The Classical Age of India

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

India, like all civilizations, has a classical age that defined social and cultural traditions. In this lesson, we will explore the Classical Age of India and see how it set the tone for Indian life for centuries to come.

Classical India

If something is so awesome and well done that it defines the ideal standards for things to come, we say it is classic. Classic movies defined our cinematic expectations. Classic rock established the conventions of rocking your face off. Classical civilizations are those which set the foundations for cultural values.

Every civilization has a classical age. In India, the Classical Age is the period when Indian society grew and thrived, setting the foundations in arts, science, politics, religion, philosophy and economics that define Indian culture to this day. This period lasted from about 320 to 550 CE, while India was governed by the influential Gupta Empire. Indian civilization under the Gupta Empire was awesome. It was well done. It was classic.

Gupta Empire
Gupta Empire

History of the Gupta Empire

So, how did India's Classical Age come to be? India was home to settled civilizations by around 2600 BCE, but they vanished and were replaced by warring tribal societies. Then, around 700 BCE, a new civilization began to grow. Part of India developed a literary culture, and things grew more stable.

This set the stage for the rise of India's first major centralized military state. There is a lot we do not know about the rise of the Gupta dynasty, but it seems that this kingdom was founded by a ruler named Sri Gupta around 240 CE. Around that time, India's civilizations were falling back into warfare when Chandragupta I, grandson of Sri Gupta, ascended the throne of his kingdom around 320 CE, built a mighty army, and began consolidating the warring cities under his rule. The Gupta Empire was underway. It would grow to control most of the Indian subcontinent, become a global trade center, and an epicenter of artistic and intellectual achievement. It was also an empire of relative peace, with the Gupta military successfully defending their borders from invaders and few internal rebellions. Eventually they grew so large that it became difficult to manage, and smaller kingdoms broke off, allowing the Huns to invade and defeat the Gupta dynasty around 550 CE.

Achievements of the Gupta Empire

Indian civilization thrived under the Gupta Empire, and the Gupta emperors strongly encouraged the arts and sciences. The ability to do this, however, was founded in their economy. India was already a global trade center and had been the exchange center for African, European, and East Asian goods since at least the time of ancient Greece. Still, the Gupta emperors managed to extend these markets and controlled the global exchange of silks, spices, textiles, precious metals, and even medicine.

As India's economy thrived, its people were able to devote themselves to intellectual pursuits. Aryabhata who wrote on geometry, trigonometry, and cosmology, calculated the length of the year at 365.358 days (three hours off from our modern calendar) and predicted that the Earth was a sphere. Varahimira wrote on astronomy and astrology, and Dhanvantri wrote on medicine. India's architects designed complex structures within carefully organized urban spaces, and education and literacy were major priorities of Gupta civilization. Even non-nobles had some opportunities for education.

These achievements spread into the arts as well, which were closely connected to other intellectual pursuits in the Gupta-era philosophy. The arts reflected education and refinement and artists used gold and refined metals like steel, to show wealth..

Many artistic conventions of Indian art were set in the Gupta period

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