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The origins of the Guptas are shrouded in obscurity. The Chinese traveller I-tsing provides the first evidence of the Gupta kingdom in Magadha. He came to India in 672 and heard of 'Maharaja Sri-Gupta' who built a temple for Chinese pilgrims near Mrigasikhavana. I-tsing gives the date for this event merely as '500 years before'. This does not match with other sources and hence we can assume that I-tsing's computation was a mere guess.
The most likely date for the reign of Sri-Gupta is c. 240-280 His successor Ghatotkacha ruled probably from c. 280-319 In contrast to his successor, he is also referred to in inscriptions as 'Maharaja'.
Rise of the Gupta empire
Sri Gupta (240 - 280 AD)
The Poona copper inscription of Prabhavati Gupta describes that Sri Gupta as the Adhiraja of Gupta dynasty. Portion of northern or centrengal might have been the home of Guptas then. Though no much evidence is available, from the available records it is understood that Sri Gupta could be the first King of the Gupta lineage.
Ghatotkacha ( 280 - 319 AD)
Ghatotkacha became the successor of Sri Gupta. In two records of Prabhavati Gupta (daughter of Chandragupta-II), Ghatotkacha is described as the Gupta king. Neither much evidence is found to clearly regard Ghatotkacha as the first king, nor much is known about him.
Ghatotkacha (c. 280–319), had a son named Chandragupta. In a breakthrough deal, Chandragupta was married to Kumaradevi , a Lichchhavi—the main power in Magadha. With a dowry of the kingdom of Magadha (capital Pataliputra) and an alliance with the Lichchhavis, Chandragupta set about expanding his power, conquering much of Magadha, Prayaga and Saketa . He established a realm stretching from the Ganga (Ganges) river to Prayaga (modern-day Allahabad) by 320. Chandragupta was the first of the Guptas to be referred to as 'Maharajadhiraja' or 'King of Kings'.
Chandragupta died in 335 and was succeeded by his son Samudragupta, a tireless conqueror. He took the kingdoms of Shichchhatra and Padmavati early in his reign. He then took the Kingdom of Kota and attacked the tribes in Malvas , the Yaudheyas, the Arjunayanas, the Maduras and the Abhiras. By his death in 380, he had incorporated over twenty kingdoms into his realm, his rule extended from the Himalayas to the river Narmada and from the Brahmaputra to the Yamuna . He gave himself the titles King of Kings and World Monarch. He performed Ashwamedha yajna (horse sacrifice) to underline the importance of his conquest.
Samduragupta was not only a warrior but also a great patron of art and literature. The important scholars present in his court were Harishena, Vasubandhu and Asanga. He was a poet and musician himself. He was a firm believer in Hinduism and is known to have worshipped Lord Vishnu. He was considerate of other religions and allowed Sri Lanka's buddhist king to build a monastery at Bodh Gaya.
Rama Gupta (375 - ??? AD)
Though no inscriptions or coins explains Rama Gupta well, there are materials such as Natyadarpan, and the historical drama "Devichandraguptam" which described Rama Gupta as son and successor of Samudragupta. According to Devichandraguptam in Shringararupakam, Rama Gupta sustains a humiliating defeat at the hands of Saka King. In order to secure the security of his people, Rama Gupta agrees to surrender his queen to the Sakas which provokes his brother Chandragupta-II. Chandragupta-II in disguise of queen Dhruvadevi enters enemies camp and kills the Saka king to restore the huge empire, queen and the dynasty. This incident raises Chandragupta in the eyes of people and Dhruvadevi. The conduct of Rama Gupta gets betrayed by the brother and Rama Gupta kills him and sits on the throne. He then marries the widow of his brother.
Chandra gupta II
Chandra gupta II, the Sun of Power (Vikramaditya), ruled until 413. He married the daughter of the king of Deccan, Rudrasena II , and gained a valuable ally. Only marginally less war-like than his father, he expanded his realm westwards, defeating the Saka Western Kshatrapas of Malwa, Gujarat and Saurashtra in a campaign lasting until 409, but with his main opponent Rudrasimha III defeated by 395, and crushing the Bengal (Vanga) chiefdoms. This extended his control from coast-to-coast, established a second (trading) capital at Ujjain and was the high point of the empire.
Despite the creation of the empire through war, the reign is remembered for its very influential style of Hindu art, literature, culture and science, especially during the reign of Chandra gupta II. During this period, the Guptas were supportive of thriving Buddhist and Jain cultures as well, and for this reason there is also a long history of non-Hindu Gupta period art. In particular, Gupta period Buddhist art was to be influential in most of East and Southeast Asia. Much of advances was recorded by the Chinese scholar and traveller Fa-hsien.
Chandra gupta II was succeeded by his son Kumaragupta I. Known as the Mahendraditya, he ruled until 455. Towards the end of his reign a tribe in the Narmada valley, the Pushyamitras, rose in power to threaten the empire.
Skandagupta is generally considered the last of the great rulers. He defeated the Pushyamitra threat, but then was faced with invading Indo-Hephthalites or "White Huns", known in India as Hunas, from the northwest. He repulsed a Huna attack c. 455, But the expense of the wars drained the empire's resources and contributed to its decline. Skandagupta died in 467 and was succeeded by his son Narasimhagupta Baladitya.
Puru Gupta (467 - 473 AD)
With the death of Skandagupta, Gupta empire began to decline. His brother Purugupta appears to have been the immediate successor to Skanda gupta. Purugupta was the son of Kumaragupta-I by his queen Ananthadevi and was old by the time he ascended the throne. A short rule of 6 years probably explains why so.
Narasimhagupta Baladitya (473 AD)
Nothing much is known on Baladitya, but it is certain that he was the son of Purugupta by the queen Shri Vinayadevi. He repeled the early attacks of the shakas
Kumaragupta-II (473 - 476 AD)
NArasimha Baladitya was succeeded by his sonKumaragupta-II Kramaditya. The rule seems to have ended about the year 476 - 477 AD. It is obvious that Kumaragupta-II, Narasimha Baladitya and Purugupta altogether could rule only for about ten years.
Budha Gupta (477 - 495 AD)
Budha Gupta ruled for nearly 20 years from 477 AD to 495 AD. A large number of inscriptions refer to Budha Gupta. From the inscriptions we understand that his empire was still intact. According to the life of Hiuen Tsang, Budha Gupta was succeeded by Tathagata Gupta.
Probably Krishnagupta and Harshagupta succeeded Budhagupta in ruling the empire. Budhagupta and Harshagupta was succeeded by Jivitagupta-I. Kumaragupta-III succeeded Jivitagupta-I, but soon had to facemany difficulties. Mukharis became powerful, Gowdas started revolting in West Bengal, King of Andhras were another threat to him. Somehow he claimed victories over them, the next successor Damodaragupta, Mahasenagupta, Madhavagupta and Devagupta-II reigned with much great difficulties.
All what we know about later Guptas is the name of rulers like Adityasena, Devagupta-III and the last king Jivagupta-III. Gowdas destroyed the fame of Guptas. Though many inscriptions talk about Guptas rule even during 12th to 13th century AD, it is true that only petty kings of Gupta family continued ruling part of the original empire that they could retain.
Huna invasions and the end of empire
Narasimhagupta (467-473) was followed by Kumaragupta II (473-476) and Buddhagupta (476-495?). In the 480's the Hephthalite king Toramana broke through the Gupta defenses in the northeast, and much of the empire was overrun by the Hunas by 500. The empire disintegrated under the attacks of Toramana and his successor, Mihirakula ; the Hunas conquered the northeast, and several provinces of the empire, including Malwa, Gujarat, and Thanesar , broke away under the rule of local dynasties. It appears from inscriptions that the Guptas, although their power was much diminished, continued to resist the Hunas, and allied with the independent kingdoms to drive the Hunas from most of northern India by the 530's. The succession of the sixth-century Guptas is not entirely clear, but the last recognized ruler of the dynasty's main line was Vishnugupta , reigning from 540 to 550.
The Guptas of Magadha
A minor line of the Gupta clan continued to rule Magadha after the disintegration of the empire. These Guptas were ultimately ousted by the Vardhana king Harsha, who established an empire in the first half of the seventh century that, for a brief time, rivalled that of the Guptas in extent.
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