The Poona Copper Plate inscriptions of Prabhavati Gupta describe Sri Gupta as the Adiraja of the Gupta dynasty. Ghatotkacha has been described in the Gupta records as the son and successor of Sri Gupta. In the Gupta records the title Maharaja is used both for Sri Gupta and Ghatotkacha. This title was often borne by feudatory chiefs. It is suggested that the early Guptas were subordinate rulers under the Murundas.
The third ruler Chandragupta I the son and successor of Ghatotkacha was definitely a strong ruler whose hands were sought by the Lichchhavis who gave their princess Kumaradevi in marriage to him. This matrimonial alliance with this ancient historic family no doubt enhanced the status of the obscure Guptas. The Lichchhavis territory of north Bihar and the adjoining principality over which the Guptas ruled were united under Chandragupta and the latter was able to extend his dominion over Oudh as well as Magadha and along the Ganges as far as Prayaga or Allahabad.
Chandragupta I is usually regarded as the founder of the Gupta era which commenced in AD 320 to commemorate his accession an era which continued in parts of India for several centuries.
Chandragupta I was succeeded by his son, Samudragupta who became the ruler after subduing his rival Kacha an obscure prince of the dynasty. The Allahabad Pillar Inscription written by Harisena gives a detailed account of the conquests of his royal master. This account contains a long list of states, kings and tribes which were conquered and brought under various degrees of subjugation. This list can be divided into four categories.
The first one includes the 12 states of Dakshinapatha with the names of their kings who were captured and then liberated and reinstated. They were Kosala, Pistapura, Kanchi, Vengi, Erandapalli, Devarashtra, Avamukta, Dusthalapura, Mahakantara, Kurala, Kothura and Palakka.
The second one contains the names of the 8 kings of Aryavarta who were exterminated.
The third one consists of the rulers of forest states who were reduced to servitude and the chiefs of five pratyantas or Border States and also nine tribal republics that were forced to pay all kinds of taxes, obey his orders and come to perform obeisance. The states were Samtata, Davaka, Kamrupa, Nepal and Kartipura.
The fourth one includes the Daivapura Shahanushahs, Saka Murundas and the dwellers of Sinhala and all other islands who offered their person for service to Samudragupta. Harisena the court poet of Samudragupta lays special emphasis upon Samudragupta’s learning and wisdom, sharp and polished intellect and above all his poetical and musical talents. He also refers to Samudragupta’s charity and kindness even to conquered kings.
The variety of gold coins issued by Samudragupta not only indicate the power, wealth and grandeur of his empire but also give us some idea of his appearance and insight into his personal qualities. The Guptas were followers of the Brahmanical religion and Samudragupta fully maintained the tradition of religious toleration.
Samudragupta was succeeded by his son Chandragupta II surnamed Vikramaditya.But according to some scholars the immediate successors of Samudragupta was his son Ramagupta,the elder brother of Chandragupta II. A drama Devichandraguptam by Visakhadutta mentions that Ramagupta agreed to surrender his queen Dhruvadevi to the infatuation of a Saka chief who had invaded his kingdom. The honour of the queen was saved by Chandragupta; younger brother of Ramagupta who killed the Saka chief usurped the throne and married the widow. However the historicity of Ramagupta is matter of great doubt as neither the contemporary inscriptions nor the coins mention any king of that name.Chandragupta inherited the military genius of his father and extended the Gupta Empire by conquests of his own. His principal opponent was the Saka ruler of Gujarat and Kathiawar Peninsula belonging to the family of western Satraps whose continued independence prevented the political unity of India. His efforts were crowned with success. Rudrasimha III the last of the long line of Saka satraps was killed. The annexation of Kathiawar and Gujarat not only expanded the Gupta Empire from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea but also brought it in direct contact with the western world.
The acquisition of Broach, Sopara, Cambay and other ports dotted on the western coast of India and the income from the custom duties collected at the numerous ports gave economic prosperity to the Gupta Empire. The most important entrepot at the time was Ujjain where most of the trade routes converged. The effect of this extension of the western frontier was immense on the trade and commerce as well as the culture of northern India. The European and African trade received immense help with the Gupta conquest of the Kathiawar ports.
The western traders poured Roman gold into the country in return for Indian products and the effect of this great wealth on the country in noticeable in the number of coins of Chandragupta II. Chandragupta had other military conquests to his credit. An inscription engraved on the iron pillar near Qutub Minar at Delhi states that a king named Chandra defeated a confederacy of hostile chiefs in Vanga and having crossed the seven mouths of the river Sandhu conquered the Vahlikas. Chandragupta II extended the Gupta empire in all directions-west, east and north-west.
Chandragupta II was succeeded by his son Kumaragupta who enjoyed a long reign of 40 years. He performed an asvamedha sacrifice which implies new conquest. He was able to maintain intact the mighty empire which he had inherited from his father. His coin are discovered at Ahmedabad, Valabhi, Junagarh and Morvi in the west and as far as Satara and Ellichpur. It is probable that Kumaragupta added a part of western Malwa to the Gupta Empire. Towards the close of Kumaragupta’s reign the empire was threatened by hordes of the Pushyamitras who were defeated by Skandagupta the crown prince.
They could exploit the iron ores of Central India and South Bihar. They took advantage of their proximity to the areas in north India which carried on silk trade with the Byzantine Empire. Due to these favourable factors the Guptas set up their rule over Anuganga (middle Gangetic basin), Prayag (modern Allahabad), Saket and Magadha. In course of this time this kingdom became an all India empire.
Soon after his accession Skandagupta had to face the Hunas who had already proved themselves to be terror to both Europe and Asia. About the middle of the fifth century AD one branch of the Hunas known as White Hunas occupied the Oxus valley and threatened both Persia and India. They conquered Gandhara and threatened the very existence of the Gupta Empire. Skandagupta inflicted such a terrible defeat upon the Hunas that they dared not disturb the empire for nearly half a century. It was a magnificent achievement for which he assumed the title Vikramaditya in imitation of his grandfather. The ChandraVyakarana and Kathasaritsagara refer to Skandagupta’s victory over the Hunas. His constant source of anxiety was the old Saka kingdom of Saurashtra newly annexed to the Gupta Empire where he appointed Parnadatta as governor. An inscription in the Girnar hill near Junagarh in Kathiawar refers to the restoration of the ancient embankment of the great Sudarsana Lake which had burst owing to heavy rains in the first year of Skandagupta’s reign. Inspite of the Huna invasion and other troubles Skandagupta was able to maintain the mighty empire.
The history of the imperial Guptas after the death of Skandagupta is obsure. The official genealogy traces the imperial line from Kumaragupta through Purugupta and ignores Skandagupta. Purugupta reigned for a brief period and the imperial line was continued by his two sons Buddhagupta and Narasimhagupta. With the accession of Buddhagupta the history of the imperial Guptas stands on a firm ground. The records of his reign prove beyond doubt that he ruled over extensive regions stretching from Malwa to Bengal. But it was during his reign that the Gupta Empire showed signs of visible decay with feudatory states breaking away from the empire. The coins of Buddhagupta also reflect the process of decline that had set in the Gupta empire. His coins are very rare which prove that the internal weakness and war of succession had taken over the Gupta Empire. The death of Buddhagupta was followed by a confused period of internal dissensions leading to the breaking of the empire and renewed invasion of the Huns.