Evidence on the origin and antecedents of the Gupta family is limited, as it seems to have emerged from obscure beginnings. It was thought that the family ruled a small principality in Magadha, but recent opinion supports the western Ganges Plain as a base. The name could indicate that they were of the vaishya caste, but some historians accord them Brahman status. The eulogy on a later king of the dynasty envisages many small states subsequent to the decline of the Kushanas, and theirs may have been one such.
Chandra Gupta I
The dynasty came into its own with the accession of Chandra Gupta I, who made his kingdom more than a mere principality. Chandra Gupta I married into the Lichchhavi family, an establishedgana-sangha of north Bihar. The marriage set a stamp of acceptability on the family and was politically advantageous for them, since Chandra Gupta I made much of it in his coins.
His rule extended over the Ganges heartland (Magadha, Saketa and Prayaga) and he took the title of maharajadhiraja (great king of kings), although this ceased to have much significance since it was now used by many rulers, major and minor. The Gupta era of 319-20 CE is thought to commemorate his accession.
Samudra Gupta claimed that he was appointed by his father to succeed him about 335 CE, a lengthy eulogy on him was inscribed on an Ashokan pillar, now at Allahabad, which provides the basic information on his reign. The eulogy, if it is to be taken literally, provides an impressive list of kings and regions that succumbed to Samudra Gupta’s triumphal march across various parts of the subcontinent. In the subsequent period such lists of conquests were often part of the courtly rhetoric, but in his case the exaggeration of a court poet may have been more limited. The emphasis seems to be on the paying of tribute rather than the annexing of territory. Four northern kings were conquered, mainly in the era around Delhi and the western Ganges Plain. Kings of the south and the east were forced to pay homage were captured and released. From the places mentioned, it appears Samudra Gupta campaigned down the east coast as far as Kanchipuram (near modern Chennai). Nine kings of Aryavarta, in northern India, were violently uprooted; the rajas of the forest-peoples of central India and the Deccan were forced into servitude. In a sixth-century inscription eighteen forest kingdoms of central India are said to have been inherited by a local ruler, which suggests that the conquest of these areas began earlier. Kings in eastern India, as well as small kingdoms in Nepal and the Punjab are said to have paid tribute. Nine of what were earlier gana-sanghas in Rajasthan, including the age-old Malavas and Yaudheyas, were forced to accept Gupta suzerainty. In addition, more distant rulers such as the Daivaputra Shahanushahi (‘The Son of Heaven, King of Kings’, clearly a Kushana title), the Shakas, and the King of Sinhala (Sri Lanka) also paid tribute, as did the inhabitants of all the islands.
An interesting feature of the conquests is their variety and number, from chiefdoms to kingdoms. Samudra Gupta broke the power of the chiefdoms in the watershed and northern Rajasthan, which led to an unfortunate consequence for the later Guptas when the Huns invaded north-western India. Apart from this the termination of these chiefdoms was the death-knell of the gana-sangha polity, which had held its own for a millennium as an alternative to monarchy. Regarding Sri Lanka, a later Chinese source provides evidence that Sinhala king sent presents and requested the Gupta king’s permission to build a Buddhist monastery at Gaya. Such a request can hardly be termed tribute and it is probable that his relationship with other distant kings was similar. Who the ‘inhabitants of the islands’ were remains unclear and possibly refers to parts of south-east Asia hosting Indian settlements, with which contacts had increased.
Samudra Gupta had more reason than other kings to perform the horse sacrifice when proclaiming his conquests.
Chandra Gupta II
Of all the Gupta kings, Chandra Gupta II, the son of Samudra Gupta, is reputed to have shown exceptional chivalrous and heroic qualities. His long reign of about forty year from circa 375 to 415 CE had a rather mysterious beginning. A play written some two centuries later, Devi- chandra-gupta, supposedly dealing with events on the death of Samudra Gupta, introduced Rama Gupta as the son who succeeded Samudra Gupta. The story goes that Rama Gupta defeated in battle by the Shakas, to whom he then agreed to surrender his wife, Dhruvadevi. His younger brother Chandra was incensed by this, disguised himself as the Queen and, getting access to the Shaka King’s apartments, he killed him. This action gained him the affection of the people but created enmity between him and his brother Rama. Chandra finally killed Rama and married Dhruvadevi. The discovery of the coins of Rama Gupta and the inscriptions mentioning Dhruvadevi as Chandra Gupta’s wife lend some authenticity to the story.
Furthermore, Chandra Gupta’s major campaign was fought against the Shakas. The campaign led to the annexation of western India, commemorated by the issuing of special silver coins. Its significance lay not only in the western border of India being secure, but also in its giving access to the western trade since the ports were now in Gupta hands. The western Deccan, earlier held by the Satavahanas, was ruled by the Vakataka dynasty which emerged as a dominant power in the Deccan.