History and Biography of King Harshavardhana
Introduction: King Harshavardhana, also known as Harsha, was the son of Prabhakara Vardhana. He is believed to be born on 590 AD. He was an emperor of Northern part of India. His capital was Kanauj. He ruled for 41 years from 606 A.D to to 647 A.D.
After the fall of the great Gupta Empire, Harshavardhana is credited for establishing a large and powerful empire. He practically became the “Lord of North India”.
King Harshavardhana ascended the throne of his ancestral kingdom of Thaneswar in 606 A.D after the death of his elder brother, Rajyavardhana. King Harshavardhana was given the title of “Maharaja”. Probably from the same year he started the Harsha era.
Conquest with Sasanka: After ascending the throne Harshavardhana decided to prepare for Digvijaya and take revenge upon Sasanka, the king of Gauda who not only brought a great political disaster upon his house by killing his elder brother Rajyavardhana and brother-in-law Grahavarman of Kanauj, but also imprisoned his beloved sister Rajyasri, the queen of Kanauj. For this reason, Harsha issued a proclamation to all known kings to either give him allegiance or to face him in the battle field. The first alliance proposal came from Bhaskar Varman (also Bhaskaravarman), the Kamrupa king who was an arch enemy of Sasanka. Harshavardhana readily accepted the alliance. The Kamrupa-Thaneswar allied army marched against Sasanka. But on the way hearing news, from his minister Bhandi, that Rajyasri being released from the prison took refuge in the forest of Vindhya, Harshavardhana hurriedly entered the forest to rescue his sister. At last he found her when she was almost committing suicide by throwing herself into fire. Rescuing his sister Harshavardhana rejoined his army camping along the banks of the Ganges. This story has been narrated by Banabhatta and it is undoubtedly difficult to establish its historical authenticity.
However, we are not sure about the outcome of Harsha’s campaign against Sasanka in the Kanauj region. Sasanka placed the younger brother of Grahavarman on the throne of Kanauj as his protege and left for Bengal. Harsha simply ousted this king to occupy Kanauj.
Harsha’s enmity with Sasanka continued thereafter for a protracted period.
Extent of Harsha Empire: Harsha, from the very beginning, wanted to rule over a vast empire. However it was only after Sasanka’s death that Harshavardhana could conquer the territories of Magadha, West Bengal, Orissa and Kangada, the territories once belonged to his adversary Sasanka. Sasanka died in 636 A.D. and Harsha conquered Magadha in 641 A.D. and Orissa, Kangada and other part of the territories in 643 A.D. We are not sure whether Harsha conquered Eastern Bengal; possibly not, though some Harsha inscriptions have been found there.
Harshavardhana inherited a hostile relation with the kingdoms of Lata, Malava and Gurjaras. The kingdom of Valabhi (also Vallavi) in Gujarat was a powerful kingdom. As such Harsha attacked the king of Valabhi and defeated him. The Vallahi king was Dhruvabhata who ended the hostility by marrying Harsha’s daughter.
Harshavardhana was trying to become the overlord of the Northern India. So was the desire of Pulakesin II, the Chalukya king of Vatapi. Lata, Malavas and Gurjaras voluntarily became the feudatories of the powerful Chalukya king Pulakesin II in order to march against Harsha. Hence a war between Harsha and Pulakesin II began in which Harsha’s army was defeated.
Hiuen-Tsang‘s record, Banabhatta’s narrative and the Chalukya records all claimed Harsha as the Lord of Northern India or Sakalottarpatha natha. Basing on these evidences Dr. R. K. Mukherjee, Ettinghausen and Dr. Panikar all maintained that Harsha’s empire extended from Kamrupa to Kashmir and from Himalaya to the Vindhya. But Dr. R.C. Mazumdar opposed this view. Harsha’s empire consisted of two groups—the territories inherited and acquired by him and those conquered and annexed by him. To the first group we have Thaneswar and Kanauj which correspond to modern Eastern Punjab and Gangetic Doab. With this he added some small principalities in the north and the west. Thus his empire, according to Dr. Mazumdar, consisted of Eastern Punjab and the Uttar Pradesh.
During the close of his reign Harsha annexed Magadha, Orissa, Kangada (Ganjam) and possibly West Bengal too. But we are not sure whether these lands were finally incorporated in his domain. If this be accepted we can equally accept Hiuen-Tsang’s account 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, Gujarat, 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.
Administration of Harsha Empire: 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.
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.
Harsha divided his day to three parts for attending three sets of state business. He was assisted by a council of ministers, known as the Mantri-Parishad, 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.
The whole empire of Harsha was divided into a number of ‘bhuktis’ or provinces which again were subdivided into number of `Vishayas’ or districts. Each of these ‘Vishayas’ or districts consisted of number of gramas or villages.
Except changing a few titles Harsha’s provincial officers bore the same title as they were known during the Gupta’s. The provincial dignitaries were Maha-samantas, Maharajas, Kumaramatyas, and Vishayapatis etc. The Maha-samantas and Maharajas were local hereditary chiefs who ruled as vassals of the Emperor. The Vishayapatis were the district officer. The Gramika was headman of the village, who was assisted by the several officers.
Harsha Charita of Banabhatta provides us with a list of administration officers. The superior civil service was manned by Kumaramatyas or Cadet Ministers. 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 Jagirdari system of feudalism in Harsha’s administrative system.
Army of Harsha Empire: Since the empire was despotism it required the maintenance of a strong army. Harsha’s army mainly consisted of elephants, cavalry and infantry. The horses for the cavalry were recruited from Sindh, Persia, Afghanistan and North West Frontier provinces. He concluded a number of alliances with his neighbours. “An undying alliance was made with Bhaskaravarman of Kamrupa.” He gave marriage of his daughter with the Valabhi (Vallabhi) king Dhruvasena. He possibly established diplomatic relation with the emperor of China possibly as a counterpoise to the alliance of Pulakesin II, his arch enemy with the king of Persia.
Taxes: Land, custom, tolls etc. were the main source of revenue. But the tax-burden was rather light. Bhaga, Hiranya and Bali were the three main taxes: Bhaga was the land tax. Hiranya was the tax paid in cash either by peasants or by merchants. Bali was probably an extra tax collected in emergency.
Law and order: There was stability and peace in his empire. 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.
Theoretically Harsha ruled as an autocrat. But in practice 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.
Art and education: 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.
He also attracted many foreign visitors in his state who gives us account of the art and education that flourished during the reign of Harsha. 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.
The eulogy of Harsha has been properly sung by his court writer Banabhatta and his admirer Hiuen-Tsang. Their accounts have some truth of course, which gave Harsha the fame of a great ruler, an able military leader and a king having profound interest in art, letters and religion.
Estimate of Harsha: Harsha died in 647 AD. Indeed Harsha was a great statesman. He ascended the throne amidst of great adversity. But with ample skill and prudence he managed the affair and consolidated his position as the king of Thaneswara. The grandson of a Gupta princess, 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.
He was indeed a great scholar and equally a great administrator. 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.
Conclusion: 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. 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 combined in himself some of the attributes and characteristics, of both Samudragupta and Ashoka.
Last updated: 11.04.2015