Harshavardhana was an able ruler and administrator. His administration was modeled with charity, generosity, and public service. He followed the example of Samudragupta and became a practical man.
His royal decree ran from Kashmir to Assam and from Gujarat to Orissa making him the supreme sovereign of Northern India.
After the decline of the Gupta empire the Northern India was in a stage of disintegration. Several small and independent states sprang up into prominence and remained busy in internecine quarrels.
In this political situation Harshavardhan was responsible for maintaining political stability in the greater part of the Northern India for nearly half a century. Unfortunately Harsha could not leave behind any able successor and therefore his mighty empire collapsed like a house of cards immediately after his death.
The detail accounts of the Chinese pilgrim Hieun Tsang throw a good deal of light on the political, social and religious conditions of the time. The narratives open a store house of reliable information. The Harshacharita written by Bana who lived at the court of Harsha is generally recognized as a historical document to throw a flood of light on the political, social and religious condition of India during his time. Harsha himself was a writer of high standard.
His three valuable works named ‘Ratnavali’, ‘Priyadarsika’ and ‘Nagananda’ written in Sanskrit reveal his literary flare. These books also throw sufficient light on the history of Harsha’s period. There are three inscriptions— Madhuban Plate, Sonepat plate and the Bankkhera inscription which are immensely valuable. The Madhuban plates speak much on the family of Harsha and Sonepat plates discloses the names and reign of many kings of the dynasty. The Bankkhera inscription confirms that Harsh was an efficient ruler and artsman. Coins of Harsha give adequate reliable information of his reign. He distributed thousands of such coins in the Prayag Council.
Amids political confusions a new power was beginning to rise in the eastern part of the Punjab on the bank of river Saraswati with Thaneswar or Thanesar as its centre. Prabhakar Vardhan of the Pushyabhuti dynasty became powerful by the close of 6th century. Bana in his Harsha Charita describes Prabhakar Vardhan as a ‘lion to the Huna doer, the lord of Gandhara etc.
Prabhakar Vardhan had two sons namely Rajya Vardhan and Harsha Vardhan and a daughter Rajyasri. The two young princes were well trained in soldierly profession of horsemanship, archery and swords play and princess Rajyasri was trained in music and other accomplishment.
Rajyasri while young was given in marriage to the Maukhari prince Grahavarman of Kanauj. Soon after the marriage of his daughter Prabhakar Vardhan faced the attack of the Hunas in the North. He immediately sent his eldest son Rajya Vardhan who was then only 18 years in age to face the Hunas. Harsha Vardhan who was only 15 years old followed his brother with a cavalry force. Before Harsha had joined his brother news reached him that the old king was seriously ill. Harsha getting the news returned back to the capital to see his father breathing his last. In profound sorrow he sent swift messengers to the front requesting his elder brother to return immediately.
Rajya Vardhan defeating the Hunas returned back though himself wounded to the capital. He was so much depressed at the death of his father that he asked Harsha to take the throne expressing his desire to renounce the world. On the pressure and request of Harsha, Rajya Vardhan changed his mind and became the king. Hardly he had come to the throne when the tragic news reached him that the king of Kanauj Grahavarman his brother-in-law had been defeated and killed by Devagupta the king of Malwa and that Rajyasri had been captured and thrown into a prison in Kanauj.
King Rajya Vardhan immediately hurried with cavalry force to recover Kanauj from the hands of the enemy and to save his sister from danger. Harsha was left in charge of the capital. Rajya Vardhan defeated the army of Malwa but fate was against him. The king of Gauda Sasanka who was a friend of the king of Malwa lured Rajya Vardhan to confidence by false show of friendship and when Rajya Vardhan was alone and armless he was attacked and killed treacherously.
So ended the reign of Rajya Vardhan. Harsh’s sorrows knew no bounds when he received the socking news at Thaneswara. At this critical juncture the ministers and officers of the Kingdom rose to the occasion to save the situation when Harsha expressed the feeling of detachment towards the throne. Bhandi, the Chief Minister summoned meeting of the Council of Minister and proposed that Harsha as he was strongly attached to his family, to the people, the people should have trust in him. All the minister agreed to accept Harsha as the new king and together with others pleaded with the prince to accept the kingship. Thus Harsha ascended the throne of Thaneswar in the year 606 AD at the age of sixteen only.
It was also necessary for the young king to take over the administration of the Kingdom of Kanauj where the throne was laying vacant. In due course of time Harsha made Kanauj the capital of the United Kingdom Thaneswar and Kanauj. He wanted to be known as prince or Rajputra siladitya which has became famous in history. He started the Harsha era in 606 AD.
Conquest—coming to the throne at a critical time when enemies were active, Harsha immediately decided upon a course of adventure and aggression. He embarked upon a new political career through war and conquest. Accordingly he prepared his plan for his ‘digvijaya’ to punish the king of Gauda and other enemy kings. He directed his War Minister to demand from the neighbouring kings their immediate homage to him.
While preparing for his ‘digvijaya’, Harsha thought it to be his first duty to rescue his sister Rajyasri. Chief Minister Bhandi brought the socking news that Rajyasri soon after she was thrown into prison in Kanauj managed to escape from her confinement and had gone away towards the Vindhya forests. Harsha getting the news immediately proceeded towards the Vindhya region and rescued his sister when she was about to throw herself into fire and die. With that noble work done Harsha became free to conduct his military campaigns.
From the description of Bana it is known that Harsha carried his campaigns with an army of 5000 elephants, 20,000 horses, and 50,000 infantry. It is further revealed from his accounts that in six years of his incessant warfare Harsha brought the “Five Indies under his allegiance” and became the Lord Paramount of the north. Some historians believe that Five Indies refer to Saurashtra, Kanauj, Gauda, Mithila and perhaps a part of Orissa. His wars did not end in those six years only. Evidences show that he was fighting wars till the end of his reign that covered a period of forty two years.
With the spirit of Vengeance. Harsha organised a vast army and established friendship with Bhaskar Varman the ruler of Kamrup. It appears that Sashanka escaped with little loss and ruled Bengal up to 619 AD. It is after Sasanka’s death Harsha annexed Bengal and South Bihar including Magadha to his empire. Harsha and Bhaskarvarman shared the conquered territories among themselves. Between 633 and 641 AD. Harsha attacked Dhrubasena II Baladitya, the Maitraka ruler of Valabhi. Dhrubasena sought the protection of the Gujara prince an ally of king Pulakesin II. However he subsequently made peace with Harsha and Harsha gave his daughter in marriage to him and allowed him to continue to rule Valabhi. He attacked then in 643 AD Kongoda (Ganjam).
After consolidating his position in the north Harsha had an expedition to the south in 620 AD. He was checked by king Pulakesin II of Chalukya dynasty. In the battle on the bank of Narmada Harsha was defeated with a heavy loss. This single defeat checked Harsha to extend his empire beyond Narmada. The failure to conquer Deccan is also described in the Aihole inscription of the poet Ravikirti of 643 AD. Harsha’s ambition to bring the south under his northern empire ended without success.
Harsha’s empire included the kingdom of Thaneswara, or eastern Punjab, and Kanauj in the Gangetic Doab, the regions of Ahichchatra or Rohilkhand Sravasti, or areas of Oudh and Prayag or Allahabad and as well as a portion of Orissa and Magadha. In the north, west it included major portions of the Punjab and the whole of Sind. In the west the kingdom of Valabhi came under the imperial authority. Harsha’s empire touched the Arabian Sea. In the east the empire included Bengal and touched the Bay of Bengal. In the north-east it extended as far as the Brahmaputra Valley. The empire also included Kashmir and Nepal and thus touched the Himalayas in north.
Thus with almost of the north India from the Himalayas to the river Narmada in the south, and from Ganjam in the eastern coast to Valabhi in the western coast the empire of Harsha was one of the most extensive empires of Indian history. Harsha ruled his empire from his capital at Kanauj on the bank of the Ganges bounded with majestic buildings, beautiful gardens and tanks of clean water.
Hieun Tsang the Chinese pilgrim who visited India during the reign of Harsha gave a detailed account of Harsha’s administration. Harsha took keen interest in administration. Instead of depending on the officials he paid special stress on personal supervision. He used to visit and inspect posts throughout his dominion. He never used to stay long in a particular place. His purpose of visit was to punish the corrupt officials and wrongdoers and reward the good and honest persons. According to Hieun Tsang “He was indefatigable and forgot sleep and food in his devotion to work for good”.
He maintained a Council of Ministers Mantriparisad to assist him. For the convenience of administration, the entire empire was divided into provinces and each province was placed under the control of a viceroy or Governor. Provinces were known as Bhukti and each province was divided into districts called “Visayas” managed by one officer designated as Visayapati. Each Visaya was further divided into Tehsils or Pathakas. The smallest divisions were known as ‘Uparika’. The village headman was called ‘Gramika’.
The government was based on benign principle and with the motto of serving the people. The administration was tuned accordingly. The government officials were paid salaries in kinds but the soldiers were paid in cash. The penal code was very severe. Treason against the king was punished by lifelong imprisonment. For offences against social morality and disloyal conduct the punishment was either mutilation of limbs or deportation of the offender to another country or into wilderness. Trial by ordeal was in general practice.
Harsha was a true representative of ancient monarchy in its finest form. In theory the king was absolute and all powerful but in practice he enjoyed limited power being subject to the rules of Dharma the laws and customs of the land and to the wise advice of the ministers and courtiers. He was the supreme law maker, the Chief Executive and the fountain of justice. He was the central figure of the entire administrative machinery. Harsha added a new feature to the traditional administrative practice of his personal supervision of governmental work both in urban and rural areas by which he could collect the first hand knowledge about the conditions of the people.
Except rainy season the emperor used to make extensive tours of inspection. Harsha remained so devoted to his works that it became difficult even for kings to get an interview with him. He divided his day into three parts one of which was kept exclusively for state affairs. Harsha believed in the self government of the countless village communities. During the time of Harsha his Council of Ministers used to work in an effective manner. It took vital decisions in times of crisis. A Chief Minister was heading the council of Ministers. The Council of Ministers was also the decision making body on foreign affairs and War. Besides the Chief Minister other ministers also shouldered important responsibilities.
Harsha maintained an efficient civil service. The chief officers who directly received instructions and orders from the king were Mahasamanta, Maharaja, Pramatara or Spiritual adviser, Rajasthaniya Kumaramatya, Uparika, and Visayapati etc. In general the taxation policy was very liberal. The people were not subject to oppressive economic measures individuals were subject to forced labour. The share of the king was one sixth of the agricultural produce. Madhuban Copper Plate reveals that king used to collect two types of taxes from villages. One was Tulya.
Meya or the taxes depending on the weight and measures of the articles sold and the other was the “Bhaga-bhoga-Kara hiranyadi” or the share of the produce. Revenue was collected from the trade and commerce but duties on goods were very low. The government maintained the accounts of the good times and bad times of natural or public calamities.
The founder of the dynasty Pushyabhuti was a devotee of Siva. Harsha’s father Prabhakar Vardhan “offered daily to the sun a bunch red lotuses”, his brother RajyaVardhan and sister Rajyasri were deeply attached to the Hinayana form of Budhism and Harsha himself was a strong believer of Mahayana Budhism in the later part of his life. In the beginning he was a follower of Hinduism and used to worship the Lord Siva and the Sun like his ancestors.
Due to his contact with luminous personality like Hieun Tsang and the influence of his brother and sister Harsha embraced Budhism and followed Mahayana faith of Buddhism. Therefore like Asoka and Kaniska he utilized state machinery to popularize Buddhism and forbade the killing of any living creature or the consumption of meat throughout the empire. Harsha began to summon a meeting of the Buddhist Sangha for the purpose of examination and discussion on Budhism. In such meetings the good energetic and learned monks were rewarded and the incompetent monks were penalized.
Harsha took steps to get the existing monasteries repaired and built a large number of stupas, viharas, rest houses for the benefit of the Buddhist monks. He extended financial aid and various encouragements to the Buddhist monks. At the interval of every five years Harsha used to summon a religious assembly at Prayag near Allahabad. Altogether six such assemblies were held and Hieun Tsang attended the sixth assembly held in 643AD. The ceremonials lasted for seventy five days during which the Buddha, the Siva and the sun were worshipped in different dates.
The proceedings were opened by a magnificent procession of feudatory princes and ended with distribution of alms to the Buddhists, the Brahmans, poor, needy persons and members of other sects. Due to generous distribution of alms the treasury used to get exhausted and Harsha had to borrow a second hand dress from Rajyasri for his use. In the honour of Hieun Tsang Harsha organised a splendid assembly at Kanauj in March 643.
There was a mammoth gathering of Buddhists, Vrahmans, Jains and tributary Rajas including Bhaskaravarman and Dhrubadutta of Balabhi and one thousand learned monks from Nalanda. Golden image of Budha of the stature of king Harsha was installed in a tower. A smaller image three feet in light was carried in a procession every day. The king himself carried the canopy upholding over the golden image and while proceeding the king scattered golden blossoms, pearls, and other precious gems on all sides in honour of the three jewels, the Budha, Dharma and Sangha. The ceremony lasted for 18 days where he took many steps to promote Mahayana faith of Budhism.
Harsha as Patron of Learning:
Harsha was himself a great scholar who authored several dramas. Harsha Siladitya as a poet and a dramatist made noteworthy contributions to the literature of his time. As a Buddhist king he wrote hymns relating to Budhism. Two of such works were the Ashta-Maha- Srichaitya-Stotra or (a hymn to the eight great Chaityas and the Suprabhata-Stotra a hymn of the dawn to Budha). Harsha authored three famous dramas.
They were Naganand, Ratnavali and Priyadarsika. All the three were romantic comedies. Harsha was so famous in the literary world that Jayadeva, the celebrated author of Gita Govinda compared him with Kalidas and Bhasa. He was also a patron of poets and scholars. The most renowned among them was Bana Bhatta.
Under the engagement of Harsha hundred of poems were composed on the previous lives of Buddha which were presented to him as the Jatakamala. Harsha’s fame as a learned king was known to the Buddhists of China during his life time and after. It was during the time Harsha Siladitya that the great University of Nalanda was made a great centre of learning where pupils from distant places and foreign countries used to come for education and learning. The students received free education and liberal grants. Harsha took exhaustive steps to promote learning.
It was a centre of advanced post-graduate studies in various studies. Foreign students from countries like Korea, Japan, China, Mongolia, Tibet and Ceylone came to Nalanda for their higher learning. Hieun Tsang himself studied Yoga in Nalanda for long five years under the guidance of the chancellor of the University Silabhadra.
During the period when Hieun Tsang studied there Nalanda had 8500 students. The subjects of study were both Brahmanical and Buddhist Sacred and Secular, Sciences and Humanities, Arts and Crafts and Vedas including Atharvaveda, Hetrividya (Logic) Sabdavidya (Grammar) Chikitsavidya (Medicine) Samkhya, Yoga, Naya and the like. Harsha patronised the University by remitting the revenues of about a hundred villages to Nalanda. The Nalanda University of Harsha’s time was a bright example of ancient India’s academic excellence.
An Estimate of Harsha:
Harsha Siladitya dazzled the history of his time with his manifold colourful activities. For his role as a conqueror an administrator, a patron of learning, an active supporter of Buddhism and a most generous king Harsha earned a unique place among the great rulers of India. Coming to the throne under tragic circumstances at a tender age of 16 he began unending wars that resulted in the unification of most of the Indian territories into one to become an empire. He mastered over the Five Indies which may mean five large regions of India. Nevertheless he tried to uphold the legacy of Indian unification as best as he could.
With the result peace and order prevailed again after a long spell of darkness and the people heaved a sigh of relief under him. Harsha was not only a great conquer but also a varitable diplomat. He knew how to outwit the enemy in war as well as in diplomacy. When he failed to defeat Sasanka of Bengal in a direct contest he adopted the path of diplomacy to bring BhaskarVarman of Kamrup an enemy of Sasanka to his side and became successful.
Giving his daughter in marriage to Dhruvesena II he succeeded in converting an enemy to a close relation. Such a far-sight was a triumph of his diplomatic skill. Like Samudragupta and Akbar he was a great empire builder. His various steps reveal his intrinsic qualities of a statesman and a king of unfathomed political wisdom. Harsha Siladitya occupies an unique place in the history of India as a religious leader. Initially he was a Hindu but eventually he embraced Buddhism and became a staunch supporter of Mahayana Buddhism. He employed the state officials for popularizing Buddhism. Like Asoka and Kaniska his contributions for promulgating and uplifting Budhism are praiseworthy.
He prohibited killing of living beings or consumption of meat in his kingdom. He built monasteries, stupas, Viharas, extended financial aid to Buddhist monks. His endeavor to uplift religion, his help to the people in destitution and his dedication to service and welfare of the people has made him immortal. In spite of strong learning towards Buddhism Harsha was not a religious bigot. He never prosecuted the followers of other religions. He liberally gave alms to the poor and deserving persons without any discrimination. For his religious tolerance he is often compared with Asoka and Akbar.
A religious and charitable person with scholarly bent of mind Harsha distinguished himself almost equally in arts, culture and literature. He maintained the benevolent traditions of Gupta golden period by encouraging men of letters. His facile pen has produced several Valuable writings including two Buddhist poems. He composed three famous dramas in Sanskrit. He patronized the University of Nalanda and its learned scholars speak of Harsha’s affinity for education and scholarship.
Harsha was an able ruler and administrator. His administration was modeled with charity, generosity, and public service. He followed the example of Samudragupta and became a practical man. His royal decree ran from Kashmir to Assam and from Gujarat to Orissa making him the Sakala- Uttarapathanatha or the supreme sovereign of Northern India.
On the basis of the above analysis it can be concluded that Harsha Siladitya was a great ruler. The historians have given glowing tribute to his rule and recognize him as the last great ruler of ancient India whose reign marks the culmination of the Hindu Culture. He was a warrior, a statesman, a diplomat, a religious leader, a liberal and enlightened ruler who devoted heart and soul to the welfare of the subjects. For these qualities he ruled about 41 years, brought political unity of India with remarkable achievements to his credit.