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Small Kingdoms of India (AD 500-750), Harshavardhan, Huns

The decline of the Gupta Empire was a combination of weak rulers and invasions by the nomadic tribesmen from Central Asia. The rise of a number of independent kingdoms in the peripheral areas of the erstwhile mighty Gupta Empire also weakened the power of the Guptas and contributed to their downfall. The only significant ruler that emerged during the age of the small kingdoms was Harshavardhan.


As the Gupta Empire was mainly concentrated in the northern part of India, its decline led to a period of confusion in this region. The region saw a rise of a number of smaller kingdoms, which constantly fought with each other. The period between the decline of the Gupta Empire to the rise of Harshavardhan in the 7th century AD was a time of political chaos and the literature of the period throw light on the events of that time.

This period witnessed the growing activity of the nomadic tribesmen of Central Asian grasslands, known as the Huns. These tribesmen tried to make inroads into China but their designs were repulsed by the might of the Chinese rulers. Having tasted defeat, they became restless and soon swept across vast areas of central Asia. The material wealth of India made them attack north India in the 5th century AD. Wave after wave of Huns swept into northern India and, having weakened the already declining Gupta Empire, took control of parts of northwestern India. By the early 6th century AD, Hun leaders like Toramana and Mihirakula became rulers of Punjab and Kashmir. The Huns remained powerful for about hundred years before their decline.

At this time, India again witnessed a wave of migrations from Central Asia and Iran. The migrants into who came into India were readily assimilated by the all-embracing Indian culture. These migrants became a part of the Indian society to the extent that existing division of the society based on caste system saw the rise of a new concept of sub-castes.

The northern part of the Indian subcontinent was splintered into a number of small warring states, each seeking to establish its own supreme power. The ability to create large kingdoms was beyond the rulers of northern India, but this was not the case with the southern part of the country, where some great kingdoms like those of Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas, Pallavas, and Cholas emerged.


The first serious attempt to build a mighty empire after the decline of the Gupta Empire was made by Harshavardhan in the first half of the 7th century AD. Harshavardhan belonged to the Pushabhukti family, which ruled Thanesar (near modern-day Kurukshetra) region, north of Delhi. Harsha ascended the throne at an early age at the death of his brother in 606 AD. However, his young age did not deter him to become one of the most powerful rulers of northern India.

We have substantial information about the life and rule of Harsha from the biography written by one of his court poets by the name of Bana. This biography is popularly known as Harshacharita (memoir of Harsha), which vividly paints a picture of Harsha's life and his times. Hieun Tsang, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim and traveler, who visited India during the reign of Harsha, also describes the reign of Harsha in detail in his travelogues.

Harsha moved his capital from Thanesar to Kannauj because of its strategic location. The empire of Harsha extended in the north from Punjab, eastern Rajasthan and the Gangetic plains, as far as Assam. However, his ambitions to conquer the Deccan and southern parts of India were foiled by the army of Pulakeshin II, the Chalukyan King of Vatapi (Badami), in the northern part of Karnataka.


The administration of Harsha's Empire was similar to that of the Guptas. While the core region of the empire was directly under the rule of the king and his imperial officials, the peripheral regions of the empire was ruled by feudal kings. The feudal kings were either conquered by Harsha or they accepted his power, in lieu of protection. These feudal kings paid regular tribute to Harsha and gave him military help when he was fighting a war. Most of these rulers accepted Harsha's power over them, but they remained independent in matters of local governance and made their own decisions.

It is said that Harsha embraced Buddhism in his later years. He continued his patronage to other religions as well. Harsha was happy when he met Hieun Tsang, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim and traveler, who traveled through India in his time. Hieun Tsang has said that Harsha was a well-read man. He also observed in his travelogues that Buddhism was not that popular in all parts of India, as he had thought it would be. However, he writes about the popularity of Buddhism in the eastern parts of India and the fame of the ancient Buddhist university of Nalanda (near Patna), which continued to attract students of Buddhism from the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Hieun Tsang stayed in the monastery of Nalanda for a few years.

He also observed about the day-to-day life of the people and their culture. He wrote about the rigid and exploitative nature of caste system in India and the growing difference between the rich and the poor people in the Indian society at that time. He described Indians to be honest and simple, though he talks of various punishments given to criminals.


The empire of Harsha died with him, as he did not have any heir to his throne. With Harsha's death, the whole of north India was once again thrown into chaos. His kingdom rapidly broke up into small units, which constantly fought with each other. Meanwhile, the situation in the Deccan and south India was quite different from that in the north. The kingdoms in these parts of India became large and powerful.