6 History

New Empires and Kingdoms

Learning Goals:

  • The Gupta Empire
  • Harshavardhana
  • Kings in South India
  • Administration in kingdoms
  • Life of ordinary people


The Gupta Empire ruled over a major part of the Indian subcontinent from 320 to 550 AD. Maharaja Shri Gupta was the founder of the Gupta Empire. The reign of the Gupta Empire was a period of overall prosperity. This period also witnessed developments in the fields of science & technology, art and literature. Due to this, the Gupta Period is also known as the Golden Age in the history of India.

Chandragupta I, Samduragupta and Chandragupta II were the greatest emperors of the Gupta Empire. The rule of the Gupta Empire was spread from the north-west to Bengal in the east. The Gupta Empire was restricted to the north of the Deccan Plateau. But during its peak, it also extended to some parts of the eastern coast of India.

Samudragupta: Samudragupta is considered to be the greatest king of the Gupta Empire. Some historians also equate him with Ashoka the Great. Historians have come to know about him through the coins and inscriptions. One inscription on an Ashokan pillar in Allahabad gives a detailed account about Samudragupta. It was a prashasti; written in the form of a long poem by Harisena. Harisena was a court poet of Samudragupta; around 1700 years ago. Prashasti is a Sanskrit word which means in praise of someone. Prashasti was written in praise of kings during that period. The prashasti from the Ashokan pillar in Allahabad reveals following details about Samudragupta:

gupta empire
  • Samudragupta was a great warrior. He fought many battles to expand his kingdom.
  • He was an able administrator and a good ruler. He was a musician, an artist and an author.
  • Samudragupta encouraged artists, musicians and poets in his royal court. Kalidasa was famous poet in the court of Samudragupta. Aryabhata; the famous astronomer; also lived in the court of Samudragupta.

Administration in Gupta Empire:

  • A large part of north India was under the direct rule of Samudragupta. This part was called Aryavarta. In this part of north India; Samudragupta had defeated nine rulers and made their territories a part of the Gupta Empire.
  • There were five rulers in the Dakshinapatha. They had surrendered to Samudragupta. Later on, Samudragupta allowed them to rule over their respective kingdoms.
  • Assam, coastal Bengal, Nepal and many gana sanghas in the north east followed Samudragupta’s orders. The rulers of these states attended his court and brought tributes.
  • The rulers of the outer areas submitted to Samudragupta. They offered their daughters in marriage. The Shakas, Kushanas and the rulers of Sri Lanka probably came in these areas.

Thus, almost the whole subcontinent was under the rule of Samudragupta. Some parts were under his direct rule and others were ruled indirectly.

Grand Titles of Kings: This period shows a new trend. The kings began to assume grand titles. For example; Samudragupta was called Maharajadhiraja.


Harshavardhana ruled over a major part of north India from 606 to 647 AD. His capital was at Kannauj. His court poet Banabhatta wrote his biography Harshacharita. This biography has given rich information about Harshavardhana. Xuan Zang also lived in the court of Harshavardhana. We also get important information from the accounts of Xuan Zang.

harshavardhana's empire

Harshavardhana was the son of Prabhakara Vardhana. Prabhakara Vardhana was the king of Thanesar (modern day Haryana). Harsha was not the eldest son. But after the death of his father and elder brother, he became the king of Thanesar. Harsha’s brother-in-law was the king of Kannauj. He was killed by the ruler of Bengal. Subsequently, Harshavardhana took over the kingdom of Kannauj. Then he led an army and attacked the king of Bengal. He succeeded in conquering Bengal and Magadha. But when he tried to enter into the Deccan, he was stopped by Pulakeshin II. Pulakeshin II was a Chalukya ruler.

The Pallavas: The Pallava Dynasty ruled over a large part of south India between 2nd and 9th century AD. The capital of the Pallavas was at Kanchipuram. The Pallava territory extended up to the Kavery delta.

pallava's empire

The Chalukyas: The Chalukya Dynasty ruled over a large part of central and south India between 6th and 12th century AD. The Chalukya territory was around the Raichur Doab; between Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers. Aihole was the capital of the Chalukyas.

chalukya's empire

The Pallavas and the Chalukyas frequently fought with each other. They wanted to assert their supremacy in the region. Capital cities were especially attacked because they were the prosperous towns.

Pulakeshin II was the best known Chalukya ruler. Pulakeshin also checked the advances made by Harshavardhana. His prashashti had been written by his court poet Ravikriti. This prashasti shows details of the defeat of Harshavardhana.

In due course of time, both the Pallavas and Chalukyas had to give way to later rulers; like the Rashtrakutas and the Cholas.


Land still remained the main source of tax revenue for the kings. Villages remained the basic unit of administration. But many changes were happening which changed the balance of power during this period.

There was no single ruler who was enough powerful to have total control over the Indian subcontinent. Kings usually took steps to win powerful people. They often chalked out power-sharing agreements. There were many people who were economically, socially or militarily powerful. The following examples illustrate this fact:

Some posts were made hereditary. This meant that the son got a particular post after the death of this father. Let us take the example of poet Harisena. He was a Maha-danda-nayaka (Chief Judicial Officer) and his father held the same post.

There were many instances when a single person held many posts. Let us take the example of Harisena once again. He also held the posts of Kumar-amatya (important minister) and Sandhi-vigrahika (minister of war and peace).

Many important men exercised authority in local administration. Some examples of such persons are; the nagara-shreshthi (chief banker or merchant), sarthavaha (leader of the merchant caravan) and the heads of the kayasthas (scribes).

These policies appear quite effective in keeping a control over the kingdom to certain extent. But, gradually, the local satraps grew in power and eventually set up their own independent kingdoms.

Changes in the Army:

Some of the kings continued to maintain a well organized army. A new trend also emerged during this period. Some military leaders maintained an army and provided the army to the king when required. Such military leaders did not get salary. But they got grants in the form of land. They also got the right to collect land revenue. The revenue was utilized to maintain the soldiers, horses and battle equipments. Such military leaders were known as samanthas. When a ruler became weak, a Samantha tried to become independent.

Assemblies in the Southern Kingdoms:

The assembly of Brahmin landowners was called the sabha. Such assemblies functioned through various sub-assemblies. The sub-assemblies looked after different aspects; like irrigation, road construction, farming operations, temple construction, etc.

The assembly of non-brahmin landowners was called the ur. The organization of merchants was called the nagaram. Usually, these assemblies were controlled by rich merchants and landowners. Such local assemblies survived for centuries in south India.

Life of Ordinary People

While most of the authors and poets sand hosannas about the kings, some of them also mentioned about ordinary people. Many stories, plays and poems tell us about the life of common people.

Sanskrit had become the language of the kings and the Brahmins. Prakrit was the language of ordinary men and women.

Condition of Untouchables: Fa Xian had written about the condition of untouchables in India during that time. People who were not allowed to mix with mainstream society were considered as untouchables.

According to Fa Xian; when an untouchable person entered the village he needed to warn others about his presence. He constantly beat a stick to the ground to alert others. This ensured that people could avoid coming anywhere close to him. The untouchable lived outside the city or the village.