Harshavardhana ruled between 606-647 CE. The turmoil that marked this period of North Indian history can be understood in terms of the interactions between three major lineages – the Later Guptas (of Bihar and Bengal), the Maukharis (of Uttar Pradesh) and the Pushyabhutis (of Haryana). With the centralized order established by the Imperial Guptas in disarray, a new system of competing regional polities with shifting alliances of kings, and big and small feudatories (the ‘mahasamantas’ and ‘samantas’) emerged. Their conflict provided the drama that marked the rise of Harsha.
The Later Guptas had served as feudatories of the Imperial Guptas. After the collapse of their overlords, they controlled the region of Bihar and Bengal. Their capital was the ancient city of Pataliputra (modern Patna). The Later Guptas included the following kings (arranged in chronological order leading upto Harsha’s reign) – Krishnagupta, Harshagupta, Jivitagupta, Kumaragupta, Damodaragupta and Mahasenagupta. Krishnagupta, seen as the founder of the clan, was a contemporary of Harivarman, the founder of the Maukharis. Eager to exploit the opportunity presented by the fragmentation of the Gupta Empire, Krishnagupta had his daughter married to Harivarman’s son.
The Maukharis ruled from the city of Kannauj (Kanyakubja). Harivarman’s son, Adityavarman had married the daughter of Krishnagupta, patriarch of the Later Guptas. But the friendly relations did not last long, reflecting the fluid nature of political equations. The list of Maukhari kings (arranged in chronological order leading upto Harsha’s reign) is as follows – Harivarman, Adityavarman, Ishvaravarman, Ishanavarman, Sarvavarman and Avantivarman. Ishanavarman and Kumaragupta clashed to gain ascendancy (probably over the city of Prayaga, in eastern Uttar Pradesh, on the Maukhari-Later Gupta frontier). The next Maukhari king, Sarvavarman avenged the defeat by killing Damodaragupta in a grim battle.
Interestingly, Damodaragupta’s daughter married the Pushyabhuti scion Adityavardhana. Damodaragupta’s son – Mahasenagupta allied himself with the Pushyabhutis of Thanesar (Sthanishvara) to counter the Maukharis. The line of Pushyabhuti kings leading upto Harshavardhana is as follows – Naravardhana, Rajyavardhana I, Adityavardhana, Prabhakaravardhana and Rajyavardhana. They were considered descendants of a legendary figure, Pushyabhuti, hailing from Thanesar. It was under the watch of Prabhakaravardhana (father to Rajyavardhana, Harshavardhan and Rajyashri) that the clan would rise to prominence. He chose to ally himself with the Maukharis.
Meanwhile, the Later Guptas had been brought to their knees. Mahasenagupta was challenged by three ambitious monarchs – (Maukhari) Sarvavarman, (Tibetan) Songtsen Gampo and (Chalukya) Kirttivarman I. Far to the northwest, in Punjab, Kashmir and Afghanistan, the Hunas presented a real and significant threat. Prabhakaravardhana’s vast estates were the product of thoughtful matrimonial alliances. His mother was the sister of Mahasenagupta. Forced out of their kingdom by invaders, Mahasenagupta’s sons (Prabhakaravardhan’s maternal cousins) – Kumaragupta and Madhavagupta, took refuge in the Pushyabhuti court. They were companions to the Pushyabhuti princes – Rajyavardhana and Harshavardhana. This was the scenario in the years making up Prabhakaravardhana’s reign.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows the political division of India around 590 CE, prior to the reign of Emperor Harsha (r. 606-647 CE). It was uploaded by Woudloper, a Swiss geologist.
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