After the downfall of the Gupta Empire during the later years of the fifth century A.D., India once again entered into a period of political chaos. Many small kingdoms rose here and there.
Many of them existed for short times only. The Huna invaders played devastating havoc in the country. Rival dynasties fought against each other.
There was neither unity nor peace in the land. The 6th century A.D. was thus like a dark period of Indian history.
Amidst those confusions and conflicts, a new power was beginning to rise in the eastern part of the Punjab, on the bank of river Saraswati, with Thaneswara or Thanesar as its centre. The founder of this royal house was Pushpabhuti or Pushyabhuti, according to whose name the dynasty came to be known as the Pushpabhuti dynasty. His authority was limited to a small area around Thaneswara.
In course of times the Pushyabhutis of Thaneswara became more powerful. By the close of 6th century, King Prabhakara Vardhana of that dynasty became powerful enough to style himself as Maharajadhiraja and Paramabhattaraka. He has been described in the Madhuvana Copper Plate as “One whose fame spread beyond the four seas, and to whom submitted the other kings.”
Bana, in his Harsha-Charita, poetically describes Prabhakara Vardhana as “a lion to the Huna deer, a burning fever to the King of the Indus land, a troublers of the sleep of Gujarat, a billions plague to that ancient elephant, the lord of Gandhara, a looter to the lawlessness of the Latas, an axe to the creeper of Malwa’s glory.”
It is not clear from such descriptions if Prabhakara Vardhana actually conquered those territories or simply caused fear to them by his rise to a stronger position. It can be presumed however that his kingdom was big in size, and his military strength was impressive.
It is the son of this king, Harsha Vardhana, who was destined to build a large empire in the north, and to rule as the last great emperor of ancient India. History once again assumed a bright colour, and India enjoyed a period of peace with cultural glories. The 7th century A.D. opened with the reign of Harsha in full magnificence of a splendid era.
The history of Harsha’s time is derived from three main sources. They were, the Harsha-Charita of Bana which covers Harsha’s early part of life; the travel accounts of the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang which refer to his reign and religious activities, as well as the Life or Biography of Hiuen Tsang written by his Chinese friend, Hwui-li by name; and, the inscriptions and coins of that period. Much of the political, religious, social and cultural history of the time is gathered from these valuable sources.
Accession of Harsha:
Harsha came to the throne in tragic circumstances. Prabhakara Vardhana had two sons, namely, Rajya Vardhana and Harsha Vardhana, and a daughter, Rajyasri by name. While the two young princes were well-trained in soldierly profession of horsemanship, archery and swords-play, their sister was trained in music and other accomplishments. Rajyasri, while young, was given in marriage to the Maukhari prince Grahavarman of Kanauj.
Soon after the marriage of his daughter, the old King Prabhakara Vardhana faced the menace of the Hunas in the north. He sent his eldest son Rajya Vardhana to fight against the Hunas. The prince was then only 18 years in age. His younger brother Harsha, who was only 15, followed his brother towards the front with a cavalry force. Before Harsha had joined his brother, news reached him that the old King was seriously ill. He hastened back to the capital only 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 Vardhana in the meanwhile had defeated the Hunas, though himself wounded. He returned and reached the capital, and felt so much depressed at the death of his father that he asked Harsha to take the throne, expressing his desire to renounce the world and become a monk. But the noble younger brother pleaded before the elder not to go by that drastic decision, but to accept the challenges of kingship as a sacred duty in the interest of the subjects. Rajya Vardhana changed his mind and became the king.
But he was not destined to rule. Hardly he had come to the throne when the tragic news reached him that King Grahavarman of Kanauj, the husband of Rajyasri, 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 Vardhana thereupon hurried with a 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 Vardhana defeated the army of Malwa. But, fate was against him. The ‘wicked King’ of Gauda, Sasanka, who was a friend of the Malwa King, lured Rajya Vardhana to confidence by false show of friendship, and when Rajya Vardhana was alone and armless he was killed treacherously. Bana’s description of this event is supported by an inscription which states that “Rajya in battle curbed Devagupta and all the other kings together, and uprooted his adversaries; then he, through his trust in promises, lost his life in the enemy’s quarters”.
Thus that the Kings of Malwa and Gauda combined in alliance as well as in conspiracy to kill the new King of Thaneswar, and also to take possession of the Kingdom of Kanauj. So ended the reign of Rajya Vardhana when it had just begun.
Harsha’s sorrows knew no bounds when he received the sad news at Thaneswara. In his disgust at the worldly ways of life, he came under a feeling of detachment towards the throne and Kingship. But at that critical juncture, the ministers and officers of the state rose to the occasion to save the situation. Bhandi, the Chief Minister, at once summoned a meeting of the Council of Ministers and addressed it in the following words: “The destiny of the nation is to be fixed today.
The old King’s son is dead; the brother of the Prince is dutiful and obedient. Because he is strongly attached to his family, the people will trust in him. I propose that he assume the royal authority: let each one give his opinion on this matter, whatever he thinks.”
All the ministers, having been aware of Harsha’s worth, agreed to accept him as the new king, and together with others, pleaded with the prince to accept the kingship. Thus that Harsha ascended the throne of Thaneswara in the year 606 A.D. when he was a youth of only sixteen. It was also necessary for the young king to take over the administration of the kingdom of Kanauj where the throne was lying vacant after the death of his brother-in-law in lands of his enemies.
It is known from the accounts of Hiuen Tsang that Harsha was invited to accept the throne of Kanauj by the nobles and notables of that kingdom who gathered in an assemblage when their country was passing through evil days. Harsha accepted the offer with reluctance, and in extreme modesty, wanted to be known as Prince or Rajaputra Siladitya, a name in which he is also famous in history. In due course of time, Harsha made Kanauj the capital of the united kingdoms of Thaneswara and Kanauj.