- From the beginning of the fourth century CE to the end of the sixth century CE, the Gupta Empire ruled over ancient India. From roughly 319 to 467 CE, when it was at its height, it dominated a large portion of the Indian subcontinent.
- Historians refer to this time as India’s “Golden Era.”
- King Sri Gupta established the empire’s reigning dynasty, whose most important members were Chandragupta I, Samudragupta, Chandragupta II, and Skandagupta.
- Fa-Hien, the Chinese traveller’s remarks on the Gupta empire, helped to visualise the actual situation to some extent.
- Gupta paintings had a special style different from later Indian medieval art, which focused more on people rather than religious ideas.
- During this time, Hindu art made famous carved stone gods. They also made many Buddha statues and Jain tirthankara statues, often very big.
- During that time, Mathura, known for sculpture, kept doing well.
- Even Gandhara, known for Greco-Buddhist art just outside the Gupta Empire’s north boundary, still had an effect.
- New centres, like Sarnath, also came up. Sculptures from Sarnath and Mathura were sent to other parts of northern India.
Background of Gupta Art
- Kushan art, which thrived in northern India from the first to the fourth centuries CE, combined Greco-Buddhist art from Gandhara and Indian art from Mathura.
- The Western Satraps in Western India made advanced art, seen in Devnimori, before Gupta art.
- This art likely influenced Gupta art and the artwork in the Ajanta Caves, Sarnath, and other places from the fifth century onwards.
- The art of the Satavahanas in central India had already developed an advanced Indian style.
- The Gupta Empire, under Samudragupta and Chandragupta II, expanded to cover central, northern, and northwestern India, as well as the Punjab and the Arabian Sea. The period is noted for its achievements in the arts, architecture, sciences, religion, and philosophy.
- They continued and expanded these older artistic traditions, creating a unique Gupta style that reached great heights of sophistication and glory.
- Unlike some other Indian dynasties, the Gupta imperial family did not use inscriptions or portraits to show their connection to the art from their time.
Types of Gupta Art and Architecture
Gupta Cave Shrines
- The earliest religious buildings were cave-temples with one carved doorway and sculptures on the outside.
- Inside, there were sculptures for rituals, like the Shiva linga, and walls carved with stories.
- A cave near Udayagiri in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, dated 401 CE, is a good example of rock-cut caves carrying Jain and Hindu religious beliefs.
- In this cave, there’s a famous Gupta art piece showing Vishnu as Varaha, a boar-headed figure.
- The panel is 7 by 4 metres, and it shows Vishnu emerging from water, defeating a snake-like creature, and saving Bhudevi, the goddess of Earth.
- This picture, based on a Hindu tale, might also show the protection and peace brought by the Gupta kings.
- Ajanta caves (a UNESCO World Heritage site), a group of 29 rock-cut caves in Maharashtra, contains paintings exhibiting Buddha’s journey. Here are also instances of mural paintings and fresco technique painting.
- During the 5th and 6th centuries AD, many rock-cut architectures were built in Ajanta caves.
- Cave building was done in two phases :
- Hinayana phase by Satavahana dynasty.
- Mahayana Buddhism under Vakataka rule. In Mahayana, Buddha isn’t as important as Bodhisattva.
- Ellora caves in Charanandri hills are a group of 34 rock-cut caves that exhibit Brahminical (Hindu), Jain, and Buddhist philosophy through art. All caves were built from the 6th to 12th century. Built during Kalachuri, Chalukya and Rashtrakuta dynasty
- Elephanta caves: UNESCO World Heritage site. First group of caves is Hindu and the second group is Buddhist.
- Bagh caves in Dhar district, Madhya Pradesh, consist of 9 caves together. These Buddhist caves are also known as Bagh Gupha.
- Pandav caves (B.C.250- A.D.600) in Nashik are in Trirashmi hill. These caves are magnificent examples of ancient water management systems and buddha sculptures.
Temple Architecture and Types
- The Gupta royals were originally Hindu Brahmins who worshipped Vishnu deities in North and Central India, Shiv in South India, and Shakti deities in Bengal.
- Five types of temple architecture evolved during this time:
- First type: Square temples with flat terraces, surrounded by pillars, with an entrance, garbhagriha, and mandapa. Example: Kankali Devi temple at Tigawa.
- Second type: Similar to the first, but with a Pradakshina area and two-storeyed temples, like the Shiva temple in Bhumara.
- Third type: Square temples with a pyramidical roof (shikhara), higher platform, seen in the Dashavatara temple with ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu.
- Fourth type: Rectangular temples with a hollow roof, such as the Kapoteswara temple.
- Fifth type: Circular temples with distinct corners creating a rectangular pattern, like the Maniyar Math in Rajgir.
Styles of Temple Architecture
Nagara style – Northern region
Dravida style – Southern region
Vesara style – Region between Vindhya and Krishna
1. Nagara style
Curvilinear Shikhara. Square or rectangle temple. Garbhagriha or panchayatana style. Pillared halls present but tanks absent.
2. Dravidian style
- Mandap – Open pavilion excavated out of rock. Simple columned hall with two or more cells.
- Ratha – Monolithic shrine carved out of single rock
- Vimaan – Garbhagriha and shikhar together. Single shikhar on the main shrine.
- Gopuram – lofty gateways
- Dwarpals present instead of Mithuns as in Nagara style.
- Presence of tanks and pillared walls.
3. Vesara style
Chalukya style or Karnataka style. Fusion of nagara and Dravidian style. Carvings on pillars, ceilings and door plains. Chalukyan temples don’t have ambulatory paths.
Sculptures and pillars of Gupta
- Evidence of the remarkable sculpture during the Gupta age includes the Buddha statue with Abhaya mudra in Mathura, made of red sandstone.
- The Sarnath Buddha sculpture displays a calm expression of Siddhartha, and the cave sculptures are noteworthy too.
- The Allahabad pillar has the words of Harisena, the court poet of Gupta Emperor Samudragupta, engraved on it. Known as Prashasthi or eulogy, it stands as a testament to Gupta literary achievements.
- Another renowned pillar from the Gupta era is the iron pillar of Delhi, built under the patronage of Chandragupta II. Remarkably, this pillar remains free of rust even today.
Stupas of Gupta
- Mirpurkhas stupa in modern Pakistan, constructed during the Gupta age, features an iconic cross-legged Buddha in a meditative pose, symbolising the artistic brilliance of the era.
- The outer designs of the Dhamek stupa, attributed to Gupta artists, exhibit intricate patterns, including depictions of animal figures, showcasing the artistic mastery of the Gupta dynasty.
- The Chaukhandi Stupa, situated in Sarnath, stands as a prime example of stupa architecture and serves as a memorial to Buddha’s early encounters with his disciples.
Other features of the Gupta Art and Architecture
Except Art and architecture being one of the most prominent features of Gupta Empire, we witness development in some other fields too like :
- They ruled over an extensive empire with their capital at Pataliputra and maintained unity and integrity of india.
- The Gupta age witnessed political unification of India after a long period of more than 500 years after the decline of Mauryans.
- The efficiency of their martial system was well known. The large kingdom was divided into smaller pradesha (provinces).
- Economic Prosperity:
- The Gupta age was full of economic prosperity.
- According to Chinese traveller Fa-hien Magadh, the power centre of the Gupta empire was full of cities and its rich people.
- In ancient India, the Guptas issued the largest number of gold coins which were called ‘dinaras’ in their inscriptions.
- Gold and silver coins were issued in great numbers which is a general indicator of the health of the economy.
- Trade and commerce flourished both within the country and outside. Silk, cotton, spices, medicine, priceless gemstones, pearl, precious metal and steel were exported by sea.
- Sanskrit literature flourished under the Guptas. Kalidasa, the great poet, and playwright were in the court of Chandragupta Vikramaditya. He composed great epics such as Abhijnanashaakuntalam, Kumarasambhavam, Malavikagnimitram, Ritusamhara, Meghadootam, Vikramorvashiyam, and Raghuvamsham.
- The celebrated Sanskrit drama Mṛcchakatika was composed during this time. It is attributed to Shudraka.
- Poet Harisena also adorned the court of Chandragupta Vikramaditya. He wrote the Allahabad Prashasti (inscription).
- Vishnu Sharma of Panchatantra fame lived during this era.
- Amarasimha (grammarian and poet) composed a lexicon of Sanskrit, Amarakosha.
- Vishakhadatta composed Mudrarakshasa. Other grammarians who contributed to the Sanskrit language include Vararuchi and Bhartrihari.
- In the fields of science, mathematics and astronomy also, the Gupta age saw a lot of interesting advancements.
- Aryabhatta, the great Indian mathematician and astronomer wrote Surya Siddhanta and Aryabhattiya. Aryabhatta is believed to have conceptualised ‘zero’. He also gave the value of Pi. He postulated that the earth is not flat and it rotated around its own axis and also that it revolved around the sun. He also gave the distance between earth and sun which is remarkably close to the actual value. He wrote on geometry, astronomy, mathematics and trigonometry.
- The Indian number system with a base of 10 which is the present numeral system evolved from scholars of this era.
- Varahamihira wrote Brihatsamhita. He was an astronomer and an astrologer.
- The Nalanda University in Patna, Bihar (then Patliputra), a centre of Buddhist and other learning, attracted students from abroad. The Guptas patronised this ancient seat of learning.
Social Culture and Religion
- The Hindu epics were given their final touches during this time. The Hindu religion also received an impetus under the Guptas and it flourished and expanded throughout India.
- Although the Gupta kings were Vaishnavas they were tolerant of Buddhism and Jainism.
- The Shakti cult rose up around this time.
- Occult practices like tantrism also emerged during this time.
- The game of chess is said to have originated from this time. It was called Chaturanga meaning the four divisions (of the military such as infantry (pawn), cavalry (knight), elephantry (bishop), and chariots (rook).
- Different kinds of paintings in Ajanta Caves are live examples of paintings belonging to the Gupta Empire and are popular around the world.
- The art of Ajanta shows the Madya Desa school of painting at its best.
- The red khandiya was used to draw the image. Also, colours such as yellow, red, blue, white, and black were used.
- These colours consist of a natural glow that adds beauty to the paintings of the Gupta Empire.
- Also, Gupta paintings can be seen on the walls of mountain caves of the prehistoric period as well as on the walls of some Guha temples.
- Remains of paintings are also found at Bagh, Badami and other places.
- Hoysala School of Art showcases a unique feature of a star shaped ground plan which has five points with five deities of equal importance.
- Temple pillars are monoliths. Intricate carvings on both sides of the walls and jewellery of gods.
Legacy and Decline of the Gupta Period
- The decline of the Gupta Empire started during Skandagupta’s reign, who successfully fought against the Huns and Pushyamitras, but this drained the empire’s resources.
- Vishnugupta was the last recognized Gupta king, ruling from 540 to 550 AD, and internal conflicts weakened the empire.
- During Budhagupta’s rule, the Vakataka rulers attacked various Gupta territories, leading to further weakening of the empire.
- The Huns initially invaded northwest India during Skandagupta’s reign but later occupied significant regions, including Malwa, Gujarat, Punjab, and Gandhara, causing further strain on the Gupta Empire.
- Independent rulers emerged across the north, restricting the Gupta Empire to Magadha only. The later Guptas’ adoption of Buddhism weakened the empire’s military and territorial power.
- Weak rulers and continuous invasions from both foreign and native forces led to the disintegration of the Gupta Empire by the beginning of the sixth century, with the rule passing to regional chieftains.
- The Gupta age did not witness progress in social development, for example the number of chandalas (untouchables) increased and their condition worsened during the Gupta age.
- The first example of the sati occurred during the Gupta period in 510 AD etc.
The Gupta age began a period of overall prosperity and growth that continued for the next two and half centuries which came to be known as a Golden Age in India’s history.
However, the golden character of Gupta age can be accepted only in degrees not in absolute terms.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q: What is the Gupta Age in Indian history, and why is it significant for architecture?
A: The Gupta Age in Indian history, which lasted from around the 4th to the 6th century CE, is known for its significant contributions to art and architecture. During this period, remarkable architectural achievements, such as the rock-cut temples and iconic Gupta pillars, emerged, showcasing the Gupta dynasty’s artistic and engineering prowess.
Q: What are the key characteristics of Gupta Age architecture?
A: Gupta Age architecture is characterized by the use of stone as a primary building material, intricate and beautifully sculpted decorative elements, and a focus on creating aesthetically pleasing and harmonious structures. The architecture of this era is marked by the construction of ornate temples, stupas, and iconic pillars, often adorned with intricate relief sculptures and exquisite carvings.
Q: Which are some of the most famous architectural structures from the Gupta Age?
A: Prominent architectural structures from the Gupta Age include the Vishnu Temple in Deogarh, the Dashavatara Temple in Deogarh, the Udayagiri Caves in Madhya Pradesh, and the famous Iron Pillar of Delhi. These structures are renowned for their architectural beauty and have withstood the test of time, serving as significant examples of Gupta Age architecture.
Q: How did Gupta Age architecture influence later architectural styles in India?
A: Gupta Age architecture had a profound influence on subsequent architectural styles in India. The principles of symmetry, use of stone, and intricate decorative motifs seen in Gupta architecture were carried forward into various regional architectural traditions across India, including in the construction of temples, palaces, and other significant structures.
Q: What are some key elements of Gupta Age temple architecture?
A: Gupta Age temple architecture featured several distinctive elements, such as shikhara (tower), mandapa (hall), and garbhagriha (sanctum). These temples often had ornate entranceways, intricate carvings depicting deities and mythological scenes, and were designed to create a sense of spiritual and architectural harmony. Gupta temples also often featured finely detailed and sculpted images of Hindu deities, adding to their artistic and religious significance.
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