The political struggles and urbanization of north India culminated in the great Mauryan Empire, which at its height under Ashoka (reigned 268-31 B.C.) covered almost all of South Asia and stretched into Afghanistan in the west. There is no proof that Nepal was ever included in the empire, although records of Ashoka are located at Lumbini, the Buddha's birthplace, in the Tarai. But the empire had important cultural and political consequences for Nepal. First, Ashoka himself embraced Buddhism, and during his time the religion must have become established in the Kathmandu Valley and throughout much of Nepal. Ashoka was known as a great builder of stupas, and his archaic style is preserved in four mounds on the outskirts of Patan (now often referred to as Lalitpur), which were locally called Ashok stupas, and possibly in the Svayambhunath (or Swayambhunath) stupa. Second, along with religion came an entire cultural style centered on the king as the upholder of dharma, or the cosmic law of the universe. This political concept of the king as the righteous center of the political system had a powerful impact on all later South Asian governments and continued to play a major role in modern Nepal.
The Mauryan Empire declined after the second century B.C., and north India entered a period of political disunity. The extended urban and commercial systems expanded to include much of Inner Asia, however, and close contacts were maintained with European merchants. Nepal was apparently a distant part of this commercial network because even Ptolemy and other Greek writers of the second century knew of the Kiratas as a people who lived near China. North India was united by the Gupta emperors again in the fourth century. Their capital was the old Mauryan center of Pataliputra (presentday Patna in Bihar State), during what Indian writers often describe as a golden age of artistic and cultural creativity. The greatest conqueror of this dynasty was Samudragupta (reigned ca. 353-73), who claimed that the "lord of Nepal" paid him taxes and tribute and obeyed his commands. It still is impossible to tell who this lord may have been, what area he ruled, and if he was really a subordinate of the Guptas. Some of the earliest examples of Nepalese art show that the culture of north India during Gupta times exercised a decisive influence on Nepali language, religion, and artistic expression.
Next: The Early Kingdom of the Licchavis, 400-750
The River System