The decline of imperial Guptas led to the demise of imperial idea in India. Since most of the great empires were built in north India under great empire builders such as Mahapadmananda, Chandragupta Maurya, Asoka, Kanishka and Samudragupta, it was North India which felt the impacts of demise of imperial idea. From Sixth century onwards, the entire North Indian landscape was dominated by large and small regional kingdoms. Almost every individual King dreamt of a pan-India control and many of them adopted pompous titles out of sheer ego. However, it was only Harshavardhana in seventh century who came near to realising such control. Nevertheless, the consolidation done under Harsha also lasted only for his life time.

The reign of Harsha lasted from 606 to 648AD. Most knowledge about Harsha’s reign comes from the accounts left by his two admirers. One was his friend, courtier and biographer Banabhatta {he wrote Harshachartia} while another was Chinese traveller Huen Tsang. From these two sources and also from Harsha’s own literary works, we can discern that Harsha simultaneously played role of a conqueror, administrator and a man of intellect.

Harsha as a Conqueror

The forefathers of Harsha were minor feudatories {probably of Guptas} in the Thaneshwar (now in Haryana) belonging to a Pushyabhuti lineage. Harsha’s father Prabhakarvardhana raised himself against the Hunas settled in north (current Punjab region) and Gurjars in South-west and assumed the title of Maharajadhiraj / Paramabhattaraka.

The family of Harsha is linked to Pushyabhuti of Thaneshwar. In the later part of the 6th century, the Raja of Thaneshwar, Prabhakarvardhana raised himself against the neighbors including the Hunas settled in the North Western Punjab and also the clans of the Gurjars. He assumed the title of Maharajadhiraj and Parama Bhattaraka.

Prabhakarvardhana had two sons viz. elder Rajyavardhana and younger Harshavardhana. In 604 AD, these two siblings were sent with large army to attack Hunas in North-western frontiers. While elder advanced to the hills, younger lingered in the forests with cavalry. While in forests, Harsha heard news of near death illness of his father and returned back. It was assumed the Rajyavardhana might have been killed in North-West; Harsha was coroneted as new King. However, soon afterwards, the elder brother returned to assume the throne.

Their sister Rajyashri was married to a Mokhari price Grahavarman. When Rajyavardhana was engaged in North West, one remnant of Guptas called Devagupta of Malwa attacked the Mokharis and killed his brother-in-law. To seek revenge, Rajyavardhana attacked Malwa and became victorious. However, Devagupta’s friend Gaur King Sasanka laid a trap and killed Rajyavardhana by deceit. Since his son was too young, the younger brother Harsha was crowned as King.

His sister was in prison and was planning to burn herself. However, Harsha traced her and brought her back. Sasanka escaped that time but later his Gaur Kingdom was annexed in Harsha’s empire. Since son of his sister was also an infant, he annexed Kanauji (capital of Mokharis of Malwa) also to his empire.

Harsha dreamt of bringing India under “one umbrella” and to fulfil this dream, he overran the entire north India. In a five years time, he conquered most of North and Central India including Gujarat in west and Bengal in East. The below graphics shows his empire:

However, his victorious career was eclipsed by great Vatapi Chalukyan king Pukeshin-II. Harsha had declared himself as Uttarapathpathi {lord of the northern routes} while Pulkesin-II was no less than Dakshinapathpathi. For a paramount like Harsha, it was painful to see such a mighty King as his southern neighbour. So, to overthrow Pulkesin-II, Harsha advanced his troops from all sides to South in 620 AD. But the passes on Narmada River were so efficiently guarded that the armies of Harsha were defeated on all fronts. The result of this defeat was that Harsha accepted Narmada River as his southern frontier.

The last major attack of Harsha was on Ganjam on Bay of Bengal coast in 642-643AD. However, after this conquest, Harsha entered into a state of self-actualization and then later part of his life was typically an imitation of Asoka.

Harsha as an administrator

Harsha’s territories were among the largest in entire sub-continent that time spreading from Ganga in north to Narmada in south; Vallabhi in Gujarat to Kamarupa in Assam.

His administration was based on the Gupta model of decentralization. Principal source of revenue was rent in crown lands. The land grants were in vogue, economy was not at par with Gupta’s classical age, routes were not safe as documented by Huen Tsang, there were severe punishments including mutilation of body parts and capital punishments.

Harsha as man of intellect

Harsha himself was a great patron of art and culture apart from being an accomplished author and calligraphist. He has written three plays (dramas)  viz. Nagananda, Ratnavali and Priyadarsika. In Nagananda, he depicted the story of Jimutvahana’s self sacrifice to save the Nagas. In Ratnavali, he has narrated story of a princess Ratnavali and king Udayana. Ratnavali is considered the first textual reference of Holi celebration.

Harsha’s Religion

Harsha was a man of intellect and was well versed in Sammitiya School of Buddhism. After Ganjam conquest, he favoured the teachings of Buddhism. He was inclined towards Hinayana in the starting but then favoured Mahayana later. Like Asoka, he banned the slaughter of any living thing and made use of animal flesh as punishable offense. He established benevolent institutions including monasteries in various parts of his empire.

Despite is inclination towards Buddhism, Harsha was a great patron of all prevailing sects viz. Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Every year, he called for an assembly at Prayag which began with worship of Surya, Shiva and Buddha. He used to donate full heartedly in this assembly including the cloths and ornaments he wore!

Reign of Harsha: Notes for UPSC Prelims

Observations of Huen-Tsang

The key objective of Chinese Traveller Huen-Tsang to visit India was to correct the incomplete & misinterpreted information provided by the earlier Chinese monks, particularly Fa Hien.

In his work Si-Yu-Ki (Journey to the West), he first states that the name of India in China should be “Yindu“. This term is still used in China for India. He gives detail of Geography, Climate, Measurement system, concept of time, glimpses in urban life, architecture, caste system, educational requirements for Brahmins, teaching of Buddha, economic practices, social and cultural norms, eating habits of Indians etc.

He had met Harshavardhana in Kannauj and has recorded his dialogue with the King which established a diplomatic relation between Harsha and Tang king of China. Most of the Buddhist pilgrimage sites and the Nalanda University were parts of Harsha’s empire during his visit. One notable thing from his writings is degraded position of the Chandals and the robbery incidence. He was attacked by robbers on the way, something which we don’t find in the narrations of Fa-Hien, who travelled in the Gupta Period. It might indicate a breakdown of administrative machinery in hinterlands of Harsha’s empire.

About Banabhatta

Banabhatta was a friend, courtier and biographer of Harsha. The four most notable works of Banabhatta include Kadambari, Harshacharitam, Chhandakasthtaka and Parvatiparinaya. Kadambari is one of the most celebrated prose romances in Sanskrit. This work was not completed by Banabhatta but later finished by his son Bhushanbhatta. Due to this, there are two parts of Kadambari viz. Purvabhaga and Uttarbhaga. Harshacharitam is biography of his hero Harsha. This work is considered to be first attempt of authentic biography in Indian literature.


Bhandi was a leading noble of Kannauj and on advice of the political leaders of Kannauj; he offered the crown of Kannauj to Harsha after death of Grahavarmana. Bhandi was later described as one of the chief officers of Harsha. When Harsha chased Shashanka for release of his sister, through Bhandi only Harsha could know that his sister has been released and Shashanka has escaped.


Simhanada was the General of the Harsha’s army and his Prime Minister. When Harsha was preparing to conquest the South, Simhanada warned him about the dreadful consequences. This was for the first time that Harsha did not pay attention to his seasoned councillor and paid the price for the same when Pulkesin II defeated him.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *