The reign of Harshavardhana began in 606 A.D. Bana, his court-poet, has written a colourful biography of his patron. The situation at the time of Harsha’s accession was very critical. His elder brother had been killed by Sasanka, the king of Gauda. The former had gone to avenge the death of Grahabarmanas as he happened to be the husband of Rajyashree, the only daughter of Pravakarvardhana. Grahavarmana was the Maukhari king ruling from Kanauj.
Hence Harshavardhana ascended the throne on the sudden death of his elder brother. As his brother was killed by Sasanka his immediate job was to wage a war against the king of Gauda. Accordingly he proceeded with a large army against Sasanka. Meanwhile Harshavardhana rescued his sister Rajyashri with the help of the local tribes from the Vindhyas. Soon the Maukhari nobles request Harshavardhana to unite his kingdom with the Maukhari kingdom and rule from Kanauj. Harsha then united his kingdom with that of the Maukhari and Kanauj became his capital city.
Bana writes that Harsha sought to strengthen his position and made an alliance with King Kumara Bhaskaravarman of Kamrupa. He then sent a large army against Sasanka. Though details of this war is lacking Sasanka’s descriptions prove that he reigned with undiminished glory 619 A.D.
Harshavardhana was never a military genius like Samudragupta yet it has been said that he conquered the five Indies. He conquered Valabhi, Magadha, Kashmir, Gujrat and Sind. Indeed Harsha fought all through his long reign and his last recorded campaign was against Ganjam (Orissa). Harsha was unable to extend his power into the Deccan or Southern India. In fact, he suffered his one major defeat at the hands of Chalukya king Pulakeshin II.
A few historians preferred to call Harshavardhana the lord of the whole of northern India. In the Chalukya record Harshavardhana has been described as Sakolottara-pathanatha. But this claim in favour of Harsha has been assailed by scholars like Dr. R.C. Majumdar. In fact, there is no reliable evidence to support Harsha’s conquest of Kashmir, Nepal or Sind. Besides, West Punjab and Rajputana were outside the sphere of Harsha’s domination. He even failed to dethrone Sasanka of Gauda. But the fact remains that he made Kanauj so important that it became the nerve centre of Indian politics.
The exact limits of Harsha’s empire are not known, it appears that his direct rule extended nearly over the whole of Northern India excepting Kashmir, Rajputana, Sind, and the Punjab.
Harshavardhana was not only a great conqueror, but a great administrator as well. We know from Hiuen-Tsang’s account that he personally supervised the working of the administration in all its details. He undertook extensive tours and always kept himself informed of the state of the country. He caused a number of high roads, rest-houses, and charitable institutions to be constructed.
Harsha was not only an able ruler and a great conqueror but also a liberal patron of learning. His court was adorned by a number of eminent literary men. The most well-known among them was Banabhatta, the author of Harsha-Charita. Harsha himself was also an author of no metal repute. He composed at least Sanskrit dramas.
In his early life, Harshavardhana was a Saivite by faith. Later on he came under the influence of Buddhism. But throughout his reign he remained ideally tolerant towards all religions.
Harsha died in 646 or 647 A.D. after a little over forty years of reign.
The accounts of the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen-Tsang and Bana’s Harsha-Charita are the two important sources of information for the reign of Harsha.