There is a general lack of information regarding events and developments that took place in the latter half of the 6th century A.D. within the Indian sub-continent. The political history is incoherent and the period can at best be considered one of ambiguity and transition—there are no great names that emerge and there are no great events reported. However, it is certain that intellectual activity continued, even though it may have been at a slower pace than during the Gupta era. The intellectual developments that emerged are the only activities that illuminate an otherwise political darkness.

The fundamental factor that emerges from 6th century A.D. is the gradual reassertion of the Vedic Brahminism in a slightly different garb. As a corollary, this revival also manifested in the gradual decline of Buddhism in the region, a development that was starkly illustrated by the accounts left behind by the first two Chinese pilgrim travellers in India—Fa Hien and Hieun Tsang. The difference in time between their visits was less than two centuries; Fa Hien visiting in 5th century A.D. and Hieun Tsang in the first half of the 7th century A.D., a gap of less than two hundred years. Even in this short time span, the decline in the status and circumstances of the Buddhist religion generally and that of its monasteries in particular was visible and recorded. Fa Hien writes of Dharma being predominant in all aspects of Indian life; of the existence of a large number of richly endowed and flourishing Sanghas; of monasteries that were the centres of learning, full of monks single-mindedly pursuing the Eight-fold path as described by Gautama the Buddha; and of these monks being held in high esteem by the rest of the population. Merely a 150 years later Hieun Tsang clearly mentions the fact that Buddhism was in decline, having been undermined by a revitalised, but still basic, form of Brahminical Hinduism.

“In India thus the 6th century after Christ was essentially a period of transition. It may with sufficient accuracy be characterised as an age of preparation when the forces of historical growth were working imperceptibly towards a mighty religious transformation.”

Kavalam Madhava Panikkar,

Sri Harsha of Kanauj: A Monograph on the History of India in the First Half of the 7th Century A.D., p. 8.

The 6th century A.D. while being an age of abstruseness was also witness to great religious transformation. It saw, once and for all, the withdrawal of Buddhism as a primary religion in India and the reassertion of the Hindu genius. In an obtuse manner this development is not difficult to understand. At the fundamental level Buddhism had begun as a reforming movement to a moribund ‘Hindu’ religion, and over a period of centuries had itself become entrenched in dogma and inflexibility. Therefore, it is not surprising that once the basic religion that it was attempting to reform gradually regained its vitality through intellectual agility, the reform movement automatically become redundant. In actuality, the longevity of Buddhism in India points towards a remarkable resilience inherent in the movement. The fact remains that within India it always remained an offshoot of the fundamental religion of the sub-continent, whereas in its propagation outside the core of the Indian state, it was considered an independent religion and therefore able to establish itself as such. This could account for the existence of Buddhism as an independent religion in a number of states outside India.

Throughout the world land grants have been the fundamental foundation of feudalism, that stem from the reciprocal arrangement that such grants entail a military commitment that requires the feudal lord to provide a certain number of soldiers, fully kitted out for employment by the king as and when it is demanded. This system was already set in place in Europe by the 6th century A.D., although in India the grant of lands were still not directly connected to military service. However, there was a different aspect to the grant of lands to nobles in India. Nobles normally sub-leased the lands to ordinary villagers that in turn made the villagers dependent on the largesse of the feudal lord for their own subsistence and welfare. This dependency further made the villagers dependent on the land lords for their security. This sort of ‘sub-feudalism’ contributed to the fragmentation of centralised control of the empire by eroding the direct loyalty of the people to the central emperor. Another unintended effect of the land grants was that, over a period of time, the flow of resources to the central treasury started to diminish, which contributed directly to a lowering of the stature of the king. The combination of these two factors led to the breakdown of central authority in the Indian scene.

From the early 7th century A.D. the flow of information resumes and then becomes a flood. There emerges a large amount of information from epigraphic and numismatic sources that provide detailed accounts of the developments in the sub-continent. Further, contradictory to the indications of the breakdown of central authority and the lack of clear information regarding the state of affairs in the political landscape of India during the 6th century A.D., one last bright shaft of imperial light emerges, of a pre-Islamic empire, second to none and rivalling those that had gone before, including the empires that were built by the Mauryas and the Guptas.


The Conquering King

At this stage the centre of interest in the retelling of the historic developments in North India shifts to a place called Sthanvisvara, also spelt in various texts as Stahnavesvara. Sthanu is another name for Shiva and isvara means lord, while sthana also means a shrine—essentially within the combinations possible, the place was obviously referred to as the ‘abode of the lord’. Colloquially the place was always referred to as Thanesar, a watershed of the rivers Sutlej and Jamuna. There is also a holy implication, other than it being the abode of the lord, to this place. Thanesar was considered to be the land of the Kuru, the battlefield of legendary heroes. The area has always been crucial to the security of the sub-continent and is critical to the study of Indian history. A number of decisive battles that changed the entire complexion and flavour of the sub-continent took place in these fields.

The Pushybhuti dynasty ruled Thanesar and the surrounding area, one of the four larger dynasties of the horde of smaller ones that sprang up in the aftermath of the collapse of the Gupta Empire. The first king of stature from this dynasty to make his appearance is Prabhakara-Vardhana, although he was very much a local king. His mother was a princess of a subsidiary Gupta line; he was married to Yasovati, obviously a princess but of an obscure and untraced genealogy; and he had two sons and a daughter. The daughter, Rajyasri, was married to Grahavarman, the Maukhari king, one of the four larger dynasties. This was in keeping with the prevalent political alliances in North India amongst the four more important dynasties, where the Pushybhutis and Mukharis were aligned against the Malwa-Bengal combine. The difference between Prabhakara-Vardhana and his contemporaries was that he was ambitious and intent on increasing the power, prestige and prosperity of his kingdom. This could only be achieved through aggressive raids on neighbouring kingdoms—and Prabhakara conducted raids on the states of Western India. At this stage the Huns were still ruling some parts of the Punjab and other areas in Rajputana, essentially Gujarat and the Gujranwala provinces, were under the control of the Gujaras. In his attempt to improve the lot of his kingdom, Prabhakara-Vardhana maintained resolute peace with his eastern neighbours and pursued an aggressive and invasive policy with the West, gradually increasing his strength.

Prabhakara-Vardhana has been described as:

“…a lion to the Huna deer, a burning fever to the king of the Indus land, a troubler of the sleep of Gujarat, a bilious plague to the scent elephant the Lord of Gandhara, a looter to the lawlessness of the Latas, an axe to the creeper of Malwa’s glory.”

Banabhatta in Harshacharita,

Translated by E.B. Cowell and F.W. Thomas,

In The Harsacarita of Bana, p. 101.

Accordingly, in 604 A.D., he send Rajya-Vardhana, his elder son, Crown Prince, and heir apparent, to attack the Huns and capture their territory in North West India. He also send his younger—and by all accounts favourite—son, Harsha-Vardhana, to follow in aid of his elder brother with the cavalry force. Harsha was 15 years old at that time and four years junior to the crown prince.

While the princes were away, Prabhakara-Vardhana fell seriously ill. Harsha who had been dallying in hunting and sport while following his brother returned to Thanesar to be with his father, who soon died. Following this there is confusion regarding the sequence of events and what transpired next. There are some indications that since Rajya-Vardhana the Crown Prince was away waging a war, some of the courtiers wanted to install Harsha on the throne immediately. The reason for this move, or whether or not this was meant only as an interim measure till Rajya returned from the war, is unclear. It could be that with the Crown Prince away at war with a fairly strong adversary and with the outcome not yet certain, the courtiers wanted to prevent any kind of power vacuum and the attendant instability at the seat of power. In any case, Rajya-Vardhana was victorious in the war with the Huns and returned to claim the throne.

Almost immediately on his assuming the throne, Rajya-Vardhana received intimation that the Malwa-Bengal alliance had attacked Maukhari; killed the king and his brother-in-law Grahavarman; and taken his sister Rajyasri hostage. It was reported that the Malwa-Bengal alliance was thereafter preparing to move against Thanesar. Rajya-Vardhana took to the field once again in a pre-emptive move to thwart the Eastern alliance, leading a force of 10,000 cavalry and a large contingent of infantry. He left Harsha behind with the majority of the heavy army, meaning the elephant corps, and supporting infantry. Rajya-Vardhana was obviously a great warrior and an astute campaigner and routed the Malwa-Bengal army without much ado. However, he was also presumably magnanimous and accepted the peace offering and overture of the Sasanka, the king of Gauda in Bengal and the leader of the Bengal faction of the alliance, for a reconciliatory meeting. Sasanka met Rajya-Vardhana on the pretext of requesting safe passage for himself and his soldiers and during the meeting treacherously murdered him. Harsha, still in Thanesar, had no option but to mobilise to take revenge and also to reclaim the Pushybhuti honour. The story of Harsha-Vardhana the Emperor begins here.

Before recounting further events that unfolded, it is necessary to provide details of the sources that provide information regarding the rule of this king, who went on to rule with great acclaim. There are two literary works, written during the time of his rule, that survive to this day and provide vivid details of Harsha’s rule and also shed light on contemporary political developments in India. First is the travelogue of the Chinese pilgrim-traveller Hieun Tsang who travelled across the length and breadth of the country between 630 and 640 A.D., noting down minute details about each state and province through which he moved. This narrative is supplemented by a biography of Hieun Tsang written by one his companions, Hwui-li that provides further details of the life and times of Harsha-Vardhana. The second source is even closer to Harsha than the Chinese travelogue. It is a historical romance called Harshacharita, meaning ‘The Deeds of Harsha’ written by Banabhatta, a Brahmin courtier. Bana, as he is commonly referred to in historical accounts, lived in Harsha’s court with the distinct possibility that he also attended Prabhakara-Vardhana’s court. In any case, he enjoyed great patronage from Harsha and wrote Harshacharita as a prose account of Harsha’s rise to power. Perhaps because of the patronage that he enjoyed, some of the statements in the book are definitely exaggerations and need to be understood as such. Therefore, they need secondary corroboration to be considered of historic value in any analysis.

Banabhatta and Harshacharita

Banabhatta was a ‘rakish’ brahman who in his younger days was found of good living and has been described by A.L. Basham as being proof of the fact that caste was no barrier to having an ill-spent youth when he stated in his book, The Wonder that was India, ‘…shows how lightly the rules of caste weighed on the educated man.’

Bana, was an outstanding writer and went on to write a number of books of which only two have survived. Of these the Harshacharita is the more important. It is an account of Harsha’s rise to kingship and power. Although more descriptive than explanatory, it is the first historical biography written in Sanskrit and is a masterpiece of literature. He recorded in minute detail the hectic lifestyle and excitement of the military camp and the imperial court as well as detailing the rural industry, and species of flora and fauna. John Keay states, ‘No Kipling, no Rushdie better evokes India’s heaving vitality or the lifelong industry of its people.’ 

Bana was Harsha’s friend, courtier and official biographer, if such a position existed at that time. In addition to Bana’s works, Harsha himself has produced few literary works that provide an insight into the king’s mind. What comes out very distinctly is that Harsha as Emperor played three distinct roles—the Conqueror, the Administrator, and the King of intellect immersed in cultural pursuits. Information regarding Harsha’s rule is also available from official Chinese histories of the period. The combination of these four varied sources and their corroboration of most of the events provide explicit information, in great detail, of the reign of this idealistic and powerful monarch. The information available is at times even more than the details available regarding the meticulously recorded Maurya rule.

Harsha – The Conqueror

The death of Rajya-Vardhana did not immediately clear the way for Harsha’s accession to the throne. While the exact reason is not clear, there seems to have been some hesitation on the part of the nobles to crown Harsha as king. With the death of the incumbent king and the Malwa-Bengal alliance massing for an invasion of the country there was fear that the country would descend into anarchy. The councillors are therefore supposed to have somewhat reluctantly acted upon the advice of Bhandi, a senior cousin of the royal household, and invited Harsha to assume the kingship. Even in this event there is a difference of opinion amongst historians. The alternate view is that Bhandi was with Rajya-Vardhana at his campaign headquarters at this time and therefore could not have influenced the councillors’ decision and that it was Senapati Simhananda, who was in the capital who took the lead to crown Harsha. The entire story becomes further convoluted because at this stage Harsha is supposed to have indicated his reluctance to take over the throne, once again the reasons are unclear. It could well have been that Harsha initially was more a regent than the king, especially considering that the Chinese work by Fang-Chi mentions of Harsha ‘administering the government in conjunction with his widowed sister’. The possibility of Rajya-Vardhana having left behind an infant son cannot be ruled out and could explain Harsha’s reluctance to become absolute king.

In the event, Harsha consulted a Buddhist oracle and accepted the responsibility of ruling the kingdom but abstained initially from any display of kingly style and pomp. He designated himself ‘Rajaputra Siladitya’, meaning Prince Siladitya, and did not assume the title of Raja or king. This further reinforces the possibility of Rajya-Vardhana having left behind an infant son.

Bana’s Account

In his chronicle Bana provides a slightly different version of Harsha’s accession to the throne. It seems that when Harsha saw his father shortly before his death, the king, Prabhakara-Vardhana, had named Harsha as the heir. However, Harsha did not mention this to his elder brother, Rajya, when he returned victorious from his war with the Huns. At this stage, according to Bana, it seems that Rajya-Vardhana was completely overcome by the death of his father and retired to a hermitage, asking Harsha to succeed their father on the throne. However, when the Maukhari episode took place, almost immediately thereafter, he is supposed to have emerged from his self-imposed exile and led the Pushyabhuti army into battle. This story is hard to believe, especially since Rajya-Vardhana by all accounts emerges as a competent war-leader and well liked prince of the regime. Bana’s reasons for making up this story—for surely it is a figment of imagination—and other information definitely provide an indication that there was some lingering misgiving regarding the circumstances that led to Harsha’s accession to the throne. Bana was presumably attempting to lull any suspicion of Harsha’s own involvement in any unsavoury event that preceded his coronation.       

Irrespective of the different versions of his coming to the throne, it is clear that there was some obstacle to his becoming the king. He ultimately had to rely on the nobles of the State Council to elect him as the king rather than being able to stake his claim based on hereditary entitlement.  

Having become the virtual ruler of the country, even if initially as a reluctant regent, Harsha mobilised for war—not any war but for ‘Digvijaya’, or ‘world-wide conquest’. While Sasanka, the murderer of his brother, was the ultimate target, his kingdom of Gauda was thousands of kilometres east with a number of other kingdoms in-between. However, Bhaskara Varman the reigning king of Kamarupa (Assam), entered into an alliance with Harsha since his dynasty had traditionally been enemies of the Gauda kingdom. This is an example of the classic Mandala Theory at work. The Mandala Theory presupposes that a kingdom with which one has a common border will always be adversarial in their dealings and therefore should be considered a potential enemy. When this concept is considered in terms of superimposed concentric circles, the next circle of nations that have common borders with one’s own immediate neighbour should be brought into one’s alliance so that the neighbour is now surrounded. With the alliance with Bhaskara Varman, Harsha achieved this goal. If he went to war, Sasanka now faced a two-fronted conflict.

Harsha’s reaction on hearing of his brother’s murder

“Instantly on hearing this [the news of his brother’s murder] his fiery spirit blazed forth in a storm of sorrow augmented by flaming flashes of furious wrath. His aspect became terrible in the extreme. As he fiercely shook his head, the loosened jewels from his crest looked like live coals of the angry fire which he vomited forth. Quivering without cessation, his wrathful curling lip seemed to drink the lives of kings. His reddening eyes with their rolling gleam put forth, as it were, conflagrations in the heavenly spaces. Even the fire of anger, as though itself burned by the scorching power of his inborn valour’s unbearable heat, spread over him a rainy shower of sweat. His very limbs trembled as if in fright at such unexampled fury…

He represented the first revelation of valour, the frenzy of insolence, the delirium of pride, the youthful avatar of fury, the supreme effort of hauteur, the new age of manhood’s fire, the regal consecration of warlike passion, the camp-lustration day of reckoning.”

Banabhatta’s Harshacharita, (Translated by Cowell and Thomas)

As quoted in John Keay, India: A History, p. 163.

Further, Harsha now also had the defeated Malwa army at his disposal and the Maukharis were in any case his allies. During the period after Rajya-Vardhana’s death and Harsha’s assuming the throne, Rajyasri had escaped from captivity and fled to the Vindhya hills with the avowed purpose of committing sati. Harsha however had other ideas. Rajyasri was crucial to his plans to control the Maukharis, whose queen she was, and therefore after rescuing her from her hideout in the Vindhya hills, he brought her back to Kanauj, the capital of Maukhari as the Queen. Rajyasri was obviously up to this task since she was a lady of exceptional learning and is also reported to have been well-versed in Buddhist doctrine.

After Rajyasri was brought back to her kingdom, Harsha-Vardhana embarked on his military campaign ostensibly to avenge the murder of his brother, the previous king, but actually on an odyssey of conquest to enhance the stature of his kingdom. [It is also conceivable that it was necessary for him to ‘prove’ himself to his people as a prince or king of valour in order to get the acclaim that his brother had earned in battle and thereby their approval as a fitting ruler.] He was at war for the next six years. Two facts need to be noted at this juncture. First, the Harshacharita of Bana ends with Harsha re-joining his troops, who were encamped near the River Ganges while he had gone searching for his sister. The story ends with great adjectival descriptions of the conquests to come and the omens that predicted victory as well as a great, illustrious, and long reign. It is difficult to reconcile the fact that the more important and rich part of Harsha’s rule was not covered in Bana’s adulatory biography. It is also improbable that the story would end with a fulsome but futuristic praise of an as yet unproven warlord, who would subsequently go on to become a great statesman and king. The explanation could be that at this stage Bana may have fallen ill and become incapacitated, thereby not being able to continue his biographical writing. If that is indeed the case then it is also possible that the predictions of victory and a great rule is a later addition, included after the events had transpired. The only other explanation that is possible is that the rest of the book was lost, and the later additions were done to round off the available text. In either case, this is an inconclusive end to Bana’s book and indeed to his life itself.

The second fact is that the formal coronation of Harsha-Vardhana took place only in 612 A.D., although he took over the reins of the kingdom in 606 A.D. and proceeded to wage a military campaign for the first six years of his rule. This is further proof that corroborates the reports that he took the title of Rajaputra on assuming control of the kingdom and it is perhaps possible that he continued to be known by that title throughout the campaign. It may have been that Harsha felt that he had to prove himself worthy of the throne, considering that his murdered elder brother had been an accomplished and successful warrior-commander.  In some accounts, the six years of his campaign is not added to the time of his reign.

The Warrior King and his Military Campaigns

Having embarked on his ambitious conquest, Harsha devoted all his energies to the conduct of a methodical campaign. His forces by now consisted of 5000 elephants, 20,000 cavalry, and 50,000 infantry. Significantly he left behind his entire chariot-mounted force, the traditional fourth arm of all major Indian forces at that time, in his kingdom. This indicates that he had planned for a fast moving campaign wherein mobility and manoeuvrability were prized characteristics, which would be impeded with the chariot force especially in rugged terrain. There is a viewpoint, articulated much later, that Harsha deliberately aimed to ‘bring Indian under one umbrella’ but there is no evidence to sanctify this. It is highly unlikely that at the start of his campaign he could have proclaimed such an ambitious aim. Once again one is forced to believe that if at all such an aim was voiced, it was much after the successful conquests and probably done by obsequious courtiers to enhance the stature of their king. It is certain that the primary aim of the campaign was to defeat Sasanka, the Gauda king.

After conquering the greater part of North India, Harsha met Sasanka in the Great Battle of Pundra in North Bengal. The battle however, was indecisive and Sasanka escaped with only limited loss. He went on to rule a slightly diminished kingdom till his death, sometime around 620-630 A.D., although assuredly he did so as a vassal king of Harsha-Vardhana. There is no mention of any successor to Sasanka in any of the contemporary sources and on his death the kingdom was divided between Harsh and his ally, the king of Kamarupa (Assam). At the end of six years of constant war, Harsha had conquered the whole of North India including large parts of Bengal. His military forces had by then increased to 60,000 war elephants and 100,000 cavalry. On his return from his campaigns Harsha established the capital of the extended empire at Kanauj. From then on he is known as Harsha of Kanauj in a large number of writings.

The Single Defeat. Around the same time as Harsha was conquering the north, Pulakesin II, the greatest of the Chalukya rulers of Badami in the Deccan was similarly occupied in the south, carving out an equally impressive kingdom and gradually being accepted as the ‘paramount lord’ of the south. It was inevitable that the two would clash, especially considering Harsha’s reported ambition to unify India. After settling the areas annexed in the northern conquest, Harsha invaded Chalukya territory. The date of the invasion is a point of dispute and there is confusion in fixing it. Vincent Smith, the renowned historian claims the date to be 620 A.D. However, this date is manifestly wrong because the famous Aihole inscription, clearly dated as having been done in 634 A.D. that recounts the exploits and achievements of Pulakesin II, does not mention his most famous victory over his northern neighbour. Further, from 636 A.D., there is frequent reference to his victory over Harsha and he is repeatedly referred to as ‘Harsh Vicheda Hetu’, the Conqueror of Harsha. Since Pulakesin boasted of even relatively minor conquests in his inscriptions, it can be safely assumed that he would not have forgotten his greatest conquest in the Aihole inscriptions. The best date for the invasion can therefore be assumed to be 636 A.D., which also sort of falls in place with Harsha’s own progress in consolidating the North. Harsha’s invasion was brought to an abrupt halt by the Chalukya army led personally by Pulakesin II at the Narmada River. Harsha was forced to withdraw and accept the river as the border between the kingdoms. This was the only defeat that Harsha suffered in an otherwise long, illustrious and victorious military career.

Sometime between the years 633 and 641 Harsha went to war with Valabhi and defeated king Dhruvasena who fled to the dominion of Bharoch (Broach). Dhruvasena was thereafter compelled to sue for peace and married Harsha’s daughter while continuing to rule his kingdom as a feudatory vassal for the rest of Harsha’s reign. In the same campaign Harsha conquered Anadapura, Cutch (Kutchch) and southern Kathiawar. The Empire now encompassed the whole of the Gangetic Plains including Nepal, stretched from the Himalayas in the north to the River Narmada in the south and included Malwa, Gujarat and Saurashtra in the west. The last recorded campaign of the great king took place in 643 A.D., against Ganjam in the coast of the Bay of Bengal.

The Last Days

Harsha reigned for a glorious 35 years and he spend the latter part completely immersed, almost in a devotional manner, in providing good governance to his vast empire. He also became more religiously oriented, favouring Buddhist doctrine over all others. While he left most of the day-to-day functioning and the detailed administration of the various states that comprised the extended Empire to the local ‘rajas’, there was absolutely no doubt that each one of them, ruling from Valabhi in the west to Kamarupa in the east, obeyed the orders of the suzerain with alacrity. Harsha’s entire rule was one of intermittent wars, although he was also able to devote a great deal of time, and his considerable and exceptional qualities to administering the Empire. In later years he gradually started to spend an equal amount of time on religious activities. So much so, the last few years of his rule was spent in pursuing peace and piety, as interpreted by an autocratic Indian despot of the time. [This is an important point of dichotomy to note; the Indian kings had no difficulty in sanctifying themselves as non-violent rulers who even forbade the killing of stray animals while administering the death penalty in the most barbaric manner for anyone who defied this order.]

Harsha’s piety reached its zenith when he assembled a special assembly of Buddhist scholars to publicise the ‘teachings’ and writings of Hieun Tsang in 643 A.D. He created a temporary monastery to celebrate the event, which for some unfortunate reason caught fire and burned down, although with minimum loss of life. Harsha was personally inspecting the damage when he was attacked by a fanatic with a dagger. The person was caught and thereafter a Brahmin plot to assassinate the king was uncovered, with confessions that were obviously obtained under torture. The leaders of the plot, all Brahmans, were executed and another 500 exiled from the kingdom. [The concept of Buddhism, the tolerance for all lives and the theory of non-violence were all practiced only as long as the king’s writ was obeyed without any question. In medieval India, as in any other place, the level of kindness shown to rebels was minimum at best.]

Harsha died in late 646 or early 647 A.D., aged 57, leaving no heir. The reason for his death, at such a relatively early age for a king, is unknown. On Harsha’s death the throne was usurped by a Brahmin minister, Arunasva. Harsha had assiduously cultivated good relations with the new T’ang Empire in China and had exchanged several diplomatic mission with them. Arunasva, in an attempt to diminish the importance of the Buddhist elements in the court, permitted the T’ang embassy to be robbed and the members taken prisoners. This was not an act with any political overtures, but a pure and simple sectarian activity against Harsha’s bias towards Buddhism and the still vividly remembered treatment of the Brahmins after the murder plot a mere three years back. The T’ang ambassador managed to escape capture and fled to Tibet from where he mounted a resoundingly victorious reprisal raid, which resulted in Arunasva being captured and taken to China where he later died in captivity.

Essentially the Chinese attack was only a minor raid into North Bengal and does not even rate a mention in the broader recording of Indian history. It rates mention only as the first trans-Himalayan incursion by the Chinese. However, the raid also signifies the vacuum that was left at Harsha’s death—the strong sword-arm that was holding the Empire together had been laid to rest. His death brought about a loss of cohesion in the empire similar to what had happened in the 3rd and 6th centuries A.D. and was the beginning of a further realignment of kingdoms within the Indian sub-continent. Once again there is a lack of reliable records to provide any in-depth information of the jockeying for power, repositioning and shift that was taking place.

With Harsha’s death, the unity prevalent in the history of North India unravels. From this time till the 12th century, when the Sultans of Delhi brought the important provinces of North India under their direct control, there is no unified story that can be recounted. From the middle of the 7th century A.D., to approximately 1200 in the north and 1300 in the south of the sub-continent, there is no coherent and continuous narrative that can be realistically traced. Indian history once again lives up to its reputation for hiding facts and receding into obscurity; throwing up minor shafts and slivers of light every now and then to tantalise researchers and drive them on to greater effort to piece together the shards that lie scattered across time.

“…perhaps the most persuasive argument for the ephemeral nature of Harsha’s empire rests on his sudden and total eclipse.”

John Keay, India: A History, p. 166

The effervescence of Bana’s writings ensure that Harsha’s personal fame would last. However, whatever his greatness as an Emperor, the fact remains the he did not leave behind a ‘House of Harsha’ or a ‘Vardhana Dynasty’ that encompassed North India even for one generation after his passing, nor did he leave behind a legacy that could rightly be considered the foundation for a ‘Vardhana Age’. Harsha, North India’s last known ‘Chakravartin’, did not even leave behind a legacy of patronage of the arts or the cultivation of higher education. An empire whimpered to its rapid demise!   


© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014] All Rights Reserved No part of this website or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied, modified or adapted, without the prior written consent of the author. You may quote extracts from the website or forward the link to the website with attribution to For any other mode of sharing, please contact the author @ (

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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