• Harsha, also called Harshavardhana, (born c. 590 CE—died c. 647), was a ruler of a large empire in northern India from 606 to 647 CE.
  • Harsha’s reign seemed to mark a transition from the ancient to the medieval period, when decentralized regional empires continually struggled for hegemony.
  • He was the last ruler of the Vardhana Empire, the last great empire in ancient India before the Islamic Invasion.
  • After the fall of great Gupta Empire in the middle of the 6th century CE, under whom India saw its own golden age, it was Harshavardhana who unified most of northern India and ruled for four decades from his capital Kanyakubja


History and Extent

  • The Pushyabhuti dynasty, also known as the Vardhana dynasty, came into prominence after the decline of the Gupta Empire.
    • He was succeeded by his elder son, Rajyavardhana.
    • After his brother’s death, at the age of 16, Harshavardhana became the undisputed ruler of Thaneshwar (modern-day Haryana).
  • Being one of the largest Indian empires of the 7th Century CE, it covered the entire North and North-western India.
    • In the east, his empire extended till Kamarupa and ran all the way down to the Narmada River.
    • It is said that his empire was spread across the present day states of Orissa, Bengal, Punjab and the whole of Indo-Gangetic plain.
  • The Vardhana Empire consisted of two distinctive types of territories: areas directly under Harsha’s rule such as Central Provinces, Gujarat, Bengal, Kalinga, Rajputana, and the states and kingdoms which had become feudatories under him including Jalandhar, Kashmir, Nepal, Sind, Kamarupa (modern-day Assam).




Administration and the Empire

  • It is said that Harshavardhana’s empire reminded many of the great Gupta Empire, as his administration was similar to that of the administration of the Gupta Empire.
    • There was no slavery in his empire and people were free to lead their life according to their wish.
    • His empire also took good care of the poor by building rest houses that provided all the amenities required.
    • In many texts, Harshavardhana has been described as a noble emperor who made sure all his subjects stayed happy.
    • He did not impose heavy taxes on his people and the economy was somewhat self-sufficient.
    • His capital Kannauj (in present day Uttar Pradesh) attracted many artists, poets, religious leaders and scholars who traveled from far and wide.
    • He also maintained cordial relations with the Chinese. He even sent an Indian mission to China, establishing a diplomatic relationship between India and China. The famous Chinese monk and traveler Xuanzang spent eight years in his empire.
  • During the course of his rule, Harshavardhana built a strong army.
    • Historical records suggest that he had 100,000 strong cavalry, 50,000 infantry and 60,000 elephants during the peak of his reign.
  • Further, during Harsha’s reign, there was paucity of coins in most parts of North India. This fact suggests that the economy was feudal in nature.
    • Independent rulers, collectively known as ‘Mahasamantas,’ paid tribute to Harshavardhana and also helped him by supplying military reinforcements.
    • This played an important role in the expansion of Harshavardhana’s empire.


Art and Education

  • Harsha was a patron of both art and education. He himself was an author and wrote three Sanskrit plays, Nagananda, Ratnavali, Priyadarshika. One-fourth of his revenue went for patronizing scholars.
  • Further, Hiuen Tsang gives a quite vivid description of the famous Nalanda University which was at its zenith during Harsha’s reign.
    • Nalanda had around 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers.
    • The curriculum included Vedas, Buddhism, philosophy, logic, urban planning, medicine, law, astronomy, etc.
  • Also, a famous Indian writer and poet named Banabhatta served as the ‘Asthana Kavi’ (primary poet of the kingdom) in the court of Harshavardhana.

Ruins of Nalanda University

Society and Religion

  • Caste system was prevalent among Hindus. They were divided into four castes or varna: Brahmana, Vaishya, Kshariya and Shudra, which among them had their own subcastes.
  • The status of women declined as compared to the liberal era of earlier times.
    • Satipratha (widow immolation) was common, and widow remarriage was not allowed in higher castes.
  • Harsha was a worshiper of Shiva in the beginning but later became a Mahayana Buddhist.
    • Yet, he was tolerant of other faiths.
    • With a view to popularize and propagate the doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism, Harsha arranged at Kanyakubja a great assembly which was presided over by Hiuen Tsang, in 643 CE.
  • Also, every five years religious ceremonies were celebrated at the ancient city of Allahabad. Here, he held the ceremony of Dana, or giving, which lasted for three months. During this, most of the wealth accumulated in the last five years was exhausted.

Death and Legacy

  • Harsha’s empire marked the beginning of feudalism in India.
    • Land was granted in villages, which made the local landlords powerful.
    • This led to the weakening of the empire and gave rise to local feuds. Harsha had to be in constant movement to keep things in order.
  • After ruling over most parts of North India for more than 40 years, Harsha died in 647 C.E.
    • Since he did not have any heirs his empire collapsed and disintegrated rapidly into small states.
    • The demise of King Harshavardhana marked the end of the mighty Vardhana dynasty.