Coins During Samudra Gupta Age | Left : Ashwamedha Sacrifise, Right : Holding Battle Axe
|Date of death||c. 380 CE|
|Date of birth||c. 315 CE|
The Gupta Empire is widely recognized as one of the greatest empires to have ruled over the subcontinent. However, in this defining period, if there was one emperor who stood out and carved a distinct chapter for himself, it was its second emperor Samudragupta. Born to a Lichchavi queen Kumaradevi and the illustrious Chandragupta I, Samudragupta ushered an era of cultural and military glory
The Prayaga Prashasti: An invaluable source
The Prayaga Prashati in Prayagaraj is the most important source to learn about Samudragupta and his exploits. The composer of this poem was a man named Harishena, who also enjoyed titled like kumaramatya (high-ranked officer) and sandhivigrahika (minister for peace and war). Though it offers a eulogy, and is therein susceptible to exaggerations, it does throw insights into the extent of his kingdom and his personality as well. [ref]
As inferred from the way the inscription begins, it is evident that Chandragupta I abdicated the throne in favour of Samudragupta somewhere around AD 335. Chandragupta had started the Gupta era officially in AD 320, and had expanded his empires sway across large swathes of the Ganga heartland. Magadha, Saketa and Prayaga were the crucial centres that formed the crux of the empire, when Samudragupta acceded to the throne.
A spirited warrior
Though many emperors in Indian history doubled up as adept warriors, few may match Samudragupta in his warrior instincts. To bring almost an entire subcontinent into submission requires a lot of military power coupled with strategic and administrative proficiency. The Prayaga Prashasti records the scale of victories he achieved right through his career, and it is apposite to gain a grasp over this fact.
Kingdoms and rulers falling like nine pins
The inscription states that nine major rulers of Aryavart faced the brunt of his aggression very early in his career. These included Nagasena, Matila, Ganapati Naga, Achyuta, Chandra-varman, Rudra-deva, Nagadatta and Balavarman.
Five major kingdoms and at least nine tribal states too were subdued by Samudragupta. The kingdoms included Samata, Kamarupa, Nepala, Davaka and Kartripura. Notably, the tribal states included erstwhile behemoths like Malavas and Yaudheyas. A few centuries prior to Samudraguptas incursions, these very tribal groups had repulsed the Macedonians, but now found themselves subservient to a superior Indian ruler. The other tribal groups included Madrakas, Sanakanikas, Abhiras, Kharaparikas, Prarjunas and Kakas.
Nullifying the foreign threat
The foreign threat remained largely non-existent during his reign, but he crushed the last vestiges of the Kushanas and the Shakas. These groups preferred forging marital alliances rather than fight the valiant Samudragupta and his army.
Total territory under control
Samudraguptas empire comprised nearly the whole of Northern India, with the exclusion of Kashmir, Western Punjab, Western Rajputana, Sindh and Gujarat, and included the highlands of Chattisgarh and Orissa with a long stretch of territory along the eastern coast extending as far south as Chingleput, and probably even further.
It is critical to note that Samudragupta didnt create an all-India empire. Rather, he simply subdued the conquered states and exacted tribute from them. Governing such a vast territory would have been an ordeal and so he rigidly followed a sustained policy of creating a central block of territory over which his control was omnipotent. This was the Ganga-Yamuna doab region, with Pataliputra as the capital. The other states were brought into submission largely by ways of conciliation, and not overt antagonization. Yet, Samudragupta would have needed a potent navy in order to make himself such a force to reckon with in the coastal regions. [ref]
Relations with Ceylon
Samudragupta expanded his presence to reach out to the Ceylonese as well, and records indicate that the Ceylon king Meghavarna once sent a mission with rich presents to Samudragupta. He also sought permission to construct a Buddhist monastery, that was duly granted. Thus, it may be inferred that the Gupta culture had created a marked impression as far down south as Sri Lanka.
During his reign, gold coins were minted and issued in large numbers. At one level, they highlight the sheer value of transactions being undertaken by the Guptas. However, it also offers deeper insights into the charismatic personality of Samudragupta. While some coins show him holding a battle axe keeping the legend of Kritarta in mind, others depict him performing the Ashvamedha sacrifice. The scale of achievements associated with Samudragupta, coupled with the profusion of gold coins that enter the archaeological record have prompted some historians to call his reign the beginning of a Golden Age in Indian history.
While Samudragupta was certainly a valiant warrior, he is also remembered as a great patron of the arts. Vasubandhu, a prolific Buddhist scholar who wrote in the fourth century AD is deemed to have been patronized by Samudragupta. Moreover, the Prayaga prashasti in itself is an indication that he was a man of letters, and greatly valued the written word. Thus, he is described as a kaviraja (king among poets). His fascination for poetry and music are best represented in a gold coin that shows him sitting cross-legged and playing a lute. This image paved the way for the epithet lute-playing conqueror being bestowed upon him.
Samudragupta revived Vedic Brahmanism in Aryavarta, almost after centuries of decadence. Considering the many battles he clinched, he is also believed to have performed the Ashvamedha Yajna. He gave hundreds and thousands of cows to Brahmanas as gifts, and was equally welcoming of Buddhist monks who would have frequented his empire.
Death and succession
Samudragupta died in c. 380 CE. He was followed by Chandragupta II, who went on to be hailed as Vikramaditya. In his reign, Vikramaditya consolidated and strengthened the empire left behind by his father, continuing the Golden Age until the middle of the 5th century AD.