HARSHVARDHAN The Vardhan Dynasty

The down fall of Gupta Empire  in the mid-6th century CE, formed into a number of small independent kingdoms in North India. The Huns established their supremacy over the Punjab and certain other parts of central India. The northern and western regions of India into the hands of a dozen or more feudatories. Gradually, one of them, Prabhakar Vardhana, the ruler of Thanesar, who belonged to the Pushabhukti family, extended his control over all other feudatories.

Prabhakara Vardhana founded the Vardhana dynasty. He was the first king of the dynasty with his capital at Thanesar which is now a small town in the vicinity of Kurukshetra in the state of Haryana nearly 150 km. from Delhi.

PrabhakaraVardhana had two sons called Rajya Vardhana & Harsha Vardhana and one daughter, Rajyashri. After the death of the founder, his son Rajya Vardhana succeeded him.

Rajyashri, the sister of Rajyavardhana and Harsha, had married the Maukhari king, Grahavarman, whose capital was at Kannauj.

Some time later, Grahavarman was killed by Dev Gupta ( the ruler of the Malava kingdom), who also kidnapped Rajyashri. Rajyavardhana, who had succeeded his father as king at Thanesar, marched against the Malava king and defeated him.

Around 606 CE, Rajyavardhana was treacherously murdered by Shashanka, (ruler of the Gauda kingdom) who had joined the battle as an ally of Devgupta. It was after the death of Rajyavardhana that Harshavardhana succeeded to the throne.

Shashanka was famous for destroying the Buddhist stupas of Bengal and declaring an award of hundred gold coins for the head of every Buddhist monk in his kingdom. Major contemporary sources of information on his life, including copperplates of his rivals Harsha and Bhaskaravarman, the accounts of Banabhatta (Harshacharita) who was a bard in the court of Harsha, and of the Chinese monk Xuanzang, and also coins minted in Shashanka’s reign.

Harshavardhana succeeded his brother as ruler of Thanesar at the age of 16 and he once again gathered the army and attacked Kannauj and rescued his sister Rajyashri, just as she was going to commit sati. Devgupta and Shashanka had to retreat from Kannauj. Shashanka continued to rule Gauda with frequent attacks from Harsha which he is known to have faced bravely.

Harshavardhana (606 A.D – 647 A.D):

  • Harsha ruled over the northern parts of India for a period 41 years. At the request of his sister, he united the two kingdoms of Thanesar (Kurukshetra) and Kannauj and transferred his Capital from Thanesar to Kannauj.
  • His reign is comparatively well documented, thanks to his court poet Bana in Harschacharita and by Chinese traveller Xuanzang(Hieun Tsang) in Si-Yu-Ki. Xuanzang wrote a full description of his travels in India. Bana composed an account of Harsha’s rise to power in Harsha Charitha, the first historical poetic work in Sanskrit language.

Military Compaign and Expansion:

  • Harsha waged many wars. He also brought the five Indies-eastern Punjab (The present-day Haryana), Kannauj, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa- under his control. He conquered Vallabhi King Dhruvasena of Gujarat. He also conquered Ganjam, a part of the modern Orissa state.He also tried with his efforts to bring South India under his rule.
  • Hiuen -Tsang’s record, Banabhatta’s narrative and the Chalukya records all claimed Harsha as the Lord of Northern India or Sakalottarpatha natha i.e. the sovereign of the entire uttarapatha,
  • Hiuen-Tsang’s account also says that Harsha was the “Lord of Five Indias “. These five Indias are equivalent to Punjab, Kanauj (in U.P.), Bihar, Bengal and Orissa. Thus Harsha was not the Lord of whole North India. Kashmir, Western Punjab, Sindh, Gujrat, Rajputana, Nepal, Eastern and Northern Bengal, Kamrupa or Assam remained out of his sway. Yet his vast empire from Punjab to Orissa was indeed an evidence of his military genius.Hiuen Tsang mentions that India of that period had about seventy kingdoms.
  • His long run of victories was only broken when he was defeated by the south Indian Emperor Pulakesi II of the Chalukya dynasty.

His Alliances:

  • Harsha had an alliance with the king of Assam (Kamrupa), Bhaskaravarman.which gave him the help and cooperation of a powerful ruler both in his external and internal affairs.
  • Harsha had alliance with the ruler of Vallabhi Dhruvasena to whom he had given his daughter in marriage after defeating him.
  • He had maintained diplomatic intercourse with the Chinese empire. A Brahmin envoy whom he had sent to the Tang Emperor of China, Tai Tsung of the Tang Dynasty in 641 A.D. returned in 643 A.D. accompanied by a Chinese mission bearing a reply to Harsha’s dispatch. Envoys from each country visited each other nation after diplomatic relations established first time by Xuanzang who spent eight years in the dominions of Harsha.
  • Harsha’s diplomatic relations with China were probably meant as a counter poise to the friendship that Pulakeshi II, his southern rival cultivated with the king of Persia about which we are informed by the Arab historian Tabari.

Administrative Units:

  • The administration of Harsha was similar to the Gupta Empire.
  • The kingdom was divided into various provinces or divisions called Bhukti. They were further divided into Visayas corresponding to modern districts.
  • Pathaka was a still smaller territorial term perhaps of the size of the present day taluk. The lowest unit of administration was Grama.

Administration of Harsha:

  • The Administration of Harsha Vardhana was despotic and in oriental despotism the sovereign is the centre of the State. Hence the success in administration depends on his ability and benevolence.
  • Theoretically Harsha ruled as an autocrat. But inpractice his rule was one of enlighten despotism. As the ministers and the village community possessed great power they served as a check on the royal autocracy. “People lived in peace and happiness. The king made charities to the poor.” Yet other evidences showed that though Harsha’s administration was superb and very efficient, it was not so efficient and all pervasive as that of the Mauryas or that of the Guptas.

(a)Civil Administration:

  • According to Hiuen Tsang, the day of Harsha was divided into three periods. One was devoted to the State affairs and two for religious works.
  • The civil administration of Harsha Vardhana is highly praised. The king personally supervised the administration instead of relying upon the bureaucrats. He constantly toured the provinces and administered justice to all. Rural and urban areas received his equal attention. During this tour in the manner of state procession with music and drums he used to punish the guilty and made contact with the people.
  • He suspended his inspection work during the rainy season on account of the difficulties of weather and communications. He got prepared temporary buildings for his stay while on tour. When the king halted at any place, the people could interview him and put before him their grievances.
  • Hiuen-Tsang told us that during the reign of Harshavardhana there were very few criminals and rebel. Whoever offended the law was strictly punished. The principal mode of punishment were mainly mutilation of limbs, banishment into the jungles, imprisonment etc. Trial by ordeal was also in vogue.

(b)Military Administration:

  • Harsha had a well-organised standing army. It had elephants, camels, cavalry and infantry. Cavalry and elephants had separate commanders. The head of the cavalry was called Brihadasvavaru.
  • Hiuen Tsang says that Harsha had 60,000 elephant’s corps and a cavalry of one lakh.
  • Bana says that horses were purchased from places like Kamboja, Sindh, Persia, etc.

(c)Ministers and Advisors:

  • He was assisted by a council of ministers, known as the Mantri-Parisad, who advises him in all important affairs concerning the state and on matters of foreign policy. There were host of other high and low officers to manage the day to day governmental activities. Harsha Charita of Banabhatta provides us with a list of them. The superior civil service was manned by Kumaramatyas or Cadet Ministers.
  • Other ministers and officials were Mahasandhivigrahika (supreme minister for peace and war), Mahapratihara (head of the palace-guards), Simhanda (commander-in-chief), Mahabaladhikrita (commander of the forces), Mahakshapatalike (chief accounts-officer), Nyayakarnika (judicial-officer), Bhandagaradhikrita (superintendent of stores), Kayastha (scribe), etc.
  • According to Hiuen Tsang Harsha was just in his administration and punctilious in the discharge of his duties. Society was not choked by a grinding bureaucracy or overburdened by a heavy system of taxation. Families were not registered and individuals were not subject to forced labour contribution.
  • Most of the senior officers enjoyed the income of particular areas of land as remuneration of their posts as they were not paid in cash. But the lower grade officers were paid in cash or in land. Thus we find the trace of Jaigirdari system of feudalism in Harsha’s administrative system.

Economy under Harsha:

  • Economy under Harsha’s reign became growingly more self-sufficient and feudal in nature as trade and commerce receded.This is reflected in the decline of trade centres, paucity of coins and near complete disappearance of trader and merchant guilds.(though initially The economy of northern India prospered and his capital at Kanauj became a great centre of trade.)
  • Diminishing trade and commerce affected handicraft and other industries through want of demand; and affected agriculture although not directly.
  • As a result of the lack of trade, the need to produce agricultural goods for sale externally vanished and people began producing amounts adequate enough to meet their own local needs. This marked the rise of self-sufficiency in the village economy and the growing dependence on agriculture.


  • When scholars mention Indian feudalism, the kingdom of Harsha is usually taken as a typical state. Insight into Harsha’s state is given by the discovery of a set of plates of copper, dating back to 632 CE, recording the gift of land by a military officer under Harsha’s service to two Brahmins. Donations before Harsha’s reign had come from either a royal prince or one of the provincial governors. In the copper plates, the first dignitary mentioned was a Mahasamanta, who ruled a territory adjoining Kanauj. But, the donor of the land was a military servant of Kanauj, and the execution of the grant came under Harsha’s accounts. This leads to the conclusion that the Mahasamantas were in fact independent rulers with kingdoms near the core area of an overlord – here, King Harsha – and they paid tribute and provided military assistance to him. Though they may have obtained their territories through inheritance or conquest, there were some who served kings and got grants in the form of land to support their official duties; a process similar to distribution of feudal grants in Europe.


  • The main source of income of the State was land-revenue; it was 1/6th of the agricultural produce. There were other taxes also, but they were light and the State’s demands were few.
  • The income of the State was spent under four categories:
  1. for the expenses of the state and ceremonial worship;
  2. for the advancement of ministers;
  3. for rewarding the clever, the learned and the talented;
  4. for acquiring religious merit by spending on the heretics.

(c)Harsha’s Coins:

  • A gold coin found has been attributed to Harsha. It has on it the legend Harshadeva with the figure of a horseman. Harsha is called Harshadeva not only in inscriptions but also in Bana’s Harshacharitha.
  • About 284 silver coins with the name ‘Sri Siladitya’ was discovered.

Patron of Scholars:

  • Harsha is credited with the composition of three Sanskrit dramas- Ratnavali, Priyadarsika and Nagananda. In addition, he is credited with two significant poems on Buddhist themes – the Ashtamahasricaityastotra (Praise to Eight Grand Chaityas) and Suprabhatastotra (Laud to Morning) – and a tract on grammatical gender, the Linganusasanam. Harsha’s authorship has been disputed on several occasions, but no decisive contrary arguments have been proposed.
  • In his court lived the famous literary figure, Bana who wrote Kadambari and Harshacharita.
  • Bana’s brother-in-law, Mayura was a celebrated poet whose work was Surya Sataka, Arya Muktamala and Mayurastaka.
  • Other scholars like Haridatta and Jayasena were patronized by him. Bana mentions more than once that a group of skilled painters painted auspicious scenes. The iconoclastic zeal of the early Muslim invaders has left us not even a trace of these paintings nor the monuments erected by Harsha.


  • Prabhakaravardhana was a devotee of the Sun and is said to have offered daily a bunch of red lotuses in a ruby bowl. Rajyavardhana was a Buddhist.
  • Harsha was a devotee of Shiva, Surya and Buddha. He is stated to have erected costly temples for the service of all the three personalities. Harsha’s conversion to Buddhism is attributed by Bana to the influence of the Buddhist ascetic Divakaramitra who lived in the hermitage in the Vindhya forests.
  • It was however  Chinese Pilgrim Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) who definitely gave both Harsha and his sister their faith in Mahayana Buddhism by his discourse on its doctrines and exposure of the deficiency of Hinayana at the very first meeting between Harsha and him. According to the Xuanzang, who visited his kingdom in 636, Harsha built numerous stupas in the name of Buddha.
  • His approach to religion is evident in his celebrated play Nagananda. The play’s theme is based on the Jataka tale of the Bodhisattva Jimutavahana, but Harsha introduces the Goddess Gauri, as the saviour of Jimutavahana, a feature not found in the Jataka.
  • Harsha’s enthusiasm for his new faith led him at once to organize the grand assembly at Kanauj to give publicity to the masterly treatise of Hiuen Tsang on Mahayana and establish its supremacy over all other creeds of the times. Harsha is said to have prohibited even more rigorously than Ashoka, animal slaughter and meat eating.
  • At Nalanda he erected a bronze temple, 100 feet high, and along the highway built rest houses and hospitals.

The Kanauj Assembly:

  • In 643 A.D. Harsha summoned an assembly at Kanauj. The object of the assembly was to take advantage of the presence of Hiuen Tsang to spread the teachings of Buddha in the country.
  • A large number of kings attended the assembly. There were 3000 Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhist monks, 3000 Brahmanas and Nigrodhas and about 1000 Buddhist scholars from the Nalanda University.
  • The meeting was presided by Hiuen Tsang where a topic on Mahayana Buddhism was discussed. The meeting lasted for 23 days. On that occasion a monastery and shrine was erected on the banks of Ganga and a golden image of Buddha equal to the height of the king was kept in a tower, 100 feet high. A similar but smaller image, three feet in height was carried every day in a procession which was joined by 20 Rajas and 300 elephants. Harsha personally washed the image and carried it in the procession.
  • At the conclusion of the assembly, Harsha in recognition to the scholarship of Hiuen Tsang offered him gold, silver, jewels and other valuables including garments. But Hiuen Tsang refused to accept them. Then Harsha placing Hiuen Tsang on an elephant led him in a procession proclaiming that he had established the standard of Mahayana doctrines overthrowing all opposing ones.

The Prayag Assembly:

  • After the assembly at Kanauj, Harsha, accompanied by Hiuen Tsang, proceeded to Prayag (Allahabad) at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna (and Sarswati) where he used to celebrate another solemn religious festival at the end of every five years (Kumbha Mela). This assembly was the sixth of its kind during his reign.
  • Harsha summoned his tributary kings, the king of Vallabhi and Bhaskar Varma, the king of Assam; followers of different sects, Shramanas, Nirgranthas, the poor and the orphan and the needy to attend this assembly.
  • On the first day the image of Buddha was installed in a thatched building followed by the distribution of precious articles and clothing of the first quality.
  • On the second day they installed the image of Aditya (Sun-god) and distributed in charity precious things and clothing to half the amount of the previous day.
  • On the third day they installed the image of Shiva followed by distribution of charity and gifts as on the day before. In this way charity was bestowed to each and every one each day until the accumulated money and other goods were exhausted.
  • This assembly lasted for three months.

Society during the time of Harsha:

  • The Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang who visited India during the rule of Harsha has left valuable accounts of the observation which he had made on the society of those times.
  • According to him people were known for their honesty, courage and love for learning. They were not deceitful or treacherous in their conduct and were faithful in their oaths and promises. They were known for their personal hygiene and used to clean the floors of their houses with cow-dung and strewn it with season flowers.
  • They bathed daily and smeared their bodies with scented unguents like sandal and saffron. They used to wash their hands before meals and fragments and remains of meals were not served up again.

The Nalanda University:

  • Not only from China but also from countries like Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Java, Tiber, Ceylon, etc., students came to India to study in her various universities including the University of Nalanda.
  • Situated in modern Baragaon, 65 kilometers south-west of Patna in Bihar, Nalanda was an educational institute of higher learning or post-graduate studies. Here education was not confined to religious subjects nor it was connected with one religion or sect. Hindu and Buddhist literature in all their branches and other subjects like logic, grammar, medicine, Sankhya philosophy, occult science, etc. were studied.
  • The university campus had many halls and buildings with storeys where about 8500 students and 1500 teachers lived. The students were provided with free education, food and lodging.
  • The working hours of the university was of eight hours and nearly one hundred lectures were delivered everyday by many teachers, the famous of whom were Dharmapal (who was the Kulapati of Nalanda when Hiuen Tsang was a student there), Arya Deva, Chandrakirti, Chandragomin, Gunamati, Prabhamitra, Buddhakirti, Jinamitra, Sumatisena, etc.
  • Students seeking admission here had to pass a tough entrance examination and only about 20 percent could succeed in clearing it.
  • The university had a big library comprising of three buildings known as ‘Ratna-Sagar’, ‘Ratnadadhi’ and ‘Ratna Ranjaka’.
  • Chinese traveller Yijing notes that revenues from 200 villages (as opposed to 100 in Xuanzang’s time).
  • Towards the end of twelfth century, Muslim invaders set fire to the buildings of the university, burnt the valuable library and ruthlessly butchered the innocent monks, teachers and students. The glorious career of a university famous the world over came to an end.

Harsha’s Personality (characteristics of both Samudragupta and Ashoka):

  • At a very young age Harsha took up the reigns of the kingdom and established a fairly large empire. His was a multi-dimensional personality. Not only was he a good administrator but also known for his political shrewdness. The way he made the ruler of Vallabhi into his permanent ally by giving his daughter in marriage to him is evidenced to it.
  • Similarly though the ruler of Gauda, Sasanka was responsible for the death of his brother, Rajyavardhana, Harsha after rescuing his sister did not took a hasty decision to take on Sasanka given the precarious situation in which he had come to power after the death of his father, mother, brother and brother-in-law.
  • Harsha attempted to revive the imperial memories of Samudragupta and sought to unite the Northern and Southern India under one sculpture—in vain as the sequel proved. Indeed Harsha was the last long line of the Hindu rulers who worked to build and organized a powerful state for the progress of humanity. But it will be wrong to think that Harsha made the last attempt for political unity of India. After his death we saw the rise and fall of several empires. Yet we cannot underestimate his contribution as it was he who made the small Thaneswar a big power in Indian history. He was indeed a great scholar and equally a great administrator. His two admirers Banabhatta and Hiuen-Tsang spoke very high of him. It is but natural that they tried to paint him with exaggeration. But still the fact remains that Harsha was worthy of this exaggeration.
  • Ancient Indian education and literature flourished during the time of the Harsha’s rule. Harsha distinguished himself equally in the arts of peace and war.  He was a great patron of learning. He himself was a good author and the three Sanskrit plays “Nagananda, Ratnavali and Priyadarshika” exhibit his literary skill. Harsha put in verse the story of Bodhisattva Jimuta-Vahana. But Jaydeva also praised Harsha as a poet.
  • From Hiuen-Tsang we came to know that Harsha used to spend one-fourth of his revenue for patronizing the scholars. It is true that he patronized the University of Nalanda the greatest centre of Buddhist learning’s. He had a literary circle in his court of which we know the name of Banabhatta, the famous author of Kadambari and Harsha Charita. There were also other stars like Mayura, Divakara, Jaysena and the Chinese scholar Hiuen-Tsang.
  • He was famous for his religious catholicity, benevolence and charities. At the royal lodge every day rations were provided for 1000 Buddhists monks and 500 Brahmanas.
  • Even if we accept the documents of Banabhatta and Hiuen-Tsang with a grain of salt, we cannot in any way underrate the impact and contribution of Harshavardhana over the early history of India. Harsha combines in himself some of the attributes and characteristics of both Samudragupta and Ashoka.

Was Harsha last Hindu Emperor?

  • He is considered the last Hindu emperor of Northern India but it can be said that neither he was follower of only Hinduism nor he was Emperor as he ruler only part of north India.
  • He gave patronage to any other religion.


  • Harsha died in 647, having ruled for 41 years. His empire died with him, disintegrating rapidly into small states. In 648, Chinese Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty sent Wang Xuance to India in response to Harshavardhana sending an ambassador to China. However once in India he discovered Harshavardhana had died and the new king (Arunashwa, the minister of Harsha, who usupred the throne) attacked Wang and his 30 mounted subordinates.
  • This led to Wang Xuance escaping to Tibet and raising the army of over Nepalese mounted infantry and Tibetan infantry and attack on the Indian state. The success of this attack won Xuance the prestigious title of the “Grand Master for the Closing Court.” He also secured a reported Buddhist relic for China.
  • Chinese history texts tends to over-play Wang’s influence at ending the Harsha Empire.
  • Neither Bana’s nor Xuanzang’s account gives any details of this period.

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