By the time of the final dissolution of the Gupta Empire, by 550 CE, Northern India was in turmoil. Small kingdoms were beginning to assert their independence and looking towards their neighbours with a hunger for conquest and to expand their domains.
The northern plains saw the rise of many a Gupta feudatory to independence, among them the Gurjaras (of Rajasthan), Devaguptas (of Malwa), Maukharis (of Thaneshwar), Maitrakas (of Vallabhi in Gujarat) and Karkotas (of Kashmir). Rising out of the ashes and destruction of the post-Gupta world finally emerged a new power – the Vardhanas of Thaneshwar (in present-day Haryana).
As the sun rose on the 7th century CE in the Ganga Valley, Prabhakaravardhana of Thaneshwar was the paramount ruler in the region. He had defeated the Hunas in their latest attempt to strike into the heart of India, after they had lost a few decades earlier to the combined forces of Yashodharma of Malwa and Narasimha Gupta Baladitya of Magadha. Prabhakaravardhana not only defeated the Hunas but also took his armies deep into the territories of the Gurjaras and all the way up to Sindh.
The Maukharis of Kannauj held lands in Eastern India, stretching all the way to Assam. To bolster the kingdom, Prabhakaravardhana also forged an important marriage alliance – by marrying his daughter Rajyashri to Grahavarmana of neighbouring Kannauj, thus securing his eastern flanks. With an Empire stretching from Sindh to Bihar with Kashmir as its northern borders, and the Vindhya ranges as its southern ones, Prabhakaravardhana declared himself Maharajadhiraja Parambhattaraka of the Vardhana Dynasty of Thaneshwar.
But at the peak of his game, tragedy struck Prabhakaravardhana. The Hunas of Punjab attacked the Ganga Valley. Prabhakaravardhana sent his son Rajyavardhana with the army and the Maukharis sent their forces, After a bitter battle at the foothills of the Himalayas (somewhere near the Punjab, probably in Himachal Pradesh), the Hunas were defeated and Rajyavardhana, then only 19 years old, returned in triumph to the capital, only to find that Prabhakaravardhana was dead and his mother Yashomati had committed sati on the pyre of the King.
The Empire was plunged into gloom. Rajyavardhana was shattered, and he considered renouncing the throne and passing it on to his younger brother, Harshavardhana. Taking advantage of this, Devagupta of Malwa attacked the Maukhari allies of the Vardhanas, killing Grahavarmana and taking Rajyashri prisoner. Devagupta had allied himself with Shashanka of Gauda, another disgruntled king, ruling in Bengal.
Harshavardhana Becomes King
The story goes that Rajyavardhana dispatched an army of 10,000 cavalry under his trusted General Bhandi, who surprised Devagupta and defeated him. He then marched to the relief of Kannauj and en route encountered the forces of Shashanka. On seeing the mighty forces, Shashanka surrendered and Rajyavardhana made peace and married his sister to Shashanka to cement their alliance, little knowing of the treachery that would follow.
At the wedding feast, Shashanka killed Rajyavardhana and retreated to Bengal.
We know of this and the succeeding wars and triumphs of Harshavardhana, thanks to two very important chronicles. The first is the Harshacharita a panegyric poem written by Bana, the court poet of Harshavardhana; and the second is from one of the greatest foreign sources of Indian history, the chronicle of the Chinese scholar and monk, Hiuen Tsang, who visited India during the reign of Harshavardhana and spent a considerable amount of time in his court.
Though his work is biased in favour of Harshavardhana and his faith, Buddhism, it is a gripping travelogue. Much of what he describes in Eastern India is, luckily for us, also corroborated by another great (though lesser-known) traveller, Yijing (I-Tsing), who was in India at the beginning of the last quarter of the 7th century CE. Yijing studied at Nalanda for 11 years.
The other great source of knowledge is, of course, his greatest foe Pulakesin II of the Chalukyas and his inscription from Badami (formerly known as Vatapi, capital of the Chalukyas) in present-day Karnataka. Added to this is the Sonepat seal of Harshavardhana and the copper plates from Nabha (near Thaneshwar, in Punjab), Madhuban (near Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh) and Banaskhera (in Shahjahanpur Tehsil of Uttar Pradesh).
When put together, these texts give us a very comprehensive picture of the last great Emperor of Early Historical Northern India. Harshavardhana was the sixth ruler of the dynasty. The first two merely styled themselves Maharajas and were most definitely petty kings and/or feudatories. They were sun worshippers.
It was Prabhakaravardhana, the third of the rulers, who consolidated the Empire and took on the title of Maharajadhiraja Parambhattaraka, thus styling himself as Emperor. He was very briefly followed by his son, Rajyavardhana, who was interestingly a follower of the Buddha.
After his dastardly murder, his younger brother Harshavardhana became king at the age of 16 and swore revenge against Shashanka for killing his brother. Sadly, it was a wish he never fulfilled as Shashanka remained outside his clutches, secure in his capital city of Karnasuvarna (near present-day Murshidabad in West Bengal).
The Rise of Harsha
Harshavardhana and his rule is the last great consolidation of power in Northern India. His Empire was truly the successor to the Imperial Guptas, and with him ended the Golden Age of the Ganga Valley.
After coming to the throne in the way he did, Harshavardhana consolidated his Empire by bringing into his fold a large number of smaller states from Punjab in the west to Bihar in the east, and from the Himalayan foothills in the north to the Vindhyas in the south. With the exception of Bengal, he held all of northern India in his reins. He was a well-known and well-regarded ruler. He moved his capital from Thaneshwar to Kannauj, which was more centrally located. A Shaivite, according to his own seals, he was tolerant of Buddhism and according to a number of sources later converted though he continued to follow Hindu customs. The Nandi (vehicle of Shiva) on his seals bears testament to this.
He welcomed all scholars and was greatly respectful of them. When Hiuen Tsang came to his court, he was very graciously received and Harshavardhana convened a great council for him where he was felicitated. Hiuen Tsang was also invited to witness the king making donations and giving alms at the Kumbh Mela.
Harshavardhana expanded his empire from Sindh to Assam, where he had an alliance with the local Varmana dynasty. It was from here that Hiuen Tsang was escorted to Harshavardhana’s court by Bhaskaravarman of Kamarupa (Assam), who had an alliance with Thaneshwar.
The only thorn in his side was Shashanka of Gaud, whom he could never subdue. The eastward spread of Harshavardhana’s Empire was only possible after the death of Shashanka in 637 CE.
Harshavardhana then extended his Empire into Ganjam (Odisha) in 643 CE. We know that Harshavardhana’s ally Bhaskaravarmana was ruling Karnasuvarna (Shashanka’s capital city and present-day Kansona in Murshidabad District of West Bengal) after Harshavardhana’s death when he took the city from Harshavardhana’s successor and we have Bhaskaravarmana’s seal attesting the same from Nalanda.
Harshavardhana And Pulakesin II
The other great event of Harshavardhana’s reign was his conflict with Pulakesin II of the Chalukyas of Vatapi (Badami in present-day Karnataka).
Pulakesin II was Harshavrdhana’s counterpart in the South. He was expanding northwards just as Harshavardhana was expanding southwards, and the two were destined to clash.
Depending on which source you read, Harshavardhana was either pushing south of the Narmada or Pulakesin was pushing northwards. They met in battle on the banks of the Narmada River, the boundary between their kingdoms, in the winter 618-19 CE, according to Dr Shreenand Bapat of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), Pune.
A similar date (620 CE) had already been proposed by eminent Indologist and historian V A Smith, in the early part of the 20th century CE. In his Aihole (in Karnataka) inscription, Pulakesin records his victory over Harshavardhana in the inscription of the court poet Ravi Kirti in 633-634 CE. Surprisingly, the same encounter is detailed by Harshavardhana’s court poet Bana, who tells us a very different story. He tells us it was actually Harshavardhana who routed Pulakesin and was victorious. Hiuen Tsang echoes Bana. Many historians have speculated that perhaps there were actually two separate engagements and that the score was one-all between the two.
Bana does not really mention Harshavardhana’s defeat and he carried on his conquests in the east and also maintained an empire stretching across the width of India quite perturbed. Pulakesin II, though, boasts of this ‘victory’ in his Aihole inscription and on his copper plates. He appears to have grown in stature and his heirs regularly mention this victory in their inscriptions.
Harshavardhana and His Reign
Harshavardhana was an able and just ruler and Hiuen Tsang speaks highly of his administration and benevolence. After all, Hiuen Tsang spent eight years in his lands. We also know of his land grants from a number of Copper Plate grants (mentioned earlier).
Harshavardhana was obviously a canny general as can be seen from his many campaigns. Interestingly, he was also an author of great repute and we have three surviving works of his in Sanskrit which are considered to be of a very high standard in Sanskrit literature. These are the Ratnavali, the Priyadarshika and the Nagananda. The Nagananda was also set to music and performed as a drama, thereby making the story within it very popular.
Historian Radhakumud Mookerji his seminal work Harsha in 1928 tells us that Harshavardhana was also a master calligrapher as seen from his Banaskhera Copper Plate, which has a signature with much flourish upon it. These books also shed plenty of light on the period during which he ruled Northern India. Bana (Banabhatta)’s Harshacharita is a very well-known Sankrit work and is considered one of the best biographies ever written in Sanskrit. Bana also wrote a famous novel called the Kadambari, which is once again considered the greatest work of its kind.
In 641 CE, Harshavardhana sent a diplomatic mission to the court of the Chinese Emperor and this was reciprocated in 648 CE, when Emperor Tang Taizong sent Wang Xuance as his Ambassador to Harshavardhana’s court. But, alas, Harshavardhana was no more.
The End of Harshavardhana
After a reign of 40 years, Harshavardhana died in 646-647 CE. Surprisingly, he appears to have left behind no heirs and there is no knowledge whatsoever of any marriage contracted by him or any sons. However, even more surprisingly, we know he had at least one daughter who was married to the King of Vallabhi. This is one of the perplexing mysteries of his otherwise glorious reign.
Chinese records tell us that upon his death, Harshavardhana was briefly succeeded by Arunavasa, who proclaimed himself ‘King of Kanauj’. He was one of Harshavardhana’s ministers and he usurped the throne. He also attacked Wang Xuance, who escaped to Tibet. According to Chinese records, Wang Xuance returned to India with an army made up of Tibetan forces and also Lichchhavi armies, who defeated Arunasva and captured him and took him back to the court of the Tang Emperor. Thus ended the Vardhana dynasty of Northern India and the sun set on the Early Historical Era.
Not much is known about what happened in Northern India in the aftermath of Harshavardhana but the region seems to have undergone a tremendous upheaval as the first ruler known to us during this time is Yoshavarman of Kannauj, who ruled in the second quarter of the 8th century CE, the Gurjara-Pratihara kingdoms of Western India that rose in the first few years of the 8th century CE, and the Palas of Bengal who came to prominence in the last decade of the 8th century CE.
Thus a 50-75 year interregnum existed between the end of the Vardhanas and the rise of the Early Medieval Dynasties of Northern India. Harshavardhana’s death left behind a vacuum in Northern India and the Empire shattered into pieces.
This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.
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