The Gupta Era
After the Kushans, the Gupta was the most important dynasty. A chief called Sri Gupta ruled a small kingdom in Magadh, and was succeeded by his son Ghatokacha. This area is made up of the modern day Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Ghatokacha's son was named Chandragupta probably born around 290 AD. In 320 AD Chandragupta I founded a new empire which is now called the GUPTA Empire. He ruled until 360 AD and the Gupta dynasty survived till 536 AD. It is considered one of India's Golden Ages.
Chandragupta married Kumaradevi, and the city of Patliputra was given to him in the dowry. So he became the ruler of Patliputra.
He conquered all the surrounding kingdoms and eventually became "Maharajadhiraja" (King of Kings).
On the right is one of the very few images of Chandragupta I. It has been taken from a coin which is shown on the left with him standing with Queen Kumardevi. The reverse of the coin shows the goddess Laxmi.
It is very difficult to obtain images of ancient kings, since statues are rare. Coins are usually the best way to see an image, since they last for a very long time.
King Chandragupta I died in 360 AD and his son Samudragupta succeeded him as King. He conquered many areas in the North and down to the Deccan. He died in 380 AD and was succeeded by his son Chandragupta II. He was also known as Vikramaditya (son of power).
After Chandragupta II died in 405 AD, there were several more kings, until the Gupta empire broke up around 600 AD. Harshavardhan Gupta was the last Gupta king, who you can read about in our next section Harsha.
The poet and dramatist Kalidasa shown on the right, lived during the Gupta era. He wrote about love, adventure and the beauty of nature. His famous work is Shakuntalum. His popular collection of fables Panchatantra has remained popular till modern times. His Kama Sutra also dates from this period.
Artistic and Scientific advances
Aryabatta was a great Gupta era scientist, calculating Pi as 3.1416 and the solar year as 365.358 days. He also put forward the idea of the earth being a sphere rotating on it's own axis and revolving around the sun.
The invention of the decimal system took place during the Gupta era, using 10 as a basis.
The arts flourished under the Guptas and elaborate Hindu and Buddhist sculptures and paintings became models for later Indian art.
About 72 km from Patna in Bihar, is the oldest university in the world. People started learning there around 500 BC and the Lord Buddha is said to have visited Nalanda a number of times. His favourite disciple Sariputra was born there and died preaching at Nalanda.
The word Nalanda means Lotus. It is recorded that although there might have been some constructions since early times, the first large monastery at Nalanda was build by Kumaragupta the First, the early Gupta monarch who reigned between 415 and 456 AD.
The Chinese visitor Hsuan Chwang stayed at Nalanda and studied there. The library was vast and renowned and thousands of students have studied there over the centuries.
The university remained in prominence till the 12th century AD when the Afghans attacked and burnt it down.
Ajanta and Ellora Caves
The wall paintings at Ajanta and Ellora Caves were commissioned by the Gupta Emperors. The picture above shows dancers and musicians at the royal courts. The paintings give us many examples of the clothing worn during the period as well as jewellery and headgear of the Gupta rulers and courtiers.
The cave paintings also show us visitors to the Gupta court, such as these two gentlemen sitting here below. They are wearing warm socks, baggy pants and Persian hats.
Gupta era coins show the King wearing Kushan/Persian dress in the early years, with a helmet as headgear. He probably continued to wear this kind of headgear for military occasions or perhaps for hunting.
When at court, surrounded by family and courtiers, he would have worn a magnificent crown, one of which is shown here on the right from an Ajanta painting. It would have been a towering headgear covered with jewels.
A prince or relation of the king, with royal status, might wear a more modest tiara as shown in the picture on the left.
Here on the right is a courtier wearing a cap at a slant angle, which was apparently a Gupta court fashion.
Men wore their hair long, and it seems that beautiful curls were admired. This was called the gurna kuntala style. Here on the left is one courtier with his hair flowing down to shoulder level in this style.
Men (and perhaps women also) sometimes just wore a band of fabric around their heads, like today's Bandeau. Here is a picture from Ajanta
showing such a headgear.
Simple plaits went out of fashion in the Gupta era. Hair was either left long and curly like the men, or elaborately dressed with the help of maid servants who were obviously good hairdressers.
Sometimes luxuriant ringlets were held by a filet or chaplet of flowers or a jewelled band. The lady on the right has her knot high on her head, with tiny curls across the forehead. She has an elaborate tiara like ornament and strands of pearls in a net on the topknot. Her central ornament above the forehead is also having suspended strands of pearls.
A bun was often worn low on the neck, or knotted at the side of the head, or even on top of the head. It was almost always surrounded by flowers or could have a ratnajali (bejelled net) or a net of pearls called muktajala.
This lady on the left has a centre parting and a tiara with a central ornament over the forehead.
She has taken her knot at the back and slightly to the side and added jewelled braid around it.
The Aryan/Hindu antariya was worn in Gupta times in various forms. If it was worn long, then the pleats could be worned in the kaccha sari style, tucked in at the back of the waist, or as a lehnga tucked in the front or at the side.
A very short antariya ony up to mid-thigh was called a calanika.
The lower garment gradually became the Gagri or drawstring skirt, with small pleats all around the waist. Sometimes a girdle was worn over it at the waist to keep it tight like this lady on the right on the swing. The gagri was usually about 4-6 ft length of fabric. A swirling effect was enhanced by it's many folds, so dancers wore it a lot. It is still worn in Gujerat and Rajasthan by Banjara gypsy women.
As can clearly be seen from the Ajanta paintings, women preferred to wear only a lower garment, and were quite happy to be bare-breasted.
Sometimes blouses were worn, as can be seen from the lady pictured below in our textile section. Another style seen is a choli which has strings attached to make it back-less, like the garments worn in some parts of Rajasthan today. A second style was to tie it in the front, but expose the midriff.
Sometimes the antariya was tied only part way and a length remained, which was thrown over the shoulder. Here you see a lady wearing this one-shouldered garment.
Persian style Tunics do not seem to have been popular with wealthy or even lower caste Hindu women. Only the female soldiers wore the tunic on which they hung their weapons.
The Ajanta paintings do not show us many women with their heads covered by an uttariya, as was the case with the earlier eras. Different ideas of modesty often prevail in different eras.
Many forms of cut and sewn garments became fashionable in the Gupta era. The tunic (kancuka) which was worn by most of the population turned into a brocaded tuni with sleeves worn by ministers and courtiers outside the palace.
However the Aryan antariya, uttariya and kayabandh held their own and the pictures at Ajanta show that these were the favourites for Kings and
nobles when at home in their palaces.
A very short antariya only up to mid-thigh called a calanika is shown on the left, worn by two young boys.
The King's costume was most often a blue closely woven silk antariya, perhaps striped or printed with a block printed pattern. He also wore a floating uttariya of soft fabric with woven borders. Instead of a kayabandh, a plain cord or belt became more popular, wound once or twice around the waist and then buckled or knotted in a variety of ways to secure the antariya.
Here on the right is a King wearing these garments while making an offering of lotus flowers to the Buddha.
Foreigners at court were a common sight as trade and commerce expanded between India and Persia. Persia's influence on clothing is most clear in the rich floating ribbon decoration fashionable in the Persian court.
During the Gupta period, as of course throughout history, men have worn as much if not more jewellery as women. Only in the last 200 years or so, has men's jewellery gone out of fashion.
It was the elaborate jewellery that really set Kings and high dignitaries apart from other members of the royal family, or nobles of the country. Some historians think that the heavy jewelled crown or mukuta, were hardly ever used but were merely signs of divinity. It is like the Crown Jewels of England, stored away, and hardly ever worn by Queen Elizabeth II except for really great occasions.
Gold or hirana was used more than ever before. Gupta craftsmen used techniques such as beaten work, embossing, filigree and twisted wire work, granulation etc. Here on the right is a King with a really splendid set of jewels on his head.
Here on the left is a lady inspecting whether her jewels are good enough for the occasion.
Kundala was the general term for ear rings, circular loops being a favourite. A bali was a small loop, as it is today.
Long heavy ear-rings were worn by both men and women, and resulted in a condition of the ear lobe which is even seen today in old people.
Extended holes in the ear, which hang down precariously and sometimes tear. This can be seen on a man from an Ajanta cave painting
shown here on the right.
Ivory was also used extensively for jewellery and decorations. Here on the left is an unusually heavy necklace from the period.
Jewellery was put on every part of the body. Legs were not forgotten and here on the right you can see a sketch from Ajanta
The kinkini was a small anklet with bells, the nupura was an anklet made of beads, also called maninupura. Women of all classes wore anklets although the statues of goddesses are not adorned with them, for some reason.
The mekhala or girdle was worn low on the hips and suspended from the katisutra. A mekhala pendant hung at the centre. These can still be seen today in the traditional Bharata Natyam dancer's costume of Tamil Nadu.
In the Gupta age, the finest textiles were available, printed, painted, dyed and richly patterned.
The lady on the right is wearing an outfit made up of a tie-and-dye patterned long sleeved blouse, and an Ikat weave gagra as the lower garment.
Tie and Dye was very sophisticated and beautiful effects were created by the resist-dyte techniques. These were called pulakabandha at that time.
Here below is a selection of checked woven garments from Ajanta wall paintings.
Block printing was done on a wide scale.
Here on the left is a fabric showing block printed ducks. It has been taken from a garment worn by a Gupta courtier on the Ajanta Cave wall paintings.
Embroidered fabrics were widely popular and skillfully executed. Gauze from Dacca was obtained, which was noted for it's transparency and was said to be so fine that only it's delicate gold embroidered edging could be seen.
In addition to those fabrics made in India, special costly silken fabrics known as stavaraka made in Persia, were imported by the Gupta nobles and businessmen. This cloth was studded with pearls and was mostly worn only by royalty because it was so costly.
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