Harsha or Harshavardhana (606 C.E. - 648 C.E.) was an Indian emperor who ruled northern India for over forty years. He was the son of a king of [Thanesar], a minor Gupta feudatory. Harsha rose to prominence from obscurity by conquering the most of northern and central India. At the height of his power his kingdom spanned the entire Gangetic plains, the Punjab, Bengal, and Orissa up to the Narmada River.
After the downfall of the Gupta Empire in the middle of the sixth century C.E., North India was split into several independent kingdoms. The Huns had established their supremacy over the Punjab and certain other parts of central India. The northern and western regions of India passed into the hands of a dozen or more feudatories.
Prabhakar Vardhan, the ruler of Thanesar, who belonged to the Pushabhukti family, extended his control over all other feudatories.
Prabhakar Vardhan was the first king of the Vardhan dynasty with his capital at Thanesar. Thansar is now a small town in the vicinity of Kurukshetra in the state of Haryana nearly Delhi.
After Prabhakar Vardhan’s death in 606 C.E., his eldest son, Rajya Vardhan, ascended the throne. Harsha Vardhana was Rajya Vardhan’s youger brother.
Rajya Vardhan’s and Harsha’s sister Rajyasri had been married to the Maukhari king, Grahavarman. This king, some years later, had been defeated and killed by king Deva Gupta of Malwa and after his death Rajyasri had been cast into prison by the victor. Harsa's brother, Rajya Vardhan, then the king at Thanesar, could not stand this affront on his family, marched against Deva Gupta and defeated him. But it happened just at this moment that Sasanka, king of Gauda in Eastern Bengal, entered Magadha as a friend of Rajya Vardhana, but in secret alliance with the Malwa king. Accordingly Sasanka trencherously murdered Rajya Vardhan.
On hearing about the murder of his brother, Harsha resolved at once to march against the treacherous king of Gauda and killed Deva Gupta in a battle. Harsha Vardhan ascended the throne at the age of 16.
Though quite a young man when he came to power, Harsha proved himself a great conqueror and an able administrator. After his accession, Harsha united the two kingdoms of Thanesar (Kurukshetra) and Kannauj and transferred his capital from Thanesar to Kannauj.
Harsha defeated Sasank, the ruler of Bengal. He also brought the Eastern Panjab (present day Haryana), Bengal, Bihar and Orissa under his control. He conquered Dhruvasena of Gujarat. He also conquered Ganjam, a part of the modern Orissa State.
Harsha's ambition of extending his power to the Deccan and southern India were stopped by Pulakesin II, the Chalukya king of Vatapi in northern Karnataka. Pulikesin defeated the Harsha army on the Banks of the River Narmada and captured a number of elephants. Harsha accepted Pulikesin’s sovereignty and marked the Narmada as southern boundary of his kingdom.
Harsha governed his empire on the same lines as the Guptas. The kings he conquered paid him revenue and sent soldiers when he was fighting war. They accepted his sovereignty, but remained rulers over their own kingdoms.
Patron of Buddhism and Literature
After thirty-seven years of war he set himself to emulate Asoka by practising Buddhism. Buddhism was the court religion in his time.
According to the Chinese Pilgrim Hsuan Tsang Harsha built numerous Stupas in the name of Buddha. Harsha also became a patron of art and literature. He made numerous endowments to the University at Nalanda. Two seals of Harsa have been found in Nalanda in the course of the excavations.All these favours and donations of the great emperor were crowned by the construction of a lofty wall enclosing all the buildings of the university to defend the institution from any other possible attack.
Harsha was a noted author on his own merit. He wrote three Sanskrit plays – Nagananda, Ratnavali and Priyadarsika.
His reign is comparatively well documented, thanks to his court poet Bana and Hsuan Tsang. Bana composed an account of Harsha's rise to power in Harshacharita. Hieun Tsang wrote a full description of his travels in India in his book SI-YU-KI.
Harsha died in the year 647 AD. He ruled over India for 41 years. After Harsha's death, apparently without any heirs, his empire died with him. The kingdom disintegrated rapidly into small states. The succeeding period is very obscure and badly documented, but it marks the culmination of a process that had begun with the invasion of the Huns in the last years of the Gupta Empire.