Harshavardhana, also known as Harsha, was an Indian emperor who ruled North India from 606 to 647 CE. He was a member of the Vardhana dynasty. His father Prabhakarvardhana defeated the Alchon Huns invaders. His younger brother Rajyavardhana was a king of Thanesar (now Haryana).
At the height of Harsha’s power, his Empire comprised many of North and Northwestern India, spread East till Kamarupa, and South until Narmada River and finally made Kannauj (present Uttar Pradesh state) his capital, and ruled till 647 CE.
Harsha was defeated by the south Indian Emperor Pulakeshin II of the Chalukya dynasty in the Battle of Narmada when Harsha attempted to extend his Empire into the southern peninsula of India.
Harsha’s court was a center of scholars, artists, and religious visitors. The Chinese traveler Hiuen-Tsang visited the court of Harsha and wrote a very pleasing account of Harsha’s justice and generosity.
Sanskrit poet Banabhatta written Harshacharita (“Deeds of Harsha”). It is a biography of Harshavardhana. He explained his association with Thanesar, besides stating the defense wall, a canal, and the palace with a two-storied Dhavalagriha (white mansion).
Origins Of Vardhana Dynasty
In the middle of the 6th century, North Indian was divided into several kingdoms after the downfall of the Gupta Empire. The ruler of Sthanvisvara Prabhakarvardhana spread his control over adjacent states.
Prabhakarvardhana was the first king of the Vardhana dynasty with his capital at Thaneswar. After the death of Prabhakarvardhana in 605, his eldest son Rajyavardhana ascended the throne. Rajyavardhana was Harshavardhana’s elder brother.
Banabhatta in Harshacharita, says that Harshavardhana belongs to Kshatriya Varna. But Hiuen-Tsang claims that Shiladitya (another name of Harsha) belongs to “Fei-she” or Vaishya Varna.
K.P. Jaiswal in Imperial History of India, says that according to a 7-8th century Buddhist text, Mañjuśrī-mūla-Kalpa, Harsha was born of King Vishnu (Vardhana) and his family was of Vaishya caste.
They first became ministers, then Kings. The style Vardhana appears to have been borrowed from their royal ancestors.
Ascension of Harshavardhana
Rajyashri, Harsha’s sister had been married to the Grahavarman, Makuhari king. Some years later, Grahavarman had been defeated and killed by Devagupta of Malwa.
After his death, Rajyashri had been cast into prison by the conqueror. Rajyavardhana, Harsha’s brother, then the king of Thaneswar, could not accept this disrespect of his family. So, he marched against Devagupta and defeated him.
But, Shashanka, king of Gauda in Eastern Bengal, then joined Magadha as a friend of Rajyavardhana, but in secret agreement with the Malwa king. Hence, Shashanka unjustly killed Rajyavardhana.
On hearing about the murder of his brother, Harsha decided at once to march against the unfaithful king of Gauda, but this attack remained inconclusive and beyond a point, he turned back. Harsha ascended the throne at the age of 16.
Reign of Harshavardhana
As North India returned to the small monarchy states ruled by the Gupta rulers following the destruction of the smaller republics and the former Gupta Empire, Harsha united the small republics from Punjab to Central India.
In April 606, his representatives crowned him king in a gathering and given him the title of Maharaja. Harsha established an empire that brought the whole of North India under his control.
The prevailing peace and prosperity made his court a center of greatness, attracting scholars, artists, and religious visitors from far and wide. The Chinese traveler Hiuen-Tsang visited Harsha’s court, and wrote a very favorable article, praising his justice and generosity.
Pulakeshin II defeated Harsha on the banks of the Narmada in the winter of 618–619. Pulakeshin entered into a treaty with Harsha, the Narmada River was chosen as the boundary between the Chalukya kingdom and Harshavardhana. Hiuen-Tsang describes the incident as follows:
“Shiladityaraja (i.e., Harsha), filled with confidence, marched at the head of his troops to contend with this prince (i.e., Pulakeshin); but he was unable to prevail upon or subjugate him”.
In 648, in response to Harsha being sent ambassador to China, the Tang dynasty emperor Tang Taizong sent Wang Xuan to India. But, once in India, he found Harsha had died and the new king Aluonashun (supposedly Arunāsva) attacked Wang and his 30 mounted subordinates.
This led to Wang Xuance escaping to Tibet, also secured a reported Buddhist relic for China. He fought back to India with Tibet and Licchavi force, during the war, a false story written many centuries later, it’s claimed that the new king was among the captives during Wang Xuance’s attack.
Religious Beliefs of Harshavardhana
Like many other ancient Indian rulers, Harsha was generous in his religious views and practices. His seals describe his ancestors as Suryopasaka(sun-worshippers), his elder brother as Buddhist, and himself as Shaiva.
Harsha’s land grant inscription represents him as Param-Maheshwara (the supreme devotee of Shiva). His play Nagananda is dedicated to Gauri, the wife of Shiva. His court poet Bana also calls him Shaiva.
According to the Chinese Buddhist traveler Hiuen-Tsang, Harsha was a devout Buddhist. He reveals that Harsha banned animal slaughter for food, and built monasteries at places visited by Gautama Buddha.
They built several thousand 100-feet high stupas on the banks of the river Ganges. He built well-maintained hospices(Dharmashala) for travelers and poor people on roads across India.
He organized an annual gathering of global scholars and gave a charitable donation to them. Every five years, he organized a great assembly called Moksha. Hiuen-Tsang also describes a 21-day religious festival organized by Harsha in Kannauj; During this festival, Harsha and his subordinate kings performed daily rituals in front of a life-size golden statue of Buddha.
Since Harsha’s own inscriptions describe him as Shaiva, his conversion to Buddhism took place in the latter part of his life. Even Hiuen-Tsang states that Harsha gave patronage to scholars of all religions, not just Buddhist monks.
Harsha is widely regarded as the author of three Sanskrit plays Ratnavali, Nagananda, and Priyadarshika. While some believe (for example, Mammata in Kaviprakasha) that it was Bana, the court poet of Harsha, who wrote the plays as a paid commission, Wendy Doniger said, “persuaded, however, that king Harsha really wrote the plays … himself.”
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