Gupta Rule forms an important chapter in the history of ancient Bengal. Gupta rule spread over Bengal probably in the reign of Chandragupta I or Samudragupta towards the end of the 3rd or the beginning of the 4th century AD. Eulogical inscriptions (prashasti lipi), copperplates, coins, literary evidences, and foreign accounts bear testimony to the existence of Gupta rule in Bengal.
Scholars differ regarding the original home of the imperial Guptas. Shrigupta was the progenitor of the Gupta dynasty. Allan propounded the view that Srigupta ruled the area near Pataliputra (in Magadha). On the other hand DC Ganguly considers Murshidabad as the early home of the Guptas and not Magadha. The view is based on the tradition recorded by i-tsing.
I-tsing came to India in 673 AD. Five hundred years before his time ie second century AD Chinese traveller Hui Lan visited Nalanda. At that time one Maharaja Srigupta built a temple, known as the 'Temple of China';, situated close to a sanctuary called 'mi-li-kia-si-kia-po-no'; (Chinese form of Mrgashikhavana or Mrgasthapana) for the Chinese priests. He also granted twenty-four villages as an endowment for its maintenance. This temple was situated about forty yojanas (equivalent to 240 miles) to the east of Nalanda. From Nalanda, following the course of the Ganges, the distance of Murshidabad is about forty yojanas. DC Ganguly, considering the distance and direction given by I-tsing, pointed out that the original home of the Guptas must have been located near about Murshidabad. HC Raychoudhuri was in favour of Varendri. In an illustrated Cambridge Manuscript, dated 1015 AD, there is a picture of a stupa, with the label 'Mrgasthapana Stupa of Varendra';. It would, therefore, follow that the 'Temple of China'; was near the Mrgasthapana Stupa in varendra, and must have been situated either in Varendra, or not far from its boundary, on the bank of the Bhagirathi or the padma. So it could be assumed that the original home of the Guptas was most probably Murshidabad in West Bengal or Varendra in North Bengal. However, many scholars hold contrary opinions and Raychaudhuri or Ganguly';s theory shall have to wait for further corroborative evidence.
It is likely that on the eve of the eastward expansion of the Guptas Bengal was divided into a number of small but powerful independent states. A record engraved on the Susunia hill, about 12 miles to the northwest of Bankura town in West Bengal, mentions Puskaranadhipa Maharaja chandravarman, son of Maharaja Singhavarman. According to Allahabad Prasasti of Harisena Samudragupta uprooted one Chandravarman. Puskaranadhipa Chandravarman and Chandravarman of Allahabad Prasasti are most probably identical. However, by the middle of the fourth century AD, the whole of Bengal with the exception of samatata (the trans-Meghna region comprising the Comilla-Noakhali area), was incorporated in the Gupta Empire.
The subject matter of an inscription engraved on an Iron Pillar at the compound of the Kuwwatul Islam Mosque in Meherauli area close to the Qutb Minar at Delhi, throws some fresh light on the history of expansion of the rule of the imperial Guptas in Bengal. In this inscription, the victories of a king, named 'Chandra';, are described. It mentions, among other military exploits of the king, that he 'extirpated in battle in the vanga countries his enemies who offered him a united resistance';. In the absence of full details about this king 'Chandra';, his identity is a matter of great uncertainty and has formed a subject of keen controversy among scholars. King 'Chandra'; has been identified, for example, both with Chandragupta I and Chandragupta II. In the former case it must be held that the father of Samudragupta had already added Vanga to the Gupta empire. In the latter case, it must be presumed that Vanga had shaken off the yoke of the Gupta empire, and Samudragupta';s son had to reconquer the area by overcoming an united resistance. On the basis of the Meherauli inscription, however, at least a conclusion may be drawn that at early phase of the Gupta expansion Vanga had a number of independent states, who could offer a vigorous resistance against foreign invaders.
According to Allahabad Prasasti, the kingdoms lying on the eastern frontier of Samudragupta';s vast empire were Nepala, Kartrpura (identification controversial), Kamarupa, Davaka (Assam or Dhaka), and Samatata (Souteast Bengal), which were made tributary states. But in course of time Gupta suzerainty was established over Samatata and by the end of the 5th century AD this area appears to have been ruled by a king whose name ends in 'Gupta'; (Vainyagupta). It is mentioned in Gunaighar copper plate that Maharaja Vainyagupta granted land to a loyal person. Although he is titled 'Maharaja'; in his own record, he is given the title of 'Dvadashaditya'; in a gold coin, and 'Maharajadhiraja'; in a seal found at Nalanda.
On the basis of the copper plates, discovered till now, it is proved that North Bengal was ruled directly by the Gupta kings. In the days of Kumaragupta I (432-448 AD) Northern Bengal formed an important administrative division, Pundravardhana-bhukti. The Damodarpur copper plates of Budhgupta (478 AD) indicate that Northern Bengal formed an integral part of the Gupta empire down to the end of the 5th century AD. Pundranagara (Mahasthana) was the centre of the Gupta provincial administration in this region. Their well-organised and well-controlled administration prevailed here.
In the Gupta period, Bengal was divided into some well-defined administrative units like bhukti, visaya, mandala, vithi, and grama. Each of the units seems to have an adhikarana or office of its own at its headquarters (adhisthana). Bhukti, corresponding to modern division, was the largest unit of administration. From the contemporary epigraphic records, we know the names of two bhuktis like Pundravardhana (the whole of north Bengal) and Vardhamana (the southern part of ancient Radha). A deputy of the king governed bhukti and the title of this high official was Uparika or Uparika Maharaja. Next to the bhukti, visaya was the second largest administrative unit. The title of the administrator of visaya was Kumaramatya and Ayuktaka. From the inscriptions, we know the names of such visayas like Kotivarsa visaya, Panchanagari visaya, Barakmandala visaya etc. There was a kind of officials, named pustapala (record keeper), in the adhikarana of the visaya.
It is learnt from the Damodarpur copperplate inscriptions Nos 2, 4, and 5 that the visayapati (officer-in-charge) of the Kotivarsa visaya was aided by a 'Board of Advisers';. This 'Advisory Board'; was composed of, excluding himself, four other members representing various important interest groups of those days. The members of the 'Board'; were the nagara-shresthi (the president of the various guilds or corporations of the town, or of the rich bankers), the prathama-sarthavaha (the chief merchant), the prathama-kulika (the chief artisan), and the prathama-kayastha (the chief scribe acting as a state official in the capacity of a Secretary of modern days or representative the Kayastha class). However, the participation of the local people in the administration bears clear testimony to the fact that the democratic principle was pursued in local administration. It can also be asserted that Gupta administration was the earliest instance of local government in Bengal.
The vithi forms the next administrative unit. From the contemporary epigraphic records, we know the names of two vithis: Vakkattakkavithi (in Vardhamanabhukti) and Daksinangshakavithi (in Pundravardhanabhukti). We have specific references to the adhikaranas of the vithis, but we have no definite information regarding their constitution. Most probably the 'Board of Advisors'; of the vithis was constituted with mahattaras, agraharinas, khadgis, vahanayakas etc. Village (grama) probably formed the smallest unit of administration. It seems that Gramika, brahmins, mahattaras, kutumbins were closely attached with village administration.
The land administration of the Guptas was also well controlled. We find references to some varieties of land in the Gupta epigraphic records such as ksetra (a field under cultivation), khila (uncultivated), and vastu (a dwelling site). In Gupta period, the accurate measurement system of land was active. The terms like kulyavapa and dronavapa were the units of measuring the lands. Apart from the units mentioned above, the terms pataka, bhu-pataka, adhaka, kakini, khadika, hala, drona etc were said to be in practice for measuring the land.
In the vast Gupta Empire Bengal was an important province. The period of the imperial Guptas is generally considered to be the 'golden age'; of Indian history. During this period, under a strong benevolent central authority, peace, wealth and prosperity were manifest for a considerable time and Bengal enjoyed the benefit of being a part of the All-Indian empire. Bengal had a participation in the All-Indian trade. Gold and silver coins brought into currency in entire Bengal. Introduction of a large number of gold coins proves economic prosperity of Bengal. Betel nut, silk, cotton, coconut, salt, and sugar etc were probably exported from Bengal. At that time Bengal had trading link with Southeast Asia and China. The discovery of a large number of imitation Gupta coins from different places of Bengal prove that Bengal enjoyed the benefit of money economy.
This period also saw artistic excellence. During the Gupta age the evolution of sculptural art that developed in Northern India had left a definite stamp on the sculptural art tradition of Bengal. A few examples recovered from North Bengal clearly show this evolution. The Gupta School inspired the Bengal School of sculptural art distinctly in the Pala period. The Gupta period is also remarkable for religious toleration. The imperial Gupta monarchs were followers of Brahmanic religion, but they patronised Buddhism, Jainism, and other religious communities and the people of the period enjoyed an environment of religious toleration and mutual coexistence of religions.
Bengal was an integral part of All-Indian history for the second time, the first probably in the age of the imperial Mauryas. [Aksadul Alam]
Bibliography RC Majumdar, History of Ancient Bengal, Calcutta, 1971; AM Chowdhury and others, Bangladesher Itihas (in Bangla), Dhaka, 7th edition, 1998. [Alam, Aksadul Associate Professor of History, Dhaka University]