The Pushyabhuti dynasty, also known as the Vardhana dynasty, was an ancient Indian dynasty that played a significant role in the history of North India, particularly during the 6th and 7th centuries CE. Read here to learn more about the Vardhana dynasty.
The Pushyabhuti or Vardhana dynasty is notable for its contributions to Indian literature, culture, and religion during the time of Emperor Harsha.
While the dynasty’s political influence eventually waned, its legacy lived on through the literary works and cultural achievements of its rulers and their patronage of scholars and artists.
The dynasty is most famous for its association with two prominent rulers, Prabhakaravardhana and his daughter Rajyavardhana, as well as his younger son, Harsha.
India in 6th century CE
Northern India’s political system collapsed as a result of the Gupta Empire’s decay and the lack of an alternative empire to take its place.
- The Maukharis of Kosala/Kanyakubja (the modern state of Uttar Pradesh), as well as the Later Guptas of Magadha and Malwa (the modern states of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh), arose alongside the Pushyabhutis as other independently ruling groups.
- The other kingdoms were those that existed in what are now the states of Assam, Bengal, and Odisha.
- The northern and the majority of the western sections of Bengal fell under the rule of the Gauda kingdom in the seventh century CE, which was founded by King Shashanka (late sixth century CE–637 CE).
The early origins of the Pushyabhuti dynasty are associated with a certain Pushyabhuti, who was an early ruler but hardly documented.
- A key source for the Pushyabhutis is the account called Si-yu-ki left behind by the Chinese Buddhist monk-scholar Hiuen Tsang or Xuanzang (602-664 CE), who visited India in the 7th century CE and met Harsha.
Also read: Regional Kingdoms of Medieval India
Pushyabhuti or Vardhana dynasty
The Pushyabhuti dynasty originated in the region of Thanesar, in present-day Haryana, India. They succeeded the Gupta empire in the Gangetic region.
Prabhakaravardhana also known as Pratapashila, is considered the founder of this dynasty, and he established his rule in the northern part of India.
- He fought many enemies expanded his kingdom and assumed the title Maharajadhiraja.
- According to inscriptions, there were several nameless rulers between Pushyabhuti and Prabhakaravardhana as well as recognized kings like Naravardhana, Rajyavardhana, and Adityavardhana, who reigned before Prabhakaravardhana.
- They were feudatories of the Hunas (Huns), the imperial Guptas, and then the Maukharis during their roughly 500–580 CE reign.
Under Harsha’s rule, the Pushyabhuti dynasty expanded its territory to include parts of northern and central India, including regions like Kanyakubja (Kannauj), Thanesar, and areas along the Gangetic plains.
Harsha reinforced the first geographic shift in many centuries from Magadha in north-eastern India to Kanyakubja in north India by designating Kanyakubja as the capital and further strengthening it as an imperial political and administrative core.
- He fought against Valabhi (present-day northern Gujarat and part of Malwa), Sindh, and the eastern kingdoms in Magadha (present-day Bihar) and present-day Odisha.
- His strongest opponent was King Pulakeshin II (609-642 CE), ruling the Vatapi kingdom (present-day Badami, Karnataka state) in southern India.
- In a decisive battle fought in 618/19 CE or 634 CE, the Chalukyas defeated Harsha who was forced to retreat and could no longer expand southwards.
Harsha did not leave behind any heir, and the Pushyabhuti line came to an end and the power was seized by one of his ministers.
Rulers of Pushyabhuti dynasty
- Prabhakaravardhana (6th century CE): Prabhakaravardhana was one of the earliest known rulers of the dynasty. He is credited with expanding his kingdom’s territory and establishing strong diplomatic relations with neighboring states.
- Rajyavardhana: Rajyavardhana, the elder son of Prabhakaravardhana, succeeded his father as the ruler of the Pushyabhuti dynasty. He is known for his support of scholars and poets and his patronage of the arts and culture.
- Harsha (Harsha Vardhana, 590-647 CE): Harsha, the younger son of Prabhakaravardhana, is the most famous ruler of the Pushyabhuti dynasty. He is often referred to as Emperor Harsha. His reign is considered a golden period in ancient Indian history. Harsha was a great patron of literature and culture, and his court attracted many scholars, poets, and artists.
- Rajashekhara: After the death of Harsha, Rajashekhara, a minister succeeded him as the ruler of the Pushyabhuti dynasty. However, his reign was relatively short, and he faced challenges in maintaining the vast empire.
- Prabhakarvardhana II: Following Rajashekhara’s reign, Prabhakarvardhana II briefly ruled over the remnants of the dynasty’s territories.
Administration and military
The Pushyabhuti dynasty followed a monarchical system of governance. The king held the highest authority and wielded significant power.
- Harsha’s empire was vast, encompassing much of northern and northwestern India. To govern such a vast territory, he divided it into provinces or regions, each administered by provincial governors or officials known as Samantas.
- The provinces, known as Bhuktis, were further divided into districts and villages.
- Local governance was carried out through village councils, known as Ganas, which played a significant role in maintaining law and order at the grassroots level.
The Harshacharita is full of descriptions of weapons and the love that the Pushyabhuti rulers had for their swords, for war, and for showing prowess in battle.
- Harsha’s army had a strong cavalry component, which was often considered a significant asset in ancient Indian warfare. Cavalry units were used for reconnaissance, quick strikes, and as shock troops in battle.
- The use of war elephants was a prominent feature of the Pushyabhuti dynasty’s army. Elephants were valuable for their size and strength and were often used to create fear and confusion among enemy ranks.
Culture and religion
Harsha was initially a Shaivite Hindu but later converted to Buddhism. He was known for his religious tolerance and support for both Hinduism and Buddhism.
He convened the famous Prayaga or Kanyakubja Assembly, a grand religious gathering that included Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains.
Harsha himself was a scholar and author. His most famous work is the “Harshacharita,” a biography written by the poet Banabhatta, which provides insights into his life and reign.
- Harsha was a patron of the arts and learning. He made huge endowments to Nalanda University and intellectuals and scholars. Under him, poets such as Bana flourished and composed many literary works.
- Harsha himself is believed to have written three plays called the Priyadarshika, Ratnavali, and Nagananda (though it’s debated whether a ghost poet wrote them).
Decline of the Pushyabhuti Dynasty
After Harsha died in 647 CE, the Pushyabhuti dynasty faced internal strife and external invasions. The empire gradually fragmented, and regional powers rose to prominence. The decline of the dynasty marked the end of the Vardhana era.
Kanyakubja remained as a kingdom and once more came into the limelight under King Yashovarman (r. 725-753 CE), while most of Harsha’s feudatories like Bhaskaravarman bifurcated the empire and added the conquered bits to their kingdoms.
Yashovarman maintained Kanyakubja as a center of power, and between 750 and 1000 CE, its significance increased to the point that conquering it became a sign of imperial power in India, even for politically remote states like the Rashtrakutas of southern India, the Pratiharas of northwestern India, and Palas of eastern India.
-Article by Swathi Satish