In this article we will discuss about the reign of emperor Harsha Vardhana (606-647 A.D.) in India.

After the murder of his elder brother Rajya Vardhana, Harsha Vardhana ascended the throne of Thaneswar with the consent of councillors of the State. He proved himself as the greatest ruler of the Pushyabhuti dynasty. Of course, he has not been accepted as one of the great Indian rulers, yet he occupies an important place in Indian history as a capable, just and benevolent ruler.

The first task before Harsha Vardhana was to avenge the murder of his brother and free his sister Rajyasri from the captivity of Deva Gupta. He swore vengeance on Sasanka and marched towards Kannauj with a large army. In the way, he met an emissary of Bhaskara Varman, king of Kamrupa and entered into an alliance with that State.

Having received the news that Rajyasri had been set free by Deva Gupta and that she had retired to the Vindhya forest in disgust, he first tried to trace her and succeeded in doing so at the moment she was going to throw herself into fire. He brought her back to Kannauj and then proceeded against Sasanka.

Extension of the Empire of Harsha Vardhana:


Though the inscription at Nalanda and Banskhera and coins of that age also provide us some information regarding Harsha’s reign, the most useful information is provided by Harsha Charita of Banabhatta and the description of the Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang. Hiuen Tsang described that Harsha conquered the entire country within the first six years of his reign.

However, the statement is not to be taken seriously. Harsha did not occupy even North India completely nor his wars and conquests were limited to the first six years of his reign. Harsha first invaded Bengal. The campaign was not very successful because evidences prove that Sasanka continued to rule over the greater part of Bengal and Orissa till 637 A.D. It was only after the death of Sasanka that Harsha succeeded in his mission.

Harsha's Empire

The armies of Harsha and Bhaskara Varman, king of Kamrupa, attacked Bengal after the death of Sasanka and succeeded. East Bengal was occupied by Bhaskara Varman and West Bengal was occupied by Harsha. Dr R.C. Majumdar has expressed the view that Harsha conquered Magadha and Orissa as well, after the death of Sasanka.


Hiuen Tsang described that Harsha ruled over Kannauj from the beginning of his reign. But it is not correct. He first carried on the administration of the kingdom of Kannauj in the name of his sister, Rajyasri and it was six years after the beginning of his reign that he united the kingdom of Kannauj with that of his own at the request of its ministers. He then also transferred his capital to Kannauj which, thereafter, became the centre of gravity of politics in Northern India.

Towards the West, the Malavas, the Gurjaras and the rulers of Gujarat were the hereditary enemies of Harsha. Harsha first succeeded against Dhruvasena II or Dhruvabhatta of Gujarat (Vallabhi) but Dhruvasena revived his strength with the help of the Gurjaras and other neighbouring rulers.

However, the rivalry between the two kingdoms ended with the marriage of Dhruvasena with the daughter of Harsha. Dr D.C. Sarkar has opined that the rulers of Gujarat accepted the sovereignty of Harsha while Dr R.C. Majumdar says that Gujarat remained an independent kingdom.

The progress of Harsha towards the South was checked by the Chalukya king Pulakesin II who was trying to be the sovereign of the Deccan. The battle between Harsha and Pulakesin II took place near the bank of the river Narmada or most probably much further towards the north. Harsha had taken the aggressive step but he failed to defeat Pulakesin and retreated.


There occurred certain border disputes between Harsha and the rulers of Sindh, Kashmir and Nepal but these kingdoms remained independent of the influence of Harsha.

Thus, the attempts of Harsha to create an extensive empire in India succeeded only partially. Hiuen Tsang has made frequent references to campaigns of Harsha though he has not given their details. Banabhatta also gives us an impression that the entire Northern India was included in his empire. Some modern historians have also accepted this view.

Dr K.M. Panikkar describes that the empire of Harsha extended from Kainrupa in the East to Kashmir in the West and from the Himalayas in the North to the Vindhyas in the South. But Dr R.C. Majumdar has strongly refuted this view. He has maintained that the empire of Harsha included only Eastern Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa, though his power was recognised by his neighbouring states in North India as was the case with the rulers of Vallabhi, Kutch and Kamrupa.

However, Kashmir, Western Punjab, Sindh, Rajputana, Nepal and Kamrupa were certainly independent states in his days. Yet, Harsha has been regarded as a powerful emperor who, certainly, succeeded in providing unity to a large part of Northern India after the fall of the great Guptas.

Administration under Harsha Vardhana:

Harsha maintained the administrative set-up of his empire on the model of previous great Hindu rulers. He himself was the head of the state, and all administrative, legislative and judicial powers were concentrated in his hands. He was also the first Commander-in-Chief of his army. Harsha assumed the titles of Maharajadhiraja and Param Bhattaraka. He was a benevolent ruler and supervised the administration personally.

He was not only a capable ruler but was also very hard working. Hiuen Tsang writes, “He was indefatigable and the day was too short for him.” He regarded the welfare of his subjects as his foremost duty and, except the rainy season, constantly travelled over different parts of his empire to see things with his own eyes. He was in touch with his village-subjects to look after their welfare.

The king was assisted by a council of ministers which was quite effective. It advised the king both in matters of foreign policy and internal administration. Harsha was offered the throne of Thaneswar and, later on, the throne of Kannauj by the then ministers of the respective states. Besides the ministers there were many other important officials of the state of whom a detailed list has been given by Banabhatta in his Harshacharita.

Among the high imperial officers were a Mahasandhivigrahadhikrita, a Mahabaladhikrita and a Mahapratihara. Besides, Avanti was the officer who looked after the affairs of war and peace; the Commander-in-Chief of the army was called the Singhanada; Kuntala was the head of the cavalry; Skanda Gupta was the head of war-elephants; and the head of the civil administration was called the Samanta-Maharaja.

The empire was divided into bhuktis (provinces) and then further into vishayas (districts) for the sake of administrative convenience. The village was the smallest unit of administration. The principal officer of a province was Uparika, that of a district Vishayapati and that of a village Gramika.

Various other officers of the local administration bearing the titles bhogpati, ayuktaka and pratipalaka purushas are referred to in Harsha-charita. Thus, the administrative units of Harsha and their officers were similar to those of the great Gupta rulers.

Harsha also utilised the service of his feudatories for the administration of his empire who were called Mahasamantas or Samanta Maharajas. The high officers of the state were not paid in cash. They were assigned jagirs in return of their services. Thus, jagirdari system (feudalism) was given further impetus during the reign of Harsha.

Hiuen Tsang described that the ministers and high officials of Harsha were not paid salaries in cash. Instead cities or lands were assigned to them as jagirs. According to Hiuen Tsang 1/4 land of the state was kept reserved for the officials of the state and 1/4 was kept reserved for public welfare and religious purposes.

Harsha did not put much burden of taxation on his subjects and also reduced the administrative expenditure of the state. Therefore, he could spend larger part of the income of the state on public welfare works. The primary source of income of the state was land revenue called bhaga which was 1/6th of the produce and was paid in kind. Hirnya, Bali, sales-tax, toll tax etc. were other sources of income besides presentation by feudatory chiefs to the emperor.

On the whole, the burden of taxation was not heavy on the subjects. The main items of expenditure were the personal expenditure of the king and his household and palace, the army, the salary of civil officers, public welfare works, charity etc.

Harsha organised religious assemblies every fifth year of his reign at Prayag (Allahabad). He held six such assemblies during his reign. Whatever was left in the state treasury after five years, Harsha used to give it all in charity at that time. It is said that he used to distribute in charity even his personal belongings.

Harsha kept a strong standing army at the Centre. The cavalry, the infantry, chariots and war-elephants were the chief constituents of his army. According to Hiuen Tsang the army of Harsha constituted 60,000 war-elephants, 50,000 strong cavalry and 1,00,000 strong infantry. Hiuen Tsang described that the war elephants were given swords in their trunks. The Commander-in-Chief fought while on the back of an elephant. The chariots were drawn by four horses. High officers sat in them while fighting.

The infantary-soldiers were hereditary professionals, courageous and fought well with the help of sword, bow and arrow, shield, etc. The commander of the army was called Baladhikrata or Mahabaladhikrita and that of the cavalry Vrahadasvatara. Above them was the maha-senapati of all the armed forces. Yet, the supreme commander of the force was the king himself.

As compared to the Guptas, the administration of justice was severe during the reign of Harsha. The usual punishments were imprisonment for life, banishment and loss of limbs. Ordeals by fire, water etc. were sometimes resorted to for determining the innocence or guilt of an accused person.

But, in spite of the severity of laws and punishments, there was no peace and security within the empire as compared to the Gupta period. The Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang himself was looted and deprived of his belongings several times while travelling through the country.

Harsha pursued the policy of matrimonial alliances with the rulers of neighbouring states in order to extend his power and influence. He married his daughter to Dhruvasena II. ruler of Gujarat (Vallabhi) and always maintained cordial relations with Bhaskar Varman, ruler of Kamrupa. He had good relations with China as well and sent his emissary to that country in 641 A.D. and. in return, received two emissaries from that country in 643 A.D. and 646 A.D. respectively.

Harsha succeeded in providing a fairly good administration to his subjects. However, it remained inferior to that of Guptas and the Mauryas. Harsha gave everything in charity, took many useful public welfare steps and tried to maintain peace and order by strict punishment to offenders.

But, he succeeded neither in providing public services to his subjects as compared to the Mauryas nor in maintaining law and order as compared to the Guptas. Yet, he was a kind and generous king and his subjects were happy and prosperous.

Culture and Civilization during Harsha Vardhana:

There did not occur any significant change in the culture and civilization of India during the period of Harsha. The traditions and values which were established during the Gupta age continued during this period in all spheres of life.

I. Social Condition:

The four-fold division of the Hindu society in castes continued to be effective though, of course, sub-castes were also emerging. The caste-system was getting more rigid though interdining and intercaste marriages were possible. The downward trend in the position of women persisted during this age.

The practice of Sati was getting encouragement, though restricted only to higher castes. There was no Purdah system but there were several restrictions on the movements of women in society. However, public morality was high. People pursued a simple and moral life and avoided consumption of meat, onion and liquor.

II. Economic Condition:

In general, there was prosperity within the empire. Agriculture, industries and trade, both internal and external, were in a flourishing condition. Cities like- Peshawar and Taxila in the North-West were, of course, destroyed by the invasions of the Hunas and Mathura and Pataliputra had lost their previous significance, but Prayag (Allahabad), Banaras and Kannauj were prosperous cities within the empire.

The capital city, Kannauj was an extensive, prosperous and well protected city. It had large buildings, beautiful gardens and swimming-pools. It was inhabited by the rich, cultured and highly learned people. The people, in general, were interested in literary activities and fine arts.

III. Religious Condition:

Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism were still the popular religions in India. Hinduism was continuing its popular hold on the people and temples of various gods and goddesses were built in large numbers. Vishnu and his different incarnations and Siva were the most popular gods of the Hindus. Prayag and Banaras were the main centres of Hinduism. The popular sect of Buddhism was Mahayanism.

Its main centres were Kashmir, Jalandhar, Kanyakubja. Gava and Swetpur. Nalanda was the primary centre of Buddhist learning and its university had gained fame far and wide. Jainism was also quite popular in different parts of India. Thus, all the three religions of India coexisted with a spirit of mutual toleration though Hinduism was the predominant religion at that time also.

What was the religion of Harsha? Banabhatta described him as a Hindu-Saiva while Hiuen Tsang stated that he was a Buddhist. It seems that he was a devotee of Siva and worshipped Surya as well during the early period of his life. However, during the later period of his life, he was attracted towards Buddhism. He is said to have erected many Buddhist Stupas and monasteries. He summoned a convocation of the Buddhist monks annually for discussion of religious problems.

He prohibited the slaughter of animals and, like Asoka, made arrangements for free supply of food and medicines to the poor and the destitute. But, Harsha was never a convert to Buddhism and continued to worship Siva and Surya even during the later period of his life. Thus, he practised tolerance of every faith. Harsha used to have a religious assembly at Prayag every fifth year. He had six such religious assemblies during his reign.

These assemblies were proofs of his tolerant religious views. Buddha was worshipped on the first day of each such assembly. Siva was worshipped on the second day and Surya was worshipped on the third day. Harsha distributed money and articles generously to all people on each day and on the fourth and final day he used to give even his personal clothing and ornaments in charity and request his sister Rajyasri to give him something to cover his body.

Harsha also called an assembly at Kannauj in honour of the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang. The assembly was presided over by Hiuen Tsang and religious discourses continued for twenty-one days. It was a favour to Buddhism and Hiuen Tsang.

This infuriated a section of orthodox Hindus which also resulted in an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Harsha. However, when the assembly was over, Harsha honoured both Hindu priests and Buddhist monks by giving them many things in charity. Thus, Harsha was a religious minded man and a tolerant king to all his subjects of different faiths.

IV. Education and Literature:

Harsha himself was a scholar and wrote three plays, entitled the Nagananda, the Ratnavali and the Priyadarsika. As Sanskrit was the popular and predominant language at that time, he wrote these plays in Sanskrit and each of them has received wide acclaim from Indian scholars. Besides, Harsha was a patron of learning and scholars. It has been said that he spent one-fourth of his income on education and learning.

He patronised the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang while Banabhatta, the celebrated author of the Harshacharita and the Kadambari, and scholars like Mauiya, Divakara and Jayasena were at his court. The universities of Nalanda, Valabhi and the one run by Divakara in Vindhya forest were centres of learning at that time. According to Banabhatta the institution looked after by Divakaramitra in the forest of Vindhyas provided education primarily in Rindu-shashtras but also looked after the study of Jaina and Buddhist texts.

There, facilities were available not only for the study of philosophy but that of law and physical sciences as well. Hiuen Tsang described that the students and teachers of that university led lives of Sanyasins, were after search for truth, travelled far and wide for providing education and also in search of learned ones and avoided receiving protection of the court.

Among universities, the University of Nalanda was the most celebrated where students and scholars from all parts of the country as well as from foreign countries gathered for education and learning. Nearly 5.000 students received free education there. It was not only the centre of learning of Buddhist studies but also of Hindu-texts and religion.

In certain inscriptions, it has been described as Mahagrahahara. There were nearly 1,500 teachers in the university and when Hiuen Tsang visited India, its chief Acharya was a Brahamana named Shailabhadra. Besides him, there were scholars like Dharmpal, Gunamati. Prabhamitra, Jinamitra, etc. at that time.

Hiuen Tsang himself received education there for five years. Nearly 1,000 lectures were delivered every day in the university. Seminars were also held there wherein both students and teachers participated. The University was patronised by Harsha. Thus, Harsha helped in the growth of learning and education during his age. According to Sardar K.M. Panikkar India was the most educated country at that time.

V. Indian Culture in Foreign Countries:

Indian culture continued to spread in foreign countries during the period of Harsha. While the Hindu religion increased its popularity in the countries of South East Asia, the Buddhist monks and scholars went as far as Tibet and China for propagation of Buddhism.

Among those who went to China, Kumarajiva, Parmartha, Sudhakara and Dharamdeva were the most prominent ones while among those who went to Tibet Shan- tarakshita, Padmasambhava, Kamalashila, Sthirmati and Buddhakirti were the noted ones.

These scholars translated Buddhist texts in the local languages of the people and, thus, formed a solid base for the propagation of Buddhism in those countries. Thus, both Buddhism and Hinduism made progress in different foreign countries.

An Estimate of Harsha:

Banabhatta and Hiuen Tsang have described Harsha as one of the greatest rulers of Northern India. Many modern historians have accepted their version and have, therefore, concluded that “Harsha was the last great empire-builder of Hindu period and his death marked the end of all successful attempts to restore the political unity of India.” But Dr R.C. Majumdar, though recognising him as a powerful ruler of Northern India, is not prepared to accept him as one of the last empire-builders and Hindu rulers of India.

He writes, “It would be quite wrong to assume, as many have done, that Harsha was the last great emmpire- builder in the Hindu period.” He argues that many empires rose and fell both in the North and the South in the next five centuries after the death of Harsha.

In the North, the empire of Lalitaditva in Kashmir, Yasovarman at Kannauj and of Ganga and Karma of Kalachuri dynasty were not less than the empire of Harsha in extension of territories while those of Pala and Pratihara dynasties were certainly more extensive and proved more duraole than the empire of Harsha.

In the South, the Rastrakuta kings Dhruva and Govinda III, the Chalukaya ruler Vikramaditya VI and the Chola ruler Rajendra, certainly, established far extensive empires than the empire of Harsha. Thus, according to Dr R.C. Majumdar, it would be an act of injustice to Indian history if we accept Harsha as the last empire-builder of Hindu-India. However, Dr Majumdar accepts many virtues of Harsha.

He writes, “While, therefore, it would be idle to pretend that Harsha Vardhan’s reign constitutes a distinctive age or marks an epoch in Indian history in any way, we cannot withhold our tribute of praise and admiration which is due to him as a great ruler, a brave military leader, a patron of arts and letters, and a men of noble impulses and distinguished personality.” The opinion which has been expressed by D Majumdar is based on facts and therefore, is now widely accepted.

Harsha was a brave ruler and possessed qualities of a practical statesman which helped him in establishing quite an extensive empire in Northern India. He succeeded his brother when the kingdom of Thaneswar was one of some other equally powerful kingdoms of Northern India and its position was quite critical.

On the North-West and West, he had enemy states while in the East Deva Gupta of Malwa and Sasanka of Bengal had succeeded in killing Graha Varman, his brother-in-law and Rajya Vardhana, his brother and had occupied Kannauj. Under these conditions, his own kingdom was not secure.

But, Harsha took bold steps and pursued an aggressive policy. He entered into diplomatic alliance with Bhaskara Varman, ruler of Kamrupa, occupied Kannauj and finally succeeded in occupying Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal. He fought against the ruler of Vallabhi which ultimately resulted in a matrimonial alliance between the two and helped in strengthening his position in the North.

However, his effort to penetrate in the Deccan was checked by Pulakesin II, the Chalukya king of the South. Yet, Harsha succeeded in creating a most powerful and extensive empire of his age in Northern India and we have no hesitation in accepting him as one of the empire- builders of Northern India.

Harsha was a capable commander but certainly no military genius or a great conqueror. He did not succeed much against Sasanka and, probably, was defeated by Pulakesin II while the friendship of Vallabhi ruler was bargained by entering into matrimonial alliance with him. Therefore, Harsha cannot be regarded as a successful military commander though, of course, he was respected by his neighbouring rulers, both friends and foes, who certainly did not dare to attack his kingdom but, on the contrary, decided to befriend him.

Harsha was certainly a capable, scholarly and tolerant king. His subjects were happy and prosperous under his rule. Harsha personally supervised the details of administration, worked hard for the welfare of his subjects and certainly succeeded in it. He was a generous king who used to distribute even his personal belongings among his subjects at his assemblies at Prayag.

Hiuen Tsang described that Harsha constructed Punvashalas on the side of every highway within his empire wherein provision was made for free food, stay, etc. for the travellers and free medical care for the poor ones. Banabhatta has also praised very much the public welfare works of Harsha. Of course, his administration was not as much successful as that of the great Guptas or the Mauryas, yet he succeeded in maintaining unity, peace and order within the frontiers of his empire.

Harsha was a scholarly king and patronized scholars, education and learning. He wrote three scholarly dramas, honoured all scholars of his kingdom and patronised the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang. He patronised learning. The famous University of Nalanda became a great centre of learning and education because of his active support and protection. Harsha was also very much tolerant in religious affairs. It has been described that previously he was a devotee of Shiva.

The inscriptions at Banskhera and Madhubana describe him as Param Maheswara. Prior to his departure for fighting every war, he used to worship Rudra-Shiva. Of course, during the later period of his life he was certainly more inclined towards Buddhism, yet he never failed to show his respect towards Hinduism and provide equal justice to all religions.

Therefore, Harsha has been regarded as a capable ruler and has been assigned a respectable place among the rulers of ancient India. Yet, he was neither the last great empire-builder nor a great emperor of ancient India.

Harsha failed to provide that unity and emotional integrity to his empire which could succeed in the establishment of a great and enduring empire in India. Therefore, his empire broke up soon after his death.

Thus, the success of Harsha was personal and proved short-lived which proves that he lacked the qualities which would have succeeded in providing an enduring progress and unity to India. That is why he fails to be ranked among the great emperors of India though, of course, he has been rightly accepted as one of the great rulers of his own times.