HARSHA VARDHANA, KING OF THANESAR & KANAUJ
c. 590-c. 647
Harsha Vardhana was born circa 590, the son of King Prabhakara Vardhana of Thanesar (in the Punjab) and Queen Yasovati “in the month Jyaistha, on the twelfth day of the dark fortnight, the Pleiads being in the ascendant, just after the twilight time. ”
For an ancient Indian king, his life is well documented. There are inscriptions, travel records of Hsuan Tsang, a Chinese pilgrim, and Harsha Charita by Bana, the court chronicler. (Most of the quotations in this sketch are from the Harsha Charita. )
His family background is also well documented. He was of the Maukhari dynasty of Kanauj. His father is thought to have been the son of a Gupta princess. He was a petty chief in a district called Sthanvisvara in the land of Srikantha. He fought against the Huns who were invading India around this time, and he conquered much of north India. In the inscriptions it is recorded that he was the “one whose fame spread beyond the four seas, and to whom submitted other kings in power or love. “He called himself Maharajadhiraja (Supreme King of Great Kings) and was the son of Aditya Vardhana and grandson of Rajya Vardhana I who were merely Maharajas.
Harsha had a brother, Rajya, and a sister, Rajyasri, both of whom were older than he was. The sister was married off to Prince Graha Varman, the son of Avanti Varman, king of Kanauj. Shortly after that, Rajya Vardhana, the elder, brother was off fighting the Huns because the king was too old and feeble to do so himself. During this time young Harsha, aged about 16, was hunting lions, tigers and boars in the foot hills. When he learned that his father the king was dying, he hurried to his side. The king’s last words to Harsha were:
“Succeed to this world, appropriate my treasury, make prize of the feudatory kings, support the burden of royalty, protect the people, guard well your dependents, practise well your arms, annihilate your foes. ”
When Rajya arrived on the scene, bandages covering up arrow wounds suffered from Hun arrows, he was so saddened by his father’s death that he resolved to renounce the world and become an ascetic, leaving his throne to his younger brother, Prince Harsha. But Prince Harsha persuaded him to remain on the throne.
He did not remain on the throne long. A servant of Rajyasri, bought word that her husband, Graha Varman, had been killed by Deva Gupta, the “wicked lord of Malwa”, and that the Rajyasri “has been confined like a brigand’s wife with a pair of iron fetters kissing her feet and cast into prison. ”
As if that were not enough, the servant reported that Deva Gupta was planning to attack Thanesar. Rajya immediately mounted a campaign against Malwa, was victorious in short order but afterwards was assassinated by Sasanka, the king of Gauda. The situation that confronted the 16-year-old Harsha was that both Kanauj and Thanesar had been deprived of their kings. At this point in his life Harsha had been contemplating entering a Buddhist monastery, but when the ministers of Kanauj asked him to assume the throne of Kanauj, he was reluctant to accept it.
This point has been disputed by historians. According to Hsuan Tsang, however, he went to consult a statue of Buddha. When he approached it, the statue came to life and asked him what he wanted. He said he was troubled over the deaths of his father and his brother and that he was hesitant to accept the “royal dignity” that was being offered him. Buddha informed him that he had been a hermit in his previous life and that because of meritorious conduct, he had been born a prince in this life. Therefore, he should accept the kingship and “if you give your mind to compassionate the condition of the distressed and cherish them, then before long you shall rule over the five Indies. ”
Harsha Vardhana, king of Thanesar and Kanauj, on accepting the “royal dignity”, was first confronted with two tasks: to rescue his sister and to punish his brother’s murderer.
Rajyasri had managed to escape from her captivity and hide out in the Vindhya Forest. When Harsha found her, it was not a moment too soon. In despair, she was about to throw herself on a funeral pyre. Harsha saved her in the nick of time.
During the next six years (606-612) Harsha waged war against his enemies and established an empire that extended more or less from Gujarat to Assam. Gauda was not subdued until 619.
There is considerable difference of opinion among historians as to the exact dimensions of Harsha’s kingdom. It was not a tightly knit empire. Conquered kings remained on their thrones but were required to pay tribute and homage to Harsha. The area directly under his control consisted of modern Uttar Pradesh and parts of Rajasthan and the Punjab.
Around 620 he attempted an invasion of the Deccan, and after his death in about 647, his kingdom disintegrated.
He was a patron of the arts and religion, both Buddhist and Hindu, and he gave a gift of a temple, about 35 metres in height made of brass or bronze, to the famous university at Nalanda.
According to R. C. Majumdar, Harsha “was undoubtedly one of the greatest rulers of ancient India. “Bana, his biographer, paid the greatest tribute:
“Through him the earth does, indeed, possess a true king! Wonderful is his royalty, surpassing the gods!”
Suggested Further Reading
Harsa-carita/ tr. by E. B. Cowell and F. W. Thomas. — London : Royal Asiatic Society, 1929.
xiv, 284 p. ; 22 cm. — (Oriental Translation Fund new series)
- Hsuan Tsang.
Si-yu-ki. Buddhist records of the ancient world. — New York : Paragon, 1968.
2 v. in 1 ; 23 cm.
- Mukherjee, Radha Kumud.
Harsha. — London : Oxford University Press, 1926.
203 p. : ill. , facsims. , fold. map ; 19 cm.