Harshavardhana succeeded where others failed because of his superior administrative and military capabilities. The Chinese pilgrim and scholar Xuanzang noted the king’s diligence and attention to detail (“He forgot sleep and food in his devotion to good works”). Harsha undertook regular tours of his empire and organized assemblies to meet his feudatories and subjects. The Pushyabhuti domain was divided into bhuktis (provinces), vishayas (districts), pathakas (blocks) and gramas (villages). The uparikas and vishayapatis were in charge of the bhuktis and vishayas, respectively. Local government was overseen by the grama-adhyakshas (village headmen) with the help of panchayats (village councils) and mahattaras (village headmen). They were monitored by the vishayapatis sitting in the adhikaranas (district capitals).

The administration obtained revenue through a range of taxes – one-sixth of the farm produce, tolls on the usage of roads and waterways, and taxes on commodities. These allowed Harsha to meet the state’s expenses, pay his ministers and secretaries, maintain the army, and patronize scholars and religious leaders. All of this was directed from the imperial city of Kannauj, a bustling metropolis on the banks of the Ganga. Occupying a patch of land eight kilometres long and two kilometres wide, it was protected by impressive fortifications. Within the walls were well-planned quarters, neatly-constructed streets, beautiful tanks and gardens, and hundreds of Buddhist monasteries and Brahman shrines. Kannauj reflected the wealth and prosperity of Harsha’s kingdom.

The military was the most important arm of the Pushyabhuti state. In an age where order was imposed at the point of a sword, Harsha created and maintained a powerful standing army. It had thousands of war elephants (5,600), and tens of thousands of cavalry (20,000) and infantry (50,000). These numbers increased with the expansion of the empire. The infantry was commanded by officers known as baladhyakshas (commanded by a senior officer, the maha-baladhyaksha). They were light infantry, equipped with long spears and big shields. Soldiers were drilled in the use of weapons which included sabres, swords, javelins, lances, battle axes and halberds. They were accompanied by archers and slingers. Additional contingents were furnished by samantas or feudal lords.

The war elephants and cavalry were especially important. Harsha imported horses from Iran, Afghanistan and Sindh. The cavalry was led by a class of officers known as ashvapatis (headed by a maha-ashvapati).  The elephant corps were monitored by pilupatis (under the charge of a maha-pilupati). War elephants could be very destructive when properly trained. They had strong armour for protection, sharp spurs attached to their tusks, and wooden towers fastened on to their backs. Transformed into mobile fortresses, the pachyderms could wreak havoc upon enemy soldiers and camps. No wonder then that Harsha met his match in Pulakeshin II, the Chalukya monarch famed for his equally impressive war elephants.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is a miniature from the Padshahnama showing war elephants (dated to 1636 CE). The Padshahnama (Chronicle of the Emperor) was the official history of the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan’s reign (1628-1658 CE). The Mughals used war elephants much like the dynasts before them. One can see cavalry in the background and foot soldiers in the foreground. Harsha (r. 606-647 CE) also made use of war elephants to conquer North India almost a thousand years ago.

References:

  • 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)
  • Ancient Indian History and Civilization by Sailendra Nath Sen (1988)
  • The Culture and Civilization of India in Historical Outline by DD Kosambi (1964)