Harsha’s empire proved to be an ephemeral entity. With his death in 647 CE, the Pushyabhutis were deprived of capable leadership. There was no heir to inherit the kingdom. His feudatories began to assert themselves. The Chinese were witness to this rapid dissolution. Harsha had established close relations with the Tang court. The Tang emperor, Taizong (r. 626-649 CE) exchanged as many as six missions in a period of eight years (from 641 to 648 CE) with the Pushyabhutis. The last of these missions arrived in 648 CE when Harsha had passed away. It included the Chinese envoy, Wang-hiuen-tse and his second-in-command, Tsiang-cheu-jenn. On their way to Kannauj, the duo was waylaid by Arjuna (or Arunasha), ruler of Tirhut (north Bihar). According to some sources, Arjuna was a minister at Harshavardhana’s court who had seized power after the monarch’s demise. The Chinese were imprisoned and their property siezed. Many members of the entourage died during the attack. But Wang-hiuen-tse managed to escape.

He fled to Tibet, and began gathering an army to defeat the usurper. Nepal, around that time, was ruled by the Lichchcavi dynasty and Bhrikuti, daughter of the Lichchcavi king, was married to the Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo, a friend of the Chinese envoy. The Tibetan ruler was also related by marriage to the Tang dynasty (he had married Princess Wencheng, daughter of a cousin of Emperor Taizong). Bhaskaravarman, the lord of Kamarupa (and feudatory of Harsha) supplied the envoy with horses and weapons. Wang-hiuen-tse, with seven hundred Lichchcavi cavalry and twelve hundred mercenaries, went back to challenge Arjuna. In an encounter that lasted three days, the usurper lost as many as three thousand soldiers to the Chinese-Tibetan-Nepalese force. Arjuna tried escaping but was captured and taken back to the Tang court along with two thousand prisoners of war. For his bravery and enterprise, Wang-hiuen-tse was honoured with the title of ‘Grand Master for the Closing Court’. Even this military intervention failed to revive the fortunes of Kannauj. Its domain would be swallowed up by ambitious samantas in Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan, Bihar and Assam.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a coin issued by Emperor Harshavardhana. It was uploaded by the Classical Numismatic Group.

References:

  • India: The Ancient Past (A History of the Indian-Subcontinent from 7000 BC to AD 1200) by Burjor Avari (2007)
  • Buddhism, Diplomacy and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600-1400 by Tansen Sen (2003)
  • The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 by Romila Thapar (2002)
  • Ancient Indian History and Civilization by Sailendra Nath Sen (1988)
  • The Culture and Civilization of India in Historical Outline by DD Kosambi (1964)