Harshacharita and Life in Harsha’s Time
One of the first few Sanskrit biographies, the Harshacharita, paints pictures in prose, of a young emperor named Harshavardhana. It also offers rare glimpses of life in 7th-century India
Travellers to Thanesar (in modern-day Haryana), the capital of the Vardhana dynasty in the 6th and 7th centuries, could enjoy fresh hand-pressed pomegranate and date juice. That’s how rich and advanced the region was. Thanesar would later become an important Hindu pilgrimage centre too, but at the time of the Vardhana dynasty, it was a prosperous city surrounded by fields full of wheat, rice and cowpeas. These were watered by wheel-made pots. Beyond the fields were orchards where spotted deer roamed freely.
These details, and various other aspects of life in Northern India at the time, were chronicled by Banabhatta in his 7th-century composition, the Harshacharita.
After the decline of the Gupta Empire in the early 6th century, the old feudatories within it proclaimed their independence. Prominent among these was the Pushyabhuti or Vardhana dynasty of Thanesar, which ruled from 500 CE to 647 CE. The most significant of its rulers was Harshavardhana, of whom much is known due to the accounts of the Chinese monk and traveller Hiuen Tsang, who visited India in the 7th century. But the most fascinating glimpses of Harshavardhana’s life and reign were left to us by his biographer and court poet, Banabhatta, also called Bana.
Harshavardhana ruled so much of Northern India between 606 and 647 CE that his empire stretched from Gujarat to Kamrupa (modern-day Assam), and to the south, went all the way to the Narmada River. His capital was Kanyakubja or Kannauj in present-day Uttar Pradesh (but more on that later). Bana’s biography details the dynasty’s lineage and the expansion of its empire through military expeditions. The focus is Harsha’s early years and royal life in general, but interestingly, the biography comes to a close after Harsha’s ascension to the throne. It also gives readers rare glimpses into the rural life of the time.
Through it, we also know a bit about Bana himself. The writer was born in the early 7th century, in the village of Pritikuta, situated along the river Shona in the region of Kannauj. Coming from a family of Brahmins, Bana spent his childhood studying the shastras (religious literature) and the Puranic tradition (genealogical history). After his father’s death, Bana, for a while, led the life of a wanderer, visiting holy places, royal courts and educational centres, meeting poets and scholars. When he returned to Kannauj, he received a summon from Harsha’s court to come and meet the emperor, who was then camping at a village called Manitara (now in present-day Odisha).
Initially sceptical of Bana’s abilities and character, King Harsha decided to keep him on for a few days nonetheless and was soon impressed by him. Royal honours were bestowed upon Bana by Harsha, who was himself a poet and a patron of literature.
The narrative about Harsha in Harshacharita begins with Bana returning home after spending some time at the court. It starts as a recitation in his hometown to a bunch of curious and delighted relatives and friends, who want to know all about Harsha, his life and his achievements.
Composed in panegyric style, the Harshacharita thus became, in a way, also an autobiography of the author. In Sanskrit literature, the Harshacharita is categorised as an akhyayika, a romanticised yet authentic historical account. As opposed to Bana’s other work, Kadambari, which is understood to be a fictional katha or prose romance.
The Harshacharita, written in poetic-prose style, has eight chapters and follows a linear chronology of the events of the Vardhana dynasty leading up to Harsha’s ascension.
Chapters 3 and 4 describe the land of Srikantha, in which was situated Thanesar, an important capital under the Vardhana ruler Prabhakarvardhana. He was considered the first important ruler of the dynasty and ruled from 585 to 606 CE.
During his reign, he checked the Huns who had invaded major parts of Northern India between the 4th and 6th centuries. He defeated the rulers of Sindh, Gujarat and Gandhara (now parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan). He had two sons with his queen Yashomati, Rajyavardhana and Harshavardhana, and a daughter named Rajyashri. Rajyashri was married to Grahavarman of the Maukhari family, who was then ruling at Kanyakubja. In the next few chapters, we learn that things then took a tragic turn. While his sons were fighting the Huns, Prabhakarvardhana died. Meanwhile, Devagupta, king of Malwa, invaded Kanyakubja, killed Grahavarman and took Rajyashri prisoner.
Shashanka, then king of Gauda (now Bengal), invited Rajyavardhana to his kingdom, ostensibly to discuss an alliance, but then treacherously killed him. Thus, Harshavardhana became emperor of the Vardhana Kingdom. He was 16 years old. He led a campaign against the Malwa king, freed his sister, and thus took over Thanesar and Kanyakubja, and moved his capital from the former to the latter.
That’s riveting enough, but Bana also packs in interesting details about Indian society of the time, manners and customs, crops, domestic animals, even ornamental plants.
For instance, when describing the region near Malwa, as Harsha marched towards the kingdom where his sister was being held, he speaks of how the place was inhabited largely by farmers, hunters, blacksmiths and ‘forest householders’. The hunters used snares, axes, coiled traps and netted nooses, while the blacksmiths wore their ‘breakfast bundles’ (probably the packets carrying their food) on their necks and dressed in ragged clothes for fear of thieves. The women, he adds, travelled between villages carrying baskets of fresh fruit on their heads to sell.
His eye for detail makes even the descriptions of the vessels used to store and keep water cool interesting. He says ‘wooden stands (were) surmounted by an array of bustling water jars to steal away thirst, cool porous vessels with dripping bases for allaying weariness, pitchers black with moist aquatic plants for the purpose of keeping the water cold, bits of pink gravel taken from ewers to cool the air, and cups having pink flowers tied by straw wisps about their necks’. Small vessels of water were also constructed for birds and tied to the trees, he adds.
There’s mention of pots full of buttermilk in the royal household, and carried about even by the kitchen bearers of the army. The cooks that travelled with the army, in fact, carried many utensils, including fire- trays, ovens, simmering pans and spits, notes Bana.
When Harsha was travelling through the Malwa region, villagers presented to him curd, molasses and candied sugar.
Bana’s chronicle also offers insight into the land revenue system of the time. Villages were measured in terms of the area that could be turned over with one plough pulled by a given number of oxen. A tax was then fixed for each such plough measure. Bana’s reference to the area of the village in terms of siras indicates that the land unit was known by this name, among others.
There were different agricultural practices prevalent in the period, which differed from region to region. Thanesar and Srikantha, he states, used irrigation and ploughing, which wasn’t the case in the Vindhya region. There is also reference to the use of manure in the Malwa region.
The long, metaphorical descriptions of attire and ornamentation are another intriguing part of the narrative. There’s frequent mention of white silk, which seemed to dominate the wardrobes of the royals, including Harsha and Rajyavardhana. There is also mention of pulakabandha (gaily coloured cloth) and puslzpapatta (floral-printed silk), and bark used by ascetics to cover their bodies.
Elephants, horses, camels and oxen feature frequently in the Harshacharita. Apart from their role in military campaigns, there is mention of how animals were used to transport goods. Bana writes, “Elephants were loaded with a cargo of utensils hurriedly tossed upon them by travel-practised domestics… Oxen were laden with utensils momentarily put upon them.”
A fascinating episode of royal life is presented as the family prepares for Harsha’s sister Rajyashri’s wedding and the whole palace comes alive as if celebrating a major festival. Skilled artisans, leather- workers, carpenters, goldsmiths, plasterers and many other workmen are called to decorate the palace with clay figurines, scented ponds, paintings and many other kinds of ornamentation.
Bana writes, “The palace was arrayed in textures flashing on every side like thousands of rainbows, textures of linen, cotton, bark silk, spider’s thread, muslin and shot silk… soft as the unripe plantain’s fruit, swaying at a breath, imperceptible except to the touch.” There is also mention of bamboo baskets, woollen fabric and cosmetics, among other bridal gifts and preparations.
Harsha spent the early years of his kingship (but the book had ended by then) on campaigns in Northern India with an army of 5,000 elephants, 20,000 horses and 50,000 infantry. Bana discusses Harsha’s army structures, weapons and logistics, and notes that horses were imported for Harsha’s cavalry from Vanayu (Waziristan, in Pakistan), Aratta (Vahika or Punjab), Kamboja (the Pamir region), Bharadvaja (northern Garhwal), Sindhu-desa (Sindh-Doab) and Parasika (Sasanian Iran). Some of these seem to be breeds of horses and others, place names. When he visits Harsha’s court for the first time, he mentions horses of six different colours in the king’s stables.
Harsha’s army also maintained elephant doctors and special attention was given to their training, with figures of elephants used for this purpose.
It is mentioned that unlike the practice in the Vedic era, of the king riding a chariot, Harsha rode a horse. The foot soldiers of his army, says the Harshacharita, were dressed in half-sleeved tunics, dhotis and sandals with ankle straps.
Sati was practised, even by queens. Bana vividly describes how, after the death of Prabhakarvardhana, his queen Yashomati plunged into the fire. Towards the end of the narrative, when Harsha rescues his sister Rajyashri, she too is about to jump into the fire, after her husband, king Grahavarman was killed.
There are different episodes in the composition that tell us that Buddhism, along with Shaivism and Brahmanism, flourished side by side during Harsha’s reign. Bana talks of sacrifices being conducted, and different rituals and prayers invoked before military campaigns and other important events. While Harsha is said to be a Buddhist, he can also be seen worshipping Shiva, in the text. In the last chapter, Bana refers to Buddhists and Brahmins of every sect who were “all diligently following their own tenets, pondering, urging objections, raising doubts and resolving them, giving etymologies, studying, and explaining, and all gathered here as His (God / the Creator’s) disciples”.
The Harshacharita comes to a close when Harsha rescues his sister from the Malwa kingdom and ascends to the throne of Thanesar and Kanyakubja. While some scholars consider the Harshacharita an incomplete account since it doesn’t discuss Harsha’s defeats or his life after this point, others argue that it contains all the necessary stages, from beginning to conclusion (ascension). The end of the Harshacharita is considered an assumption of Harsha’s royal glory and achievements.
The first commentary on the Harshacharita is said to be Sanketa, a work by a scholar called Shankara from Kashmir, written in the 12th century. Another Kashmiri scholar, Ruyyaka, believed to be Shankara’s contemporary, is also said to have written a commentary after that, called the Harshacharita Vartika. Later scholars from Bombay and Calcutta published editions of the original Sanskrit composition by Banabhatta during the 19th century, while rare copies of the original Sanskrit manuscript are said to have once lingered in Indian libraries. To make this insightful text available to a larger audience, the editions were collated, analysed and translated into English by Sanskrit Scholars E B Cowell and F W Thomas at Cambridge University in 1897.
These translations and commentaries act as an important medium, helping us understand this historical account and what it says about the social, economic and political life of that era. Banabhatta, to this day, is regarded highly for his elegant Sanskrit prose.