We all know about Samudragupta, a famous ruler of a dynasty known as the Guptas from a long inscription, inscribed on the Ashokan pillar at Allahabad.
It was composed as a Kavya by Harishena, who was a poet and a minister at the court of Samudragupta. This inscription is of a special kind known as a prashasti, a Sanskrit word, meaning ‘in praise of’.
In Samudragupta’s prashasti, the poet praised the king in glowing terms such as a warrior, as a king who won victories in battle, who was learned and the best of poets. He is also described as equal to the gods. The prashasti was composed in very long sentences.
Harishena described four different kinds of rulers and told us about Samudragupta’s policies towards them.
The rulers of Aryavarta, where nine rulers were uprooted, and their kingdoms were made a part of Samudragupta’s empire.
The rulers of Dakshinapatha where twelve rulers surrendered to Samudragupta after being defeated and later he allowed them to rule again.
The inner circle of neighbouring states, including Assam, coastal Bengal, Nepal, and a number of gana sanghas in the northwest.
They brought tribute, followed his orders, and attended his court.
The rulers of the outlying areas, perhaps the descendants of the Kushanas and Shakas, and the ruler of Sri Lanka submitted to him and offered daughters in marriage.
Samudragupta’s prashastis mentioned the ancestors’ names such as Samudragupta’s great grandfather, grandfather, father and mother.
His mother, Kumara Devi, belonged to the Lichchhavi gana, while his father, Chandragupta, was the first ruler of the Gupta dynasty who adopted the grand title of maharaj-adhiraja, a title that Samudragupta also used.
Samudragupta figures in the genealogies of later rulers of the dynasty, such as his son, Chandragupta II. He led an expedition to western India, where he overcame the last of the Shakas.
According to later belief, his court was full of learned people, including Kalidasa the poet, and Aryabhata the astronomer.
Harshavardhana and the Harshacharita
Harshavardhana, who ruled nearly 1400 years ago, and his biography was written by his court poet, Banabhatta in Sanskrit. He was not the eldest son of his father but became king of Thanesar after both his father and elder brother died.
His brother-in-law ruled Kanauj who was killed by the ruler of Bengal. Harsha took over the kingdom of Kanauj and then led an army against the ruler of Bengal.
Harsha was successful in the east and conquered both Magadha and Bengal.
He tried to cross the Narmada to march into the Deccan but was stopped by a ruler belonging to the Chalukya dynasty, Pulakeshin II.
The Pallavas, Chalukyas and Pulakeshin’s Prashasti
During this period, the Pallavas and Chalukyas were the most important ruling dynasties in south India.
The kingdom of the Pallavas spread from the region around their capital, Kanchipuram, to the Kaveri delta, while that of the Chalukyas was centred around the Raichur Doab, between the rivers Krishna and Tungabhadra.
Aihole, the capital of the Chalukyas, was an important trading centre. It developed as a religious centre, with a number of temples.
Pulakeshin II was the best-known Chalukya ruler. His prashasti was composed by his court poet Ravikirti which talks about his ancestors, who are traced back through four generations from father to son.
According to Ravikirti, he led expeditions along both the west and the east coasts. Besides, he checked the advance of Harsha.
There is an interesting play of words in the poem. Harsha means happiness. The poet says that after this defeat, Harsha was no longer Harsha!
How Were These Kingdoms Administered?
Land revenue remained important and the village remained the basic unit of administration. But, new developments were also introduced.
Kings adopted a number of steps to win the support of men who were powerful, either economically, or socially, or because of their political and military strength.
Some important administrative posts were hereditary.
Sometimes, one person held many offices.
Besides, important men probably had a say in local administration.
A New Kind of Army
Kings maintained a well-organised army, with elephants, chariots, cavalry and foot soldiers.
Military leaders provided kings with troops whenever he needed them but they were not paid regular salaries. Instead, of salary, some of them received grants of land.
They collected revenue from the land and used this to maintain soldiers and horses, and provide equipment for warfare. These men were known as samantas.
Assemblies in the Southern Kingdoms
The inscriptions of the Pallavas mentioned a number of local assemblies which included the sabha, an assembly of brahmin landowners.
This assembly functioned through subcommittees, which looked after irrigation, agricultural operations, making roads, local temples, etc.
The ur was a village assembly found in areas where the landowners were not brahmins. And the nagaram was an organisation of merchants.
Ordinary People in the Kingdoms
Kalidasa was known for his plays depicting life in the king’s court. An interesting feature about these plays is that the king and most brahmins are shown as speaking Sanskrit, while women and men other than the king and brahmins use Prakrit.
His most famous play, Abhijnana Shakuntalam, is the story of the love between a king named Dushyanta and a young woman named Shakuntal.