North India 600-1200 AD

Dynasties of Northern India from 600 AD to 1200 AD

Harsha’s Kingdom

  • The decline of imperial Guptas led to the demise of imperial idea in India. Since most of the great empires were built in north India under great empire builders such Masa hapadmananda, Chandragupta Maurya, Asoka, Kanishka and Samudragupta, it was North India which felt the impacts of demise of imperial idea.
  • From Sixth century onwards, the entire North Indian landscape was dominated by large and small regional kingdoms.
  • Almost every individual King dreamt of a pan-India control and many of them adopted pompous titles out of sheer ego. However, it was only Harshavardhana in seventh century who came near to realising such control. Nevertheless, the consolidation done under Harsha also lasted only for his life time.
  • The reign of Harsha lasted from 606 to 648AD. Most knowledge about Harsha’s reign comes from the accounts left by his two admirers. One was his friend, courtier and biographer Banabhatta {he wrote Harshachartia} while another was Chinese traveller Huen Tsang.
  • From these two sources and also from Harsha’s own literary works, we can discern that Harsha simultaneously played role of a conqueror, administrator and a man of intellect.


Harsha as a Conqueror

  • The forefathers of Harsha were minor feudatories {probably of Guptas} in the Thaneshwar (now in Haryana) belonging to a Pushyabhuti lineage. Harsha’s father Prabhakarvardhana raised himself against the Hunas settled in north (current Punjab region) and Gurjars in South-west and assumed the title of Maharajadhiraj / Paramabhattaraka.
  • The family of Harsha is linked to Pushyabhuti of Thaneshwar. In the later part of the 6th century, the Raja of Thaneshwar, Prabhakarvardhana raised himself against the neighbors including the Hunas settled in the North Western Punjab and also the clans of the Gurjars. He assumed the title of Maharajadhiraj and Parama Bhattaraka.
  • Prabhakarvardhana had two sons viz. elder Rajyavardhana and younger Harshavardhana. In 604 AD, these two siblings were sent with large army to attack Hunas in North-western frontiers. While elder advanced to the hills, younger lingered in the forests with cavalry. While in forests, Harsha heard news of near death illness of his father and returned back.
  • It was assumed the Rajyavardhana might have been killed in North-West; Harsha was coroneted as new King. However, soon afterwards, the elder brother returned to assume the throne.
  • Their sister Rajyashri was married to a Mokhari price Grahavarman. When Rajyavardhana was engaged in North West, one remnant of Guptas called Devagupta of Malwa attacked the Mokharis and killed his brother-in-law. To seek revenge, Rajyavardhana attacked Malwa and became victorious. However, Devagupta’s friend Gaur King Sasanka laid a trap and killed Rajyavardhana by deceit. Since his son was too young, the younger brother Harsha was crowned as King. His sister was in prison and was planning to burn herself. However, Harsha traced her and brought her back. Sasanka escaped that time but later his Gaur Kingdom was annexed in Harsha’s empire. Since son of his sister was also an infant, he annexed Kanauji (capital of Mokharis of Malwa) also to his empire.
  • Harsha dreamt of bringing India under “one umbrella” and to fulfil this dream, he overran the entire north India. In five years, he conquered most of North and Central India including Gujarat in west and Bengal in East.
  • However, his victorious career was eclipsed by great Vatapi Chalukyan king Pukeshin-II. Harsha had declared himself as Uttarapathpathi {lord of the northern routes} while Pulkesin-II was no less than Dakshinapathpathi.
  • For a paramount like Harsha, it was painful to see such a mighty King as his southern neighbour. So, to overthrow Pulkesin-II, Harsha advanced his troops from all sides to South in 620 AD. But the passes on Narmada River were so efficiently guarded that the armies of Harsha were defeated on all fronts. The result of this defeat was that Harsha accepted Narmada River as his southern frontier.
  • The last major attack of Harsha was on Ganjam on Bay of Bengal coast in 642-643AD. However, after this conquest, Harsha entered into a state of self-actualization and then later part of his life was typically an imitation of Asoka.


Harsha as an administrator

  • Harsha’s territories were among the largest in entire sub-continent that time spreading from Ganga in north to Narmada in south; Vallabhi in Gujarat to Kamarupa in Assam.
  • His administration was based on the Gupta model of decentralization. Principal source of revenue was rent in crown lands. The land grants were in vogue, economy was not at par with Gupta’s classical age, routes were not safe as documented by Huen Tsang, there were severe punishments including mutilation of body parts and capital punishments.


Harsha as man of intellect

  • Harsha himself was a great patron of art and culture apart from being an accomplished author and calligraphist. He has written three plays (dramas) viz. Nagananda, Ratnavali and Priyadarsika.
  • In Nagananda, he depicted the story of Jimutvahana’s self sacrifice to save the Nagas. In Ratnavali, he has narrated story of a princess Ratnavali and king Udayana. Ratnavali is considered the first textual reference of Holi celebration.


Harsha’s Religion

  • Harsha was a man of intellect and was well versed in Sammitiya School of Buddhism. After Ganjam conquest, he favoured the teachings of Buddhism. He was inclined towards Hinayana in the starting but then favoured Mahayana later. Like Asoka, he banned the slaughter of any living thing and made use of animal flesh as punishable offense. He established benevolent institutions including monasteries in various parts of his empire.
  • Despite is inclination towards Buddhism, Harsha was a great patron of all prevailing sects viz. Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Every year, he called for an assembly at Prayag which began with worship of Surya, Shiva and Buddha. He used to donate full heartedly in this assembly including the cloths and ornaments he wore!


Observations of Huen-Tsang

  • The key objective of Chinese Traveller Huen-Tsang to visit India was to correct the incomplete & misinterpreted information provided by the earlier Chinese monks, particularly Fa Hien.
  • In his work Si-Yu-Ki (Journey to the West), he first states that the name of India in China should be “Yindu“. This term is still used in China for India. He gives detail of Geography, Climate, Measurement system, concept of time, glimpses in urban life, architecture, caste system, educational requirements for Brahmins, teaching of Buddha, economic practices, social and cultural norms, eating habits of Indians etc.
  • He had met Harshavardhana in Kannauj and has recorded his dialogue with the King which established a diplomatic relation between Harsha and Tang king of China. Most of the Buddhist pilgrimage sites and the Nalanda University were parts of Harsha’s empire during his visit.
  • One notable thing from his writings is degraded position of the Chandals and the robbery incidence. He was attacked by robbers on the way, something which we don’t find in the narrations of Fa-Hien, who travelled in the Gupta Period. It might indicate a breakdown of administrative machinery in hinterlands of Harsha’s empire.


About Banabhatta

  • Banabhatta was a friend, courtier and biographer of Harsha. The four most notable works of Banabhatta include Kadambari, Harshacharitam, Chhandakasthtaka and
  • Kadambari is one of the most celebrated prose romances in Sanskrit. This work was not completed by Banabhatta but later finished by his son Bhushanbhatta. Due to this, there are two parts of Kadambari viz. Purvabhaga and Uttarbhaga.
  • Harshacharitam is biography of his hero Harsha. This work is considered to be first attempt of authentic biography in Indian literature.



  • Bhandi was a leading noble of Kannauj and on advice of the political leaders of Kannauj; he offered the crown of Kannauj to Harsha after death of Grahavarmana. Bhandi was later described as one of the chief officers of Harsha. When Harsha chased Shashanka for release of his sister, through Bhandi only Harsha could know that his sister has been released and Shashanka has escaped.



  • Simhanada was the General of the Harsha’s army and his Prime Minister. When Harsha was preparing to conquest the South, Simhanada warned him about the dreadful consequences. This was for the first time that Harsha did not pay attention to his seasoned councillor and paid the price for the same when Pulkesin II defeated him.


India at the Time of Arab Invasions

  • As we have discussed earlier, most landscape of India at the time of death of Harsha was controlled by numerous regional kings and local chieftains. Whatever consolidation was done by Harsha, it lasted only for his lifetime.
  • The fracturing of northern India was aggravated by the Arab invasion of Sindh, which was first foreign intrusion since Huna hordes invaded in Gupta period. Here is a brief overview of various local powers that ruled various parts of north India in those times.


Sindh [Raja Dahir]

  • Conquest of India, though considered exceptionally difficult, was one of the early aims of Muslim rulers of Middle East. Before the Arab invasions, Sindh was vied by both Hindus and Buddhists for power and influence. Until 622 AD, Sindh was under a Buddhist Rai dynasty.
  • A Brahmin minister of Rai called Chach usurped the throne and became king. He ruled from capital Brahmanabad, which is now an insignificant town near Hyderabad {capital of Sindh province of Pakistan} in Pakistan.
  • By the time his reign ended in 666 AD, he had alienated territories of Jats, Buddhists and other in neighborhood. The civil unrest worsened during rule of Chach’s son Dahir. It was Raja Dahir who faced Arab invasion in 712 AD. He was attacked, defeated and killed by Mohammad Bin Qasim, a general of Umayyad Caliphate. For Umayyads, this was first foreign land brought under their territory which was inhabitated by the non-Muslims. This was time of fanatic Muslim rulers in Arab whose sole aim was to strengthen Islam and punish those who do not accept Islam. Arab conquest of Sindh is mentioned in the oldest Chronicle of Sindh called “Chach Nama”.


Kashmir [Karkotas]

  • During times of Harsha, Kashmir was ruled by a Karkota dynasty. The most important ruler of this dynasty was Lalitaditya Muktapida (reign 724-760 AD), who was able to create a vast empire ranging from Kashmir and most parts of northern India and Pakistan. He built the Martand Complex of temples in Anantnag district of Kashmir.


Afghanistan [Hindushahi]

  • After the decline of Kushanas, Afghanistan area came under the Kabulshahi Kings who were overthrown by a Brahmin chieftain called Lalliya. Lalliya founded the Hindushahi dynasty in Kabul.
  • The capital of Hindushahi was Hund near modern Peshawar in Pakistan. Lalliya, Kamala Toramana, Bhimadeva, Jaipala, Anandapala, Trilochanpala, Bhimapala were the kings of this dynasty.
  • These kings faced most frequent attacks from Central Asia. In 977 AD, Turkic ruler of Ghazni Subuktgeen {founder of Ghaznavid Empire} had captured Kandahar to prompt Jayapala to launch a strike against him. Overconfident Jayapal’s one lakh strong army was defeated and he was compelled to pay heavy tributes. He defaulted in the payments and was again attacked and defeated. In 1001, Subuktgeen’ son Mahamud Ghazanavi came in Power. Once more Jayapala attacked the Ghaznavid but again defeated. Thus, repeated defeats against the Ghaznavid humiliated him and unable to tolerate these humiliations he burnt himself on funeral pyre.
  • Another Shahi king Anandpala stood against Mahmud Ghazanavi and is said to have entered into a peace treaty with the later, so that he could die in peace. Some historians compare Anandapala to ancient King Porus.


Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana [Gurjar Pratiharas]

  • From 6 to 11th century, most parts of northern India in parts of modern Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana region remained under Gurjar Pratiharas.
  • These kings had established Marwar in Rajasthan and built the temple city of Osean near Jodhpur.
  • The prominent Gurjar Pratihara Kings were Nagabhatta-I, Nagabhatta-II and Mihirbhoja.
  • These kings saved western frontiers of India for a long time from Arab invasions on account of their prowess. However, they also kept fighting with the Palas and Rastrakutas among others.
  • The Gurjar Pratiharas were overthrown in 10th century by Palas. After their demise their feudatories such as Guhilots and Chauhans declared themselves independent and established Mewar and Ajmer respectively.
  • Ajmer was established by Ajayraj Chauhan. His successor Vigraharaj captured Dhillika (Delhi) from Tomars. The last mighty king of Chauhans was Prithvi Raj Chauhan-III who was defeated and executed by Mohammad Ghori in 1192.


Bundelkhand [Chandelas and Kalachuris]

  • Bundelkhand was part of ancient Chedi Mahajanapada and it was also known as Jejakabhukti. In early medieval period, it was under Chandelas and Kalachuris.
  • Chandellas built the famous Khajuraho temples. Similarly, in 11th century, local chieftains of Kalachuri dynasty also rose to prominence and lingered around till 16th century until their territories were annexed to either Delhi sultanate or Mughals.

Malwa [Parmaras]

  • Malwa was under Parmara rajputs from 9th century to 1305 AD when their territory was annexed by Alauddin Khilji. They ruled from Dhar.
  • One of the important Kings of this dynasty was Raja Bhoj of Dhar, a polymath and man of intellect. He was defeated by a tripartite confederacy of Chalukyas, Rastrakutas and Kachhchawahas.
  • After his death Parmaras were reduced to a local powers, until they were wiped out by Akbar in 1569.


Gujarat / Saurastra [Solankis]

  • The Saurastra and neighbouring region of Gujarat was under Solankis from 10th to first half of 13th They ruled from Anhilwara and were patrons of Somnath temple.
  • The important sovereign ruler of this dynasty was Mularaja under whose reign Gujarati language and script developed. He was defeated by Raja Bhoj of Dhar and was reduced to a vassal. The other successors gradually lost control and by 1297 AD, Gujarat came under Delhi Sultanate.


Bihar, Bengal and Odisha [Palas and Senas]

  • In the early medieval India, the Palas emerged as important empire builders in eastern India. They were pious Buddhists and constructed monasteries and universities for that religion. The founder of this dynasty Gopala was also the first Buddhist king of Bengal.
  • His son Dharamapala (770-810 AD) became the most dominant power in the Northern and Eastern India. He altogether fought with Gurjar Pratiharas, Rastrakutas and Chalukyas. After an initial career full of defeats, including a humiliating defeat in the hands of Nagabhatta-II, he was able to win the entire Bihar and Bengal.
  • The Kings of Kannauj, Madra, Kamboja, parts of Rajputana were his Vassals.
  • The last notable Pala king was Mahipala. The successors of Mahipala could not hold their empire and were swept away in Mohammedan torrents. However, around the time of Mahipala’s death in 1043 AD, a Vassal of Palas named Hemanta Sen founded the Sena dynasty which dominated the Rarh region of Bengal for some time.
  • His son Ballala Sena (1160-1178) introduced the social reforms in Bengal known as Kulinism.


Notable Points about Palas and Senas

  • Pala founder Gopala built Odantapuri in Bihar for Buddhist monks.
  • Dharmapala established the Vikramshila University in Bhagalpur region of modern Bihar.
  • This university was destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1200 AD.
  • Dharmapala also built Buddhist Viharas at Somapura (now a UNESCO world heritage site in Bangladesh) and Odantapuri.
  • Nalanda, Vikramshila, Somapuri, Paharpur and Odantapuri are called Five Mahaviharas.
  • Atiśa Dipankara was a Buddhist Scholar during the Pala dynasty and was a scholar at the Vikramshila University. He established the Sarma lineages of the Buddhism with Konchog Gyalpo and Marpa Lotsawa.
January 1, 2018

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