Science and Technology
Changes came in the overall social life in the Gupta period with the tremendous development of science during this period. With the growth and intensification in the arena of mathematics, astrology, astronomy, medicine, Chemistry, Metallurgy, Botany, Zoology and Engineering Gupta period gained a striking facet.
Mathematics under Gupta Empire
In the realm of arithmetic the most important achievement was the discovery of the decimal system of notation. It was based upon the principle of the place value of the first nine numbers and the use of the zero. Geometry attained great heights and many theorems relating to circles and triangles are mentioned.
The most famous work in mathematics was that of Aryabhatta, the Aryabhattiyam which was written in 499 A.D. the work deals with arithmetic, geometry and algebra. Trigonometry was also being cultivated during this time. Indians took the lead over the Greeks as far as mathematics is considered.
Astronomy under Gupta Empire
Astronomy made great progress during the age. Varahamihira and Aryabhatta were the major astronomers.
Aryabhatta pointed out that eclipses were caused by the moon coming within the earth’s shadow or between the earth. He utilized trigonometry in astronomy. He worked out accurate formulas to measure two consecutive days. He had also obtained correct equation for the planet’s orbit.
Aryabhatta was much more advanced than the European astronomers. Most probably he began composing his work Panchasiddhahtika in 505 A.D. He discusses in this work the principles of the five astronomical schools, which were considered as the most authoritative one in his time.
The Surya Siddhanta is the most important and complete astronomical work of the period. It seems that Greek astronomy served as the basis of the Surya-Siddhanta. The other three schools of astronomy discussed by Varahamihira are the Paitamaha Siddhanta, the Vasistha Siddhanta, and the Paulish Siddhanta. In his work Varahamihira has preserved the essential teachings of these five schools of astronomy.
Medicine under Gupta Empire
The Charaka samhita and the Sushruta samhita by Charaka and Susruta were the most important works of medicine. Their conclusions are presented in the Ashtanga Sangraha by Vagbhatta I.
Charaka and Susruta placed very high ideals for a physician. A physician is supposed to be a yogi, noble in character and supporter of mankind. He was not to charge high for the medicines he prescribes. He should not distinguish between the rich and the poor.
The government and the public provided for the establishment and maintenance of hospitals where men and animals both were looked after. Nagarjuna had discovered the process of distillation and use of disinfectants. Vaccination for small pox was also known to the Indians. Indian medicine dealt with the whole area of the science.
The structure of the body, its organs, ligaments, muscles, vessels and tissues were described in detail. Vast collections of drugs belonging to the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms are mentioned in the Hindu books of medicine.
Hygiene, regimen of the body and diet was paid more attention. Doctors had conducted amputations and operations as well as improved deformed ears and noses. Surgical instruments were also carefully made.
Astrology under Gupta Empire
The Vriddha Garga Samhita is the only work on astrology prior to Varahamihira’s Brihat samhita, which is a collection of ancient Indian learning and sciences.
Besides the sections on astrology in the Brihat samhita, Varahamihira also composed four other works on astrology, which deal with auspicious muhurtas for marriage, auspicious portents for the expeditions of kings and the time of man’s birth, and its influence on his future.
Chemistry and Metallurgy under Gupta Empire
In the Gupta age, no books dealing with Chemistry and metallurgy are found. Nagarjuna is mentioned as a great chemist. The famous Iron Pillar near the Qutub-Minar stands as a silent witness to assert the striking metallurgical skill of the Hindus.
This pillar has not yet been rusted or corroded despite it being exposed to rain and sun for the last 1500 years. The use of mercury and iron in medicine shows that chemistry must have been practiced.
Varahamihira was a scientist who was comfortable in dealing with astronomy, mathematics, astrology, metallurgy, chemistry, jewellery, botany, zoology, civil engineering, water-divining and meteorology.
Science was cultivated with enthusiasm in ancient India and many important discoveries were made which were passed on to Europe by the Greeks and the Arabs.
The literature of the Gupta empire period was a significant source of understanding the poetry and literature of the dynasties that ruled here after the Gupta reign. The literature during the Gupta dynasty rule was at its pinnacle.
The primary themes of literature during this period were poetry and romantic comedies. This meant that the literature work of the Gupta period related to human behavior more than the religious ideas.
During the Gupta Empire rule, Sanskrit literature was very well received. The Sanskrit literature was sponsored by many Gupta empire rulers. During his reign, Chandragupta II had Navaratna, or set of nine poets in his court. The supreme poet among these nine was Kalidasa.
The Prakrit literature was also very popular during the Gupta rule. It was considered to be close to the Jain texts. One of the best illustrations of Prakrit literature was the Paumacariyam. It was in the Gupta empire period that the Vedic Puranas achieved their final form.
The puranas were the compilation of mythological stories, philosophies and description of rituals in books. The Markandeya purana was popular during the Gupta era as it was believed that goddess Durga was worshiped during this period.
Art and Architecture
The Gupta Dynasty, founded by Chandragupta I (accession c. 320 CE), ruled in North Central India between the 4th and 6th centuries CE and the period is considered a golden age of artistic accomplishment.
The Guptas were the first architects of purpose-built Hindu (but sometimes also Buddhist) temples which evolved from the earlier tradition of rock-cut shrines. Adorned with towers and elaborate carvings, these temples were often dedicated to all the Hindu gods. Unfortunately, relatively few of the large number of Gupta temples built have survived.
Gupta architecture is very diverse in style, design and features. This very diversity illustrates that Hindu temple architecture was in its formative stage and was yet to arrrive at the standardised situation of later centuries. Nevertheless, the influence of Gupta-era buildings on later Indian temple architecture is indisputable and continued right through to the Medieval period.
Gupta Cave Shrines
The earliest examples of religious architecture were cave-temples which typically had exteriors decorated with relief sculpture and a single carved doorway. Inside the shrine, ritual sculptures were placed such as a Shiva linga (phallus) and the walls were richly decorated with more carvings showing scenes from mythology.
Notable examples are found at Udayagiri in Madhya Pradesh where one cave bears a date mark of 401 CE. Here in one shrine is one of the finest examples of Gupta art, the celebrated relief showing Vishnuin his incarnation as the boar-headed Varaha. The panel measures 7 x 4 metres and the central figure, carved almost in the round, is emerging from the cosmic waters, having defeated a snake-like monster and rescued the goddess Bhudevi (Earth). The scene, a famous Hindu myth, may also be an allegorical reference to the peace and protection offered by the Gupta kings.
Finally, mention should be made of the Ajanta caves, a row of 29 rock-cut caves following the Waghora river bed ravine in north-west Deccan. Dating from the 2nd century BCE to 7th century CE, they contain some of the earliest and finest examples of Indian wall-painting. The subject matter is largely scenes from the life of Buddha. Cave 1 contains a columned shrine in typical Gupta style with flat cushion-topped column capitals. Cave 19 was built in the 5th century CE and has a Gupta-style chaitya (shrine) facade with columned porch and large, almost semi-circular aperture above. The whole facade is covered in rich carvings and relief panels showing scenes from Buddhist lore.
Not satisfied with caves, the Guptas were the first dynasty to build permanent free-standing Hindu temples and so they began a long tradition of Indian temple architecture.
It is perhaps important to note here that Hindu temples were not designed for congregations but rather as the dwelling place (devalaya) of a deity. This decorated palace (prasada) allowed priests to give offerings to the gods and individuals could also offer prayers, flowers, and food (puja), usually to a sacred relic or statue representing a particular god which was housed in a relatively small and windowless architectural space (the garbhagriha).
Believers would also walk around the temple in a ritual act of worship.
The Gupta style was influenced by Kusana, Mathura, and Gandhara and borrowed the common features of T-shaped doorways, decorated door jambs, sculpted panels with high-relief figures, and laurel-wreath and acanthus motifs.
Constructed using sandstone, granite, and brick, Gupta-era temples added to this architectural heritage with horseshoe gavakshas arches and distinctive curved shikhara towers which are frequently topped with a ribbed disk ornamentation known as an amalaka.
These elaborate buildings are further decorated with a mass of ornate mouldings and sculptures set in niches. In Gupta architecture, the square was considered the most perfect form and temples were designed to be appreciated from all sides so that each carries decorative architectural features.
Most temples also adopt a square plan with the single cubicle garbhagriha in the centre. This is normally entered by a short columned porch set over a single, highly decorated doorway with a projecting lintel. Columns can support a pot-and-foliage capital, and roofs were generally flat, as in surviving examples at Tigawa and Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh. Other typical Gupta decorative features include triangle motifs inside doorways and lion’s heads at the ends of stone beams.
Whether all temples had a second floor is difficult to determine, due to their often ruinous condition. The late 5th century CE Parvati temple at Nachna Kuthara is notable for its surviving second-story shrine room. From the 6th century CE, Gupta temples were built on a platform (jagati) and a good example is the Dashavatara temple at Deogarh in Madhya Pradesh.
At Deogarh the platform had reliefs running around it depicting scenes from the Ramayana epic poem. In the centre of the jagati stood the principal shrine, which was without windows and accessed by a flight of steps on all four sides. Four lesser shrines stand at each corner of the complex.
Typical of the period in general, Gupta temples were dedicated to a large number of Hindu gods rather than a single deity. Accordingly, architectural sculpture represents a wide range of gods in scenes from Hindu mythology. The doorway to the square sanctuary tower of the Dashavatara temple is a fine example and carries sculpture of Vishnu, Brahma, Indra, Ganga, and Yamuna, as well as attendants and mithuna couples.
The temple also carries one of the most famous sculptural panels from ancient India, the Vishnu Anantasayana panel. The scene contains many gods but is dominated by a sleeping Vishnu who rests on the multi-headed serpent Ananta and floats on the waters of oblivion whilst from his navel sprouts a lotus leaf on which sits Brahma, the god of creation.