Gupta Empire Architecture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Gupta Empire was one of the most influential periods in Indian history. In this lesson, we'll explore the architecture of this era and see exactly what defines structures of this period.

The Gupta Empire

Close your eyes and try to picture all the things you associate with traditional Indian culture. Many people may envision a bowl of curry in large temples with pointy spires, an elephant walking by, and some guy reading a copy of the Kamasutra. While curry and elephants have been part of India since before recorded history, many other aspects of traditional Indian culture date back to the Gupta Empire. The Gupta Empire (c. 320-550 CE) was one of the most formative periods in Indian history, during which many of the basic tenets of Indian art and philosophy were established. Amongst the achievements of the Gupta emperors was one of the most influential architectural programs in history.

Trends of Gupta Empire Architecture

Before we get into specific structures, let's go over some of the general trends associated with Gupta-era architecture. The Gupta emperors were successful conquerors, but were even greater patrons of the arts, education, and philosophy. It was in the Gupta Empire that the first truly codified works of art, philosophy, and religion appeared (including the Kamasutra). So, Gupta architecture was the first style of Indian architecture to be designed according to a holistic and comprehensive program of philosophy that unified all of Indian society.

What this also meant is that Gupta architecture was one of the first styles in Indian history that was almost entirely Indian in origin. The Indian subcontinent has long been a crossroads of international trade, and thus was deeply influenced by artistic styles coming out of East Asia, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. Gupta architecture, however, was a physical representation of Indian philosophies and thus forms the basis of what we still consider to be distinctly Indian styles.

Gupta architecture tended to be very decorative

Cave Shrines

The Gupta emperors built prodigiously across their empire, but we can categorize their major projects into four main varieties. The oldest examples of structures built with a distinct religious and philosophical affiliation are cave shrines, rooms carved into flat rock walls for religious ceremonies or worship. These are generally associated with Hinduism, although some are Buddhist. Relying on the solid rock for structural support, these shrines introduced Indian builders to many concepts of architectural stability and provided a massive canvas for reliefs. In fact, excessively ornate and elaborate carvings cover nearly every inch of these shrines, organized in a systematic artistic program. This passion for ornate design would carry into other realms of architecture.

Gupta caves at Ajanta

Hindu Temples

While the Gupta emperors commissioned cave shrines, this form of architecture predated the empire. What the Gupta rulers did, however, was to move beyond rock-wall structures. It was under this dynasty that India developed its first free-standing permanent Hindu temples. Gupta temples, like their cave shrine predecessors, were covered in intricately carved reliefs and other decorative elements like pointed spires. However, free-standing temples required many innovations, starting with the floor plan and basic layout. Gupta temples tend to be built of brick and sandstone, and designed on a square floor plan with all four facades emphasizing repetitive squares.

Gupta architecture was meant to reflect Indian religion and philosophy, so the emphasis on the square was not accidental. In Gupta-era India, the square was considered to be the perfect shape and often used as a representation of the cosmos. Gupta temples often served as monuments to multiple deities, not just one, so this understanding of things united within the cosmos is significant. One of the most notable examples of Gupta architecture is the Bhitargaon temple, a Hindu temple built in the 5th century. This massive brick structure is heavily decorated, lies on a centralized square plan, and is covered in niches that once would have held full-scale carvings.

While the Hindu temples are what the Gupta empire is most remembered for, Buddhists in India also began creating free-standing structures called stupas. Stupas were shrines that contained the remains of holy figures. These mound-like edifices were modeled after mountains, representing the journey on the path to enlightenment.

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