Harsha or Harshavardhana (हर्षवर्धन) or "Harsha vardhan" (590–647) was an Indian emperor who ruled Northern India for over forty years. He was the son of Prabhakar Vardhan and younger brother of Rajyavardhan, a king of Thanesar. At the height of his power his kingdom spanned the Punjab, Bengal, Orissa and the entire Indo-Gangetic plain North of the Narmada River.
After the downfall of the Gupta Empire in the middle of the sixth century C.E., North India reverted back to small republics and small monarchical states. Harsha united the small republics from Punjab to Central India, and they, at an assembly, crowned Harsha king in April 606 AD when he was merely 16 years old.
Harsha's father, Prabhākara was, apparently a sun-worshipper, his brother followed Buddhism while, according to Bana, Harsha himself was a Mahayana Buddhist. Harsha was a tolerant ruler and supported all faiths - Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Early in his life, he seems to have been a follower of Sun Worship, becoming a patron of Shaivism and Buddhism later on.
His sister Rajyashri's conversion to Buddhism presumably had a positive effect on his support to the religion. His approach to religion is evident in his celebrated play Nagananda. The play's theme is based on the Jataka tale of the Bodhisattva Jimutavahana, but Harasha introduces the Goddess Gauri, Shiva's consort, as the saviour of Jimutavahana, a feature not found in the Jataka.
According to the Chinese Pilgrim Xuanzang, who visited his kingdom in 636 CE, Harsha built numerous stupas in the name of Buddha. Xuanzang entered a grand competition organized by Harsha and won the theological debate. Harsha also became a patron of art and literature. He made numerous endowments to the University at Nalanda. Two seals of Harsha 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. In 643 he held a Buddhist convocation at Kanauj which was reputedly attended by 20 kings and thousands of pilgrims.
In 641, following Xuanzang's visit, Harsha sent a mission to China which established the first diplomatic relations between China and India. The Chinese responded by sending an embassy consisting of Li Yibiao and Wang Xuanze, who probably traveled through Tibet and whose journey is commemorated in inscriptions at Rajagriha - modern Rajgir, and Bodhgaya.
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 Xuanzang. Bana composed an account of Harsha's rise to power in Harsha Charitha, the first historical poetic work in Sanskrit language. Xuanzang wrote a full description of his travels in India.