It is said that before the road was built in front of it, the grand Varaha sculpture of Udayagiri, near present-day Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, rose high from the waters of the tank that lay before it. What a sight it would have been. It reminded the many who flocked here of the story from the Puranas, of how the Hindu God Vishnu took the form of a boar to rescue the Earth Goddess Bhudevi from the clutches of the demon Hiranyaksha, who had hidden her deep within the cosmic waters, as the devas and asuras – gods and demons – fought for control of the universe.
The great relief in Cave No. 5 in Udayagiri captures the story of the Varaha, considered the third avatar of Vishnu, in fine detail. You can see Bhudevi perched on the anthropomorphic boar’s shoulders, as numerous sages and devas look on. The rivers Ganga and Yamuna depicted as goddesses stand by, as does Varuna, the God of the Oceans, and a Naga king, who bows his hooded head. Even the ripples of the ocean can be seen etched on the wall.
But apart from the popular Puranic tale, this relief also hides many other layers of stories. This is more than just a depiction of a mythological tale. It is a reflection of an important phase of Indian history, a ‘threshold’ period, according to historians like Romila Thapar.
During this time, things began to change.
The empire builders – the Guptas – were on the rise. By the end of the 4th century CE, they had taken control over much of Northern India, picking up the pieces as the Kushana Empire (1st to 3rd CE) broke up. This was the period when Buddhism was starting to decline. The Gupta emperors had gained legitimacy thanks in large part to their patronage of Brahmanism, the Vedic religion or the early form of what we call ‘Hinduism’ today. Sanskrit literature was seeing its golden age. Dry Brahmanical religion dominated by rituals was being replaced by vivid Puranic tales and personalised gods whom we pray to, even today.
It is during the Gupta period that the Puranas were given concrete shape and codified. The epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which till then had been passed down orally, were written down, and all this was being reflected in public areas of worship – temples. While the early form of worship in the Vedic religion had been through yagnas and rituals, between the end of the 4h and the beginning of the 6th CE, there was a flurry of temple building.
In fact, travel to Udayagiri and the area around it – Sanchi, Deogarh and Eran, on the Malwa plateau in Madhya Pradesh – and you will find a snapshot of all that was happening during this time.
Once on the Tropic of Cancer that cuts through India, Udayagiri (now it is around 0.2 degrees off it), around 20 minutes from Sanchi, was always an important site for worshippers of the Sun, and other faiths. But in the later part of the 4th CE, the area over which it stands became a place of strategic political importance.
The army of the Gupta Emperor Chandragupta II (r. 380 – 415 CE) probably camped here as he mounted an offensive against the last of the Shaka/Kshatrapa rulers of Gujarat and Kathiawar. Historians believe that the Guptas may have once been one of the feudatories of the Kushanas in the region of Magadha. They rose to claim much of the Kushana Empire, in the Indian subcontinent as the latter crumbled.
Samudragupta (r. 350 – 370), described by historians like Vincent Smith as the ‘Napoleon’ of India, is credited with much of the empire building. However, it was his son Chandragupta II, who led the charge for the capture of the lucrative and rich region of Gujarat and parts of Malwa. He defeated the last of the Shakas/Kshatrapas (1st to 5th CE), Indo-Scythians who had once ruled large parts of North and Western India. Commemorating his victory are gold coins showing him slaying a lion (still found in Gujarat) as opposed to his father’s coins – which interestingly showed him slaying a tiger (found across India).
Historians believe that the Varaha of Udayagiri was symbolic of Chandragupta’s victory over the Shakas/Kshatrapas (Indo-Scythians). The legend of the Varaha was used as a motif to depict the Gupta ruler’s victory over an ‘outsider’ and celebrate his suzerainty over much of North India. This was perhaps among the earliest attempts to visually link divinity and kingship, symbolically, through sculpture.
But the thread connecting divinity and kingship was first deployed earlier. In his study of the historical and political allegory in Gupta art, scholar Frederick Asher points out that the notion of the monarch enjoying divine rank can be traced to the time of the Kushanas. “During this period, statues of rulers were actually established in a shrine called devakula – quite literally meaning the family of god. King Kanishka took on the title Devaputra or the son of god.” Asher believes that the notion must have been especially important to alien/foreign rulers like the Kushanas and the Shakas, who did not have the authority of Kshatriya birth.
Both were tribes from Central Asia who had marched in to take advantage of the vacuum created after the decline of the Mauryas a few centuries back. They stayed on and built large kingdoms. The Kushanas patronized Buddhism and the Kshatrapas a combination of Buddhism, Brahmanism and Sanskrit. In fact, the earliest recorded Sanskrit inscription is the one by Kshatrapa ruler Rudradaman I in Junagadh in Gujarat. Written in a fine prose style, it is dated to around 150 CE.
This was followed by the Guptas. Though politically secular, they too promoted Brahmanism, the use of Sanskrit and iterated their link with the divine. The Gupta rulers used titles like ‘Paramesvara’ (Highest Supreme Ruler) ‘Paramadaivita (Highest Deva) apart from the regular title of ‘Maharajadhiraja’ or ‘King of Kings’. Chandragupta II, however, preferred to refer to himself as ‘Paramabhagvata’ or First Among the Followers of Vishnu’.
In the 20 caves of Udayagiri, you will also find a profusion of gods and goddesses sculpted on the walls, reflecting both the Vaishnavite (Vishnu-centred) and Shaivite (Shiva-centred) imagery.
Celebrating the Puranas
Interestingly, the one area that early historians – Orientalists and Nationalists – agreed upon as they tried to study the pages of Indian history was in how they saw the Gupta Age. For both, this was the ‘Golden Age’ of India’s past. For the Orientalists, obsessed with ‘Empires’, the centralization under the Guptas was worth lauding. For the Nationalists, the Guptas were the ideal because they created a ‘Golden’ age of classical literature and religion. Under them, there was a major revival of Vedic religion and Sanskrit language. Royal patronage by the Guptas ensured that both prospered.
Over the decades, numerous scholars have questioned these generalizations and added layers of new perspective.
For instance, the rise of Sanskrit as the official language seems to have happened earlier, during the time of the Shakas. Foreign rulers who made their way into India, as we have seen, were canny enough to support Sanskrit and the Brahmanism (Vedic religion) in a bid to find legitimacy as rulers in India.
Similarly, there are references to the Bhagavata cult in the 2nd century BCE. The famous Heliodorus pillar in Besnagar, just a 10-minute drive from Udayagiri, is testimony to the flourishing Bhagvata cult (early Vaishnavism) that prospered for centuries. References to Shaivite sects also abound.
But historians like Kanad Sinha, who have studied the close relationship between kingship and religion in the Gupta period, point out that the big change that happened in this era was how the state patronized the more popular Puranic cults that had evolved at the grassroots, amalgamating them within formal Brahmanism.
As Sinha points out, ‘The most popular form of Brahmanical religion – the Puranic sects – started to flourish from the Gupta period. The rise of both the empire and the sects needs to be seen as parallel processes. The Gupta kings had adopted a new political philosophy to acquire legitimacy in which both religion and art played a crucial role.’
While the Puranas may have originated as an oral, bardic tradition that incorporated mythological stories of the origin of the world and genealogies of the various rulers who ruled across large swathes of the subcontinent, it is in the Gupta period that the Puranas were penned, structured and codified. This was done by the Brahmanas in Sanskrit. Of course, there was also a lot added to these texts (there are 18 main Puranas) over the centuries. The Puranas, as per definition, are said to have five elements – stories on sarga or the creation of the universe; presarga or recreation after destruction; vamsa or genealogy; manvantra or great periods of time from the time of Manu; and vamsanucharita or the history of the dynasties both solar and lunar. But the Brahmanas putting down the Puranas also added their own layers to it, including interpretations, details of rites and rituals, prevailing ideas of astronomy, science and customs.
Sanskrit scholar Dr G V Devasthali gives a great assessment of the evolution of the Puranas in his essay on Literature in the Classical Age (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan series Volume 3). He points out, ‘The original authors of the Puranas, like the epics were Sutas or bards…later on it fell into the hands of temple priests who helped themselves by adding to the Puranas a great deal of new matter which served their own ends’.
Devasthali writes that the codification of the Puranas may have been a deliberate attempt to bring theistic religions like Vaishnavism and Shaivism within orthodoxy. This in many senses also gave a new lease of life to the old Vedic religion, which had lost ground thanks to the rise of heterodox faiths like Buddhism and Jainism.
Different sections dealing with rites and rituals were added to the Puranas between the 3rd and the 7th century CE. The bulk of this was done during the Gupta period.
This was also the period in which the great epics – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana – were written down and popularised.
Dr Binda Paranjape of the Banaras Hindu University, who has taught Gupta history and the evolution of the language and literature of this period, adds another dimension to this. She believes that an important part of the ‘evolution’ of the Puranas that had happened, was the incorporation of a series of local gods and goddesses into the Puranic pantheon. Their stories were woven into myths and legends, thus embracing local sects and drawing them into the Brahmanical fold.
She cites the example of the Varaha as an avatar of Vishnu. She believes that this form of the boar was an important local deity in the forest regions of Malwa. Even the Neolithic cave paintings of Bhimbetka, in Madhya Pradesh, have numerous visual depictions of the boar. As the Gupta Empire expanded, local deities like this were not just incorporated but also given pride of place within the Puranic pantheon – in this case, Varaha was taken as the 3rd avatar of Vishnu, to win over locals and gain their respect and trust.
If the Puranic literature incorporated a wide array of colourful local deities into the Brahmanical (Vedic) religion to increase its reach, the epics provided a reference point to celebrate kingship and also draw parallels between the heroes and the Gupta rulers. This was reflected in literature too. Take, for example, Kalidasa’s famous work Raghuvamsha. Historians believe the description of the hero Raghu’s digvijaya (conquests) may have had echoes of the conquests of Samudragupta (r. 350-370 CE).
The interplay between rulers, legends and Puranic gods is also reflected in the large number of coins from the Gupta period. Here, the kings are shown slaying tigers, lions or drawing the bow. Most often, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Lakshmi, is shown on the reverse.
Tracing the Story of Temples
If Puranic literature was adding a new vibrancy to orthodox Brahmanism, the mode of worship also seems to have changed during the Gupta period.
It is impossible to say when free-standing temples, like the ones we see today were first built on the Indian subcontinent (since none has survived). While the earliest surviving Buddhist and Jain cave temples go back to the 3rd BCE, the general consensus is that early Brahmanical temples haven’t survived either because a) most earlier temples may have been made of wood, brick or terracotta and so perished, or they were not really popular or b) the emphasis on open-fire altars and rituals in the Vedas meant that most people prayed in the outdoors.
The earliest examples of free-standing stone temples – extant i.e. still surviving – come from the Gupta period. In fact, if you take a half-hour drive from the remains of the temple in Besnagar (a pre–Gupta structure where the famous Heliodorus pillar stands), to Udayagiri and then Sanchi, you will get a lesson in the history of temple–making in ancient India.
All that remains of the ancient temple in Besnagar is its foundation. This indicates that the temple structure would have been made using a perishable material – mud bricks or wood. The Heliodorus pillar made of stone is the only remnant of the temple complex that would have stood there, around 100 BCE, when the pillar was erected.
In Cave No 1 of Udayagiri, you will find the next stage of temple-building. This would have been a combination of an excavated cave temple, with an outer façade – supported by pillars. The garbhagriha or sanctum sanctorum would have been within the cave and visitors would have congregated outside. The marker to indicate that this was built in the Gupta period comes from the T shaped doorway, resplendent with sculptures of deities seen in nearly all Gupta temple doorways – dwarapalakas – and the rivers Ganga and Yamuna shown as goddesses.
By the time the Udayagiri caves were being excavated, Puranic gods and the imagery we associate with them had started vividly being visualized through sculpture.
While Chandragupta II was a Vaishnavite, the Udayagiri caves show that even Shaivite deities were given equal due. In fact, in Udayagiri, you will find what is believed to be the earliest known sculptural depiction of the Elephant God, Ganesha. This is etched along with the Seven Matrikas or goddesses.
The earliest free–standing structure of a temple, also from the Gupta period, can be seen opposite the main stupa in Sanchi. This is referred to as Temple No 17 by historians. Simple though it is, it is significant, also because it underlines that the Guptas were secular and great patrons of Buddhism even as they officially endorsed Brahmanism.
By the end of the 5th century CE, Gupta temples had evolved into rich markers of faith. The Deogarh Dashavatara temple in present-day Uttar Pradesh, built around 500 CE, is one of the finest examples of Gupta–era temple making. It has over 100 exquisite sculptures depicting Puranic gods and goddesses, including the now iconic Ganga and Yamuna standing on the doorway.
Niches on the interior and exterior have sculptures depicting legends associated with Vishnu from the Puranas, his 10 avatars and also the image of Vishnu lying down, sheltered by the seven-hooded serpent Sesha (Anantashayi Vishnu).
Interestingly, in this temple, there are also panels from the epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. These, for instance, depict Ram, Lakshman and Sita going into exile; Lakshman mutilating Surpanakha’s nose and Ravana threatening Sita in Ashoka Vatika. By now, it seems the popular epics also found their way onto temple walls.
The Gupta period was marked by other transitions, which explain how the role of kingship and religion evolved.
Unlike the Mauryan empire, the Guptas lorded over a more decentralised administration structure. Regional/provincial lords and feudatories managed affairs and paid homage to the Gupta ‘King of Kings’ or Maharajadhiraja.
As the distance between king and subjects got more layered, there was a need to connect at different levels. This was achieved by adopting more popular strains of faith, incorporating local cults into the mainstream or linking the monarch to the divine through tales and legends. This was easier now because of the way the economy had evolved.
By now trade with Rome had declined and merchants no longer held the clout they had in the past. Through the preceding centuries, from as far back as the Mauryan period, it was the rich merchants who had supported and funded the Buddhist and Jaina temples and monasteries. By the time of the Guptas, it was the turn of the state to patronise temples and religion, and the money for this came more and more from the land revenue the state collected. Interestingly, another trend that gained momentum now was that of royal grants of lands to Brahmanas, making them stronger and more financially secure. This too was followed for centuries after.
The Gupta Legacy
Around 2 hours from Udayagiri, in a place that seems like the back of beyond, you will find the remains of the forlorn temples of Eran. Dedicated to Vishnu, Narasimha and Varaha – the most spectacular of the free–standing sculptures that remain here is that of the last. The Eran Varaha is a large boar whose body is covered with fine etchings, the likes of which you will not see anywhere else in India. On this Varaha’s neck, you will also find an important clue to the end of Gupta glory.
The Eran Varaha carries an inscription mentioning the fact that the Huna invader Toramana, who ripped through this area with his armies in the early part of the 6th century CE, reigned over the region during the time this inscription in Sanskrit was written. The Huna invasions, starting the mid 5th century had destabilised Northern India even though Chandragupta II’s grandson Skandagupta may have been able to repulse some of the attacks. Later, under Toramana (r. 493-515 CE) the Alchon Huns, who he led managed to wrest control over the stretch from Punjab to Malwa. The Eran inscription refers to Toramana as Maharajadhiraja, or King of Kings, and is also in Sanskrit.
Toramana sounded the end of the reign of the Guptas, though his son was defeated by an alliance of local kings later. But, by then the empire had shrunk dramatically before being displaced completely.
However, the Guptas did leave a substantial mark. Much of what we know as symbols of Hindu faith today acquired their form during the Gupta period. From Puranic literature, epic tales, colourful deities and the temples we still worship in, the echoes of the Gupta period – the age of heroes and legends – can still be heard today.
This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.
Find all the stories from this series here.
Rising from the chaos of the post-Kushana period, the Guptas built a glorious empire that covered almost two-thirds of the Indian subcontinent. Here’s a glimpse into how these Emperors steered the course of history.
The amorous poetry of an ancient Indian king and the women writers of his time tell us about everyday life during the Satavahana dynasty, the status of women then, and how society was stratified. Discover all this and more in one of the oldest extant anthologies of poetry in the Indian subcontinent
Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.