Thursday, 8 March 2018

The Kanyakubja Chronicles - III

Kanyakubja as the capital of King Harsha’s empire (606 – 647 AD)

Kanyakubja enjoyed its most glorious time during the reign of King Harsha from 606 to 647 AD, and was the capital of his empire which ranged from the North-west frontiers to the outer borders of Gauda (Bengal) in the east. Much about Harsha’s reign and life is told in the Harshacharita composed by his court poet Banabhatta. Apart from being the biography of King Harsha, the Harshacharita is important for a few more reasons as well. It is the first historical poetic work to be composed in Sanskrit, in the court of Kanyakubja. It is also the first historical biography written in Sanskrit language. In the Harshacharita, Banabhatta gives an ornate account of life in Harsha’s kingdom, his capital Kanyakubja and even the rural areas. Kanyakubja is portrayed in the most glorified manner as a capital city un-paralleled in its time and of flaunting a deeply rich cultural exchange of literature, religious discourses and practices, surge of Vedic and Sanskrit language and composition of great poetic works. The city is also described to be an important centre of trade and commerce and a destination for many travellers not only from the nearby locations, but also from foreign countries.

The accounts of the famous Chinese pilgrim, Hieuen Tsang, (a.k.a Xuanzang) form an important and precious source of information of Harsha’s empire and Kanyakubja as his capital city in those times. Hieuen Tsang, being a highly acclaimed Buddhist monk, spent fourteen years in India, travelling to all the sacred places connected with Buddha’s life, of which he spent seven years in Kanyakubja, under King Harsha’s patronage and hospitality. His accounts acquaint us with the political, religious, economic and social conditions of Kanyakubja in those days. According to Hieuen Tsang, at the time of his visit, he found Nalanda to be on the decline and Kanyakubja and Prayag (modern day Allahabad) to be the emerging and vibrant cities. It was exactly in these two places that King Harsha had conducted his two major Religious Assemblies during the period of Hieuen Tsang’s stay in his kingdom. Hieuen Tsang, in his accounts, writes in great detail about the benevolence and magnanimity of King Harsha as a ruler and refers to him by the name ‘King Shiladitya’ throughout his writings.

The religious beliefs of King Harsha’s family is a metaphorical representation of the religious beliefs of the citizens of his empire during those times. Pushyabhuti, the founder of Harsha’s dynasty was a devotee of Lord Shiva, while Harsha’s father, Prabhakara Vardhana used to daily worship Surya, the Sun god, with a bunch of red lotuses. Harsha’s brother Rajyavardhana and sister Rajyasri were deeply attached to the Hinayana practices of Buddhism, while Harsha himself was a staunch Shaivite in the early part of his reign as King of Kanyakubja.

He personally followed the Puranic Hindu religious practices and beliefs and thus the Vedic Brahmins enjoyed positions of importance and great patronage from the King for spreading their religious doctrines, scriptures and faith. However, in the latter part of his reign, King Harsha was greatly influenced by the Buddhist monk Hieuen Tsang and though he did not denounce Hinduism, he accorded immense importance to the Mahayana form of Buddhism (preached by Hieuen Tsang) and undertook extensive and pompous efforts to spread the religion.

Hinduism and Buddhism, and the various inherent cults of the two religions, were so near to each other, that the people accepted them with intense devotion. During the most glorious period of King Harsha’s reign, his empire was an excellent example of the synthesis of religious ideas being adopted with a broad spiritual outlook. By his time, Puranic Hinduism was sweeping over the country in full force and the Hindu gods and goddesses had come to dominate the religious faith of the common people. Buddha’s images were also worshipped by Hindus alongside their own gods and goddesses. Hieuen Tsang, though a devout Buddhist himself, was impressed to see the predominance of Brahminical Hinduism in the country and the stature and patronage accorded to the Kanyakubja Brahmins by Harsha in his court and empire. Within Puranic Hinduism there were many sects, however, Vishnu, Shiva and Surya were the prominent Hindu gods to be worshipped. Buddhism, even though seemed to be heading towards a decline, held its power in the imagination of the people, while Jainism was concentrated only in a few places like Vaishali and its former holy centres.

The citizens were free to follow and practise the faith of their choice, and a person could even be a believer in different faiths. There were religious controversies but no religious dogmatism or fanaticism. The King, himself being tolerant to different religious faiths, allowed for an atmosphere of congenial co-existence of the religions and strongly opposed imposing any single religion on any of his subjects. It is said that King Harsha was a devotee of Shiva, Surya and also the Buddha. It was undoubtedly a time of religious assimilation and spiritual synthesis.

Towards the latter years of his reign, King Harsha was profoundly impressed with the doctrines of Mahayana form of Buddhism and it could be attributed to the influence of Hieuen Tsang on the King. Hieuen Tsang was undoubtedly a vastly learned Buddhist monk and his exposition of the Mahayana Buddhism attracted the King and drove him to undertake more efforts to spread the religion. Accordingly, Harsha organised for religious conferences providing Hieuen Tsang the opportunity to preach Buddhism and also built many stupas in his kingdom in the honour of Lord Buddha.

Even though Harsha became devoted to Buddhism, he did not exit the fold of Hinduism completely. Hieuen Tsang’s detailed description of his ‘King Shiladitya’s’ religious practices show that Harsha (a.k.a Shiladitya) continued to pay deep devotion and respect to Hindu deities. His respect, understanding and tolerance of the different religious faiths was the most noteworthy feature of his reign. This was best demonstrated in the five-yearly religious conferences which Harsha organised in his kingdom and named them ‘Moksha’. We get to read about the details of two such grand conferences in the year 643 AD, from the descriptions of Hieuen Tsang, held at Kanyakubja and Prayag respectively.

The Kanyakubja Religious Assembly of 643 AD

King Harsha organised a grand religious conference in his capital city of Kanyakubja, on the western banks of the Ganges. The purpose of the assembly was to highlight the teachings of Buddha. On that occasion, Harsha also wanted to honour the Chinese ‘Master of the Law’, Hieuen Tsang. This grand function was attended by twenty tributary kings, including the kings of Kamarupa (modern-day Assam) Bhaskara Varman from the extreme east, and the King of Vallabhi (modern day Vallabhipur – near Bhavnagar, Gujarat) Dhruvasena from the extreme west. Three thousand Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhists, three thousand Brahmins and Jains, and one thousand Buddhist scholars from the University of Nalanda attended this assembly, which continued for long 23 days. Harsha himself proposed the name of Hieuen Tsang to preside over the assembly. The subject of discussion in the assembly related to Mahayana Buddhism.

From the accounts of Hieuen Tsang it is known that a splendid monastery with a shrine was constructed, on the bank of the Ganges for the purpose of the assembly. There, on the huge tower, one hundred feet high, a golden image of Buddha equal to the height of Harsha himself was kept for the view of the large gathering. A smaller image of Buddha, 3 feet in height was every day carried in a procession, joined by all the 20 kings, and with 300 elephants. In that procession, Harsha himself, dressed as the Hindu god Sakra (referred to as Indra), held the canopy on the image. The King of Kamarupa, dressed as the god Brahma, waved a white fly-whisk around the image.

As the procession progressed, Harsha scattered golden flowers, pearls and gems on all sides for showing honour to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. At the end of the procession every day, Harsha used to wash the image with his own hands at the altar, and carry it on his shoulders to be placed at the appropriate tower. There, the image was dressed in many silken robes, decorated with gems.

Harsha’s devotion to the image of Buddha in the Kanyakubja Assembly clearly proves his deep attachment to Mahayana Buddhism. The Hindu gods like Sakra and Brahma were shown as the attendants of Buddha in a symbolic way, since Buddha was considered to be an incarnation of Vishnu.

The Kanyakubja Assembly was marred by two unfortunate incidents. Those incidents also show that many in the assembly did not like Harsha’s extraordinary favours to the Chinese ‘Master of the Law’, and to the Mahayana faith. The first incident relates to a threat to the life of Hieuen Tsang. Coming to know of it, Harsha issued a proclamation to warn the intolerant group: “If anyone should touch or hurt the Master of the Law, he shall be forthwith executed, and who ever speaks against him, his tongue shall be cut off; but all those who desire to profit by his instructions, relying on my good will, need not fear this manifesto”.

The second incident relates to an attempt on the life of Harsha himself. One night the monastery on the site of the assembly suddenly caught fire, and Harsha himself came down to put it out. As he was coming down the steps of a stupa from where he had supervised the work, a fanatic with a dagger rushed towards the emperor, from behind the dark pillars, in an attempt to assassinate him.

The man was promptly caught, and he confessed that he had been sent to kill the king for his favour to Buddhism. Following an investigation into the matter, five hundred Brahmins were arrested and they admitted their hand in it. They were all exiled from the country for their act of treason against the King.

These incidents show that Harsha’s attempts to give a new vitality to Buddhism by being its royal patron, may not have actually carried much appeal to the Hindu mind in those declining days of Buddhism. Once the religion had come nearer to Hinduism both at intellectual and popular level, its exclusive predominance was out of question. Harsha could not have recalled the old spirit of Buddhism to the India of his time, despite his valiant attempts and proclamation.

Nine hundred years separated Harsha from Asoka. The latter, while patronising Buddhism, laid absolute emphasis on the ethical aspects of Buddha’s religion. Harsha, by championing the Mahayana Buddhism, laid emphasis on the worship of the image of Buddha. As Puranic Hinduism also accepted Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, there was no novelty in the royal patronage of a decadent faith in India, even if it was in full vigour outside.

The Kanyakubja Assembly was followed by another spectacular assembly at Prayag in the same year. While the Kanyakubja Assembly was a religious assembly to highlight Mahayanism, the Prayag Assembly was an assembly of universal character for offerings of royal charities to all classes of people. It was known as the Maha Moksha Parishad. Harsha was at his best in the Prayag Assembly as a generous monarch and an admirer of all the major faiths of his country.

On the first day of the Prayag Assembly, an image of Buddha was worshipped amidst distribution of valuables. On the second day was worshipped the image of Surya. And, on the third day, the image of Shiva was worshipped. The Prayag Assembly finally closed after 75 days.

Soon after the Prayag Assembly, Hieuen Tsang left for home, and travelling through long distances, finally reached China in 645 A.D. Within the next two years, early in 647 A.D., Harsha Shiladitya died.

Kanyakubja post-Harsha ( 650 AD – 850 AD)

As Harsha’s empire gradually disintegrated after his death, the Gurjara-Pratiharas took control of most of Northern India and established the Pratihara Dynasty. Nagabhatta I, Nagabhatta II, Ramabhadra and Mihir Bhoja ruled in succession in the powerful Pratihara clan with Kanyakubja continuing to be the capital of their empire. They even proclaimed themselves with the title of ‘Maharajadhiraja of Aryavarta’ (Great King of Kings of India), having secured the major portion of Northern India under their control.

The Pratiharas were staunch Hindu kings and with the decline of Buddhism in the heartland of India after King Harsha’s demise, Brahminical Hinduism took centre stage as the predominant religious faith both for the state and its subjects. Kanyakubja and its clan of the ‘Kanyakubja Brahmins’ therefore continued to enjoy their status of prominence and importance during the next four centuries under the Pratihara and Bhoja kings.

However, gradually over time in the post-Harsha period, the city’s ancient name of ‘Kanyakubja’ gradually metamorphosed into the much-colloquial name ‘Kannauj’. How it exactly happened is not documented anywhere, but it is logical to assume that the shortening and rephrasing of the name would have been more due to localised and conversational influences.

The Pratiharas did not have a very peaceful reign as there were regular skirmishes with the neighbouring kings either to defend or extend the territories. Kannauj continued to be at the centre of a tripartite power struggle between the Pratiharas, the Rashtakutas of the South and the Palas of the East.

Coming Soon …. Part 5

In the next article, we shall detail more on the chequered path of war-torn Kannauj under the Pratihara and Bhoja kings till the Muslim conquests and destruction of the city in 1018 AD and beyond, an event which also forced a mass exodus of the Kanyakubja Brahmins to flee the city to escape death and the destruction of their Vedic scriptures and centres of learning.

[credit for this blog-post content goes to S. Priyadarshini, for her article on ‘2 Memorable Assemblies of Harsha’ in, extracts of which have been reproduced here]



  1. Dear Sayan,

    I am sorry that I am late, but now I have read all four installments of the 'Chronicles' at one sitting, and closely. I am fascinated. I pride myself on above-average knowledge of India's history, but of course I couldn't go into such meticulous details in an offhand lecture. You have evidently done a lot of arduous research. Thanks and congratulations. I shall look forward eagerly to the posts that are going to follow, especially to see how you link the whole thing to the Kanyakubja brahmins who came over to Bengal, and those in turn to your family specifically. Someday this itself could turn into a book, and I have in mind another old boy who works as an editor for a major publisher, whom we might try to interest in the project, unless you have lined up someone already.

    Best wishes, and keep writing.


    1. Thank you Suvro'da for your words and encouragement. I am glad that you enjoyed reading the research work and my attempt at re-telling of the history of Kanyakubja. As discussed with you, there are plans around this on a larger scale and I will be looking forward to the responses from your ex-student to take the project forward if he feels interested. And a big Thank you for linking my blog-posts to your blog. I am always in awe of the kind of readership and following your blog enjoys and it would be great if some of your readers choose to read my blog as well :)

  2. And I am going to link your blog to mine as of now. I hope it draws more readers to your writing, which you truly deserve.


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