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Empire of Harsha

Capital Kanauj
Government Monarchy
 -  606–647 Chitra
 -  Established 607
 -  Disestablished 647

Harshavardhana (Sanskrit:हर्षवर्धन) (c. 590–647), commonly called Harsha, was an Indian emperor who ruled northern India from 606 to 647 from his capital Kanauj. He belonged to Pushyabhuti Dynasty. He was the son of Prabhakara Vardhana who defeated the Hun invaders[1] and the younger brother of Rajya Vardhana, a king of Thanesar, Haryana. At the height of his power his kingdom spanned the Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bengal, Odisha and the entire Indo-Gangetic plain north of the Narmada River. Harsha was defeated by the south Indian Emperor Pulakesi II of the Chalukya dynasty when Harsha tried to expand his Empire into the southern peninsula of India.[2]

After the downfall of the prior Gupta Empire in the middle of the 6th century, North India reverted to small republics and small monarchical states ruled by Gupta rulers. Harsha was a convert to Buddhism.[3] He united the small republics from Punjab to central India, and their representatives crowned Harsha king at an assembly in April 606 giving him the title of Maharaja when he was merely 16 years old.He brought all of northern India under his control.[4] The peace and prosperity that prevailed made his court a center of cosmopolitanism, attracting scholars, artists and religious visitors from far and wide.[4] The Chinese traveller Xuanzang visited the court of Harsha and wrote a very favourable account of him, praising his justice and generosity.[4]


Xuanzang, the well known Chinese scholar, traveller, and translator who described the interaction between China and India in the Harsha period, stated that Harsha was of a Kanojia caste.[5][6][7][8][9][10]

According to Alexander Cunningham, Xuanzang might have mistaken the Vaisa for Bais Rajputs clan.[7] though, Thomas Watters has pointed out this is most unlikely as Xuanzang, "had ample opportunities for learning the antecedents of the royal family, and he must have had some ground for his assertion, moreover, Xuanzang had an expert knowledge of Sanskrit and the caste system, which he discusses, in some detail in his book. He mentions that rulers traditionally belonged to the Kshatriya caste and his specific mention that Harsha was a feishe was probably because this was an uncommon occurrence."[9][10][11] However, Banabhatta clarifies that the Bais Rajput descent must have been correct considering the Harshacarita the author Bâna never stated his background to be strangely non Kshatriya. Harsha's Royal descent being known (rulers of Sthanvisvara, modern Thanesar) and his sister being married into prominent Kshatriya families of Maukharis. (a highly contentious occurrence, had Harsha's family not been of royal or Kshatriya descent). Moreover, upon his formal coronation ceremony, Harsha took the title Rajputra. [12]

Period prior to his reign[edit]

Palace ruins at "Harsh ka tila" mound area spread over 1 km.

After the downfall of the Gupta Empire in the middle of the 6th century, North India was split into several independent kingdoms. The northern and western regions of India passed into the hands of a dozen or more feudatory states.

Prabhakara Vardhana, the ruler of Sthanvisvara, who belonged to the Pushyabhuti family, extended his control over neighbouring states. Prabhakar Vardhan was the first king of the Vardhana dynasty with his capital at Thaneswar.

After Prabhakar Vardhan's death in 605, his eldest son, Rajya Vardhana, ascended the throne. Harsha Vardhana was Rajya Vardhana's younger brother.

This period of kings from the same line has been referred to as the Vardhana dynasty in many publications,.[12][13][14] [15]


Rajya Vardhana’s and Harsha’s sister Rajyashri had been married to the Maukhari king, Grahavarman. This king, some years later, had been defeated and killed by king Devagupta of Malwa and after his death Rajyashri had been cast into prison by the victor. Harsha's brother, Rajya Vardhana, then the king at Thanesar, could not stand this affront on his family, marched against Devagupta and defeated him. But it so happened at this moment that Shashanka, king of Gauda in Eastern Bengal, entered Magadha as a friend of Rajyavardhana, but in secret alliance with the Malwa king. Accordingly, Sasanka treacherously murdered Rajyavardhana.[16]

On hearing about the murder of his brother, Harsha resolved at once to march against the treacherous king of Gauda and killed Deva Gupta in a battle. Harsha ascended the throne at the age of 16.

Reign of Harsha[edit]

Harsha Ka Tila ruins
Ruins of Harsha a Tila warehouse.

The 40 years of his reign revived the past glory of the Gupta Empire in northern India.[17] During his reign the economy of northern India prospered and his capital Kanauj became the great centre of trade.[18] During his early career he possessed a force of 5000 elephants, 20000 cavalry and 50000 infantry and with this formidable force he overran northern India.[19] After the conquest of almost whole northern India his military resources were so increased that he could field an army with 100000 cavalry and 60000 elephants.[19] His long career of victory was only broken when he was defeated by the south Indian Emperor Pulakesi II of the Chalukya dynasty.[20] The administration of Harsha was similar to the Gupta Empire. He was just in his administration and punctilious in exercising his responsibilities.[21] There was no forced labour and everyone was free to busy himself with his own affairs.[22] Harsha built for the benefit of the poor throughout his Empire in both the towns and rural parts Rest-Houses which provided food, drink and medicine.[23] Harsha was continually travelling up and down his wide dominions to see with his own eyes how the people were ruled in his Empire.[24] The merchants travelled freely in his Empire and officials were paid regularly.[24] The taxes were light and one-sixth of the land produce was charged as land revenue.[18]

Today a mound 1 km long and 750 m wide known as "Harsh ka Tila" in Thanesar has ruins of structures built during the reign of Harsha. Amongst the archaeological finds from the mound include 'Painted Grey Ware' shreds in the pre-Kushana levels and 'Red Polished Ware' from post Gupta period.[25]

Contact with China[edit]

Harsha maintained diplomatic relations with China, which was under the rule of Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. He also had good relations with the Tang rulers of China. Envoys from each country visited each other nation, most notably being Xuanzang who spent eight years under the dominions of Harsha.

Legacy of Kumbha Mela[edit]

Harsha, who was a Shaiva by faith, began celebration of religious festivals every five years, at the confluence of three rivers (the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the Saraswati) at Prayaga. It is said to be the beginning of the famous Kumbha Mela of India which still attracts millions of devotees

Patron of Buddhism and literature[edit]

King Harsha pays homage to Buddha

Harsha's father, Prabhākara was from Thaneshwar, his brother followed Hinayana Buddhism while, according to Bana, Harsha himself was a Mahayana Buddhist. Harsha was a tolerant ruler and supported all Indic faiths – Buddhism, Vedism and Jainism. Early in his life, he seems to have been a follower of Sun Worship, becoming a patron of Shaivism and Buddhism later on.[26]

His sister Rajyashri's conversion to Buddhism presumably had a positive effect on his support to the religion. His approach to religion is evident in his celebrated play Nagananda. The play's theme is based on the Jataka tale of the Bodhisattva Jimutavahana, but Harsha introduces the Goddess Gauri, Shiva's consort, as the saviour of Jimutavahana, a feature not found in the Jataka. The great Indian mathematician Brahmagupta also lived in the Empire of Harshavardhana.

According to the Chinese Pilgrim Xuanzang, who visited his kingdom in 636, Harsha built numerous stupas in the name of Buddha. Xuanzang entered a grand competition organised by Harsha and won the theological debate. Harsha also became a patron of art and literature. He made numerous endowments to the University at Nalanda. Two seals of Harsha have been found in Nalanda in the course of the excavations. All these favours and donations of the great emperor were crowned by the construction of a lofty wall enclosing all the buildings of the university to defend the institution from any other possible attack. In 643 he held a Buddhist convocation at Kannauj which was reputedly attended by 20 kings and thousands of pilgrims.[27]

In 641, following Xuanzang's visit, Harsha sent a mission to China which established the first diplomatic relations between China and India. The Chinese responded by sending an embassy consisting of Li Yibiao and Wang Xuance, who probably travelled through Tibet and whose journey is commemorated in inscriptions at Rajagriha – modern Rajgir, and Bodhgaya.

Harsha was a noted author on his own merit. He wrote three Sanskrit plays – Nagananda, Ratnavali and Priyadarsika. His reign is comparatively well documented, thanks to his court poet Bana in Harschacharita and by Xuanzang in Si-Yu-Ki. Bana composed an account of Harsha's rise to power in Harsha Charitha, the first historical poetic work in Sanskrit language. Xuanzang wrote a full description of his travels in India.[28]

Harsha's participation in the cultured life of his court was more direct than that of most kings, and it is in his personal contribution to Sanskrit literature that he clearly overshadows them. To him are assigned three plays: Priyadarsika, Ratnavali, and the Nagananda. In addition, he is credited with two significant poems on Buddhist themes – the Ashtamahasricaityastotra (Praise to Eight Grand Caityas [Buddhist assembly halls]) and Suprabhatastotra (Laud to Morning) – and a tract on grammatical gender, the Linganusasanam. Harsha's authorship has been disputed on several occasions, but no decisive contrary arguments have been proposed.

The Priyadarsika appears to be the earliest of Harsha's plays. It and the Ratnavali deal with the amorous adventures of the king Vatsa, his queen Vasavadatta, and newcomers to the royal harem. Both plays borrow from the earlier works of Bhasa and Kalidasa (especially the latter's Malavikagnimitra) and are based ultimately on material in the collection Brhatkatha. These plays lack thematic novelty but sustain interest through brisk dialogue. Both are frequently cited by later writers on dramatic theory and technique.

Harsha's Nagananda is his most important play. It is, in fact, a singular creation in Sanskrit drama. This five-act drama draws again on the Brhatkatha for the substance of its first three acts. In them, the hero, Jimutavahana, Prince of the Vidyadharas, meets and marries the Siddha princess Malayavati. To that point, the romance of the fairy prince and princess is quite conventional.

The mood of the play changes sharply in the fourth act. Jimutavahana discovers mounds of skeletons which evidence the daily sacrifice of serpents to the celestial bird Garuda. The hero resolves to offer his own body so that the serpents may be spared (a type of resolution very familiar in Buddhist literature). At the drama's conclusion it is the non-Buddhist goddess Gauri, however, who restores the bodhisattva, Jimutavahana, to life. In this attractive and moving drama, Harsha combined Buddhist and "Hindu" themes adroitly and uniquely, and through it one sees clearly his artistic and political genius.


Harsha died in the year 647. He ruled for 41 years. After Harsha's death, his empire died with him. The kingdom disintegrated rapidly into small states. The succeeding period is very obscure and badly documented, but it marks the culmination of a process that had begun with the invasion of the Huns in the last years of the Gupta Empire.

In 648, Tang Taizong sent Wang Xuance to India in response to Harshavardhana sending an ambassador to China. However once in India he discovered Harshavardhana had died and the new king attacked Wang and his 30 mounted subordinates.[29] This led to Wang Xuance escaping to Tibet and then mounting a joint of over 7,000 Nepalese mounted infantry and 1,200 Tibetan infantry and attack on the Indian state on June 16. The success of this attack won Xuance the prestigious title of the "Grand Master for the Closing Court."[30] He also secured a reported Buddhist relic for China.[31]

Neither Bana's nor Xuanzang's account gives any details of this period. Harsha had two sons named Vagyavardhana and Kalyanvardhana. They were killed by Arunashwa, a chief minister in Harsha's court. Harshavardhan's wife Durgavati was taken prisoner.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ India: History, Religion, Vision and Contribution to the World, by Alexander P. Varghese p.26
  2. ^ Ancient India by Ramesh Chandra Majumdar p.274
  3. ^ "Harsha". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c International Dictionary of Historic Places: Asia and Oceania by Trudy Ring,Robert M. Salkin,Sharon La Boda p.507
  5. ^ Gestorben 647. Books.google.co.in. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  6. ^ "Explain how Epics reflects Epistemes with reference to the Mahabharata" (PDF). Intranet.daiict.ac.in. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  7. ^ a b Cunningham, Alexander. The Ancient Geography of India: The Buddhist Period, Including the Campaigns of Alexander, and the Travels of Hwen-Thsang. 1871, Thübner and Co. Reprint by Elbiron Classics. 2003., p. 377.
  8. ^ Watters, Thomas. On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India. Two volumes. 1904–1905, Royal Asiatic Society, London. One volume reprint: Munzang had an expert knowledge of Sanskrit and the caste system, which he discusses, in some detail in his book. He mentions that rulers traditionally belonged to the Kshatriya caste and his specific mention that Harsha was a feishe was probably because this was an uncommon occurrence
  9. ^ a b Watters, Thomas. On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India. Two volumes. 1904–1905, Royal Asiatic Society, London. One volume reprint: Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1973, p. 168.
  10. ^ a b Li, Rongxi. The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1996, pp. 58–59.
  11. ^ Watters, Thomas. On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India. Two volumes. 1904–1905, Royal Asiatic Society, London. One volume reprint: Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1973, pp. 344–345.
  12. ^ a b Harsha Charitra by Banabhatt
  13. ^ Legislative Elite in India: A Study in Political Socialization by Prabhu Datta Sharma, Publ. Legislators 1984, p32
  14. ^ Revival of Buddhism in Modern India by Deodas Liluji Ramteke, Publ Deep & Deep, 1983, p19
  15. ^ Some Aspects of Ancient Indian History and Culture by Upendra Thakur, Publ. Abhinav Publications, 1974,
  16. ^ "Harsha (Indian emperor)". Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  17. ^ Kingship and Community in Early India by Charles Drekmeier p.187
  18. ^ a b History of Ancient India: Earliest Times to 1000 A. D. by Radhey Shyam Chaurasia p.185
  19. ^ a b The Early History of India by Vincent A. Smith p.339
  20. ^ The Early History of India by Vincent A. Smith p.340
  21. ^ A Brief History of India by Alain Daniélou p.162
  22. ^ A Brief History of India by Alain Daniélou p.163
  23. ^ Indian Civilization and Culture by Suhas Chatterjee p.339
  24. ^ a b The Cambridge Shorter History of India p.108
  25. ^ "Harsh Ka Tila". Kurukshetra district website. Retrieved 8 August 2014. 
  26. ^ Drekmeier, Charles. 1962. Kingship and Community in Early India. nalanda University Press, Stanford, California. ISBN 0-8047-0114-8, p. 187
  27. ^ Watters, Thomas. On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India. Two volumes. 1904–1905, Royal Asiatic Society, London. One volume reprint: Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1973, pp. 343–344.
  28. ^ Beal, Samuel, Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, by Hiuen Tsiang. 2 vols., 1884, Translated by Samuel Beal. London. 1884. Reprint: Delhi. Oriental Books Reprint Corporation. 1969.
  29. ^ The Hutchinson Dictionary of Ancient & Medieval Warfare By Matthew Bennett, Peter Connoll: pg 336
  30. ^ Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations ... By Tansen Sen, pg 23
  31. ^ The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies By International Association of Buddhist Studies