Ancient India

History Of Harsha | Harshavardana

Sources for Harsha’s Period

Bana was the court poet of Harsha and the author of Harshacharita, Kadambari and Parvatiparinay. Hiuen Tsang was the Chinese pilgrim who visited India in the 7th century AD. Both deal with Harsha’s wars and his reign. Harsha’s dramas such as Ratnavali, Nagananda and Priyadarshika give us information about the political conditions in those days.

Nausasi Copper plate gives us information about Harsha’s successful expedition against Valabhi. Madhuban plate Inscription dated 631 AD traces the genealogy of Harsha up to four generations. The Banskhera, Nalanda and Sonepat inscriptions of Harsha describe him as a worshipper of Siva. The Banskhera inscription shows that Harsha was an expert calligraphist.

Early life of Harsha

Harsha was the second son of Prabhakaravardhana, the first king of Pushyabhuti dynasty with its capital at Thanesvar. Pushyabhutis were the feudatories of the Guptas but had assumed independence after the Huna invasions. Harsha was a great warrior and a conqueror and fought against many powers. In his first expedition he drove away Sasanka from Kannuj who had occupied it after killing his elder brother. It appears that there was a war between Harsha and the king of Valabhi. His hostilities with Valabhis ended through matrimonial alliance. Upon consolidating his position in the north Harsha led an expedition to the south. But he was defeated by King Pulakesin II of Chalukya dynasty. However Harsha was successful in his eastern campaign.

In the east the empire extended right up to the Brahmaputra. A Chinese account mentions him as the king of Magadha in 641 AD, the king of Kamarupa, Bhaskaravarman was his ally in his campaign of Bengal and other parts of eastern India. According to Bana, his empire included the states of Kashmir, Sindh and Nepal. It included the states of eastern Punjab, UP, Bihar, Bengal, Orissa, Saurashtra, Kanyakubja etc. He maintained cordial relationship with China and Persia. Harsha was a great scholar and authored several dramas and books. He profusely encouraged learning and patronised the learned persons. The Nalanda University was the great seat of learning which came to forefront under his patronage. His court was adorned with scholars like Bana, Matanaga, Divakara, ayasena, Bharti hari. He reigned for about 41 years and died in the beginning of 647AD.

Harsha’s Administration

The system of administration was practically that of the Gupta Empire on heritance from earlier times. Hieun Tsang the Chinese pilgrim visited India during the reign of Harsha and left a detailed account of his administration. Although it was an autocracy it was decentralized to the point that even villages were governed by village community functioning as a democracy within the field of its local affairs. The king used to visit and inspect posts throughout his dominion. There was a council of ministers known as Mantriparishad to assist him. Besides having a say in the election of the king, the council of ministers influenced foreign policy. For the convenience of administration the entire empire was divided into provinces and each province was placed under the control of a viceroy of Governor.

Provinces were called Bhukti and were divided into districts called Visaya. The district of Visayas was further divided into tehsils called Pathakas. The smallest units were known as Uparika. The village headman was called Gramika. The government was based on principle of serving the people. The penal code was severe. The main source of income was the land tax, duties at ferries and barrier stations paid by the traders and merchants. Taxation was light. One sixth of the crops were considered as land revenue.

Important Officials of the empire

  • Maha Sandhi-Vigrahadhikrit- Office to decide about war and peace

  • Mahabaladhikrit- The highest official of the army

  • Baladhikrit- The commanders

  • Vrihadashwar- Head of cavalry

  • Chat Bhat- Salary holder and non salary holders of royal service

  • Katuk-head of Elephant brigade

  • Doot Rajastuaniya- Foreign Minister

  • Uparik Maharaj- Provincial head

  • Ayuktak- Ordinary servant or officer

Economy under Harsha

The nature of the economy under Harsha became increasingly more feudal and self-sufficient. The decline of trade and commerce went on unabated under Harsha. This is evident from the decline of trade centres, paucity of coins and almost complete disappearance of guilds of traders and merchants. The decline of trade and commerce affected the handicrafts and other industries for want of demand. This decline affected even agriculture though indirectly. When trade was flourishing a great part of the merchandise consisted of food stuffs and also most of the raw materials for handicrafts and industries came from agricultural production. But now there was a lack of large-scale demand for agricultural goods. So the agriculturist now began to produce only that much which was required to meet his own needs and those of the locality but not for the market, both internal and external. This naturally led to the rise of a self-sufficient village economy in which all the needs of the village were met from within and also marked by an increasing dependence on agriculture.


This period witnessed the ascendancy of varnasrama-dharma and it became an indispensable cornerstone of the Brahmanical social structure. Hiuen Tsang writes about the existence of four varnas or orders in Indai. Bana characterised Harsha as one who carried out all rules for the varnas and asramas. The first varna Brhamins continued to enjoy a very high and respectable position in the society and the glorification of gifts to them by the other three varnas became a distinct feature of Brahmanism. Despite the existence of some Sudra kings, the Kshatriya kings were in overwhelming majority. The third varna Vaishyas formed the class of traders according to Hiuen Tsang. The fourth varna Sudras comprised the agriculturists according to Hiuen Tsang. Both Bana and Hiuen Tsang talk about the existence of many sub castes such as the class of vernacular poets, class of bards, class of betel bearers and so on.

The rise of those sub castes was due to the social violation in the code of marriages and general ethics and also different occupations. Hiuen Tsang takes note of many outcastes and untouchables such as butchers, fishermen, executioners and scavengers who were segregated and were not allowed to mix with the people of the higher varnas and had habitations marked by distinguishing sigh. The position of women seems to have suffered a further decline during this period. The institution of svayamvara declined and there is no instance of its practice in the contemporary literature. Remarriage of widows was not permitted particularly among the higher varnas. The evil system of dowry according to Bana was quite common. There were few examples of practice of committing sati.


Brahmanisim which reasserted itself under the Guptas got further strengthened during this period. Its gradual ascendancy brought about the decline of Buddhism despite the patronage given to it by Harsha which is evident from the account of Hiuen Tsang. But Jainism did not undergo any major changes and it made neither progress nor any decay. Saivism became the main theistic system of this period. But Vaishnavism which was popular during the age of the Guptas was gradually declining during these period. The Vedic ceremonies and rituals once again came to be regarded as inseparable and integral constituents of Brahmanisim and the people practised them on a larger scale.

Interesting Facts about Harsha

  • At the end of every five years, Harsha used to celebrate a solemn festival in Prayaga named as Prayaga festival.

  • Harsha was also known as Siladitya.

  • Hieun Tsang wrote book si-yu-ki in which he has mentioned Harsha and his reign.

Nausasi Copper plate gives us information about Harsha’s successful expedition against Valabhi. Madhuban plate Inscription dated 631 AD traces the genealogy of Harsha up to four generations. The Banskhera, Nalanda and Sonepat inscriptions of Harsha describe him as a worshipper of Siva. The Banskhera inscription shows that Harsha was an expert calligraphist.

Achievements of Emperor Harsha Vardhana

Emperor Harsha achieved remarkable success both in the field of peace and war. His age was characterized by political fragmentation of North India and after a gap of more than 100 years Harsha established unity and integrity in whole of North India.

Harsha is mentioned as Sakalouttarapatha (the lord of North India) in the Aihole inscription of Pulakesin II.This title also indicates that Harsha ruled over whole of North India. His Empire extended from Himalayas in North to the river Narmada in south and from Punjab in west to Bengal in East. This unification of North India by Harsha was one of the remarkable achievements.

Harsha was an efficient administrator as well. He successfully established a strong and efficient administrative system in whole of North India; the contemporary references suggest that peace and stability prevailed in North India. During the reign of Harsha and common public enjoyed large degree of freedom in the public and private life.

The reign of Harsha was also characterized by lofty ideals and benign principles. According to Hiuen Tsang Harsha pursued high ideals during his reign. No excessive control was imposed on the subjects and the demands of the state were minimal. The rate of land revenue collected by Harsha was 1/6th and other taxes were also light. The families were not required to register themselves and people were not subjected to forced labour.

The enlightened character of Harsha’s administration also found expression in the four fold division of state income. According to Hiuen Tsang one part of state resources was used for meeting the expenses of government, second part were used for paying the salaries of public servants. Third part was used for rewarding the intellectuals and fourth part was gifted to various religious sects.

Harsha divided his daily schedule into three parts where one part was used for looking after government affairs and remaining two parts established his control over these feudal elements and kept the centrifugal forces in check. This achievement could also be understood in the light of development that followed his death when feudal forces emerged in dominant manner once again and the central authority disappeared.

Harsha maintained a dept of records and archives and this dept were entrusted with the responsibility of recording every significant event taking place in empire.

Harsha took personal interest in improving the efficiency of the administration. The officers were instructed to visit their areas and he organized official tours to understand the difficulties of the masses. This was remarkable in the age which was characterized by all round decline in different aspects of life.

Harsha was not only an efficient administrator but he was also a successful military conqueror as well. According to contemporary sources Harsha fought number of wars and battles during his reign and conquered many areas. He did not adopt barbarious methods of conquests. He never ordered mass slaughter of the civilians and emphasized upon the moral methods. This was also part of his achievements.

The reign of Harsha was also remarkable for his friendly diplomatic relations.Harsha knew the significance of maintaining friendly relations with other kingdoms and outside world. According to contemporary sources, Harha exchanged embassies with China and the Chinese rulers sent three embassies to the court of Harsha.Harsha also maintained friendly relations with King Bhaskaravarman of Kamrupa.

Harsha was also great patron of cultural activities and organized Kanauj assembly in the honor of Hiuen Tsang.He patronized Banabhatta,the author of Kadambari and Harshacharita.Harsha himself was a fine scholar and composed Nagananda,Ratnawali and Piyadasika.

Limitations of Emperor Harsha’s Reign

Though Harsha accomplished a number of remarkable achievements during his reign but it was also characterized by number of limitations. Though Harsha could check and control the feudal forces during his reign but he could not eliminate them because of this these feudal forces continue to threaten the unity and integrity of North India and emerged in much stronger form after his death.

Though Harsha tried to establish an efficient administrative system but the peace and security in his empire had many limitations. According to Hiuen Tsang he was looted twice while passing through central India.

The administrative system of Harsha was effective only in the areas around the capital and the contemporary references inform that semi-autonomous vassals ruled in other outer areas.

Emperor could not reverse the process of economic decline as well. The economic activities continued to decline during his reign and number of flourishing urban centres was depopulated. The level of the monetization of economy was also very low and according to Hiuen Tsang shells were used as means of exchange.

The socio-cultural life of North India was also characterized by downhill trends.Harsha’s age was marked by great rigidity in social life. The social mobility had disappeared. The status of women declined sharply during this period due to the popularity of child marriage and prohibition of widow remarriage. The social evils like sati became more popular.

The period also saw decline in the social status of vaishyas and they came to be equated with shudras.

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