Reign of Harsa of Kanauj

During the first half of the seventh century, Harṣa, a Buddhist leader, successfully, if only temporarily, united all of northern India under his rule.

Summary of Event

During the first half of the seventh century, Harṣa united North India under his rule, a reign that lasted for forty-one years. He ascended the throne of Thānesar, north of the present city of Delhi, in 606 at about sixteen years of age. The half century preceding his accession had been an era of anarchy, the result of the decline and fall of the Gupta Empire Gupta Empire (c. 312-c. 550). The Gupta era had been a golden age in India, in both politics and the arts, but the invasion of the nomadic White Huns White Huns (Hūṇas or Hephalites) toward the end of the later fifth century led to the demise of the Gupta Dynasty a century later. Early Indian history is the story of the rise and fall of empires, notably the Mauryan (c. 321-185 b.c.e.) and the Gupta, followed by periods of political fragmentation, during which, as the Indian proverb states, the “big fish eat the little fish.” Under Harṣa, political unity was restored, although only temporarily. [kw]Reign of Harṣa of Kanauj (606-647)
[kw]Harṣa of Kanauj, Reign of (606-647)
[kw]Kanauj, Reign of Harṣa of (606-647)
India;606-647: Reign of Harṣa of Kanauj[0260]
Government and politics;606-647: Reign of Harṣa of Kanauj[0260]
Pulakeśin II

Unlike many other rulers in Indian history, Harṣa is known through two significant literary sources that can be used to reconstruct portions of his life and times. Sri Harṣacarita
Harshacharita of Banabhatta, The (Bāṇa) (seventh century; The Harshacharita of Banabhatta, 1892), written by Bāṇa Bāṇa , a member of India’s Brahman or priestly caste, was the first biography of an Indian ruler to be written in Sanskrit. However, Bāṇa relates Harṣa’s life only from his birth c. 590 to shortly after he ascended the throne in 606. The second literary account is that of Xuanzang Xuanzang (Buddhist monk) , a Chinese Buddhist monk who traveled through much of India in the years between 630 and 643. After his return to China, he wrote about his experiences in India, including his dealings with Harṣa. Travel by land;Xuanzang

A number of petty North Indian kingdoms had emerged from the ashes of the Gupta Empire, all frequently engaged in warfare against each other. In the late sixth century, the kingdom of the Pushyabhutis Pushyabhutis was ruled by Prabhākaravardhana Prabhākaravardhana , the raja, or king, of Thānesar. When Prabhākaravardhana died in 605, his two sons were absent: The eldest, Rājyavardhana, was at war against the White Huns (Hūṇas), and Harṣa, the younger, was away hunting. According to Bāṇa, on his death bed, Prabhākaravardhana named his youngest son, Harṣa, as his heir, but Harṣa said nothing about his father’s deathbed decision, and therefore, his elder brother, Rājyavardhana Rājyavardhana , ascended the throne.

Prabhākaravardhana’s daughter, Rājyasrī Rājyasrī , had been married to the Maukhari king, Grahvarman of Kanauj Grahvarman of Kanauj , establishing an alliance between Thānesar and Kanauj. Shortly after Prabhākaravardhana’s death, Devagupta Devagupta , king of Malwa (Malava; in west-central India), attacked Maukhari. Grahvarman died in battle, and his queen, Rājyasrī, was captured. Rājyavardhana freed his sister by defeating Devagupta, but during truce negotiations, Rājyavardhana was treacherously slain by Ṣaṣāṇka Ṣaṣāṇka , raja of Gauḍa (modern Bengal), who was allied with the king of Malwa. After Rājyavardhana’s untimely death in 606, Harṣa succeeded his elder brother as raja of Thānesar. He was sixteen years old.

Rājyasrī, Harṣa’s sister, was freed but fled with the intent to commit suttee, or self-immolation on the funeral pyre of one’s husband, as was expected of widows. After Harṣa thwarted her suicide attempt, Rājyasrī wanted to become a Buddhist nun, but Harṣa needed her in her public role to sanction his takeover of the Maukhari Maukhari kingdom, of which she was the queen. After consolidating his rule over Maukhari, he moved his capital from Thānesar in the north to Kanauj, further east and better situated to dominate the Gangetic plain. Under Harṣa’s reign, Kanauj replaced Pataliputra as the great imperial city of North India, a position it would hold until the establishment of the Muslim Delhi sultanate in the twelfth century.

Harṣa then embarked on a series of wars in order to secure his rule, most of which were conducted after the Brahman Bāṇa concluded his narrative. Harṣa’s earliest campaigns were to the east of Kanauj against several states or petty kingdoms. He defeated Ṣaṣāṇka, although Ṣaṣāṇka continued to rule Gauḍa until his death in the 620’. Eventually Harṣa gained control of all north India, from the Arabian Sea in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the east. He was less successful as he moved south, and his incursion into the western Deccan, in the region of present-day Bombay, or Mumbai, was aborted by Pulakeśin II Pulakeśin II of the Cālukya Dynasty. At its height, Harṣa’s empire embraced more than half of the landmass of the Indian subcontinent.

There is no surviving narrative of the middle years of Harṣa’s rule, but some of his later years are covered in the account written by Xuanzang, who traveled to India with the goal of obtaining Buddhist manuscripts to take back to China. While in India, Xuanzang traveled widely, not only throughout Harṣa’s realm in the north but into the south, where he was received at the court of Pulakeśin II. He also visited a number of religious and historical sites associated with the Buddha and studied at the Buddhist monastery at Nalanda. Harṣa was ostensibly a Buddhist, but like many others during that era, he also prayed to various Hindu gods, including Śiva. Harṣa invited Xuanzang to visit his court, and impressed by the Chinese monk’s knowledge of Buddhism, in 642, he organized a great gathering at Kanauj, the capital, where eighteen vassal kings, three thousand Buddhist monks, and three thousand Hindus and Jains debated their religious differences. Religion;India
India;religion After five days, Harṣa declared Xuanzang the victor, a decision that supposedly led to a failed assassination attempt by Hindu Brahmans on the king. Harṣa wanted Xuanzang to stay in India, but in 643, the monk began his homeward journey, with Harṣa providing elephants and gold to ease the monk’s return to China, where he later wrote Datang xiyouji
Buddhist Records of the Western World (Xuanzang) (629; Buddhist Records of the Western World, 1884), an account of his travels, including his contacts with Harṣa.

Harṣa traveled widely throughout his long reign. He had a reputation of making himself accessible to his numerous peoples. A patron not only of Buddhism but also of Hinduism, Harṣa was noted for his charitable contributions. A poet, he also wrote several dramas. He died c. 647, apparently of natural causes. As he left no heir, there would be no Vardhana dynasty to replicate the earlier Maurya and Gupta Dynasties. Harṣa’s death symbolized the end of India’s classical age, and once again, India became a land of big fish eating little fish.


Harṣa was the last Buddhist or Hindu ruler to control a majority of the subcontinent until Indian independence in 1947. By the 900’, Islam had begun to penetrate northern India, culminating in the establishment of the Mughal Dynasty in 1526. Mughal rule was followed by that of the British, beginning in the 1700’. Buddhism, favored by Harṣa, was replaced by Hinduism and Islam and all but died out in the land of its birth. Unlike the earlier Mauryan rulers but similar to the Guptas, Harṣa’s kingdom lacked a centralized bureaucratic structure. A system of feudalism developed wherein the local ruling elite was given land rather than salaries and thus often became largely independent of the royal government. It took the energy and the will of a Harṣa to maintain the unity of the kingdom. Without him, the parts became greater than the whole. Nevertheless, Harṣa’s reign was significant in its own time, and because of the writings of Bāṇa and Xuanzang, it remained an example of Indian unity for later generations of Indians.

Further Reading

  • Bāṇa. The Harsa-carita of Bana. Translated by E. B. Cowell and F. W. Thomas. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1897. A translation of Bāṇa’s prose romance of the life of Harṣa.
  • Bose, Bela, trans. Harsavardhana, King of Thanesar and Kanauj. Allahabad, India: Ketabistan, 1948. A translation into English of Harṣa’s three dramas.
  • Devahuti, Deva. Harsha: A Political Study. Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1998. 3d ed. The major biography of Harṣa available in English. Includes genealogical tables and twelve plates.
  • Goyal, Shankar. History and Historiography in the Age of Harsha. Jodhpur, India: Kusumanjali Prakashan, 1992. A history of India during the era of Harṣa’s rule.
  • Goyala, Srirama. Harsha and Buddhism. Meerut, India: Kusumanjali Prakashan, 1986. A study of Harṣa’s relationship with Buddhism.
  • Srivastava, Bireshwar Nath. Harsha and His Times. Varanasi, India: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1976. An account of the political history of India during the 600’.
  • Wriggins, Sally Hovey. Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. A readable and accessible biography of Xuanzang.