Harshavardhana of Kanauj (606-646 A.D.)

When the Imperial Gupta line ended in 538 A.D. with Kumara Gupta II, many provinces and feudatory chiefs declared their independence and the whole of North India was divided into a number of independent states.

Among them the important ones were the Later Guptas ruling over Malwa region, the Maukharis ruling over the territories corresponded to the present Uttar Pradesh, the Maitrakas who were ruling over Saurashtra and the Vardhanas ruling over Thaneshwar. It was Harshavardhana belonging to the Vardhana dynasty who was destined to be the last powerful Hindu ruler of north India.

According to Bana’s Harshacharita, Puspabhuti was the progenitor of the Vardhana dynasty who began his rule from Sthanisvara (Thaneshwar) which was situated on the banks of river Saraswathi. He was probably a contemporary of the early imperial Guptas. But Puspabhuti or his successor could not retain their newly won independence for long due to the advent of Samudragupta who brought all the kingdoms east of the river Chenab under the Gupta sway. Only after the decline of the Gupta’s did the kingdom of Vardhanas was revived. Harshavardhana’s grandfather Adityavardhana had married Mahasenaguptadevi who was the sister of Mahasenagupta who ruled Malwa from 555 to 580 A.D. Adityavardhana’s son was Prabhakaravardhana who was the first ruler of the dynasty to assume the imperial title ‘Paramabhattaraka Maharajadhiraja’. Prabhakaravardhana had given his daughter Rajyasri in marriage to the Maukhari king Grahavarman. Thus the Vardhanas had marriage alliance with both the Guptas of Malwa and Maukharis of Kanauj.  But ironically there existed hereditary enmity between the Gupta rulers of Malwa and the Maukaris of Kanuaj which latter led to the extinguishment of both the kingdoms.

Accession of Harshavardhana: The Huns though no longer a major danger during the time of Prabhakaravardhana, were still active and continually raided their neighbours. The fact that their raids did not occur in Harsha’s period supports the view that Rajyavardhana II attained success in his campaign against the Hunas when sent by his father Prabhakaravardhana. Bana credits Prabhakaravardhana with several victories against the Hunas and describe him as a ‘lion to the Huna deer’. Prabhakaravardhana had two sons, Rajyavardhana and Harshavardhana and a daughter, Rajyasri. After the marriage of Princess Rajyasri to the Maukhari king Grahavarman, Prabhakaravardhana dispatched his eldest son Rajyavardhana against the Hunas. Meanwhile Prabhakaravardhana became seriously ill and died. Taking advantage of this situation, Devagupta the ruler of Malwa attacked and killed Grahavarman, the Maukhari king and imprisoned his wife Rajyasri. (As mentioned above the Gupta’s of Malwa were the hereditary enemies of the Maukaris of Kanauj). Hearing this news Rajyavardhana rushed towards Kanauj fought against Devagupta and killed him. Sasanka, the Gauda ruler who had allied with Devagupta with a design to annex Kanauj and later Thaneshwar by a ruse invited Rajyavardhana to his tent and murdered him and later retreated back to his kingdom. It was in this critical situation Harshavardhana had to ascend the throne in 606 A.D. at the age of sixteen.

Harsha’s Military Campaigns: Harsha after mobilizing his army, in the first phase rescued his sister Rajasri who after escaping from the clutches of Devagupta tried to end her life. As her husband Grahavarma had died Harsha placed Rajasri on the throne of Kanauj and became a joint ruler. In the second phase he defeated Sasanka at Pundravardhana. But Harsha could incorporate Sasanka’s kingdom and parts of Odisha only after the latter’s death in 623 A.D. In the third phase Harsha marched westwards and conquered Matipura (western Rohilkhand), Mathura, Pariyatra (north Rajasthan), Sindh and parts of Punjab. Kashmir is said to be under his control as from there Harsha is said to have brought Buddha’s tooth relic and enshrined it at a Sanghashrama in Kanauj. Similarly Nepal is also said to be under his sway as its ruler Amsuvarman used Harsha era of 606 A.D. but Harsha’s attempt to expand his territory to the south of river Narmada was checked by the Chalukyan ruler Pulakeshin II. Though Harsha had the title Sakalottarapatisvara i.e. the sovereign of the entire uttarapatha, the whole of north India was not politically united under Harsha as Hiuen Tsang mentions that India of that period had about seventy kingdoms. Harsha’s empire is said to have included the whole of Uttar Pradesh, a major part of Bihar, Bengal and Odisha, with nominal suzerainty over Sindh, Punjab and Kashmir.

His Alliances: Harsha had an alliance with the king of Assam which gave him the help and cooperation of a powerful ruler both in his external and internal affairs. Harsha had alliance with the ruler of Vallabhi to whom he had given his daughter in marriage. He had maintained diplomatic intercourse with the Chinese empire. A Brahmin envoy whom he had sent to the Tang Emperor of China, Tai Tsung in 641 A.D. returned in 643 A.D. accompanied by a Chinese mission bearing a reply to Harsha’s dispatch. Harsha’s diplomatic relations with China were probably meant as a counter poise to the friendship that Pulakeshi II, his southern rival cultivated with the king of Persia about which we are informed by the Arab historian Tabari.

Harsha, a dynamic Administrator: Harshavardhana was a dynamic person. He was so busy that it was difficult even for kings to obtain interview with him. According to Hiuen Tsang, the day of Harsha was divided into three periods. One was devoted to the State affairs and two for religious works. He believed in the utility of inspection tours. These tours were not confined to urban areas but also rural areas. He suspended his inspection work during the rainy season on account of the difficulties of weather and communications. He got prepared temporary buildings for his stay while on tour. When the king halted at any place, the people could interview him and put before him their grievances. The royal chamberlain regulated audience to king. A lot of pomp and show was associated with the king when the king was on the march. He was accompanied by several 100 drummers and the king’s hired porters carried his golden footstools, water pots, cups, spittoons and baths.

Ministers and Advisors: In administration Harsha was advised and assisted by ministers and officials like Mahasandhivigrahika (supreme minister for peace and war), Mahapratihara (head of the palace-guards), Simhanda (commander-in-chief), Mahabaladhikrita (commander of the forces), Mahakshapatalike (chief accounts-officer), Nyayakarnika (judicial-officer), Bhandagaradhikrita (superintendent of stores), Kayastha (scribe), etc. According to Hiuen Tsang Harsha was just in his administration and punctilious in the discharge of his duties. Society was not choked by a grinding bureaucracy or overburdened by a heavy system of taxation. Families were not registered and individuals were not subject to forced labour contribution.

Finance: The main source of income of the State was land-revenue; it was 1/6th of the agricultural produce. There were other taxes also, but they were light and the State’s demands were few. The income of the State was spent under four categories: 1. for the expenses of the state and ceremonial worship; 2. for the advancement of ministers; 3. for rewarding the clever, the learned and the talented; and 4. for acquiring religious merit by spending on the heretics.

Administrative Units: The kingdom was divided into various provinces or divisions called Bhukti. They were further divided into Visayas corresponding to modern districts. Pathaka was a still smaller territorial term perhaps of the size of the present day taluk. The lowest unit of administration was Grama.

Military Administration: Harsha had a well-organised standing army. It had elephants, camels, cavalry and infantry. Cavalry and elephants had separate commanders. The head of the cavalry was called Brihadasvavaru. Hiuen Tsang says that Harsha had 60,000 elephant’s corps and a cavalry of one lakh. Bana says that horses were purchased from places like Kamboja, Sindh, Persia, etc.

Harsha’s Coins: A gold coin found by Dr.Hoernle has been attributed to Harsha. It has on it the legend Harshadeva with the figure of a horseman. Harsha is called Harshadeva not only in inscriptions but also in Bana’s Harshacharitha. About 284 silver coins with the name ‘Sri Siladitya’ was discovered by Sir.Richard Burn.

Patron of Scholars: Harsha is credited with the composition of three dramas- Ratnavali, Priyadarsika and Nagananda. In his court lived the famous literary figure, Bana who wrote Kadambari and Harshacharita. Bana’s brother-in-law, Mayura was a celebrated poet whose work was Surya Sataka, Arya Muktamala and Mayurastaka. Other scholars like Haridatta and Jayasena were patronized by him. Bana mentions more than once that a group of skilled painters painted auspicious scenes. The iconoclastic zeal of the early Muslim invaders has left us not even a trace of these paintings nor the monuments erected by Harsha.

Harsha’s Religion: Prabhakaravardhana was a devotee of the Sun and is said to have offered daily a bunch of red lotuses in a ruby bowl. Rajyavardhana was a Buddhist. Harsha was a devotee of Shiva, Surya and Buddha. He is stated to have erected costly temples for the service of all the three personalities. Harsha’s conversion to Buddhism is attributed by Bana to the influence of the Buddhist ascetic Divakaramitra who lived in the hermitage in the Vindhya forests. It was however Hiuen Tsang who definitely gave both Harsha and his sister their faith in Mahayana Buddhism by his discourse on its doctrines and exposure of the deficiency of Hinayana at the very first meeting between Harsha and him. Harsha’s enthusiasm for his new faith led him at once to organize the grand assembly at Kanauj to give publicity to the masterly treatise of Hiuen Tsang on Mahayana and establish its supremacy over all other creeds of the times. Harsha is said to have prohibited even more rigorously than Ashoka, animal slaughter and meat eating. At Nalanda he erected a bronze temple, 100 feet high, and along the highway built rest houses and hospitals.

The Kanauj Assembly: In 643 A.D. Harsha summoned an assembly at Kanauj. The object of the assembly was to take advantage of the presence of Hiuen Tsang to spread the teachings of Buddha in the country. A large number of kings attended the assembly. There were 3000 Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhist monks, 3000 Brahmanas and Nigrodhas and about 1000 Buddhist scholars from the Nalanda University. The meeting was presided by Hiuen Tsang where a topic on Mahayana Buddhism was discussed. The meeting lasted for 23 days. On that occasion a monastery and shrine was erected on the banks of Ganga and a golden image of Buddha equal to the height of the king was kept in a tower, 100 feet high. A similar but smaller image, three feet in height was carried every day in a procession which was joined by 20 Rajas and 300 elephants. Harsha personally washed the image and carried it in the procession. As he moved pearls, golden flower and other precious things were scattered on all directions. At the conclusion of the assembly, Harsha in recognition to the scholarship of Hiuen Tsang offered him gold, silver, jewels and other valuables including garments. But Hiuen Tsang refused to accept them. Then Harsha placing Hiuen Tsang on an elephant led him in a procession proclaiming that he had established the standard of Mahayana doctrines overthrowing all opposing ones.

The Prayag Assembly: After the assembly at Kanauj, Harsha, accompanied by Hiuen Tsang, proceeded to Prayag (Allahabad) at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna where he used to celebrate another solemn religious festival at the end of every five years. This assembly was the sixth of its kind during his reign. Harsha summoned his tributary kings, the king of Vallabhi and Bhaskar Varma, the king of Assam; followers of different sects, Shramanas, Nirgranthas, the poor and the orphan and the needy to attend this assembly. On the first day the image of Buddha was installed in a thatched building followed by the distribution of precious articles and clothing of the first quality. On the second day they installed the image of Aditya (Sun-god) and distributed in charity precious things and clothing to half the amount of the previous day. On the third day they installed the image of Shiva followed by distribution of charity and gifts as on the day before. In this way charity was bestowed to each and every one each day until the accumulated money and other goods were exhausted. This assembly lasted for three months.  

Harsha’s Personality: At a very young age Harsha took up the reigns of the kingdom and established a fairly large empire. His was a multi-dimensional personality. Not only was he a good administrator but also known for his political shrewdness. The way he made the ruler of Vallabhi into his permanent ally by giving his daughter in marriage to him is evidenced to it. Similarly though the ruler of Gauda, Sasanka was responsible for the death of his brother, Rajyavardhana, Harsha after rescuing his sister did not took a hasty decision to take on Sasanka given the precarious situation in which he had come to power after the death of his father, mother, brother and brother-in-law. In the cultural field he patronized scholars, liberally endowed the Nalanda University with grants of land and money and gave new lease of life to Mahayana Buddhism which was on its declining phase in India. He was also famous for his religious catholicity, benevolence and charities. At the royal lodge every day rations were provided for 1000 Buddhists monks and 500 Brahmanas.  According to R.K.Mukerjee, Harsha combines in himself some of the attributes and characteristics of both Samudragupta and Ashoka.

Society during the time of Harsha: The Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang who visited India during the rule of Harsha has left valuable accounts of the observation which he had made on the society of those times. According to him people were known for their honesty, courage and love for learning. They were not deceitful or treacherous in their conduct and were faithful in their oaths and promises. They were known for their personal hygiene and used to clean the floors of their houses with cow-dung and strewn it with season flowers. They bathed daily and smeared their bodies with scented unguents like sandal and saffron. They used to wash their hands before meals and fragments and remains of meals were not served up again.

The Nalanda University: India in the 7th century A.D. was the most civilized country in the world. Especially to the Chinese of Harsha’s time India was the sacred land. Traversing deserts and mountain ranges her children visited India in a spirit of veneration in order to study at her universities and partake of her culture. (K.M.Panikkar- Sri Harsha of Kanauj, 1922, p.76) But not only from China but also from countries like Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Java, Tiber, Ceylon, etc., students came to India to study in her various universities including the University of Nalanda. Situated in modern Baragaon, 65 kilometers south-west of Patna in Bihar, Nalanda was an educational institute of higher learning or post-graduate studies. Here education was not confined to religious subjects nor it was connected with one religion or sect. Hindu and Buddhist literature in all their branches and other subjects like logic, grammar, medicine, Sankhya philosophy, occult science, etc. were studied. The university campus had many halls and buildings with storeys where about 8500 students and 1500 teachers lived. The students were provided with free education, food and lodging. The working hours of the university was of eight hours and nearly one hundred lectures were delivered everyday by many teachers, the famous of whom were Dharmapal (who was the Kulapati of Nalanda when Hiuen Tsang was a student there), Arya Deva, Chandrakirti, Chandragomin, Gunamati, Prabhamitra, Buddhakirti, Jinamitra, Sumatisena, etc. Students seeking admission here had to pass a tough entrance examination and only about 20 percent could succeed in clearing it. The university had a big library comprising of three buildings known as ‘Ratna-Sagar’, ‘Ratnadadhi’ and ‘Ratna Ranjaka’. The university was endowed with the revenue of nearly two hundred villages. Towards the end of twelfth century, Muslim invaders set fire to the buildings of the university, burnt the valuable library and ruthlessly butchered the innocent monks, teachers and students. The glorious career of a university famous the world over came to an end.     

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