The rise of Gupta Power in the 4th century AD marked the beginning of a new era in Indian history. Confusion and political disunity were replaced by integrity. Under the leadership and patronage of the powerful Gupta monarchs, considerable progress was made in different aspects of Indian life. There was also a high material prosperity, as mentioned by Fa-hien, the Chinese traveler (4th-5th century AD).
Maharaja Shri Gupta is said to be the founder of the Gupta dynasty. He was succeeded by Ghatotkacha Gupta. But Chandragupta I (319-355 AD), who assumed the title of Maharajadhiraja, was the first important Gupta Monarch. Another important Gupta emperor was Samudragupta.
Ghatotkacha (ruled about 280 to 319 CE) had a son named Chandragupta. In a breakthrough deal, Chandragupta was married to Kumaradevi, a Lichchhavi princess, the main power in Magadha. With a dowry of the kingdom of Magadha (capital Pataliputra) and an alliance with the Licchavis of Nepal, Chandragupta set about expanding his power, conquering much of Magadha, Prayaga and Saketa. He expanded his empire through marriage alliances.
Samudragupta succeeded his father in 335 CE and ruled for about 45 years until his death in 380 CE. By his death in 380, he had incorporated over twenty kingdoms into his realm and his rule extended from the Himalayas to the river Narmada and from the Brahmaputra to the Yamuna. The eulogy, composed by his court poet Harisena, which is available as Allahabad Pillar Inscription, gives a vivid account of Samudragupta’s military exploits. Besides being a great conqueror and ruler, he was also a poet of high order, patron of art and learning and a musician. He also performed 'Ashwamedha yajna' - a symbol of imperial authority.
Samudragupta nominated prince Chandragupta II, born of queen Dattadevi, as his successor. Chandragupta II, who assumed the title of Vikramaditya after his victory over the Shaka rulers of western India, ruled from 375 CE until 415 CE. Fa-Hien, a Chinese Buddhist, was one of the pilgrims who visited India during the reign of Gupta emperor Chandragupta II. He started his journey from China in 399 CE and reached India in 405 CE.
Chandragupta II was succeeded by his second son Kumaragupta I, whose reign was marked with peace and prosperity. He was succeeded by his son Skandagupta, who repulsed the Hun invasion several times. He ruled until 455. Towards the end of his reign a tribe in the Narmada valley, the Pushyamitras, rose in power to threaten the empire.
Skandagupta, son and successor of Kumaragupta I is generally considered to be the last of the great Gupta rulers. He defeated the Pushyamitra threat, but then was faced with invading Hephthalites or White Huns, known in India as the Sweta Huna, from the northwest.
He repulsed a Huna attack around 455 CE. But the expense of the wars drained the empire's resources and contributed to its decline. Skandagupta died in 467 CE and was succeeded by his agnate brother Purugupta.
Monarchy was the prevailing system of government during the Gupta Age. The king was assisted by a Council of Ministers and other officials in day to day administration. The Guptas had a powerful army. The provinces were ruled by governors. The Governors had under them a number of officers who administered the districts and towns. Village administration under the village headman (Gramika) enjoyed considerable autonomy. The Guptas also developed an efficient system of judicial and revenue administration.
The successors of Skandagupta (Purugupta, Budhagupta, Narasimhagupta) were not so powerful and competent. This gradually led to the decline and fall of the Gupta Empire. In the 480's the Hephthalites broke through the Gupta defenses in the northwest, and much of the empire in northwest was overrun by the Hun by 500.
In addition to the Hun invasion, the factors, which contribute to the decline of the empire include competition from the Vakatakas and the rise of Yashodharman in Malwa.
This period is called the Golden Age of India and was marked by extensive achievements in science, technology, engineering, art, dialectic, literature, logic, mathematics, astronomy, religion, and philosophy that crystallized the elements of what is generally known as Hindu culture.
The period between the downfall of the Gupta Empire and the rise of Maharaja Harshavardhana of Thaneshwar is considered to be a period of confusion and disintegration. During this time India was broken into several small independent states.
Besides the Huna power, there were four other kingdoms in Northern India. These were the later Guptas of Magadha, the Maukharis of Kanauj, the Pushyabhutis of Thaneshwar and the Mitrakas of Vallabhi (Gujarat).
Among the important South Indian Dynasties were the Chalukyas of Badami and the Pallavas of Kanchi. Pulakesin II (609-64 AD) and Narasimhavarman I (630-668 AD) are considered to be the greatest of the Chalukya and the Pallava rulers respectively.
It was Harshavardhana who again made an attempt to raise an empire. He was called Sakalottarapathanatha because he had established his hold practically over the whole of North India. During this time, the political unity of India was, to some extent, restored. Harsha patronised Banabhatta, the author of Kadambari and Harshacharita.
Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese scholar-traveler, visited India during Harsha’s reign. Shashanka, the king of Bengal, was a contemporary of Harsha. This period of history witnessed the consolidation of Hinduism. Hiuen Tsang writes about the existence of caste system in Indian society. There was the rise of several mixed and sub-castes. Hiuen Tsang also mentions the existence of untouchables and outcastes. The position of women had also declined considerably during this period.
In the religious field, the ascendancy of Brahmanism brought about the decline of Buddhism. Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Jainism were also practiced.