The seven centuries between 500 and 1200 CE were a time of great upheaval in North India. Gone were the Imperial Guptas, holding together the Valley of the Ganga from their seat in Pataliputra. Instead, there was a patchwork of regional kingdoms – the Maitrakas in Gujarat, the Early Kalachuris in Madhya Pradesh, the Pushyabhutis in Haryana, the Maukharis in Uttar Pradesh, the Later Guptas in Bihar and Bengal, the Varmans in Assam, and the Shailodbhavas in Odisha. Further afield were the Nezak Hunas of Afghanistan, the Rais of Sindh, the Alakhana Hunas of Kashmir and Punjab, the Licchavis of Nepal, the Chalukyas of Deccan and the Pallavas of Tamil Nadu.
The imperial system built up by the Guptas had collapsed and given way to a new mode of governance. Kings relied on a network of ‘mahasamantas’ and ‘samantas’, essentially big and small feudatories, to exercise power. Once a king defeated another, he would demand tribute and homage in return for the vanquished monarch’s right to retain his territory, dignity and honour. Lesser ‘samantas’ were given land grants in return for discharge of military service and administrative responsibilities. The same privilege was extended to brahmana priests and temples. The ‘samanta’ system marked a feudal turn in the socio-economic history of India.
Conflict was common as claimants, big and small, clashed with each other for land and treasure. The turmoil of the temporal world was reflected by the churning of the spiritual world. The tenets of Vedic Hinduism were becoming a distant memory, replaced by Puranic Hinduism. Buddhism was experiencing a slow retreat. While North India splintered into a multiplicity of kingdoms, South India enjoyed a resurgence. The Chalukyas of Vatapi and the Pallavas of Kanchi ruled over extensive domains, boasting of immense wealth, mighty armies and great fame. They were interacting with the other great civilizations of Asia, Persia in the west and China in the east.
It was in this milieu that the figure of Harshavardhana emerged. He alone came close to reviving the imperial system of the Mauryas, Kushans and Guptas. But it was not to be. His empire (r. 606-647 CE) would collapse after his death, inaugurating a period of anarchy spanning seven decades in North India. But it was a period like no other in the region’s history. Why? Because this was when two documents describing the geography, society, economy and culture of India were composed – Xuanzang’s ‘Great Tang Records on the Western Regions’ and Bana’s ‘Deeds of Harsha’. Both writers, close to this Indian ‘king of kings’ left behind accounts that are rare for their systematic and detailed treatment of ancient India. I will be dealing with Harshavardhana and his biography, ‘Deeds of Harsha’ or ‘Harshacharita’, in the following posts.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows Emperor Harsha paying homage to Buddha. It is part of a series of illustrations focusing on Indian history, from ‘Hutchinson’s Story of the Nations’.
- India: The Ancient Past (A History of the Indian-Subcontinent from 7000 BC to AD 1200) by Burjor Avari (2007)
- The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 by Romila Thapar (2002)
- The Culture and Civilization of India in Historical Outline by DD Kosambi (1964)