Maharajadhiraja Samudragupta’s reign ushered in an age of political integration, cultural progress and establishment of an administrative system which many scholars believe persisted in some form even up to the British period. Having consolidated the north into a compact homeland which was under his direct administrative control, Samudragupta set up an administrative system that was not only followed diligently by his descendants but also adopted across many parts of the country with suitable modifications. The king was assisted in administration by a group of officials which consisted among others a chief minister, minister of foreign affairs (sandivigraha) and senapati (army chief).
Village headman along with a group of elders, known as Gramikas, was in-charge of the village which was the smallest unit of administration. A group of villages formed Pethaka or Santaka and a collection of Pethakas or Santakas was known as Vithi or Nagara. Nagara Sreshtis were officials entrusted with the task of looking after the administration of cities or Nagaras. Vishaya (district), which was the sub-division of Bhukti or Pradesha (Province), was divided into Vithis and Nagaras. The entire empire was divided into divisions known as the Bhukti which was the largest administrative unit. Each Bhukti was under the administration of an officer known as Uparika (provincial governor) while Vishyapati was in-charge of the Vishaya. Besides there were a group of officials known as Ayuktas and Kumaramatyas who helped the king to keep in touch with the provincial administration and keep himself updated with the administration of his empire.
The Guptas set up a proper judicial system and unlike previous times they clearly segregated civil and criminal cases. It was under Samudragupta and his descendants that numerous law books were compiled in keeping with the tenets of Dharma. Besides a clear demarcation of civil and criminal laws, this was the period when inheritance laws were laid down in an elaborate manner. Law and order was maintained strictly and by and large the day to day life of the people was peaceful. Thefts were unheard of and fines were charged in case of minor offences. Travellers could move freely from one place to another without fear of being robbed. Soldiers were deployed to ensure safety of both residents as well as travellers.
Land revenue was the major source of income and special attention was paid to cultivation. The state administration looked after the welfare of the farmers and provided aid to bring waste lands under cultivation. As a result there was an increase in agricultural production and generally food shortages were unheard of. Land for grazing of cattle (pasture land) was increased and security provided for the same. There have been claims that one-fourth to one-sixth of the produce was collected as taxes. However, there are no credible sources to back these claims. Although the exact amount of tax collected from farmers is not known, it can be said with certainty that Samudragupta being a benevolent king who cared for the poor as much as the rich the taxation system was never oppressive.
Maharajadhiraja Samudragupta recognised the importance of trade and commerce and several tax concessions were given to traders. Guilds flourished under his rule and were governed by their own laws. There were several guilds such as that of artisans, merchants, bankers, traders and other such groups. Seals discovered at Vaishali and Allahabad show that guilds were prosperous and also had the freedom to govern their affairs. The chief merchant, trader and artisan were also given a say in administrative affairs as they were more often than not nominated to the administrative boards of their districts. There have been records of silk weaver’s guilds from Indore and Mandasor and oil-presser’s guild in Western UP. There were other merchant groups organised into guilds as well. The members of these guilds were administered by laws of the guild and punishments for violations were also awarded by the guilds.
Although feudatories were given the freedom to administer the regions under the control as per their wish, they had to ensure that they paid personal homage to Samudragupta through attendance in person and regular payment of tributes. That the elaborate administrative machinery put in place by Maharajadhiraja Samudragupta continued with suitable modifications from time to time under his descendants and was adopted across the country both by his contemporaries and generations to come only indicates how efficient his administrative system was. Maharajadhiraja Samudragupta proved to be as able an administrator as he was a capable military strategist and commander.
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