Harsha followed the traditional monarchical system of administration which had existed in India during the earlier imperial periods.
His time having been nearer to the Gupta Age, the various features of the imperial Gupta administration influenced Harsha’s administration to a very large extent.
Yet, there were new innovations in accordance with the needs of the time.
Moreover, every great monarch had his personal designs to shape his administration, and Harsha too went by his own individuality in governing the empire.
The following were the main features of Harsha’s administration:
1. The King:
Harsha was a true representative of ancient monarchy in its finest aspects. In theory, the king was absolute and all-powerful. But in practice, he enjoyed limited power, being subject to the rules of the Dharma, the laws and customs of the land, and to the wise advice of the ministers and countries. He had also to respect the wishes of the subjects. The king was no doubt the supreme lawmaker, the chief executive, and the fountain of justice. He was also the central figure of the entire administrative machinery working like its pivot. In spite of all such powers, Harsha’s monarchy was far from being autocratic.
It maintained moderation and rested on popular support. One need not forget that Harsha came to the thrones of Thaneswara and Kanauj in response to the collective decisions of the Councils of Ministers and of the notables of the two kingdoms. To the traditional administrative structure, Harsha added a personal factor of great importance. It was his continuous personal inspection tours to supervise the governmental works both in urban and rural areas. By his royal march through the country he acquired a first-hand knowledge of the conditions of the people.
He understood their difficulties, and prescribed remedies. Harsha visited many places of his empire for purpose of efficient administration. From the extreme limits of the empire in the north to far-away Kongoda or Ganjam in the south-east, he travelled like a touring monarch. According to Hiuen Tsang: “If there was any irregularity in the manners of the people of the cities he (Harsha) went amongst them. By personal admonition he would thus set the matters throughout his dominations, not residing long at any place, but having temporary buildings erected for his residence at each place of sojourn, and he did not go abroad during the three months of the rain-season retreat”.
Thus, except for the rainy season, the emperor was most of the time in his official tours of inspection. When such tours were not necessary, Harsha kept himself busy in his capital attending to government work. According to the Chinese pilgrim, Harsha was tireless and the day was too short for him. “He forgot sleep and food in his devotion to duty”. 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 conducted his official tours in a grand style. Hundreds of drummers marched with the king to announce the presence of the king by beating their golden drums. The people were thus alerted to meet their ruler at the place of halting arid present their grievances before him. This mode of attracting the people was called the ‘Music-pace drums’. No subordinate king of the empire was permitted to enjoy this exclusive privilege of the Lord Paramount.
Harsha believed in the self-government of the countless village- communities. The central government did not concentrate all powers in its hands, but gave much autonomy to regional bodies for conducting the affairs of the state.
2. The Council of Ministers:
During the time of Harsha his Council of Ministers worked in an effective manner. It took vital decisions in times of crisis. There was a Chief Minister to head the Council of Ministers. Bhandi, the Chief Minister or Rajya Vardhana, played a notable role in bringing Harsha to the vacant throne when his brother died. He proposed before his Council to request a reluctant Harsha to assume the royal authority while giving each member the freedom of opinion on his proposal.
When all members of the Council agreed with the Chief Minister, the young prince was prevailed upon to become the king. This episode proves that the ministers of the state were responsible for taking grave decisions in the interests of the state.
The Council of Ministers also was a decision-making body on foreign affairs and war. For example, when Rajya Vardhana went out to fight his enemies and ultimately accepted their invitation after victory, he was doing so on the advice of his Council of Ministers. It was a wrong advice which resulted in the murder of the young king.
Besides the Chief Minister, other ministers also shouldered important responsibilities. It is known from Bana that a minister named Avanti was the Minister for Foreign Relations and War under Harsha. As the king alone could not have carried the burdens of an imperial government, the ministers discharged their part of duty in helping the king.
3. The Bureaucracy:
Harsha maintained an efficient civil service. The importance of some of the higher officers of the state is known from their designations. The chief officers who directly received instructions and orders from the king were Mahasamanta, Maharaja, Pramatara or Spiritual Adviser, Rajasthaniya, Kumaramatya, Uparika, and Vishayapati, etc. Besides these, there were the Commander-in-Chief, the chief of the Cavalry Forces, and the Chief Commandant of the Elephant Force.
According to Hiuen Tsang, the ministers of the king and the officers were paid their salaries not in cash but in grants of land. Even cities were assigned to them. One-fourth of the crown lands was kept apart “for the endowment of great public servants”, another fourth part “for the expenses of government and state-worship”.
4. Revenue System:
Much light is thrown by the Chinese pilgrim on the revenue system of Harsha. In general, the taxation policy was liberal. The people were not subjected to oppressive economic measures. As Hiuen Tsang says: “Official requirements are few … families are not registered and individuals were not subject to forced labour contributions. Taxation being very light and forced service being sparingly used, everyone keeps to his hereditary occupation and attends to his patrimony”.
In Harsha’s Empire, the king’s share was one-sixth of the agricultural produce. It is known from the Madhuvana Copper Plate that the king’s dues from a village were of two kinds. One was the Tulya-meya or the taxes depending on the weight and measures of the things sold. The other was the Bhagablioga kara-hiranyadi or the share of the produce, taxes, and payments in cash from other sources of income. Revenues were also earned from trade and commerce. But duties on goods were light.
The revenue of the state, according to Hiuen Tsang, was spent for four main purposes as public expenditure. They were, one part for the expenses of the Government, and state-worship; one part as the endowment of great public servants; one part as reward to persons of high intellectual eminence; and one part for gifts to various religious sects. The governments maintained records of good times and bad times like the times of natural or public calamities. The soldiers and smaller officers of the state were paid their salary in cash.
5. Administrative Divisions of the Empire:
Harsha’s Empire was divided into several provinces. The number of such provinces is not known. Each province was divided into Bhuktis. And each Bhukti was divided into several Vishayas. They were like the districts. Each vishaya was further divided into Pathakas. Each such area was divided into several villages.
The villages were looked after by their headmen. The government did not interfere with the freedom of the villages in their usual ways of existence. The bigger territorial divisions of the empire were no doubt, controlled by the centre. But a system of decentralisation also worked for better management of various units. Harsha’s personal inspections kept the territorial units in order, and there was co-ordination between the central and provincial administrations.
6. Penal System:
The penal system under Harsha was a curious mixture of both the Maurya severity and the Gupta leniency. It may be noted that Harsha consolidated his power by putting down anarchical conditions under petty rulers. He had to win the people’s confidence by a forceful penal system. The Penal Code, therefore, was made severe, though applied with moderation.
Treason against the state and the king was considered a great crime and traitors were punished by life-long imprisonment. For crimes against the society, for immorality, and for anti-social conduct, the offenders suffered mutilation of limbs, or deportation to an outside country, or into wild forests.
Hiuen Tsang informs that the criminals and rebels were very few in number. But, the crime was there nevertheless. For example, Hiuen Tsang himself suffered in hands of the robbers at some distance from the capital itself. He faced the same misfortune more than once. While in the days of the Guptas, the Chinese traveller Fa-Hien moved freely and suffered no attack, in the days of Harsha, Hiuen Tsang did not find travelling safe.
It shows that greater crimes might have been less or rare, but smaller crimes were there. For such offenses, small fines were imposed, and the criminals were left to live their life as condemned persons. Unlike the Maurya penal system, force or tortures were not used in the time of Harsha to obtain confession of their crimes from the criminals.
On the whole, Harsha’s administration created fear in the mind of men by a thorough penal code; though in practice, the punishments were not turned into a cruel system. With these features, Harsha’s government managed a large empire by generosity and efficiency, under the direct supervision of a dutiful emperor.