Harshavardhana, ruler of the Pushyabhuti family, was one of the legendary Indian emperors ever to have ruled ancient India. Such an eventful and glorious career of Harshavardhana ended with his death about 646 A.D. Throughout his career as a king, Harshavardhana had proved himself a great ruler, a competent military leader and a versatile genius. Harsha had already made his mark as a statesman and as an organiser soon after his coronation. He had ascended the paternal throne when a sea of disaster was raging in the shape of civil war and internal dissension. It was Harshavardhana who had consolidated the Empire under his own supremacy and had established peace and order in the society. However, the achievements of Harshavardhana as a social organiser is evident from the accounts of the socio-economic life of the period, presented by Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim who had visited India during the reign of Harshavardhana. `Si-Yu-Ki`, the book written by Hiuen Tsang, depicts the vivid picture of the socio-economic life during Harsha`s era. The book is otherwise an invaluable document, narrating the impression of Indian life during Harsha`s reign.
Hiuen Tsang had stayed in India from 630 to 645 A.D. During these fifteen years he had travelled to different parts of the country, including south India. Therefore he had first hand knowledge about Indian life during the Harsha era. From the accounts of Hiuen Tsang it is known that during the Harsha era, cities and villages were planned and kept clean. Markets and residential complexes were kept separate and in a pretty distance. People took special care of hygiene and cleanliness. They used to wear clean and decent clothes and used ornaments of gold. General meal of people comprised vegetables, rice, other food grains, milk, butter and sugar. They ate meat and onions from time to time. People were hard-working and just by nature. Since Harshavardhana was a staunch Buddhist, non-violence was the order of the day.
Caste system was however prevalent during Harsha`s reign. This is evident from the fact that during his reign, butchers, fishermen, and public performers were not allowed to live with common people. They had to live with scavengers outside the precincts of villages and cities. Though caste distinction was not so rigid, yet caste restriction and untouchability were in vogue. Perhaps the influence of Brahmanism had declined to some extent due to the prevalence of Buddhism. Yet the Brahmanical concept of society was supreme everywhere. Apart from the prevalence of Buddhism, other cults like Saivism, Sun worship and Vishnu worship and veneration towards various other gods and goddesses were in vogue. Harsha himself was a benevolent ruler and tolerant towards other religious creeds. Hence he could keep balance through his eclectic principle. In the great festival of Prayaga, he used to worship Buddha on the first day and the sun and Siva on the second and third day consecutively. Toleration was a general principle during the reign of Harshavardhana and no sectarian struggle was entertained.
Upper class people dominated the society. Slavery was also in vogue and people serving physical labour were generally looked at in contempt. As feudalism was ascending, people earning their bread by physical labour were looked down upon. However farmers, traders and artisans as usual produced wealth in the society, though they were denied proper status and privileges, which they deserved. Henceforth from the accounts of Hiuen Tsang it is known that though Harsha brought balance and peace in the social life of people, yet miseries of the downtrodden were no less reduced.
In the economic sphere, trade with China and Southeast Asia marked the age of Harsha. Though Roman trade had declined, yet trade with far east was flourishing considerably. The great port of Tamralipta was in an affluent condition. It served as an important centre of trade with China and south East Asia. Tamralipta was connected with different parts of India by road and the road network of Tamralipta had prospered under the patronage of Harshavardhana. Harsha`s conquest of Bengal promoted the export of goods from U.P and Bihar, which resulted in material opulence in Harsha`s Empire. Guilds continued to flourish during Harsha`s reign. The artisans and trade guilds were governed by rules laid down by orders. They were mostly autonomous units.
Agriculture was however the economic backbone of Harsha`s reign. Wheat, rice, fruits, sugarcane, bamboo etc. were grown. Harsha`s standard land tax was 1/6th of the production. But extra taxes often were collected by the king. Though extra taxes were collected, yet the king was not an oppressor and did not repress his subjects to pay additional taxes. The Gangetic valley being the most fertile region in ancient India became the backbone of the agricultural economy during Harshavardhana.
A prominent feature of the socio-economic life of the Harsha era was feudalism. Though it was not a complete and developed system as that of Europe, yet feudalism was in vogue in its Indian form. The king granted land to the officials instead of salary. These officials turned into vassals of the king, offering him loyalty, service and military help when needed. Though land was granted according to the tenure of service, it actually tended to be hereditary. The guarantor used to ask the peasants to cultivate land on payment of specified rent and services. Sometimes the feudatory granted land to sub vassals, who in turn allowed lands to the peasants. The Sudras always remained at the bottom of the feudal society, oppressed and exploited.
Due to the considerable growth of feudalism, trade and commerce began to decline significantly. Land ownership was regarded the most respectable and secured profession, because it brought power, prestige and influence. Warrior castes like Rajputs and Kshatriyas became feudal lords and vassals due to their militarism. Trading class lost their significance in society. Therefore in the post Harsha era there was growth of new towns. The traditional trading centres began to decline. Villagers began to live in a close-estate society and within a self-sufficient rural economy. During the Harsha era though trade and commerce had declined to some extent, yet general people lived with comfortable material prosperity.