After the decline of the Kushanas, north India witnessed the rise of the Gupta dynasty.
They established a vast empire that included almost the entire north India.
They operated from eastern U.P. and Bihar which was very fertile.
They could also exploit the iron ores of central India and Bihar to their advantage.
Their period was marked by great progress in art, architecture and literature.
They ruled up to circa A.D.550. After their collapse there emerged various regional kingdoms in north India.
South India too witnessed the rise of two important kingdoms under the Chalukyas and the Pallavas respectively during AD 550–750.
The Gupta dynasty was established by Shrigupta, who probably belonged to the vaishya caste.
 Chandragupta I
The real founder of the Gupta empire was Chandragupta I (AD 319–334).
He married a Lichchhavi princess Kumaradevi.
This event is recorded in a series of gold coins issued by Chandragupta.
Chandragupta was succeeded by his son Samudragupta (A.D. 335–375).
Samudragupta followed a policy of conquest and enormously enlarged his kingdom.
His achievements are recorded in a long inscription (prashasti), written in pure Sanskrit by his court poet Harisena. The inscription is engraved on a Pillar at Allahabad.
It enumerates the people and the regions conquered by Samudragupta.
He adopted a different policy for different area conquered by him.
In the Ganga-Yamuna doab, he followed a policy of annexation.
He defeated nine naga rulers and incorporated their kingdoms in the Gupta empire.
He then proceeded to conquer the forest kingdoms of central India, mentioned as atavirajyas.
The rulers of these tribal areas were defeated and forced into servitude. This area had a strategic value as it contained a route to south India.
It enabled Samudragupta to proceed to South along the eastern coast conquering twelve kings on the way and reached as far as Kanchi near Chennai.
Samudragupta, instead of annexing their kingdoms, liberated and reinstated these kings on their thrones. This policy of political conciliation for south India was adopted because he knew that it was difficult to keep them under control and subservience once he returned to his capital in north.
According to the Allahabad inscription, neighbouring five frontier kingdoms and nine republican states of Punjab and western India were overawed by the conquests of Samudragupta. They agreed to pay tribute and taxes to Samudragupta and obey his orders without any fight. The inscription adds that Samudragupta also received tributes from many kings of south – east Asia.
It is generally believed that though he had spread his influence over a vast area, Samudragupta exercised direct administrative control mainly over Indo-Gangetic basin.
He celebrated his conquests by performing a horse sacrifice (ashvamedha) and by issuing ashvamedha type of coins (the coins portraying the scene of sacrifice) on the occasion.
Samudragupta was not only a conqueror but also a poet, a musician and a patron of learning. His love for music is attested by his coins that represent him as playing on a vina (lute).
 Chandragupta II
Samudragupta was succeeded by his son Chandragupta II (AD 375–414) also known as Chandragupta Vikramaditya, he not only extended his father’s empire but also consolidated his position through matrimonial alliances with other royal dynasties of the period.
He married Kuvernaga, the Naga princess and had a daughter Prabhavati from her.
Prabhavati was given in marriage to Rudrasena II of the Vakataka dynasty ruling in Deccan. After the death of her husband, Prabhavati ruled the territory as regent to her minor son with the help of her father.
The control of Vakataka territory proved very beneficial to Chandragupta II, as he was now able to target his other enemies better.
His greatest military achievement was his victory over the Shaka kings who were ruling in western India for the last three hundred years.
This conquest made Gupta empire reach up to the western coast.
An iron pillar inscription at Mehrauli in Delhi indicates that his empire included even north-western India and Bengal.
He took the title of Vikramaditya i.e. the one who is as powerful as the sun.
Chandragupta II is remembered for his patronage of art and literature.
He is credited with maintaining nine luminaries (navaratna) in his court.
The great Sanskrit poet and playwright Kalidasa was the most notable of them all.
The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa Hien (AD 404–411) visited India during his reign.
He has left an account of the life of people in India in the fifth century AD.
Decline of Gupta Dynasty
Chandragupta II was succeeded by his son Kumaragupta (AD 415–455). He was able to maintain the empire built up by his father but during the later part of his reign there was a threat from the Hunas of Central Asia.
After occupying Bactria the Hunas crossed the Hindukush Mountains and entered India.
Their first attack during his (Kumargupta) reign was repulsed by prince Skandagupta.
The Guptas however could not protect their empire for long and the successive waves of Huna invasion made the Gupta’s very weak.
This was one of the main factors which accelerated the disintegration of the Gupta empire.
The inscriptions issued by the Hunas show that by AD 485 they had occupied eastern Malwa and a large part of central India. Punjab and Rajasthan also passed into their hands.
The first important ruler of the Hunas in India was Toramana who conquered an area stretching up to Eran near Bhopal in central India. His son Mihirkula succeeded him in AD 515.
He is described in texts as a tyrant and an iconoclast. Both
Yashodharman of Malwa and Narasimhagupta Baladitya of the Gupta dynasty finally defeated Mihirkula. But this victory over the Hunas could not revive the Gupta Empire.
Besides the Huna invasion there was also a gradual decline in economic prosperity. It is indicated by the gold coins of later Gupta rulers, which have less of gold content and more of alloy.
We also notice a gradual disappearance of coins in the post Gupta period.
The practice of giving land for religious and secular purposes in lieu of services rendered to the State is normally termed as feudalism.
Under this practice, the done (the one who receives the grant) was given the right not only to collect the taxes but also to administer the donated land. This created small-small pockets of power trying ceaselessly to expand their sphere of influence at the cost of the ruling authority.
The decline of the Gupta empire resulted in the emergence of numerous ruling dynasties in different parts of northern India.
The prominent among them were the Pushyabhutis of Thanesar, Maukharies of Kanauj and the Maitrakas of Valabhi.
The Chalukyas and the Pallavas emerged as strong regional powers in Deccan and northern Tamil Nadu respectively.