Harshavardhana, known in history books as King Harsha, was one ruler who ably unified a large part of North India from 606 to 647 AD to establish a large empire. A skilled warrior, an able administrator, a sensitive artist and writer, and a liberal supporter of religions, Harsha was a ruler with many facets.
Knowing about Harsha is the story about the rise of a king under whose rule Indian culture assimilated and flourished.
1. Harsha was the last great home-grown emperor of the Indian subcontinent.
After withering of the great Gupta dynasty that ruled much of India from Maghada, Bihar from early 4th Century to 6th Century, it was rise of Harshavardhana, who set up his capital at Kanauj (Kanpur) and united a strong empire in the sub-continent.
2. He was crowned king at 16.
It was after the assassination of his elder brother Rajyavardhana that Harsha was crowned King when he had barely turned 16. The young lad matured fast and was soon at war with rival King Shashanaka, who had assassinated his brother.
3. He held sway over vast north Indian territory.
Harsha’s large army waged battles for 6 years against the kingdoms of Valabhi, Magadha, Kashmir, Gujarat and Sindh and subjugated the rulers. Soon his empire spread from Gujarat in the west to Assam in the east, and from Kashmir in the north to Narmada River in the Deccan.
4. He maintained a battle hardened large army.
Six years of continuous warfare assimilated a large army that held in direct and indirect control most subjugated kingdoms of North India. Historical references record that Harsha’s army was capable of requisitioning 60,000 war elephants and 100,000 mounted force to ward off any external or internal threat.
5. Harsha was a benevolent king.
To establish his suzerainty, Harsha conquered many kingdoms by force but with the exception of Kannauj and Thaneswar, all others rulers were not deposed but allowed to rule their respective kingdoms after having accepted his supremacy.
6. He established diplomatic relations with China.
As rise of India and China in the 21st Century marks as shift in ego-political balances, it was in 7th Century AD that King Harsha had established diplomatic relations between the two countries with a rich cultural heritage. Chinese emissary Xuanzang even stayed at Harsha’s court for 8 years and became a personal friend of the king.
7. He was against sati, and abolished it in his kingdom.
Being a sensitive ruler, Harsha was opposed to sati, a custom where the widow was burnt live with the pyre of the dead husband. First he stopped his sister from committing sati and then he banished the custom in the kingdom.
8. Harsha permitted religious freedom.
Starting out as an orthodox Hindu, Harsha was tolerant towards all religious streams be they Jainism or Buddhism. Chinese missionary Xuanzang, who was the king’s personal friend, even depicts Harsha as a Mahayana Buddhist.
9. He was an educationist.
As a great patron of education, it was during the rule of Harsha that the famous Nalanda University attained its prime in scholarly studies and research.
10. Harsha was a man of letters, a poet and a playwright.
The king of Kanauj was a patron of the arts who cultivated poet and biographer Bana and lyrical poet Mayura. Harsha, himself was a playwright and is credited with having written the poetic plays of Nagananda, Ratnavali and Priyadarsika in Sanskrit.
11. The Kumbh Mela at Prayaga is a Harsha legacy.
Kumbh Melas, held in various places, marking a convergence of Hindu faith believers, is a tradition that spans thousands of years. The Kumbh Mela held at Prayaga, Allahabad, is believed to have been started by King Harsha.
12. Economy boomed in Harsha’s realm.
Largely an agrarian economy based in the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains, a stable empire that was well administered, had the kingdom prosper that lasted till the king’s lifetime.
13. Harsha died without an heir.
From a marriage with Durgavati, Harsha had two sons – Vagyavardhana and Kalyanvardhana. However, he died without a heir as both the two sons were killed by Arunashwa, a feudal minister in King Harsha’s kingdom.
14. Harsha’s empire crumbled after he died.
Left without a direct heir to the throne, Harsha’s realm quickly crumbled and collapsed into small states again after he died in 647 AD. His successor was weak and a defeat by the King of Bengal scattered the empire easily