6.10: Gupta Period (320 CE – 550 CE)
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Maharaja Sri Gupta, the notable leader of the ancient Indian empire and founder of the Gupta Period, was known for his support of the arts and innovation. The Gupta civilizations did not trade extensively, nor were they exceptionally wealthy; however, they were very supportive of the arts, and prominent scholars flourished and prospered with the encouragement of the Maharaja.
Before the Gupta period started, many states and kingdoms were at war with each other. When Chandragupta, came to power and established the environment for his son to build an extensive empire, the warrior son, Samudragupta, set out to conquer and unite all of India. He expanded quickly and took vast territories, incorporating all of present-day India and parts of the neighboring countries. He loved the science and the arts, creating an environment for art to develop, valuing artists, and setting a precedent to pay the artists, unusual in the ancient civilizations.
During the Gupta period, literature produced drama, poetry, and reflective writings used to educate the people. Formal essays were composed of multiple subjects, from math to medicine and other scientific information. The best-known essay is the Kamasutra, a definition of the Hindu rules of love and marriage. The most famous scholars were Kalidasa, who wrote humorous plays during the Gupta period, with heroism intertwined, and Aryabhatta, a scientist who believed the earth was round and the earth moved on its axis around the sun, centuries before Columbus and Europe. He also calculated the solar year as 365.358 days, three hours different from today’s actual year, and he developed the concept of zero.
Part of the Gupta architectural innovation is found in Hindu shrines, designed on a square, defined as the perfect shape. As part of the design were the decorative, pointed arches, one of the first times the concept was incorporated in a building (6.43). The Gupta period also brought architecture, sculpture, and paintings together in the construction of the Buddhist monastery, Nalanda University (6.44). Located in Bihar, India, the complex was a beautiful site with over 300 dorm rooms and classrooms for up to 10,000 students. Red bricks were used to construct the buildings laid out in a grid fashion, incorporating sculptural walls (6.45) of motivational figures. The courses included math, philosophy, history, astronomy, art, and science in the Buddhist scholarship.
The most well-known paintings are located in the Ajanta Caves (6.46) in the dense forest of the Deccan Plateau. The 29 caves carved into the hillside, including the stone beds where travelers stopped and slept on each night. Over 200 monks and artisans used the caves to live, study, and paint or sculpt Buddha. Colorful paintings illustrated the lives of Buddha and painted in full detail. The artwork and sculptures survived today because the site was abandoned and forgotten over time until the 20th century when it was excavated.
Chess was believed to originate from the Gupta period in the 6th century based on the game called chaturanga (6.47). Infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots were the original pieces that became pawns, knights, rooks, and bishops in the game of chess.
Most of the surviving sculptures were religious in nature and carved from stone, or wood, made of bronze or terra cotta. Multiple religions thrived and tolerated during the period, and their icons, gods, and other religious figures reflected in the majority of sculptures, Krishna in battle (6.48) represented Hindus, and the meditating Buddha (6.49) epitomized Buddhism. Unlike earlier empires, sculptural work did not depict the ruling class. The Gupta Period peaked in 550 CE leading to the final collapse in the 7th century.