The first three kings of the Pushyabhuti dynasty were mere names and do not seem to have exercised any power. Prabhakarvardhana, the fourth king, extended his dominions at the expense of his neighbours and that he had built up a powerful dominion is clear from his assumption of imperial title: Paramabhattaraka Maharajadhiraja.
Prabhakarvardhan’s sovereignty probably extended to the whole of the Punjab and Malwa. After a busy aggressive career, Prabhakarvardhana died in A.D. 604 and he was succeeded by his eldest son Rajyavardhana. He had given his daughter Rajyasri in marriage with the Maukhari King Grahavarmana.
Prabhakarvardhana’s career synchronised with that of two other rulers who had established powerful Kingdom in Bengal and Assam. They were Sasanka, King of Bengal and Bhaskaravarman of Kamrup.
Under Prabhakarvardhan the Kingdom of Thaneswar was well on the road to imperial expansion. He conquered Malwa, northwest Punjab from the Huns and Rajputana from the Gurjaras. He was related through his maternal side to the Gupta imperial dynasty and ambition for building an empire was but natural for him in whose veins ran the Gupta imperial blood.
In 604 A.D. when the Huns attacked the Kingdom of Prabhakarvardhana, the latter sent his eldest son Rajyavardhan against them. Rajyavardhan defeated the Huns and established a reputation as a military commander.
Prabhakarvardhan gave his daughter Rajyasri in marriage with Grahavarman, the Maukhari King of Kanauj. Alliance between the two families, namely, the Pushyabhutis of Thaneswar and Maukharis of Kanauj greatly strengthened the power and position of Prabhakarvardhan.
Sasanka, King of Bengal, sought to counter this accession of strength of Prabhakarvardhan by contracting a friendly alliance with Devagupta of Malwa, for Sasanka foresaw a conflict with Thaneswar.
Thus towards the end of the reign of Prabhakarvardhan there were two political leagues in northern India, one under the leadership of the House of Thaneswar and the other under Sasanka of Bengal. In 605 A.D. Prabhakarvardhan died rather suddenly and was succeeded by his eldest son Rajyavardhan.
Bana’s Harshacharit contain a considerable historical information about Harshavardhana and his time. The information furnished by the above sources when combined with that furnished by inscriptions, coins, and other sources give us a knowledge surpassing in fullness and precision that is available for any other period except that of the Mauryas. “His personal characteristics and the details of his administration, as recorded by men who knew him intimately, enable us to realise him as a living person who achieved greatness by his capacity and energy.”
When in 606 A.D., on the death of Rajyavardhan, Harshavardhan, a youth of 16 or 17 years of age, was called upon to occupy the throne; he was reluctant. But he was constrained by the nobles to accept the vacant throne.
The immediate task before him was the rescue of his sister Rajyasri. Information reached him of the escape of Rajyasri. According to Bana, as the tragic news of the murder of Rajyavardhan reached Harsha he took a vow to take revenge against Sasanka, the King of Gauda, the killer of Rajyavardhan. “I swear”, said Harsha, “that unless in a limited number of days, I clear this earth of Gaudas…….. I will hurl my sinful self like a moth, into an oil-fed flame”. According to Bana, Harsha decided upon world-wide conquest. He also caused a proclamation to be issued all over India asking all kings to either accept his over- lordship or to be prepared for war with him.
Hardly had Harsha proceeded in his march against Sasanka, than a messenger from Bhaskaravarman, King of Kamrupa, with its Capital at Pragjyotisha came and reported that as his master was a devotee of Lord Siva and does homage to him alone, it would not be possible to do homage to any earthly king and offered to enter into a perpetual alliance with Harshavardhan.
An alliance was entered into between the two parties when within a few days Bhaskaravarman personally met Harshavardhan. The alliance was of great benefit to both Harshavardhan and Bhaskaravarman, for it was an added strength to Harsha against his enemy Sasanka and a measure of safety to Bhaskaravarman against his powerful neighbour Sasanka.
After Harsha continued his march for a few days Bhandi, who was returning with the remnant of Rajyavardhan’s army informed him of the release of Rajyasri from confinement and her taking shelter in the Vindhya forest and of numerous search parties sent to find her out which had not yet returned. Harsha left Bhandi in charge of his army and went to search out his sister. In the Vindhya forest he met Rajyasri who after a few days’ wandering about, ready to mount a funeral pyre. She was persuaded to return with Harsha.
Bana’s narrative abruptly ends here. But in Hiuen T-Sang’s account it is stated that Harshavardhan and his two predecessors were rulers of Kanauj. He, however, refers to the fact that the ministers at the instance of Po-ni, usually identified with Bhandi, the great minister, invited Harshavardhan to ascend the throne of Kanauj, on Rajyavardhan’s death.
Hiuen T-Sang mentions a romantic story that Harsha sought the oracle of a statute of Avalokitesvara Bodhisatva on the bank of the Ganges. The Bodhisatva advised Harsha not to ascend the throne actually and not to use the title of Maharaja. Thereupon Harsha became King of Kanauj assuming the title and style Rajaputra Siladitya.
Chinese work Fang-Chih represents Harsha as a joint ruler with his widowed sister.
Hiuen T-Sang’s story has been regarded as absurd by modern historians, for Harsha did not come to occupy the throne of Kanauj on the death of his brother-in-law. The only implication of Hiuen T-Sang’s narrative is that at the instance of Bhandi Harsha was invited to rule over Kanauj presumably because Grahavarman did not leave any heir to succeed him and Rajyasri perhaps did not agree to undertake the responsibility of ruling the country. Thus, on Harshavardhan’s assumption of the rule of Kanauj, both the thrones of Kanauj and Thaneswar were united under the same ruler.
Harsha was a great warrior and carried on a series of military expedition which made him the most powerful ruler in northern India. Harsha went from east to west subduing all who were not obedient, the elephants were not unharnessed, nor the soldiers un-helmeted. He proceeded in his military campaigns with 5,000 war elephants, 20,000 cavalry and 50,000 infantry.
After rescuing Rajyasri, Harsha rejoined his army but what was the outcome of his campaign against Sasanka of Bengal is not known, for Bana’s narrative does not continue after Harsha’s finding of his sister in the Vindhya forest. RThat Harsha could not make much headway against Sasanka is evident from the absence of any reference in Bana’s narrative and from the fact that Sasanka was known to have ruled over Bengal, south Bihar and Orissa till 619 A.D.
Manjusri Mulakalpa, a Buddhist chronicle, mentions of the defeat of Sasanka at the hands of Harsha. However no reliance can be placed on this vague and obscure statement of the medieval Buddhist chronicle.
We have, however, no systematic or chronological reference to the military campaigns of Harsha. However, Harsha’s military campaigns may be considered under four distinct phases, namely, his conflicts with:
- Kingdoms of Valabhi and Gurjara.
- The Chalukya Kingdom.
- The eastern countries such as Magadha, Gauda, Odra, and Kongod.