Emperor Harshavardhana’s Reign – Ancient Indian History

Harshavardhana’s Reign

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Harshavardhana which means the “Creator of Joy” was an eminent king in India who ruled the Vardhana dynasty during 7th century AD. The empire under his reign saw different developments and his administration was considered a capable one. He also dominated northern, and central India and several other territories. In this article, we will elaborate about Harshavardhana’s reign including the society during his times, the religion he pursued, the architecture he patronized, and the books he wrote. In the end, we have a FAQ section where you can get your most relevant questions about Harshavardhana answered.

So, without delaying any further let us start our reading adventure!

Who was Harshavardhana?

Harshavardhana was the king of the Pushyabhuta or Vardhana dynasty. He ruled from 606-647 CE. Harshavardhana was also known as Harsha. He was a prominent king who was responsible for the glory of his kingdom. He was also the last ruler of the Vardhana or Pushyabhuti dynasty.

Harshavardhana’s Early Life and Family

Harshavardhana was the son of Prabhakar Vardhana of Sthaneshvara (modern-day Haryana) who was the fourth ruler of the Vardhana or Pushyabhuti dynasty. He was born in 590 AD.

Later Harsha got married to Durgavati and they had two sons and a daughter. Harsha’s daughter married the king of Vallabhi and his sons died at the hands of his own ministers.

How did Harshavardhana come to power?

After Prabhakar Vardhana died, his eldest son Rajyavardhana became the new king.

Rajyavardhana and Harshavardhana had a sister, Rajyashri who got married to king Grahavarman of Kannauj. The Gauda king, Sasanka killed king Grahavarman and Rajyashri was held captive. Her brother Rajyavardhana tried to fight off Sasanka but was killed.

Whereupon, Harshavardhana at the age of sixteen (606 AD) ascended the throne of the Vardhana dynasty that ruled Thanesar. To avenge his brother’s murder and rescue his sister, he formed an alliance with Bhaskaravarman, the king of Kamarupa (Assam), advancing his troops towards Sasanka’s territory. Sasanka left Bengal and Harshavardhana occupied Kannauj. He later established Kannauj as the capital of his empire.

Pushyabhuti Dynasty/Harshavardhana Dynasty

Pushyabhuti founded the Vardhana dynasty around 500 CE. Harsha was the sixth king of the Vardhana empire. His policies and reforms were so great that in his empire peace and prosperity reigned. Even Chinese Buddhist traveller Xuanzang mentioned about the good measures he adopted for his empire. Under Harsha’s reign, Thanesar was united with Kannauj. Moreover, he was also able to bring together kingdoms that were disintegrated after the fall of the Gupta empire.

Territorial Extension of Harshavardhana’s Empire

The expanse of the territories under Harshavardhana’s rule comprised the northern and north-western India to the Narmada in the south.

Harshavardhana had the following states or territories under his reign:

  • Punjab
  • Uttar Pradesh
  • Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa were occupied after the death of Sasanka.
  • The Vallabhi king of Gujarat was also defeated by Harshavardhana. The two kings came to a truce when Harsha offered a proposal for him by marrying off his daughter to the Gujarat king.
  • Rajputana
  • Kalinga
  • Harshavardhana defeated the ruler of Kannauj and made the territory its capital.
  • The feudatory territories that he ruled include Jalandhar, Kashmir, Kamarupa, Sind and Nepal. These feudatory states were strictly controlled by Harsha.

Harshavardhana’s Administration

  • The feudal system flourished during Harshavardhana’s reign. The administration of the king was a decentralised one.
  • Land was granted to officers instead of salaries.
  • Public records were maintained during Harsha’s reign.
  • Good as well as bad events were recorded in the nilopitu (archives) that was maintained by special officers.
  • There was little taxation and barely any forced labour.
  • 1/6 of the agricultural produce was deducted as land tax.
  • The king carried out frequent inspections to ensure if the administration is in order.
  • Four types of militaries existed during Harshavardhana’s reign- infantry, cavalry, chariotry and elephantry. The number of troops was superior to that of the Mauryans. Harshavardhana had enough military prowess and was therefore a competent military conqueror.
  • Akin to Mauryan times, cruel punishments were meted out to criminals.
  • Harsha carried out diplomatic discussions with China.


Economy and Society During Harshavardhana’s Reign


  • The society during Harshavardhana’s reign was divided into four castes or varnas, namely Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vysyas and Shudras. Lands were gifted to the Brahmins by the kings, the Kshatriyas engaged in warfare, the Vysyas and Shudras were involved in trading and agriculture respectively. Apart from these, there were other sub-castes.
  • Swayamvar which was the tradition of choosing one’s own husband, disappeared. Widow remarriage, especially for higher castes, was abolished. Dowry practice and sati pratha (sacrificing a widow to the funeral pyre of her husband) came into being. Thus, the society took backward steps in regard to women and her rights.
  • The dead were either cremated, given a water burial or left exposed in the woods.
  • Trade and commerce did not flourish during Harshavardhana’s reign. As a result, handicraft and agriculture were quite affected. The empire was left with its own produce.

Architecture During Harshavardhana’s Reign

  • The architecture during Harshavardhana’s reign resembled those of the Gupta Empire.
  • Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang talks about an 8 feet tall Buddha statue made of copper.
  • There is also the mention of a multi-storey monastery at Nalanda (modern-day Bihar).
  • Extant architectural evidence belonging to the Harshavardhana period is the temple of Lakshman at Sirpur, Chhattisgarh.

Harshavardhana Books During His Reign

Harshavardhana was a patron of the arts and a great writer himself. The drama books written by him include Ratnavali, Priyadarshika and Nagananda.

He also provided ample support to Nalanda University in present-day Bihar. The Nalanda University is considered to be the world’s very first residential institution that is also one of the greatest centres of learning in ancient India.

Extant Archaeological Evidences of the Harshavardhana Dynasty

  • Harshacharita was written by his court poet, Bana. The account records the life and deeds of king Harsha.
  • As already mentioned, books written by Harshavardhana exist today.
  • Sonpat inscription
  • Madhuban plate inscription
  • Banskhera inscription consists of Harshacharita’s signature


Text for image: Harshacharita’s signature}

  • Temple of Lakshman at Sirpur, Chhattisgarh

Foreign Travellers on Harshavardhana’s Reign

Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang who visited India gave a favourable account on Harshavardhana’s reign and administration. In his accounts, the traveler commended his generosity and justice.

Chinese Buddhist traveler Xuanzang also praised the deeds of Harsha.

Harshavardhana’s Conversion to Mahayana Buddhism

Initially, Harshavardhana belonged to the Shaiva tradition that worships the Hindu lord, Shiva. Gradually, he became a follower of Mahayana Buddhism.

He was tolerant towards all religions and conducted assemblies consisting of representatives of those faiths. The gatherings took place once in every five years. Two such gatherings are Kannauj Assembly and Prayag/Allahabad Assembly. In Kannauj Assembly, an assassination attempt was made at Harshavardhana and in the Allahabad Assembly, Harsha nearly gave away everything in the royal treasury.

End of Harshavardhana’s Reign

Harshavardhana was defeated by Chalukyan ruler Pulakesin II and his ambition of extending his empire beyond Narmada was cut short by the Battle of Narmada. This brought about the end of Harshavardhana’s reign. We find evidence of Harsha’s defeat in the Aihole inscription. After Harshavardhana’s reign, Arunasva who was the emperor’s former minister, ruled Tirhut, Kannauj for a brief period before the Varman dynasty took over.

Final Thought!

Harshavardhana’s reign lasted 41 years and he became the great warrior king of the Vardhana or Pushyabhuti dynasty. The empire itself was short-lived and its true founder remains debatable. However, one tends to recall Harshavardhana out of all the kings of the dynasty because of his good administration and rule.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Who is the founder of Vardhana dynasty?

The founder of the Vardhana dynasty is Pushyabhuti. Prabhakar Vardhana was the notable fourth king of the Vardhana dynasty.

What was the historical source of Harsha’s rule?

The different historical sources of Harsha’s rule are Harshacharita (written by Bana), Hieun Tsang’s accounts, Sonpat inscription, Madhuban plate inscription, Banskhera inscription, Harshavardhana’s books etc.

Who defeated Harshavardhana?

The Chalukyan or South Indian ruler Pulakesin II defeated Harshavardhana in the Battle of Narmada.

When did Harshavardhana die?

Harshavardhana died at the age of 57 years in 647 A.D.

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