Read this article to learn about Harsha Vardhana’s Military Conquests, Administration and Socio-economic condition during his rule.
Harsha Vardhana (606-647 A.D.):
A graphic account of Harsha’s family history is to be found in Bana’s Harshacharita supplemented and corroborated by Chinese visitor Hiuen-Tsang’s description of Si-Yu-Ki in the ‘Records.’
The Banskhera and Madhuban plates and royal seals mention five earlier rulers, among whom the first three are given the title of Maharajas.
The Banskhera, Nalanda and Sonepat inscriptions of Harsha describe him as a worshipper of Siva. The Nausasi Copper plates give us information about Harsha’s successful expedition against Valabhi.
Harshavardhana ascenued the throne of Thaneshwar around 606 A.D. and immediately sent a great army against Sasanka of Gauda to avenge his elder brother’s death and to rescue his sister Rajyashri who had been taken prisoner by the Malwa king.
He succeeded in both. Now the two important kingdoms Kannauj and Thaneshwar were united with Harsha now ruling from Kannauj. Between 606 and 612 A.D. he brought most of northern India (Punjab, Kannauj, parts of Gauda, Orissa and Mithila) under his control, and assumed the title of Siladitya.
Harsha’s Military Conquests:
In his first expedition Harsha drove away Sasanka from Kannauj who had occupied it after murdering Harsha’s brother. Harsha’s early relations with the rulers of Valabhi were cordial but soon Malwa became the bone of contention between the two and so he had to turn his attention to western India.
It resulted in the defeat of the Valabhi ruler, Dhruvasena II and his acceptance of the position of a feudatory vassal. His hostilities with Valabhis ended through a matrimonial alliance. The above success however proved to be the immediate cause of conflict between Harsha and Pulakesin II, the Chalukya ruler of Badami.
Further, the question of over lordship over the Latas, Malwa and Gurjaras seems to have been the long-standing cause of conflict between the two. An eulogy or Prasastioi Pulakesin II by Ravi Kirti (the court poet of Pulakesin II) placed on a temple wall at Aihole, also mentions Pulakesin’s military success against Harsha. Hiuen Tsang’s account mentions that inspite of his victories over many kingdoms Harsha was not able to defeat Pulakesin II.
Harsha was successful in his eastern campaign. A Chinese account mentions him as the king of Magadha in 641 A.D. The king of Kamarupa, Bhaskaravarman, was his ally in his campaign of Bengal and other parts of eastern India.
In the course of the forty-one years that Harsha ruled, he included among his feudatories, kings as distant as those of Jalandhar, Kashmir, Nepal, Valabhi, Gujarat, Malwa, Sind, Frontier provinces and Assam. United Provinces, Bihar, Bengal, Orissa, Central India and Rajputana were under direct administration of Harsha.
Harsha governed his empire on the same lines as the Guptas did, except that his administration had become more feudal and decentralised. The accepted title of a great king in Harsha’s days was Parma-Bhattaraka Mahesvara and Maharajadhiraja which implied the existence of lesser kings with considerable authority within the empire.
The major part of the territory conquered by Harsha was ruled by such feudatories. Independent in the internal administration of their territories, they generally owed allegiance to a suzerain. The leading feudatories of Harsha were Bhaskaravarman of Kamarupa, Dhruvabhatta of Valabhi, Purnavarman of Magadha and Udita of Jalandhara.
The King was the centre of administration, helped by the crown prince. Other princes were appointed as Viceroys of provinces. Ministers of various types and advisers assisted the king in the administration. During Harsha’s time high officers i.e., Daussadha Sadhnika, Pramatara, Rajasthaniya, Uparika and Vishayapati, etc., were not paid in cash for their services to the state, but were compensated by way of offering one-fourth of the royal revenues.
Thus under Harsha, revenues were granted not only to priests and scholars but also to the officials of the state, a practice the existence of which is supported by the paucity of coins belonging to this period. In the areas administered by the Samantas (feudal chiefs), the emperor realised annual taxes from them and not from the subjects.
Bana speaks of samanta, mahasamanta (chief samantaj, aptasamanta (those who willingly accepted the vassalage of the overlord), pradhana samanta (were the most trusted chiefs of the emperor, who never disregarded their advice), shatru mahasamanta (conquered army chiefs) and pratisamanta (a hostile vassal).
Defeated kings were made to render three kinds of services to king in the court. They held chowries, served as door-keepers in the court and served as reciters of auspicious words like success (jaya). Normally, an important duty of these rajas and samantas was to render military aid to their overlord.
Decentralisation of administrative authority was caused by increasing grants of land and villages with fiscal and administrative immunities to priests and temples. The vesting of magisterial and police powers together with fiscal rights on the priests evidently weakened the central authority.
The local administration was, for all practical purposes, independent of the centre. The officers in charge of the districts (ayukta) and the provincial official (kumaramatya) were the link between local administration and the centre. Village came under the control of rural bodies consisting of the headman and the village elders.
Harsha maintained contact with public opinion both through his officers and by his own tours, which gave him the opportunity of supervising the administration.
The land grants paved the way for feudal development in India from the fifth century onwards. From the sixth century, share croppers and peasants were particularly asked to stick to the land granted to the beneficiaries. Apart from Hiuen-Tsang, for the first time, Asahya, a legal commentator of the seventh century, describes the shudras as agriculturists.
In the tribal areas, agriculturists were placed under the control of the religious beneficiaries, especially the brahmanas, who were granted land on a large scale. The villages transferred to the grantees were called sthana-jana-sahita, janata -samriddha and saprativasi-jana-sameta. All this worked- for a closed economy, which was fostered by the decline of trade and commerce.
The major portion of land continued to be in possession of free peasants, who paid revenues directly to the state. Besides this, the peasants were subjected to various impositions such as Udranga (frontier tax), Uparikara, tribute to the divisional officer called Uparika and had also to perform forced labour of all varieties (Sarva-vishti) probably for military purposes.
All this naturally caused depreciation in the position of free peasants. The guilds of artisans and merchants also began to lose their earlier importance because of the decline of trade and urban life.
The rise of the quasi-feudal mode of production modified the varna-divided society. This period witnessed the ascendancy of varnasramadharma and it became an indispensable cornerstone of the Brahmanical social structure. Hiuen Tsang writes about the existence of four varnas or orders in India.
Both Bana and Hiuen Tsang talk about the existence of many subcastes. The position of women seems to have suffered a further decline during this period. Remarriage of widows was not permitted particularly among the higher varnas. Sati and dowry was prevalent during this period.
From the Harsha’s time started the formation of regional cultural units such as Bengal, Gujarat Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, etc Harsha was a man of considerable literary interests and talents and despite his administrative duties, he managed to write plays i.e. Ratnavali, Priyadarshika and Nagananda.
He maintained a magnificent court where philosophers, poets, dramatists and painters flourished. Bana, the author of Harshacharita and Kadambari, was the court poet of Harsha. Mayura the author of Mayurashataka, and Bhartrihari, the author of Vakapadiya, a grammarian, also lived at the court of Harsha. Harsha was the chief patron of the University of Nalanda where about 10,000 students from all parts of India and abroad studied.
Harsha was in the beginning, a devotee of Siva. Probably owing to the influence of his sister Rajyashri and the Buddhist saint Divakara Mitra, he accepted Buddhism. Later on, he changed over to Mahayana Buddhism under the influence of Hiuen Tsang. But he respected all religions and patronised them equally. With a view to popularise and propagate the doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism, Harsha arranged at Kannauj, a great assembly, which was presided over by Hiuen Tsang.
Another great ceremony was held for 75 days at Prayag (Allahabad). The images of Buddha, Sun and Siva were worshipped and gifts of valuable articles and clothing were distributed in charity. Harsha had diplomatic relations with the Chinese, for his contemporary T’ang emperor sent three embassies to his court. The last of these, under Wang-hiuen-tse arrived in India in 647 A.D. when Harsha was no longer alive. Harsha himself had sent a brahmana envoy to China in 641 A.D. Harsha ruled for aperiod of 41 years and is said to have died about 647 A.D.