Main episodes

A brief introduction to the series and a story from perhaps the greatest Sanskrit writer of them all.

It's the late 3rd century, and the world is changing. Empires which dominated India have crumbled, leaving a patchwork of small states. We see what this new world looked like from the great city of Pataliputra, and meet the kingdoms which will shape northern India over the centuries to come.

The founding of the Gupta empire, built by alliance and war. In this episode, it emerges from the patchwork of small states and dominates the valley of the Ganges. But the first emperor's plan to pass the empire on to his favorite son might not go as smoothly as planned.

The story of the great conqueror of ancient India. We follow him through his first campaign, the snake wars. And we see if he really earns his title: the Napoleon of India.

The great conqueror of ancient India turns his attention south. We follow him through forests, along sandy rivers, down the coast and into South India. And we hear how he shaped the world outside India too.

Historians uncovered an ancient play about an unknown emperor, killed by his brother and the woman they both loved. The play turned out to have more truth than anyone suspected. It may have even been a cover-up, a distraction from murder. Listen, and judge for yourself.

The golden age of the Guptas is about to begin. A new emperor takes the throne in a wave of scandel: Chandragupta II. Despite his shaky start, he will soon be revealed as a talented ruler, a victorious warrior, and his deeds will be woven into the legends.

The tale of the famous Iron Pillar of Delhi and emperor Chandragupta II, from the construction of the pillar to the inscription of the emperor's tale.

The Gupta empire enjoys a peaceful slumber, as its golden age draws on. Its borders are and provinces are run by a closely-knit, competent and loyal family. But, in this episode, a family disagreement will tear the empire apart.

This week, the huns are coming!

The fortunes of the Gupta family are ruined. The empire has splintered into a dozen warring factions. The huns are already inside India, and at the gates of the empire. This is the tale of how emperor Skandagupta overcame all odds and saved the Gupta empire.

A selection of some of the most accessible and best secondary texts for anyone interested in taking it further. Please contact me using the forms below for more specific recommendations, or if I've left anything huge off.


* = Accessible primary source (I've left out all the trickier primary sources).

*** = I read this with a huge smile on my face all the way through.

Further reading for series 3

General political histories of the Guptas

Here are my favorite books giving a general overview of the early and mid-periods of the Gupta empire. The primary sources are pretty few and far between, and the relevant parts are contained in most of these books.​

  • ***Thaplyal, Kiran Kumar (2012) The Imperial Guptas: a political History.

  • ***Goyala, Ś. (2005). The Imperial Guptas: A Multidisciplinary Political Study. Kusumanjali Book World. (Some very interesting and vivid suggestions, an amazingly broad grasp of the evidence).

  • Sharma, T. R. (1989). A political history of the imperial Guptas: from Gupta to Skandagupta. Concept Publishing Company. (Short, sharp, but slightly out of date).

  • Agrawal, A. (1989). Rise and fall of the imperial Guptas. Motilal Banarsidass Publ..

  • Mookerji, R. (1989). The Gupta Empire. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. (An interesting and helpful book by a historian with a nationalist reputation).

  • Ganguly, D. K. (1987). The imperial Guptas and their times. Abhinav Publications. (Detailed discussion of the historical debates. One for those interested in tightly focussed arguments.)

  • Chakraborti, H. (1978). India as Reflected in the Inscriptions of the Gupta Period. Munshiram Manoharlal.

  • Chhabra, B. C. (Ed.). (1992). Reappraising Gupta History of SR Goyal. Aditya Prakashan.

  • Dikshitar, V. R. (1993). The Gupta Polity. Motilal Banarsidass Publ..

  • Goyala, Ś. (1967). A history of the Imperial Guptas. Central Book Depot.

  • Saletore, R. N. (2018). Life in the Gupta age. The Popular Book Depot (1943).


The following is an amazing introduction for this period, as it was for series 2 and 3, though it focuses more on non-political aspects.

  • ***Singh, U. (2008). A History of Ancient and Early medieval India: from the Stone Age to the 12th century. Pearson Education India. Still amazing for this period




This week, we go to see an ancient Indian play. (1st of 3  specials about Gupta performance art.)

This week, we go hear the notes and beats of ancient Indian music, and hear some of the instruments. (2nd of 3 specials about Gupta performance art.)

What music did ancient Indians hear? What songs did they sing? We track down the folk tune and ritual chants of ancient Indians. Along the way, we pass through a lovesick country addicted to the lyre, and an epic battle between master and student (3rd of 3 specials about Gupta performance art).

The music with the Jataka at the end of this episode is Shivnath and Deobrat Mishram, Live at the Net Loft, Gabriola island, Canada. It, and the material in this podcast that remixes, transforms and builds upon it, are under the Attribution-Non-commercial-Share Alike 3.0 creative commons license. 

The Ajanta Caves. A world famous collection of caves where Buddhists worshipped for years.... well, not exactly. The caves were abandoned half way through construction. They tell the story of the building of a great institution carrying the hopes of an empire, before the empire and the caves tumbled out of history.

We return to the Ajanta Caves for a second special episode. In this episode, the emperor is building his own cave, grander than all the others. The story of the cave is the story of the empire: it is constructed and for the briefest moment flourishes, before it tumbles into nothing.

Students from around the known world set out with their books. They are heading for one location. The great monastery in Northern India: Nalanda. We join them on their journey into the complex, and take part in debates and daily life alongside them.

We cook a meal for some ancient Indians. From buying ingredients down the market, to working in the Kitchen, to the meal itself. We might also indulge in a bit of smoking and drinking afterwards.

How best to get inside the shoes of ancient Indians? Through the stomach! This episode, some friends cook some ancient Indian meals and give them a tasting. Will we adopt an ancient Indian diet? Will we be up all night with indigestion? Listen and find out.  (Check out Adil's craft beer and games podcast:

Everything you ever needed to know about buying and running a farm in ancient India. Learn how to navigate the paper work required to buy a farm. Get advice on what to grow, and how. Hear how to pay your agricultural taxes. Until finally, work done, you can settle down to watch the crops grow and listen to a few old farmer's tales.

Ancient North East India. Cut off from the world by a ring of mountains; it's people living uneventful and simple lives. Well...not quite. This week we pay our first visit to the region; hear the stories of the folk living there. We visit temples adapted from the Guptas to the east. And we track down rumours of a dangerous winding path that heads off eastwards, all the way to china.

Ancient North East India. We take a podcasty walk from an ancient farm in the valleys up into the hills where the Kiratas live, walking through the landscape rich with trees and caves, and hearing the legends of hill and valley along the way.

According to legend, if you travel by sea east from India and eventually you will reach the land of gold. But only the bravest adventurers dare make the journey. We follow them to the islands and states of South East Asia. We find a people deeply influenced by body and mind by Indian thought. And we watch the first Hindu states emerge in Cambodia and Vietnam.

This week, get a job in the ancient Gupta empire. We look at the life of a soldier, a policeman, and a civil servant. But getting a place in the empire won't be as easy as you might think.

This week, we get to know the greatest poet and playwright of ancient India: Kalidasa. We hear the legend of how he found his talent through the strained relationship with his demanding wife. We explore his life as a poet in the court of the Gupta empire, and the tale of his sad demise. Along the way, we'll get everything we need to enjoy some of the greatest poetry ever written.

The story of ancient Indian mathematics from its earliest days stacking bricks to build altars, to infinity and beyond. We meet the work of the great Gupta-era mathematician, Aryabhata. Along the way we hear ancient Indian answers to such thorny questions as: how do you almost square a circle? how many infinities are there? and how long is the blink of an eye? No mathematical knowledge required.

Doctors. Ancient Indians looked down on them. But this week, we'll be finding out what it would be like when an ancient Indian patient needed them. We look for cures in the Buddhist monastery, and take a trip to the hospital. 

This week, we return to the caves of Ajanta. But we have good company: an artist and college lecturer has come to tell us about her memories of visiting, what she saw, and the special place of the paintings in modern Indian art. Includes gratuitous Jataka tale. Sound quality will be sorted by next episode (sorry!).

This week, we travel over the Himalayas, and climb down the other side into the great desert basin. We spend time in a city on the northern ring of the desert, Kucha. It's a city deeply influenced by Indian thought and Indian people. We follow the most famous son of that city, Kumarajiva the great translator. Born to an Indian father, raised by a Kuchan mother, and destined to take Indian thought and language all the way to China.

We spend another week in the Indian-influenced land of the Tarim basin. This week, we spend time in the legendary city of Khotan. We hear stories of its founding, meet its king, and hear how the children of the city are educated with Indian tales and religion.

This week, set sail across the ocean with Indian merchants. We follow the Chinese monk Faxian as he crosses Gupta North India. We see the rituals of sea travelers, sample the sights and sounds of the great port of ancient East India, see the biggest and smallest of Indian ships, endure wrecks, strandings, and many more trials. Not all of our fellow travelers will come out alive. But Faxian will eventually make it back to China. Listen, and hear his the end of his story. [Special credit to musicians and singers to follow in next episode].

The early Vakatakas

The dynasty which would go on to paint the world famous Ajanta caves started as rivals to the Guptas.

  • Goyal, S. (2006). Historiography of the Vākāṭaka-Gupta Relations', App. SR Goyal, A History of the Vākāṭaka Gupta Relations, Jodhpur, 141-42.

  • Shastri, A. M., & Kawadkar, K. D. (1997). Vākāṭakas: Sources and history. New Delhi.

  • Shastri, A. M. (1992). The Age of the Vākāṭakas. Harman Publishing House.

There's not too much available focused on the huns in India. Most of the secondary material is in books on other subjects. This is worth your time though:

  • Biswas, A. (1973). The Political history of the Hunas in India. Munshiram Manoharlal.

The huns


Kalidasa and literature in the Gupta age
  • Kalidasa and literature in the Gupta age

  • Krishnamoorthy, K. (1972). Kālidāsa (Vol. 208). Twayne Publishers.

  • Warder, A. K. (1992). Indian Kāvya Literature: The Art of Storytelling (Vol. 6). Motilal Banarsidass Publ..

  • Dasgupta, S. (1966). A History of Sanskrit Literature: Classical Period (Vol. 1). University of Calcutta. (I recently found out this is the same Dasgupta who wrote the classic introduction to Indian philosophy.)

  • Keith, A. B. (1993). A history of Sanskrit literature. Motilal Banarsidass Publisher.

India and South-East Asia
  • Cūṭivoṅgs, N. (1996). Ancient Trades and Cultural Contacts in Southeast Asia. National Culture Commission.

  • Smith, M. (1999). " Indianization" from the Indian Point of View: Trade and Cultural Contacts with Southeast Asia in the Early First Millennium CE. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 42(1), 1-26.

  • Ray, H. P. (1989). Early maritime contacts between South and Southeast Asia. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 20(1), 42-54.

  • Wolters, O. W. (2008). Early Southeast Asia: Selected Essays (No. 43). SEAP Publications.

  • Stark, M. T. (2006). From Funan to Angkor: Collapse and regeneration in ancient Cambodia. After collapse: the regeneration of complex societies, 144-167.

  • Varadarajan, L. (1983). Indian Seafaring: The Precept and Reality of Kalivarjya. The Great Circle, 5(1), 1-12.