Sources There are mainly three important sources to understand the history of Harshavardhana and other rulers of the dynasty: (i) literary sources, (ii) foreigners’ accounts, and (iii) archaeological findings.
Literary Sources Written in Sanskrit by Banabhatta, Harshacharita is an important book to understand Harsha’s rule. This book has eight sections. While the first three sections cover the autobiography of Banabhatta, the remaining five describe the life history of Harshavardhana.
Kadambari, written by Banabhatta, is considered the greatest novel of Sanskrit literature. The novel deals with social and religious life during the times of Harsha.
Aryamanjushreemulkalpa is a Mahayana book with 1,000 hymns. It deals with the “ancient Indian history covering the period between seventh century BC and eighth century AD.
Foreign Accounts Foreign travellers, mainly Chinese pilgrims, have left accounts of the time.
A Chinese pilgrim, Hsuan-Tsang, spent about eight years in the dominions of Harsha and earned the king’s friendship. Hsuan-Tsang’s book Si-Yu-Ki throws light on political and cultural life in India during Harsha’s times.
The biography of Hsuan-Tsang was written by his friend Wu-Li. This book also makes available important information related to Harsha’s period.
I-tsing was a Chinese traveller. His description of the times is very useful. His accounts were translated into English by the Japanese Buddhist monk, Takkusu, under the title A Record of the Buddhist Religion.
Archaeological Sources Inscriptions and seals of Harsha’s period are important archaeological sources.
Banskhera is situated in the Shahjahanpur district of Uttar Pradesh. An inscription dated ad 628 was found here in 1894. This inscription gives a lot of information regarding Harsha.
The inscription says that Harsha had granted Markatsagar village to two Brahmans Balachandra and Bhattaswami. This also speaks of the victory of Rajyavardhana over the Malwa king Devagupta and the murder of Devagupta by Sasanka.
Madhuban is situated in Ghoshi tehsil of Ajamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh. A Harsha inscription dated ad 631 has been found here. It mentions the grant of Somkunda village by Harsha.
The Aihole inscription of the Chalukya king Pulakesin II is dated ad 633-34. The inscription deals with the war between Harshavardhana and Pulakesin II. The inscription was written by Ravi Kirti, a court poet of Pulakesin.
Two seals of Harsha have been found in Nalanda (Bihar) and Sonepat. One is of clay, while the other is of copper. These seals contain the names of all the kings, from Rajyavardhana I to Harshavardhana, the dynasty. It is the Sonepat seal which gives Harshavardhana as the full name of Harsha.
Political History The young Harsha ascended the throne on the death of his brother, Rajyavardhana, facing two crises: to recover sister Rajyasri and to punish the enemies of his brother.
He was advised by Senapati Simhanada, a friend of his father, “Think of not the Gauda king alone; so deal that for the future no others follow his example” (A Comprehensive History of India).
Thus began a military career which was not solely inspired by aggressive designs but was partly an act of vengeance and partly an effort to re-establish political unity.
In his mission, Harsha was assisted by his feudatories, his maternal uncle, Bhaudi, and an offer of alliance (which he accepted) from the King of Assam, Bhaskaravarman.
Furthermore, the treasures won by his dead brother, Rajyavardhana, when he defeated the King of Malwa, Deva Gupta, were also of help in attaining his objective. He rescued Rajyasri and defeated Sasanka, King of Gaud.
Harsha now collected a large force consisting of 5,000 elephants, 2,000 cavalry and 50,000 infantry and started on his mission to establish political unity. Excepting some partisan and biased accounts, not much is known about the details of his conquests.
Partisan, because the narrator Hsuan- Tsang was a recipient of Harsha’s patronage; biased, because the source, Harshacharita, was written by his court poet, Bana.
According to Hsuan-Tsang he first “proceeded eastwards, invaded the states which had refused allegiance, and waged incessant warfare until in six years he had brought the five Indias (meaning the whole of India between the Himalayas and the sea) under allegiance.”
Bana states that Harsha “pounded (Pramathya) a King of Sindh” and took “tribute from an inaccessible land of Snowy Mountain” (meaning Nepal).
In the west, he conquered the Kingdom of Valabhi and its erstwhile dependencies Anandapura, Ki-ta (Kutch) and Suratha (Surat). Sylvan Levi, however, points out that Nepal at that time was a dependency of Tibet.
In any event, he suffered a decisive defeat in the hands of Pulakesin II of the Chalukya dynasty of Vatapi while on his expedition towards the Deccan. The Aihole inscription states that Harsha’s harsha (joy) melted away through fear (A Comprehensive History of India).
The Chalukya records state that by defeating Sakalottarapathesvara Harsha (lord of the entire north), Pulakesin became a Parameswara.
India was thus practically divided in their days between Harsha and Pulakesin whom the Yakkeri inscription calls Dakshinapatha prithviya swami (lord of the vast tract known as Dakshinapatha).
After his military campaigns, Harsha enforced peace by making his army sufficiently large, almost formidable.
Hsuan-Tsang said that his enlarged army had 60,000 elephants and 100,000 cavalry, an overwhelming force that enabled him “to reign in peace for thirty years without raising a weapon”.
Bana said that the elephants were either obtained as a tribute or secured from the forests by his own rangers. Harsha’s personal elephant was named Darpasata.
The horses were acquired from Vanayu (Arabia), Sindh, Persia and Kamboja. In addition, there was also a camel corps.
The death of Sasanka (circa ad 637) helped Harsha to extend his empire in the east and in 643 he conquered Ganjam (Kongoda), a part of which he gifted to the local Buddhists.
Considering that empire means areas under direct administration as also the sphere of influence, Harsha had under the first category: Thaneswar (Eastern Punjab), Kanauj, Ahichchhatra (Rohilakhand), 4) Sravasti (Oudh), and Prayaga.
To these were added, after ad 641, Magadha and Orissa. It also included the small state of Kajangala (Rajmahal) where he held his camp and first met Hsuan-Tsang.
In the second category, there were many satellite states, 18 of which were feudatories, in addition to the kings of Kamrupa and Valabhi.
Some of the distant kings were his brethren in faith and maintained cordial relations with him; these included the kings of Jalandhar (Udito), Kapisa and Kashmir.
Even before he met Hsuan-Tsang, Harsha knew a great deal about China and sent an envoy in ad 641 to the Chinese emperor, who also sent an envoy in return. Then, in ad 643 a bramhan envoy was sent and a second mission from China arrived.
After Hsuan-Tsang’s return, and probably as a result of the detailed report submitted by him, Wang-hiuen-tse was sent with the third mission. Unfortunately, Harsha was no more when it arrived and Wang was robbed by the usurper of the throne.
With the help of the King of Nepal and Tibet, Wang had his revenge but it is not historically authenticated (R.C. Majumdar, Ancient India).
Harsha does not appear to have left any successor and after his death in circa 646-647 ad his throne was usurped by his minister, Arjuna or Arunasva.