Ancient India

Harsha and his empire

Harsha’s Kingdom

THE GUPTAS with their seat of power in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar ruled over north and western India for about 160 years, until the middle of the sixth century A.D. Then north India again split up into several kingdoms. The white Hunas established their supremacy over Kashmir, Punjab and western India from about A.D. 500 onwards. North and western India passed under the control of about half a dozen feudatories who parcelled out Gupta empire among themselves. Gradually one of these dynasties ruling at Thanesar in Haryana extended its authority over all the other feudatories. The ruler who brought it about was Harshavardhana (A.D. 606-647). As a result of the excavation of *Harsha ka Tila’ in Thanesar, some brick buildings have been discovered, but they cannot be taken as parts of a palace.

Harsha made Kanauj the seat of his power from where he extended his authority in all directions. By the seventh century Pataliputra fell on bad days and Kanauj came in the frontline. How did this happen? Pataliputra owed its power and importance to trade and commerce and the widespread use of money. Tolls could be collected from the traders who came to the city from the east, west, north and south by means of four rivers.

But once trade declined, money became scarce and officers and soldiers began to be paid through land grants, the city lost its importance. Power shifted to military camps (skandhavaras) and places of strategic importance, which dominated long stretches of land, acquired prominence. To this class belonged Kanauj. Situated in Farrukhabad district of Uttar Pradesh, it shot up into political prominence from the second half of the sixth century onwards. Its emergence as a centre of political power from Harsha onwards typifies the advent of the feudal age in north India just as Pataliputra largely represents the pre feudal order. Fortification of places in the plains was far more difficult, but Kanauj was situated on an elevated area which was easily fortifiable. Located right in the middle of the doab, it was well-fortified in, the seventh century. So to exercise control over the eastern and western wings of the doab soldiers could be moved by both land and water routes.

The early history of Harsha’s reign is reconstructed from a study of Banabhatta, who was his court poet and who wrote a book called Harshacharita. This can be supplemented by the account of the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang, who visited India in the seventh century A.D. and stayed in the country for about 15 years. Harsha’s inscriptions speak of various types of taxes and officials.

Harsha is called the last great Hindu emperor of India, but he was neither a staunch Hindu nor the ruler of the whole country. His authority was limited to north India excluding Kashmir. Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa were lander his direct control, but his sphere of influence spread over a much wider area. It seems that the peripheral states acknowledged his sovereignty. In eastern India he faced opposition from the Shaivite king Shashanka of Gauda, who cut off the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya. But Shashanka’s death in 619 put an end to this hostility. Harsha’s southward march was stopped on the Narmada river by the Chalukyan king Pulakeshin who ruled over a great part of modern Karnataka and MaharasMra with his capital at Badami in the modern Bijapur district of Karnataka. Except this Harsha did not face any serious opposition and succeeded in giving a measure of political unity to a large part of the county.


Harsha governed his empire on the same lines as the Guptas did, except that his administration had become more feudal and decentralised. It is stated that Harsha had 100,000 horses and 60,000 elephants. This seems to be astonishing because the Mauryas, who ruled over practically the whole of the country except the deep south, maintained only 30,000 cavaliy and 9000 elephants. Harsha could possess a larger army only if he could mobilise the support of all his feudatories at the time of war. Evidently every feudatory contributed his quota of footmen and horses and thus made the imperial army vast in numbers.

Land grants continued to be made to priests for special services rendered to the state. In addition Harsha is credited with the grant of land to the officers by charters. These grants allowed the same concessions to priests as were allowed by the earlier grants. The Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang informs us that the revenues of Harsha were divided into four parts. One part was earmarked for the expenditure of the king, a second for scholars, a third for the endowment of officials and public servants and a fourth for religious purposes. He also tells us that ministers and high officers of the state were endowed with land. The feudal practice of rewarding and paying officers with grants of land seem to have begun under Harsha. This explains why we do not have too many coins issued by Harsha.

In the empire of Harsha, law and order was not well maintained. Hsuan Tsang, about whom special care may have been taken by the government, was robbed of his belongings, although he reports that according to the laws of the land severe punishments were inflicted for crime. Robbery was considered to be a second treason for which the right hand of the robber was amputated. But it seems that under the influence of Buddhism the severity of punishment was mitigated and criminals were imprisoned for life.

Hsuan Tsang’s Account

The reign of Harsha is important on account of the visit of the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang, who left China in A.D. 629 and travelled all the way to India. After a long stay in India, he returned to China in A.D. 645. He had come to study in the Buddhist University of Nalanda situated in the district of the same name in Bihar and to collect Buddhist texts from India. The pilgrim spent many years in Harsha’s court and widely travelled in India. Under his influence Harsha became a great supporter of Buddhism and made generous endowments in its favour. The pilgrim vividly describes Harsha’s court and life in those days and this account is much richer and more reliable than that of Fahsien. It sheds light on the economic and social life as well as the religious sects of the period.

The Chinese account, shows that Pataliputra was in a state of decline; so was Vaishali. On the other hand, Prayag and Kanauj in the doab had become important. The brahmanas and fcshatriyas are reported to have led a simple life, but the nobles and priests led a luxurious life. This indicates differentiation in the ranks of each one of the two higher varnas. The majority in each one of them may have taken to agriculture. Hsuan Tsang calls the shudras agriculturists, which is significant. The earlier texts represent them as serving the three higher varnas. The Chinese pilgrim takes notice of untouchables such as scavengers, executioners, etc. They lived outside the villages and took garlic and onion. The untouchables announced their entry into the town by shouting loudly so that people might keep away from them.

Buddhism and Nalanda

The Buddhists were divided into 18 sects in the time of the Chinese, pilgrim. The old centres of Buddhism had fallen in bad days. The most famous centre was Nalanda, which maintained a great Buddhist university meant for Buddhist monks. It is said to have had as many as 10,000 students, all monks. They were taught Buddhist philosophy of the Mahayana school. Although all the mounds of Nalanda have not been dug, excavations have exposed a very impressive complex of buildings. These buildings were raised and renovated over a period of 700 years from the fifth century A D. onwards. The buildings exposed by excavations do not have the capacity to accommodate 10,000 monks. In 670 another Chinese pilgrim I-tsing visited Nalanda; he mentions only 3,000 monks living there. This is reasonable because even if the remaining mounds are excavated the buildings could not be so spacious as to have accommodated 10,000 monks. According to Hsuan Tsang the monastery at Nalanda was supported from the revenues of 100 villages. I-tsing raises this number to 200. Nalanda thus had a huge monastic establishment in the time of Harshavardhana.

Harsha followed a tolerant religious policy. A Shaiva in his early years, he gradually became a great patron of Buddhism. As a devout Buddhist he convened a grand assembly at Kanauj to widely publicize the doctrines of Mahayana. The assembly was attended not only by Hsuan

Tsang and the Kamarupa ruler Bhaskaravarman, but also by the kings of twenty countries and several thousand priests belonging to different sects. Two thatched halls were built to accommodate 1000 persons each. But the most important construction was a huge tower in the middle of which a golden statue of the Buddha was placed; this statue was as tall as the king himself. Harsha worshipped the image and gave a public dinner. The discussion in the conference was initiated by Hsuan Tsang who dilated on the virtues of Mahayana Buddhism and challenged the audience, to refute his arguments. But none came forward for five days and then his theological rivals conspired to take the pilgrim’s life. On this Harsha threatened to behead anybody causing the least hurt to Hsuan Tsang. Suddenly the great tower caught fire and there was an attempt to assassinate Harsha. Harsha then arrested 500 brahmanas and banished them and some of them were also executed. This would show that Harsha was not as tolerant as he is painted. After Kanauj, he held at Prayag a great assembly, which was attended by all the tributary princes, ministers, nobles, etc. On this occasion an image of the Buddha was worshipped and discourses were given by Hsuan Tsang. At the end Harsha made huge charities and he gave away everything except his personal clothing. Hsuan Tsang speaks of Harsha in glowing terms. The king was kind, courteous and helpful to him and the pilgrim could visit the different parts of the empire.

Banabhatta gives us a flattering account of the early years of his patron in his book Harshacharita in an ornate style which became a model for later writers. Harsha is remembered not only for his patronage and learning but also for the authorship of three dramas  the Priyadarshika, the Ratnavali and the Nagananda. Bana attributes great poetical skill to him and some later authors consider him to be a literary monarch. But the authorship of the three dramas by Harsha is doubted by several medieval scholars. It is held that they were composed by a person called Dhavaka in the name of Harsha for some consideration. Harsha may have composed some pieces, but the proverb goes that royal authors are only half authors. In fact both in ancient and medieval India we find that all kinds of achievements including high literary attainments were inscribed to a king in order to boost his image the practice which was known in the time of Samudragupta became common and well established in the time of Harsha. Obviously the object in such cases was to validate the position of the king in the eyes of his rivals and subjects.


  1. Assess the achievements of Harsha.
  2. Describe the religious condition Of India during the time of Harsha.
  3. Describe the social and economic conditions during the reign of Harsha. In which respects can these conditions be traced back to earlier periods?
  4. What light does the account of Hsuan Tsang throw on Indian life in the seventh century?
  5. Collect pictures of the remains of Nalanda and give a brief account of this centre of learning.
  6. On an outline map of India, show the route followed by Hsuan Tsang from China to India and back. Also show the important places that he visited

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