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The Vardhanas

The Vardhanas

The Vardhanas

• After the decline of the Guptas dynasty north India again split up into several kingdoms.
• The Hunas established their supremacy over Kashmir, Punjab and western India from about A.D. 500 onwards.
• North and western India passed under the control of about half a dozen feudatories who parcelled out Gupta empire among themselves
• Gradually one of these dynasties ruling at Thanesar in Haryana extended its authority over all the other feudatories. The ruler who brought it about was Harshavardhana (A.D. 606-647).
• The source for information about the rise of the family of Pushyabhutis which first ruled from Thaneshwar in Haryana and later from Kanauj in Uttar Pradesh included the text Harshacharita of Banabhatta, accounts of Huen Tsang and some inscriptions and coins, etc.
• According to Banabhatta the founder king of this dynasty at Thaneshwar was Pushyabhuti and that the family was known as Pushyabhuti vamsa.
• However, the inscriptions of Harsha make no reference of Pushyabhuti.
• The Banskhera and Madhuvan plates and royal seals mention five earlier rulers among whom the first three are given the title of maharaja. This may indicate that they were not sovereign monarchs.
• The fouth king Prabhakarvardhana has been described as a Maharajadhiraja which makes means that he was an independent monarch and had established matrimonial relations with the Maukharis by marrying his daughter Rajyasri with Grahavarman.
• Thaneshwar, during this time (about 604) was threatened by the Hunas from the western side.
• Banabhatta has described Prabhakarvardhana as “a lion to the Huna deer”. According to him an army under Rajyavardhana was sent to defeat the Hunas but due to the sudden illness of his father he had to come back.
• With Prabhakarvardhana’s death, the family had to face troubled times for a while.
• The Malaya king Devagupta killed Grahavarman and took Rajyasri prisoner.
• The Malaya and the Gauda kings entered into alliance and even Thaneshwar was threatened.
• Rajyavardhana defeated the Malavas but was killed through treachery by Sasanka, the Gauda king and Harsha succeeded his brother at Thaneswar.
• His first responsibility was to rescue his sister and to avenge the killings of his brother and brother-in-law. He first rescued his sister when she was about to immolate herself.

Harsha’s Military Conquests

• In his first expedition, Harsha drove out Sasanka from Kanauj and made it his new capital.
• This made him the most powerful ruler of north India.
• Harsha fought against Dhuruvasena II of Valabhi and defeated him. Dhuruvasena II became a vassal.
• The most important military campaign of Harsha was against the Western Chalukya ruler Pulakesin II. Both the accounts of Hiuen Tsang and the inscriptions of Pulakesin II provide the details of this campaign. Harsha with an ambition to extend his kingdom south of the Narmada river marched against the Chalukya ruler. But the Aihole inscription of Pulakesin II mentions the defeat of Harsha by Pulakesin.
• Pulakesin after this achievement assumed the title Paramesvara. Hiuen Tsang’s accounts also confirm the victory of Pulakesin.
• Harsha led another campaign against the ruler of Sindh, which was an independent kingdom.
• Nepal had accepted Harsha’s overlordship.
• Harsha established his control over Kashmir and its ruler sent tributes to him.
• He also maintained cordial relations with Bhaskaravarman, the ruler of Assam.
• Harsha’s last military campaign was against the kingdom of Kalinga in Orissa and it was a success.
• Thus Harsha established his hold over the whole of north India. The regions modern Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa were under his direct control. But his sphere of influence was much more extensive.
• The peripheral states such as Kashmir, Sindh, Valabhi and Kamarupa acknowledged his sovereignty.

Harsha and Buddhism

• In his early life, Harsha was a devout Saiva but later he became an ardent Hinayana Buddhist.
• Hiuen Tsang converted him to Mahayana Buddhism.
• Harsha prohibited the use of animal food in his kingdom and punished those who kill any living being.
• He erected thousands of stupas and established travellers’ rests all over his kingdom.
• He also erected monasteries at the sacred places of Buddhists.
• Once in five years he convened a gathering of representatives of all religions and honoured them with gifts and costly presents.
• He brought the Buddhist monks together frequently to discuss and examine the Buddhist doctrine.}

Kanauj Assembly

• Harsha organized a religious assembly at Kanauj to honour the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang towards the close of his reign. He invited representatives of all religious sects.
• It was attended by 20 kings, 1000 scholars from the Nalanda University, 3000 Hinayanists and Mahayanists, 3000 Brahmins and Jains.
• The Assembly went on continuously for 23 days.
• Hiuen Tsang explained the values of Mahayana doctrine and established its superiority over others.
• However, violence broke out and there were acts of arson and there was also an attempt on the life of Harsha. Soon, it was brought under control and the guilty were punished.
• On the final day of the Assembly, Hiuen Tsang was honoured with costly presents.

Allahabad Conference

• Hiuen Tsang mentions in his account about the conference held at Allahabad, known as Prayag.
• It was the one among the conferences routinely convened by Harsha once in five years.
• Harsha gave away his enormous wealth as gifts to the members of all religious sects.
• According to Hiuen Tsang, Harsha was so lavish that he emptied the treasury and even gave away the clothes and jewels he was wearing. His statement might be one of admiring exaggeration.

Harsha’s Administration

• Harsha governed his empire on the same lines as the Guptas did, except that his administration had become more feudal and decentralized.
• It is stated that Harsha had 100,000 horses, and 60,000 elephants. This seems to be astonishing because the Mauryas, who ruled over practically the whole of the country except the deep south, maintained only 30,000 cavalry and 9,000 elephants.
• Harsha could possess a larger army only if he could mobilize the support of all his feudatories at the time of war Evidently every feudatory contributed his quota of foot soldiers and horses, and thus made the imperial army vast in numbers
• Land grants continued to be made to priests for special services rendered to the state.
• In addition Harsha is credited with the grant of land to the officers by charters.
• These grants allowed the same concessions to priests as were allowed by the earlier grants.
• According to the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang the revenues of Harsha were divided into four parts. One part was earmarked for the expenditure of the king, a second for scholars, a third for the endowment of officials and public servants, and a fourth for religious purposes.
• Hsuan Tsang also mentions that ministers and high officers of the state were endowed with land.
• The feudal practice of rewarding and paying officers with grants of land seems to have begun under Harsha. This is natural because not many coins have been issued by Harsha.
• In the empire of Harsha law and order was not well maintained. The Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang, about whom special care may have been taken by the government, was robbed of his belongings, ,although he reports that according to the laws of the land severe punishments were inflicted for crime. Robbery was considered to be a second treason for which the right hand of the robber was amputated.
• It seems that under the influence of Buddhism the severity of punishment was mitigated, and criminals were imprisoned for life.

Society and Economy under Harsha

• Both Bana and Hiuen Tsang portray the social life in the times of Harsha.
• The fourfold division of the society – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vysya and Sudra – was prevalent.
• The Brahmins were the privileged section of the society and they were given land grants by the kings.
• The Kshatriyas were the ruling class.
• The vysyas were mainly traders.
• Hiuen Tsang mentions that the Sudras practiced agriculture.
• Both Bana and Hiuen Tsang talk about the existence of many subcastes such as the class of vernacular poets, class of bards, class of betal-bearers, and so on. However, all those groups and subcastes were not new to this period and at least some of them existed in the earlier periods.
• The rise of those subcastes was due to the social violation in the code of marriages and general ethics, and also different occupations.
• Hiuen Tsang takes note of many outcastes and untouchables such as butchers, fishermen, executioners and scavengers, who were segregated and were not allowed to mix with the people of the higher varnas and had habitations marked by a distinguishing sign.
• The position of women was not satisfactory.
• The institution of Swyamvara (the choice of choosing her husband) had declined.
• Remarriage of widows was not permitted, particularly among the higher castes.
• The system of dowry had also become common.
• The practice of sati was also prevalent. Hiuen Tsang mentions three ways of disposal of the dead – cremation, water burial and exposure in the woods.
• The trade and commerce had declined during Harsha’s period. This is evident from the decline of trade centres, less number of coins, and slow activities of merchant guilds.
• The decline of trade in turn affected the handicrafts industry and agriculture. Since there was no large scale demand for goods, the farmers began to produce only in a limited way.
• This led to the rise of self-sufficient village economy.
• In short, there was a sharp economic decline as compared to the economy of the Gupta period.

Cultural Progress

• The art and architecture of Harsha’s period are very few and mostly followed the Gupta style.
• Hiuen Tsang describes the glory of the monastery with many storeys built by Harsha at Nalanda.
• Hiuen Tsang also speaks of a copper statue of Buddha with eight feet in height.
• The brick temple of Lakshmana at Sirpur with its rich architecture is assigned to the period of Harsha.
• Harsha was a great patron of learning.
• His biographer Banabhatta adorned his royal court. Besides Harshacharita, he wrote Kadambari.
• Other literary figures in Harsha’s court were Matanga Divakara and the famous Barthrihari, who was the poet, philosopher and grammarian.
• Harsha himself authored three plays – Ratnavali, Priyadarsika and Nagananda.
• Harsha patronised the Nalanda University by his liberal endowments. It attained international reputation as a centre of learning during his reign. Hiuen Tsang visited the Nalanda University and remained as a student for some time.


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