narayana was a non-Vedic tribal god called bhagavata, and his worshippers were called bhagavata Vishnu came to be identified with a legendary hero of the Vrishni tribe living in western India who was known as Krishna–Vasudeva.
  • By 200 BC the three streams of gods and their worshippers merged into one and resulted in the creation of Bhagavatism or Vaishnavism. Bhagavatism was marked by bhakti and ahimsa.
  • Bhakti meant the offer of loving devotion. It was a kind of loyalty offered by a tribal to his chief or by a subject to his king. Ahimsa, or the doctrine of non-killing of animals, suited the agricultural society and was in keeping with the old cult of life giving fertility associated with Vishnu.
  • Bhagavatism or Vaishnavism overshadowed Mahayana Buddhism by Gupta times. It preached the doctrine of incarnation, or avatar. History was presented as a cycle of the ten incarnations of Vishnu.


  • The Gupta period is called the Golden Age of ancient India. Both Samudragupta and Chandragupta II were patrons of art and literature. Samudragupta is represented on his coins playing the lute (vina), and Chandragupta II is credited with maintaining in his court nine luminaries.
  • During the Gupta period a life-size copper image of the Buddha of more than 6 feet was made. It was discovered at Sultanganj near Bhagalpur, and is now displayed in Birmingham.
  • During the Gupta period beautiful images of the Buddha were fashioned at Sarnath and Mathura, but the finest specimens of Buddhist art in Gupta times are the Ajanta paintings. They depict various events in the life of Gautama Buddha and the previous Buddhas whose birth stories are related in the Jatakas.
  • These paintings are lifelike and natural, and the brilliance of their colours has not faded even after fourteen centuries. The Gupta period was poor in terms of architecture. All that are a few temples made of brick in UP and a stone temple.
  • The brick temples of Bhitargaon in Kanpur, Bhitari in Ghazipur, and Deogarh in Jhansi may be mentioned. The Buddhist university at Nalanda was set up in the fifth century, and its earliest structure, made of brick, relates to this period.


  • The Gupta period is remarkable for the production of secular literature, which consisted of a fair degree of ornate court poetry. Bhasa was an important poet in the early phase of the Gupta period and wrote thirteen plays. He wrote in Sanskrit, but his dramas also contain a substantial amount of Prakrit. He was the author of a drama called Dradiracharudatta, which was later refashioned as Mrichchhakatika or the Little Clay Cart by Shudraka.
  • In his plays Bhasa uses the term yavanika for the curtain, which suggests Greek contact. However, what has made the Gupta period particularly famous is the work of Kalidasa who lived in the second half of the fourth and the first half of the fifth century.
  • He was the greatest poet of classical Sanskrit literature and wrote Abhijnanashakuntalam which is very highly regarded in world literature. It relates the love story of King Dushyanta and Shakuntala, whose son Bharata appears as a famous ruler. Shakuntalam was one of the earliest Indian works to be translated into European languages, the other work being the Bhagavadgita.
  • This period also shows an increase in the production of religious literature. Most works of the period had a strong religious bias. The two great epics, namely the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were almost completed by the fourth century AD.
  • Although the epics and Puranas seem to have been compiled by the brahmanas, they represent the kshatriya tradition. They are replete with myths, legends, and exaggerations.
  • The Gupta period also saw the development of Sanskrit grammar based on the work of Panini and Patanjali. This period is particularly memorable for the compilation of Amarakosha by Amarasimha, who was a luminary in the court of Chandragupta II. This lexicon is learnt by heart by students learning Sanskrit in the traditional way.
  • Overall, the Gupta period was a bright phase in the history of classical literature and one that developed an ornate style that was different from the old simple Sanskrit.

Science and Technology

  • In mathematics, the period saw, in the fifth century, a work called Aryabhatiya written by Aryabhata who belonged to Pataliputra. A Gupta inscription of AD 448 from Allahabad district suggests that the decimal system was known in India at the beginning of the fifth century.
  • In the field of astronomy, a book called Romaka Sidhanta was compiled, its title indicating that it was influenced by Greek and Roman ideas. With regard to iron objects, the best example is the iron pillar found at Mehrauli in Delhi.
  • Manufactured in the fourth century AD, the pillar has not gathered any rust over the subsequent fifteen centuries which is a great tribute to the technological skill of the craftsmen, although the arid conditions in Delhi may also have contributed to its preservation.

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