Harsha ascended the throne of his ancestral Kingdom of Thaneswar in 606 AD. The immediate task that confronted Harsha was to recover Rajyasree, his widowed sister. Harshavardhana was one of the prominent Indian emperors in the 7th century AD who expanded his empire from Punjab, central India to Bengal and Orissa in the east. Harsha got the information that Rajyasree had escaped from the prison and entered the Vindhya forest. With the help of forest chiefs like Vyaghrakelu, Bhukhampa, and Nirghata, as well as the ascetic teacher Divakarmitra and his disciples, Harsha was able to rescue Rajyashree, who was about to burn herself by throwing herself into the fire. Thereupon, Harsha became the King of Kanauj with the titles ‘Rajaputra’ and ‘Siladitya.’ He transferred his capital from ‘Thaneswar’ to ‘Kanauj.’ The principal sources of our information about the reign of Harshavardhana are the ‘Harshacharita’ by Banabhatta, ‘Si-yu-ki’ by Hiuen-Tsang, and ‘The Life of Hieun-Tsang’ composed by Hwni-li. Apart from the literary sources, we have the following Epigraphic records for the reign of Harsha: Banskhera Copper plate, The Nalanda Seal, Sonapat Copper seal inscription, Madhuvana copper plate, Aihole inscription of Pulakesin II. Under the leadership of Harshavardhana, Kanauj emerged as a powerful state in North India.
MILITARY CAMPAIGN – Harsha was a great warrior and conqueror, and it is no wonder that he fought against many powers.
Bengal – Sasanka, the king of Bengal or Gauda, was a contemporary of Harsha. He was an ally of Devagupta, the ruler of Eastern Malava. After rescuing Rajyasree, Harsha marched against Sasanka. He received a proposal from King Bhaskhara Varmana of Kamrapa to form an alliance against Sasanka. Harsha readily courted the alliance and marched against Sasanka. But the outcome of this campaign against Sasanka is not clear to us. The hostility between Harsha and Sasanka did not lead to a withdrawal from Kanauj or its vicinity. It continued for a prolonged period. We have no definite evidence to determine whether Harsha ever came into actual conflict with Sasanka.
According to the Arya Manjusree Mula-Kalpa, Harsha marched against the capital of Sasanka, defeated him, and compelled him to leave the country. Some scholars suggest that the last years of Sasanka’s reign were filled with travel to join the campaign of Harsha and Bhaskharavarmana against him. It is likely that Sasanka was defeated by the alliance and forced to assume a subordinate status, which is evident in the Midnapore Inscription of 629 AD, where Sasanka did not use the title ‘Maharajadhiraja.’
Western India – Harsha was now free to pursue his second objective, which was Digvijaya. In western India, he marched against the Kingdom of Balabhi. Harsha inherited a legacy of hostile relations with Western Indian states like Lata (Gujarat), Malava, and Gurjaras. Harsha attacked the King of Balabhi and defeated him. However, the later Balabhi managed to regain its position with the help of Dadda II, the Gujarat King of Broach, and other allies. According to RC Majumdar, Balabhi never became subordinate to Harsha, but Dr. D.C Sirkar mentions that the king of Balabhi became Harsha’s subordinate ally. Dr. RK Mukherjee has pointed out that some adjacent states of Balabhi, like Anandapura Surat and Cutch, were brought under Harsha’s territory.
Chalukya – While Harsha was conducting his campaigns with the objective of becoming the Lord paramount of the North, Pulakesin II, the Chalukya king of Vatapi, was making conquests in order to establish himself as the Lord paramount of the South. Harsha could not willingly endure the existence of such a rival and tried to overthrow him. Hiuen-Tsang has stated that Harsha raised an army from the five Indies and summoned the best leaders from all countries, personally leading the campaign against Pulakesin II. However, it appears that Harsha failed to overpower Pulakesin II.
Sindh – Bana refers to Harsha as having plundered the king of Sindhu and seized his wealth. It is well known that Sindh was ruled by Prabhakarvardhana, and it is possible that Harsha might have led a campaign against it. However, Hieun-Tsang’s account shows that Sindh was a strong and independent kingdom when he visited it, indicating that Harsha was not successful against Sindh. Harsha’s campaign against Sindh might have been a border skirmish.
Nepal and Kashmir – The states of Nepal and Kashmir were probably outside the empire of Harsha. However, scholars like Bhagvan Lal Indraji and Buhler believe that Harsha’s conquests extended to Nepal. They base their argument on the use of the Harsha era in Nepal. Dr. R.K Mukherjee also suggests that Nepal or Kashmir may be referred to as the inaccessible land of snowy mountains. His interpretation leans towards accepting the dependency of Harsha, as indicated by references in the writings of Hieun-Tsang regarding Kashmir. Dr. Mukherjee states, “The life tells an episode… which shows that Kashmir in a way acknowledged the suzerainty of Harsha. The episode of Harsha compelling the king of Kashmir to part with the relic of Buddha. Bana also refers to the inaccessible land of snowy mountains subdued by Harsha himself, and these phrases might signify Kashmir as well.”
Orissa – Regarding Orissa, there is evidence to suggest that it became a part of Harsha’s empire through conquest. Harsha led an expedition to Kongoda or Ganjam and established his camps in Orissa. After the conquest, a Mahayana conference was held in Orissa, and Buddhist scholars from Nalanda were invited to attend. Following the conference, Harsha offered Jayasena, a Buddhist scholar, the revenues of eight large towns in Orissa.
The extent of Harsha’s empire is a topic of controversy among scholars, and determining its exact boundaries is difficult. According to Hieun Tsang, Harsha waged consistent warfare and became the “lord of five Indias” within six years. The five Indias referred to Punjab, Kanauj, Bengal, Darbhanga, and Utkal. Bana mentions that Harsha issued a proclamation throughout India, asking all the kings to accept his suzerainty or fight against him. Chalukya records also describe Harsha as the suzerain of the entire North India (Sakalottarapathanath). These contemporary accounts describe Harsha’s control over northern India without providing a precise extent of his empire.
Soon after ascending the throne, Harsha established himself as a statesman and organizer. Despite facing significant challenges, including the killing of his elder brother and threats against Thaneswar, Harsha demonstrated fortitude and political sagacity, overcoming the difficulties and consolidating his position. He not only protected Kanauj but also led it to become the strongest state in India. Harsha frequently marched towards various states in India from Kanauj. It was his leadership that elevated Kanauj from an ordinary state to an empire in North India. Following his death, Kanauj remained a center of attraction in India, becoming a focal point in the struggle between the Pala, Pratihara, and Rashtrakuta dynasties.
The title “Lord of the North” is mentioned in the Aihole Inscription of Chalukya King Pulakesin II, referring to Harshavardhana. It is known that Harsha conquered and annexed territories until his death, including Magadha, Orissa, Kangada (Ganjam), and possibly West Bengal. However, it is unclear whether Harsha incorporated these conquered regions into his dominion. If we consider that Harsha did annex these territories, then his empire would have consisted of a portion of eastern Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, and Orissa. This aligns with Hiuen Tsang’s statement that Harsha was the Lord of five Indias, which included Punjab, Kanauj, Bihar, Bengal, and Orissa. Therefore, the extent of Harsha’s empire was likely narrower than commonly believed, and there is no evidence to suggest that he was the Lord of the entire Northern India. Kashmir, West Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Rajputana, Nepal, Eastern and Northern Bengal, remained independent states outside the limits of his kingdom.
Harsha’s empire, stretching from Punjab to Orissa, had a significant impact on the contemporary powers, leaving a deep impression. It is possible that his influence extended beyond his actual territorial control. Neighboring kingdoms accepted his hegemony, although he was unable to expand his rule into the South. He faced resistance from Chalukya Pulakesin II, who rebuffed Harsha’s advances. Furthermore, Harsha failed to establish a centralized administration like the Mauryan Empire. Instead, he ruled over a kingdom that relied heavily on feudalism. Despite these limitations, Harsha was a king of great caliber, and under his leadership, Kanauj became the center of imperialism in the post-Harsha period.
During his reign, Harsha united the kingdoms of Thanesar and Kannauj. His rule marked the onset of feudalism in India, with territories falling into two major categories: those directly under Harshavardhana’s rule and those controlled by the feudal system as feudatories.
Harshavardhana was an exceptional king who suffered defeat only once in his life, at the hands of the Chalukyas in 618-619 AD. The Chalukya King, Pulakesin II, defeated Harsha when he was advancing southwards in an attempt to capture that region.