Gupta Administration

With the imperial Guptas in power, once again there was a Brahamanic notion in the Kingship whereby King’s right was divinely ordained and it was sanctified by the ceremonies that priests performed on their behalf. As put by the Markendeya Purana, the primary duty of a King was to follow Rajdharma, which put the duty to protect his subjects foremost.

However, during Gupta era, there were certain changes made in the very style of exercise of the monarchical authority in the country. For at least one thousand years, the Indian monarchs whether imperial or regional, had aimed to concentrate all the power in their hands. This absolute power usually manifested in subjugation of the provinces and regions through their bureaucracies. Both Nandas and Mauryas, as we have discussed earlier, were the greatest centralists. However, the model of Guptas was different and this difference lied in decentralized administration.

Decentralisation and devolution of power – The Samanta System

The Guptas had intentionally devolved power on a variety of the people and authorities. Rather than bolstering the bureaucratic steel-frame, they developed political hierarchies. The most vital information about this tendency of the Guptas comes from the Allahabad Pillar Inscription, which discussed deeds of Samudragupta. It notes that Samudragupta did not want to kill or destroy his enemies for his own gratification, but rather, after defeating them, he kept their domains within the empire and would allow them to rule. They were to be protected by the empire.

This indicates that Samudragupta was basically developing a kind of contract between tributary kings {which were called Samantas} and himself as an overlord.

A Samanta literally meant a neighbour. In Gupta period, a Samanta was a neighbouring subsidiary ruler who was a friendly tributary of the Gupta overlords. The decentralization was also effected via various land grants, carrying varied immunities and concessions, to persons and institutions. This is one reason that we don’t find an over elaborate bureaucracy in Gupta period as was a case with Maurya period.

This arrangement worked extremely well till Skandgupta, and it helped to keep peace among the various ruling families. However, afterwards, it did not work for weaker Guptas. But nevertheless, this system got much deeper with the evolution of Indian Feudalism and remained in force until the end of British Rule in the country.

Guptas: Imperial Government

The Imperial Guptas did not have an over elaborate bureaucracy due to effective decentralisation of administrative authority by land grants and the friendly Samanta contracts with subdued neighbours.

At their imperial kingdom at Pataliputra, the King was advised by a Council of Ministers (Mantriparishada) led by a Pradhan Mantri. Pradhan Mantri headed the civil administration and there was a good number of other ministers and officials, who carried out the duties related to military and other matters. The Key officers of the Gupta machinery include the below:

MahabaladhikritaCommander in Chief
MahadandnayakaChief Justice
MahapratiharMaintainance of Royal Palaces
Mahasandhivigrahika or SandhivigrahakaWar and Peace
DandpashikaHead of Police department
BhadagaradhikretaRoyal Treasury
VinaysthitisansthapakaEducation Department
SarvadhyakshaInspector of all central departments
VinayapuraOne who represented guests to King’s court
YuktapurushaAccounts of war booty
KhadyapakikaRoyal Kitchen
RanbhandagarikaArms and ammunitions stores

We note here that in the central government, the major emphasis was on defense and security, which reflected the major concern of the state power and security of the people. Further, the imperial Guptas did not interfere in the administrations of those regions which accepted their suzerainty. However, there was a five tiered administration system in the regions which were under the direct control of the Gupta Kings.

  • The first tier was the King and his council as discussed above.
  • The second layer of administration dealt with the administration of the provinces {provinces were called Bhukti or Desa}. The provincial councils were headed by the Kumaraamatyas
  • The third layer of government was a district level. Each Bhukti or Desa was divided into various districts called Pradesha. The terms Adhisthana or Pattana was also used for this third tier. A Vishya was headed by Ayuktas or Vishyapatis.
  • The fourth layer of administration was at group or villages (Vithi) or town level. For each village there was a village assembly consisting of village elders, guided by a village headman. This Gram sabha was smallest administration unit. The head of the village was called Gramapati or Gramadhyaksha. Kutumbis and Mahattaras are other words used for similar village level officers.
  • In the towns there were city corporations, headed by a chairman, the nagarashreshthin, which consisted of many representatives of guild merchants including Sarthavaha who represented the trading communities, Prathamakulika who represented the crafting communities (artisans) and Prathamakayastha, who represented Government official community. Pustapala were junior (district level) record officers.

It’s worth note here that all substantive decisions, affecting each town or village, were taken at the local level, reflecting the decentralising policies of the state. The Kumaraamatyas and the ayuktakas functioned as serving intermediaries between the centre and the periphery. This model of organisation was also replicated by some of the Samantas.

Implications of Decentralization

In the long run, the Gupta policy of devolution of power helped to create layers of responsibility in the governance. It also allowed self-governing communities to progress within the framework of their jurisdiction. The Gupta rule exerted a cohesive and beneficial effect upon the social classes of India. It was a highly pluralist world that was being created, a world in which groups of people came together to define their common interests or activities; they formed associations, solicited patronage and proceeded with creating prosperity for themselves. The Gupta state was there to guide and help, not to coerce.

Guptas Land Policy and Seeds of Indian Feudalism

The idea of Samanta system of Gupta era becomes much clearer when we examine their land policy. In contrast with the Mauryas who acquired as much land as much possible, the Guptas actively gave as much land as much possible in the form of land grants. Land grants were prevalent in post-Vedic period in its infancies. However, it became widespread under Satavahanas in Deccan, Shakas in western India, and Pallavas in south India. However, Guptas went one step ahead and made land grants a substantive part of discharge of their responsibilities.

The Guptas made three types of grants.

  • First was the religious grants to brahmans, individually or collectively, known as brahmadeya grants
  • Second was the grants to institutions such as temples and monasteries known as devagrahara or devadana
  • Third were secular grants to crown officers, craft guilds or also military commanders in rare occasions.

The objective of giving land grants, in case of Brahmadeya might be religious. However, the more pressing reason for the same appears to be the contraction of the monetary economy mainly because of contraction of international trade.

This system of the land grants got further accelerated in Post-Gupta period and created ideal conditions for development of Indian feudalism.

Gupta Taxation

There were several types of taxes in Gupta era as follows:

  • Bali: Bali which was voluntary in Maurya era and was given to the King became compulsory in Gupta Era.
  • Bhaga: King’s share in all produce of the cultivators. It was 1/6th part of produce.
  • Bhoga: Bhoga refers to the tax in kind of gifts, flowers, woods, fruits etc.
  • Hiranya: This was the tax paid in cash (Gold) {Hiranya means Gold}
  • Halivakara: Halivakra was a kind of tax slab, those who owned a plough used to pay tax.
  • Kara: It might have been some irregular tax charged from villagers.
  • Shulka: It was custom or toll tax very much similar to Chungi / Octroi in modern times.
  • Udinanga: It might be a social security kind of tax.
  • Klipta: It was related to sale and purchase of lands.