SAMUDRAGUPTA – The Making of an Emperor

Masum Billah
Wednesday, August 9th, 2017


During his four decades of rule Samudragupta transformed a 4th century north east Indian kingdom into a sprawling empire.  He was the fourth ruler of the Gupta dynasty. This historical novel allows us an enticing glimpse with a degree of mastery in storytelling. While the author does inject many enthralling flights of fancy fitting for a spy thriller into the narrative, some of the events remain rooted in historical facts. History, it might not be, yet, the efforts put here by creator in setting the scenes and ambiance is immediately felt from the very first page.  Don’t be intimidated by the substantial list of characters at the beginning of the 535 page volume.  Assassinations, espionage, counter espionage, plots, palace coup, military operations, tortures, killings, vices, fratricide, even an ancient method of plastic surgery for the purpose of witness protection – the story has all the components to hold your attention.


It covers a period of about a year before Chandragupta, the 3rd Gupta ruler, abdicates in favor of the third of his five sons – Samudragupta.  A fomenting conspiracy, mainly by Samudra’s eldest half brother Kacha and the subsequent events make up the chapters of this book.  We see the subcontinent at a theological crossroads during the so-called “Classical Period” of India. The Guptas uplifted the values and traditions of the Vedic religion – “Sanatan Dharma”.  Yet peace, and the boon of prosperity through peace were of paramount importance to them.  So they made it a point to patronize Buddhism, put high priority on fair taxation, civic amenities and opted for the rule of law.  The “Golden Age” of India, as this period is often called, was a direct result of this peaceful coexistence of faiths under the protection of the empire.


Yet, king Chandragupta’s “lenient” views towards Buddhism were exploited to foment dissent among fundamentalist Hindus and their rogue clans against the kingdom.  Prince Kacha was the linchpin of this grand conspiracy where he planned and committed to assassination attempts on Samudra.  Kacha had later broken away from the kingdom and carved out a domain of his own for a short period (supported by historical accounts).  Samudragupta ultimately defeats his brother and ascends to the Gupta throne.  It may sound like a history book but it isn’t.  The beginning of the second chapter might actually remind you of a scene from the movie “Assassin’s Creed”. Murders, espionage and conspiracies rile up throughout the entire book, one reason it never loses the charm as an action spy thriller.


The novel offers plenty of material for the reader on the making of the man Samudragupta as he transforms from a field military leader to a ruler.  The narratives seem to bolster the established wisdom that though there are people among us that are blessed with some innate qualities, it takes the hard training of the events of life to polish them into gems.  Fate prepares Samudra through hard fought battles, by animosity from close quarters, conspiracies from within the ranks and such.  Like with other great men in history, we see a playful, childlike side of Samudragupta in these tales, skillfully painted by the author.  We also see how he realizes the essence of his own self and his destiny: to remain a warrior ‘til the end.  These essential elements are knitted craftily into an enthralling and rich tale.  The narrative never sags or gets monotonous.


Except one thing. I must say that a singular item becomes recurring and all too predictable: the occurrence of the use of the wine.  And more and more and more of the same: wine.  Dissemination of alcoholic drinks is prevalent throughout the entire tale.  It is consumed at breakfast, lunch and dinner and all hours in between. It is being used as a thirst quencher, a beverage, a tool for fomenting conspiracy and for extracting information and confession, as an icebreaker, as a weapon of assassination and myriad other things.  Was alcohol so pervasive in a society where one part was fracturing, yearning for old values and the other part was Buddhist?  By the same token, could we have gotten a better glimpse at the real food and beverage habits of the era at the cost of few less tumblers of the “Soma”? A distinct colonial Indian English style and spelling can also interrupt the flow for a non-subcontinental reader.


Aside from it, I find the setting up of scenarios as strong, vivid and intensely fascinating.  The hierarchy, the spying instruments, the description of weapons, armor, of rituals, of different strategies of battles down to the methods of torture and punishments and the pace with which the saga is delivered – it is a complete package.  While reading, the scenarios played out in my head just like an epic, a tale told on broad CinemaScope, dripped in colours of battle standards, fatigues and blood.  Some moments are serene, where nature, beauty and bliss are painted, but they are never dull.  Danger always lurks and the party of the protagonist manages to stay one step ahead of the adversary.  Good wins over evil, yet the storyteller subtly informs us of the dawning of an age of transformation that is yet to come: one where a kingdom will expand into an empire, through more turbulence and blood.


And yes, there are loose ends, unanswered questions and mysteries. Were they purposefully left that way? For a sequel, perhaps?  Now that would be grand.  The hardcover version I’ve read is exquisitely composed.  The theme chosen for the jacket and cover hints at motifs authentic for the period.  The appendix of “Historical Notes” adds an essential tool for enhancing the reader’s immersion in the subject matter.  A connoisseur wouldn’t put this book down before reaching the end.


Masum Billah, Director, Research & Publications, The Hamidullah Center

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