The Gupta kings took exalted imperial titles, such as maharaja-adhiraja, ‘the great king of kings’, parameshvara, ‘the supreme lord’, yet in the case of later rulers these titles were exaggerated since their claimants possessed limited political power when compared with the ‘great kings’ of earlier centuries. Such grand titles echo those of the rulers of the north-west and beyond and like them carry the flavour of divinity.
In the Ganges Plain, under the direct control of the Guptas, the king was the focus of administration assisted by the princes, ministers and advisers. Princes also held positions rather like viceroys of provinces. The province (desha, rashtra or bhukti) was divided into a number of districts (pradesha or vishaya), each district having its own administrative offices. But for all practical purposes local administration was distant from the center. Decisions, whether of policy or in the relation to individual situations, were generally taken locally, unless they had a specific bearing on the policy or orders of central authority.
This was significantly different from the Mauryan administration. Whereas Ashoka insisted that he be kept informed of what happening, the Guptas seemed satisfied with leaving it to the kumaramatyas and ayuktakas. Admittedly, a taut administration is described in the Arthashastra, but this was a normative text and the evidence from inscriptions and seals suggests that the Gupta administration was more decentralized, with officials holding more than one of office. Harsha’s tours were similar to those of a royal inspector since he looked into the general working of administration and tax collection, listened to complaints and made charitable donations.
Villages were of various categories: grama, palli, hamlet; gulma, a military settlement in origin; khetaka, also a hamlet; and so on. They came under the control of rural bodies consisting of the headman and the village elders, some of whom held the office of the grama-adhyaksha or the kutumbi. In urban administration each city had a council consisting of the nagarashreshthin, the person who presided over the city corporation, the sarthavaha, the chief representative of the guild of merchants, the prathama-kulika, a representative of the artisans, and the prathama- kayastha, the chief scribe. A difference between this council and the committee described by Megasthenes and Kautilya is that the earlier government appointed the committees, whereas in the Gupta system the council consisted of local representatives, among whom commercial interests often predominated.
If the Mauryan state was primarily concerned with collecting revenue from an existing economy, or expanding peasant agriculture through the intervention of the state, the Gupta state and its contemporaries made initial attempts at restructuring the agrarian economy. The system developed from the notion that granting land as a support to the kingship could be more efficacious that the performance of a sacrifice, and that land was appropriate as a mahadanaor ‘great gift’. This investment by the king was also intended to improve the cultivation of fertile, irrigated lands and to encourage the settlement of wasteland. Peripheral areas could therefore be brought into the larger agrarian economy, and the initial grants tended not to be in the Ganges heartland but in the areas beyond. There was gradually less emphasis on the state in establishing agricultural settlements, with recipients of land grants being expected to take the initiative.