Ancient Bharat
Hiuen Tsang & Harshacharit


Hiuen-Tsang (or Yuan Chwang), a Chinese Pilgrim, visited India during the reign of Harsha. His object was to secure authentic Buddhist scriptures and visit places of Buddhist interest. From Western China he reached Gandhara in 630 A.D. via Tashkand and Samerkand.

Hiuen Tsang stayed for almost 15 years (630-645 A.D.) in India. He visited almost every province in the vast country. He returned to his country with lots of material concerned with the Buddhist faith.

His experience is recorded in his book Si-Yu-ki or the ?Records of the Western World?. This book throws a flood of light on the political, Social, religious and economic conditions of India during the reign of Harsha.

From Hiuen-Tsang?s account the following important information regarding the conditions of India can be rendered.

About Harsha and his Capital

Hiuen Tsang spend about eight years in Harsha?s dominions. According to him, Harsha was a generous king. Harsha aimed at high ideals of kingship. He worked hard to promote the welfare of the people.

In the words of Hiuen-Tsang, ?He was indefatigable and forgot sleep and food in the discharge of his duties. He was the busiest of man and devoted all his time to promote the welfare of his people.?

Hiuen-Tsang was impressed by Harsha?s capital Kanauj. He comments on the lofty structures, splendid structures, buildings, beautiful gardens and tanks of clean water. The flowers and fruits and valuable exotic merchandise were available in large quantities.
The inhabitants, Hiuen-Tsang records, were well off and content. Some families were particularly wealthy. Hiuen Tsang says, ?The people are honest and sincere. They are noble and gracious in appearance.?

Harsha?s Administration

The Chinese pilgrim was impressed by Harsha ?s administration. Harsha personally visited the various parts of his empire. Hiuen-Tsang observes, ?If there was any irregularity in the manners of the people of the cities, Harsha went amongst them?.

Hiuen-Tsang further records the people live together in harmony. The defaulters of the state?s law were imprisoned without any corporal punishments. They are discarded from the community. ?In the trial of criminals?, Hiuen-Tsang writes, ?No torture is used?.
The roads were, however, not as safe as they had been in Fahien?s times. Hiuen-Tsang himself was robbed more than once. Criminal law was severe. The offenders were punished by imprisonment, mutilation of limbs and minor offences by fines. Trial by ordeal was also in vogue.

Hiuen-Tsang records that the Government was tolerant in case of taxation and revenue collection. The people were peacefully engaged in the cultivation of land. The land tax did not exceed 1/4th of the total produce. Taxes were moderate and light. The forced labour upon public works was also paid-for.

According to Hiuen-Tsang, there was a special department of keeping records of all the important events of the state.

The Chinese pilgrim states that Harsha maintained a powerful and well-equipped army. It comprised of 50,000 infantry, 6000 elephants and 1,00,000 horsemen.

Socio-Economic Conditions

Hiuen-Tsang described the people of the country as trustworthy and gentle. He has also formed an overall opinion of Indians. According to him, ?The people do not practice treachery and abide by their oaths.?

Hiuen-Tsang observed the cleanliness and purity of diet. In their diet, onions and garlic were not used. Meat was forbidden. The common food comprised milk, ghee, granulated sugar, sugar candy, cakes and parched grain with mustard oil.

Hiuen-Tsang mentions that the division of the society was based on caste. Concept of untouchables was in existent. Chandellas or the Sudras had to reside outside the city or village. The Brahmins were held in the highest esteem The Chinese pilgrim noticed that the kings were generally Kshatriyas. There were no inter-caste marriages according to Hiuen-Tsang.

Women were respected in general. Women of higher classes went in the education Princess Rajashree was educated enough to follow Hiuen-Tsang?s discourse. Early marriages were the order of the day. The custom of Sati was known.

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Under Harsha both internal and external trade flourished. It was further increased the centralization of the vast territory under one political leadership. India continued to have trade and cultural contacts with the East ad West.

As regards the material conditions of the people Hiuen-Tsang reports that ?taxes are light and tradesmen go to and fro bartering their merchandise after paying light duties at ferries and barrier stations.? While discussing the prosperity, he mentions about several gold status of Buddha.


Hiuen-Tsang?s mission to come to India was a sacred and spiritual one. He was basically interested in Mahayana Buddhism only. But he has also commented on the conditions of the other Buddhist schools and sects. He gives us a detailed account of the Brahmanical system of religion and culture as well.

Hiuen-Tsang informs us that the foreigners then knew India as the ?Country of Brahmins?. He explains about this predominance of Brahmanism further. Hiuen-Tsang noticed that Sanskrit was the language of the cultured classes. Even the most famous Buddhist teachers used this language.

Alongside Brahmanism, there flourished Buddhism too, especially the Mahayana school. Hiuen-Tsang has noted that at every center of Buddhism, monks of both sects Mahayana and Hinayana lived side by side.

Buddhism, during Harsha?s time, according to Hiuen-Tsang, though on the decline, was represented by as many as 18 different sects.

Assembly at Kanauj

The Assembly witnessed by Hiuen-Tsang was held at Kanauj. The main aim of this assembly was to give publicity to Hiuen-Tsang exposition of Mahayanism.

The Assembly lasted for 23 days. As a conclusion of the Assembly, Harsha offered Hiuen-Tsang 10,000 pieces of gold 30,000 pieces of silver and 100 garments of superior cotton, in recognition of his merits. Hiuen-Tsang mentioned that he declined the gifts.

Assembly at Prayag

Hiuen Tsang gives a detailed account of the assembly held by Harsha. After Kanauj, another assembly was called at Prayag (Allahabad) for the distribution of Royal charities. Harsha distributed all his wealth to men of all religions.

Huein-Tsang reports that at the end of it ?The accumulation of five years was exhausted?. Except the military belongings, which were necessary for maintaining order and protecting the royal estate, nothing remained.


Education, according to Hiuen-Tsang, was widespread and vigorous. In north India, there were a number of important centers of learning. Kashmir was a great center of Buddhism. Hiuen-Tsang spent two years there studying certain Sutras and Sastras. In addition, Vallabhi was also a great center of learning. Cities like Kanauj, Prayag and Jalandhar were connected with both state and religious activities.

The most distinguished center of learning in this period was the famous University of Nalanda. Hiuen-Tsang?s detailed account of this university has shed much light on the literary activities of this period.

According to Hiuen-Tsang, the University of Nalanda had 10,000 students on its roll. The students were provided with free education, free boarding and lodging. They were given clothes, bedding and medicine.

The University was a center of advanced learning and thus its admission was very strict. Only 2 or 3 out of 10 students being able to pass it.

There were 1,500 teachers at the university who delivered number of different discourses on different subjects. While the University specialized in the study of Mahayana doctrines, its curriculum also included Buddhist and Hindu religions as well. The secular subjects taught were- medicine, astronomy, archery etc. Debates and discussions were a major part of the intellectual life of Nalanda University.

Thus, though exaggerated, we get a clear picture of Harsha?s reign during Hiuen Tsang?s stay. There is a possibility, that as a foreigner, he might have misunderstood many things. But we can compare Hiuen Tsang?s accounts to other sources like Harshacharit of Bana and some inscriptions. This will be helpful in understanding the socio-religious, economic and general conditions during Harsha?s reign.


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