Anybody with basic political awareness is fairly well acquainted with the location and administrative functioning of states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Most of you may also be residing in cities like Patna, Lucknow, Varanasi, Meerut, Delhi, Jaipur, Ujjain etc.
But have you ever imagined that the above mentioned cities and states which you live in, were once occupied by mighty and prosperous kingdoms around 2,500 years ago i.e., around 5th– 6th century BC. The importance of these kingdoms in the Indian history lies in the fact that they were the first examples of state formation in India.
Prior to these Mahajanapadas, India had tribal based political system. With the rise of these Mahajanapadas it was for the first time that India found a certain historicity.
Is it not interesting to know our antecedents, our ancestors, and our ancient social, political, and economic traditions, which these kingdoms (or Mahajanapadas as they were known) cherished and preserved for us? No doubt, it is, and you must be keen to know about them. So come let us delve into our past and explore our roots.
The term Janapada, used even today, means a district or a sub-division. However, about 3000 years ago, the Janapada denoted a small territorial unit inhabited by Jana or Vedic tribes. The rise of the Mahajanapadas (or large territorial unit) in the 5th and 6th century BC was the result of a prolonged transformation in the social, economic and political structures of the Vedic age.
The spread of the use of iron tools from 9-10th century BC onwards facilitated massive growth in agricultural production and clearance of dense forests. For peasants, the use of iron implements simplified agricultural jobs such as ploughing fields and cutting the harvests. The pastoral and tribal forms of living of the Vedic period necessitated continuous movement for the tribes – now with agriculture becoming the primary source of livelihood for the people.
Sedentary agriculture came to be widely practised and land value greatly enhanced. Thus, land became an economic unit, which encouraged individual ownership by the Vedic chieftains.
In other words, people became attached to a particular geographical area and formed enduring ties with their surrounding landscape. Apart from the growth in agricultural production, developments in various arts and crafts took place from 6th century BC onwards.
Excavation findings show glass objects, tools such as axes, knives, razors, sickles, etc. and a special type of pottery called the painted grey-ware from the upper and middle Gangetic basin. All these developments had an important bearing on the social and political life of that period.
Gradually, the society came to be divided into two classes, the first included those who claimed higher social status like Kshatriyas and Brahmanas while the second constituted the lower class or commoners called the Vaishyas, who were tribute payers and were meant to serve the higher social classes. Vaishyas were assigned the duties of agriculture and trade while the Brahmanas formed the priestly and the Kshatriyas the warrior class.
Now the concept of tribal chiefs gave rise to that of the kingship, which justified the Kshatriyas’ claims over tributes from his subjects. The Brahmanas, who were the co-sharers of the tributes collected from the Vaishyas, also legitimised the king’s power.
All these developments in the material life of the people not only crystallized the social and political functions but also led to increased importance of the concept of territorial kingdoms and state formation.
The ownership of large tracts of land came to be regarded as the prized possession for chieftains, as increased land brought more agricultural surplus and higher tribute collection to a chieftain’s Janapada or territory. It was this search for individual ownership of more and more land that finally culminated into the emergence of large kingdom or Mahajanapadas around and 6th century BC.
Most of these Mahajanapadas were under the rule of a king. However, some of them emerged as republics, with rulers chosen by the people. Ample information about Mahajanapadas is found in the philosophical texts of that period viz., the Upanishads and the Brahmanas.
However, it is for the first time that Anguttara Nikaya, a Buddhist text mentions the existence of 16 Mahajanapadas during the age of the Buddha. The ‘sodas’ or 16 Mahajanapadas are in the table 1.
Some of the other texts such as the Puranas and the Buddhist text Digha Nikaya also corroborate the above information. Digha Nikaya, however, mentions some of the Mahajanapadas in pairs such as Kasi-Kosala, Vrijji-Malla, Chedi-Vamsa, Kuru-Panchala and Matsya-Surasena which imply that some of the Mahajanapadas were emerging as empires with subsequent consolidation.
The geographical extent of these Mahajanapadas was north of the Vindhya range in the south, to north-west frontier in the west, and modern Bihar and Bengal in the east. Among these, Magadha, Kosala, Vatsa and Avanti were more hegemonic and powerful Mahajanapadas.
A brief outline of each Mahajanapada will enhance our knowledge of the bygone ages (Fig 1).
Our ancestors already knew modern ideas like democracy and people’s participation in governance more than 2,500 years. The Vrijji or Vajji literally meaning ‘pastoral nomadic peoples confederacy’ is one of the examples of our ancient democratic values and tradition. Lying between the Gandak and Kosi rivers north of the Ganga, the Vajji confederacy or ganasanghawas jointly ruled by eight tribal clans most importantly the Lichchavis, the Videhans, and the Janatrikas.
The capital of the Lichchavis was Vaishali (modern Basarh village in Vaishali district) which was also the seat of power of Vrijji confederacy. Not far from Vaishali was Kundagram, the capital of the Janatrika clan which belonged the great Jain preacher, Mahavira.
The capital of the Videhan clan, Mithila (modern Janakpur in Nepal), was associated with king Janaka and his daughter Sita. The Vrijji confederacy had friendly relations with King Prasenjit of Kosala and had matrimonial alliance with the Magadhan king Bimbisara.
It was also a republic or ganasangha ruled by nine confederate clans, most important of which was the Mallas.
The Malla republic was a neighbour of the Vajji confederacy and Kosala. It lay between the Tapti, Ganga and Gandak rivers. Like Kosala, the Mallas also had twin capitals of Kushinara (modern Kasia where the Buddha attained Nirvana) and Pava.
Other important cities included Bhoganagara, Aunpiya and Padaraona. The Malla republic was however, annexed by Magadha.
The Chedis had earlier originated in the Terai region of modern Nepal but they moved to and settled in the modern Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh.
The capital of the Chedis was Sotthivatonagara or Suktimati, probably situated in modern Madhya Pradesh. Sahajit situated on the right bank of Yamuna was another important city of the period, apart from the city of Tripuri.
You may have heard of the anecdote in which Lord Krishna killed Shishupala with his sudarshan chakra when the latter committed his 100th sin. Krishna had pledged to Shishupala’s mother that he would ignore 99 sins but not the 100th. This Shishupala was the king of Chedi.
The Mithabharata informs us that the Chedis were in close touch with the kings and the chiefs of Measya, Kashi and Kurus.
West of the kingdom of Chedi lay the great Mahajanapada of Avanti, today’s central Malwa and parts of west Gujarat. Avanti had twin capitals, Ujjaini (modern Ujjain) in the north and Mahishmati in the south.
Both these cities flourished in the 6th century BC. Ujjaini founded by Achchyutguni, later developed as an important centre of Buddhism.
Besides, Ujjaini was also an important fortified centre of iron works. Avanti was situated in a fertile agricultural tract and met the trade route coming from the south.
According to the Puranas, however, Haihaya who belonged to the Yadavas clan founded the Avanti kingdom. The Puranas document that Pradyota was made the king of Ujjaini by his father Pulika after he (Pulika) had killed his master.
King Pradyota was a contemporary of the Buddha. Buddhist sources, however, have termed him as a cruel ruler. Avanti had a fierce rivalry with Vatsa and Magadh and Magadh annexed the territory after the death of Pradyota.
It lay to the east of Chambal River and south of Yamuna. Its capital was Kaushambi (modern Kosam village near Allahabad) situated near the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna.
The Vatsas belonged to the Kuru clan. They migrated from Kuru’s capital of Hastinapur to Kaushambi. The antecedents of Kaushambi can be traced back to the later Vedic period i.e., between 900 and 600 BC.
Excavations at Kaushambi have unearthed a well-planned city with walls built of burnt bricks. Besides artefacts such as pottery and iron objects etc. of pre 6th century BC period show that, Kaushambi stands as one of the earliest cities of India.
The most powerful king of the Vatsa kingdom was Udayana who was also contemporary of the Buddha. He had married king Pradyota’s daughter Vasavadatta upon whom the drama Svapna-Vasavadatta was later composed by the great dramatist Bhasa.
King Udayanahas also been glorified in the texts, Priyadarshika and Ratnavati, written by the king Harsha of Thaneswar in the 7th century AD. Buddhist sources mention that king Udayana attempted to pursue Digvjjay, (i.e., one who conquers all the four sides of the world) but later gave it up and converted to Buddhism.
Kurus and Panchalas
The Kurus had twin capitals, Indraprastha on the Yamuna and Hastinapur on the Ganga. Indraprastha is modem Delhi. The Kuru capital, Hastinapur, was also called Asandivant.
The kingdom covered parts of the western U.P between the Ganga and Saraswati rivers, while Hastinapur was situated in modern Meerut district of UP. Did you know Kauravas of Mahabharata belonged to this Kuru clan?
The Arthashastra written by Kautilya in the 3rd century BC call the Kurus as Rajsabdopajivinah i.e., ‘carrier of the titles of kings’. The Kurus forged matrimonial alliances with the Yadavas and the Bhojas.
According to the Puranas, during the time of the king Nichakshu, Hastinapur was flooded, compelling the king to move with his clan to Kaushambi. Archaeological excavations have confirmed the evidence of flood at the site.
Excavations have also shown the use of iron and practice of agriculture here from 1000 BC onwards. Apart from wheat and rice, the site has also yielded many iron and copper tools such as sickles, axes, arrowheads, nails etc.
Excavations of punch-marked coins testify to the flourishing trade and commerce in Hastinapur. Besides, the dwellings at Hastinapur were well planned and made of kiln—burnt bricks.
And if you thought Hastinapur is important historically only for Kauravas you have to discover a little more. Hastinapur is the holy place for the Jains too, as three of their tirthankaras including Shantinatha is associated with this place.
Lying east to the kingdom of Kurus was the territory of the Panchalas between the Ganga and the Sarayu rivers. The Panchalas had twin capitals. The capital of the northern Panchalas was Ahichchatra (modern Bareilly) and that the southern Panchalas was Kampilya (modern Farrukhabad).
In the Ramayana,King Chulani Brahmadutta is mentioned as the ruler of Panchala, which is also mentioned in the Mahabharata as the home of Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandavas.
It lay to the west of Yamuna with its capital at Mathura. The ancient Greeks mention it as Sourasenoi and its capital as Methora.
The Mahabharata and the Puranas refers to Yadavas as the ruling family of Mathura. The Yadava clan was divided into smaller ones such as the Andhakas, Vrishris, Mahabhojas, etc.
Surasena was a republic and two of its clans, Andhakas and Vrishnis, and has been mentioned in the Ashtadhyayi, written by the ancient grammarian Panini. Mathura was a large commercial centre, as it was located at the junction of two busy ancient Indian trade routes, the Uttarapatha (i.e., the northward route) and the Dakshinapatha (i.e., the southward route).
Mathura also lay in the middle of two economically different zones i.e., between the fertile rice growing Gangetic plains and the sparsely inhabited pasture region of Malwa plateau. This was also the reason why Mathura became the meeting point of people belonging to different regions.
Both these factors contributed in its development as a major commercial place in the 5th– 6th century BC. Lord Krishna belonged to Mathura was deeply respected by the Kurus.
The kingdom of the Matsya lay in the south-west of the SurasenaMahajanpada and covered modern Alwar, Bharatpur and Jaipur districts in Rajasthan.
Its capital was Viratnagar (modern Bairat) named after its founder king Virat. Another important king of Matsya was Sahaja who even exercised his sovereignty over the Chedi kingdom. In the Mahabharata, there is an episode where the Kauravas attacked king Virat and took away his cattle as booty.
The Mahabharata also mentions Viratnagar as the city where the Pandavas took refuge for some time during the course of their 13 year banishment in forests.
The Matsyakingdom, however was weaker than its contemporary power and commercially too it was relatively underdeveloped. Eventually it merged into the Magadhan Empire.
Asmaka or Asvaka
It was the southern-most of all the 16 Mahajanpadas and was situated within the Godavari river valley. It too had twin capitals, first at Potana or Potali and the second at Pratisthana (modem Paithan) founded by its king called Mulaka.
Pratishthana was situated on the northern bank of the Godavari River in Aurangabad district, not far from the western coast and has yielded several punch-marked coins. It was an important trade and commercial centre of the time and was probably connected with the cities of north.
Much of the information about Asmakahas not been recorded in the contemporary or later sources. Nevertheless, sources speak of rulers like Brahmadatta and Arun (the one who conquered Kalinga region).
Asmaka along with two other Mahajanapadas, Gandhara and Kamboja lay outside the pale of Madhyadesha where all the other Mahajanapadas were situated.
This Mahajanapada was situated in the lower valley of the Kabul River with its capital at Taxila (located near modern Peshawar in Pakistan).
Taxila was a city where three trade routes converged – first from West Asia, second from northern India and the third from Kashmir and Central Asia. Of the three sites excavated, the one known as Bhir mound belongs to the earliest phase representing the period from 5th – 2nd century BC.
Apart from the punch-marked coins, the site has also yielded clay moulds of coins, which indicate that it was a mint-town too. This capital was an important centre for fine artifacts, as large number of tools, used by carpenters and metalworkers, such as the furnace, ivory dice and bellow pipes have been unearthed here.
Besides, excavations have also yielded beads made of gold and semi-precious stones. Moreover, glass, copper, bronze ivory combs, earrings, anklets and so on indicate that the city of Taxila had rich people residing in it.
Gandhara and the Magedhan Empire had good trading relations and a number of goods were exchanged between the two. King Pukkusati (Pushkarasarin in Sanskrit) of Gandhara was a contemporary of Bimbisara.
It was a neighbouring Mahajanapada of Gandhara and occupied the Kunar river valley south of the Hindukush, and parts of modern North-West Frontier Province, now in Pakistan. Kamboja was a republic.
However, the ancient Brahmanical sources depict the Kambojas as uncultured. For instance, the Arthashastra of Kautilya refer to them as varta-sastropajivinsamgha which means that Kamboja was republic comprising agriculturists, herdsmen, traders and warriors.
It was the largest and the most powerful of all the Mahajanapadas and finally emerged as the greatest empire in the 6th century BC owing to its vast fertile agricultural land and access to the iron ores of south Bihar.
Besides, Magadh’s control over the trade routes of Ganga, Gandak and Son rivers provided it substantial revenues.
Areas occupied by the Magadhan monarchs comprised modern areas of Patna, Gaya and parts of Bhojpur district. Its first great ruler was Bimbisara of the Haryanka dynasty, contemporary of the Buddha. His reign spanned from 544 BC to 492 BC.
Bimbisara’s imperialist policies were based on conquest as well as matrimonial alliance. He conquered Anga and assigned it to his son Ajaishatru. He had matrimonial alliances with Kosala, Lichchavis and the Madra clan of Punjab whose rulers submitted before him by offering their daughters in marriage.
Although in the beginning, Avanti was Bimbisara’s greatest rival but finally good relations came to be established between the two.
Hence, as you can see, the rise of the Mahajanapadas in 5th and 6th century BC was an outcome of complex interplay of social economic and political development, the antecedents of which can be even traced to 9- 10th centuries.
The rise of the Mahajanapadas was not only the crystallisation of the concept of kingship but also the clear-cut demarcation in the social fabric of the rulers and the ruled, the tribute payers and collectors.
In addition, it was during the sway of the Mahajanapadas that a system of coinage as a medium of exchange in the form of the Punch-Marked coins was firmly established.
Further, it was from this period that specialised crafts based division of labour emerged in the cities. We find traces of artisans such as chariot makers, glass makers. iron smelters, smiths, pottery makers, jeweller’s and many more, indicating that the society was well stratified and much more advanced than the earlier tribal based Vedic society.
It was in the 5th and 6th BC that for the first time we find the emergence of urban centres in the upper and middle Gangetic basin. After a prolonged gap of about one and half millennia that followed the decline of the urban centers of Harappan affiliation, towns started emerging once again in an entirely new geographical backdrop with a different set of material and cultural equipment.
The Gangetic plain was the cradle where this phase of urbanism came into play. This second urbanism is considered significant, as it forges a continuous link thereafter for subsequent phases of urban descent and ascent.
Apart from using iron implements, other areas too made significant improvements. The importance of iron usage has restricted our perception of appreciating the contribution of other areas of advancement. For instance, copper too helped to shape this Gangetic urbanisation.
Works of glass and ceramics also improved. Studies revealed that these advancements were reflective of the overall developments made at the critical period of urban transformation. In fact, technological breakthroughs made in one industry were readily applied to the process of production in other industries. The industries of ceramics and iron-production, shared many common features of heating processes. Likewise, colouring and annealing in the glass-production were related to advancements made in copper technology. Different methods of heating under varying temperatures and conditions (oxidizing and reducing) were experimented with and mutually exchanged in all major industry.
It was obvious that all their advancements would be reflected in agriculture too. Advancements made in such areas as meteorological studies, seed pathology and irrigational facilities; and manuring and preparing the land for cultivation, went a long way in producing a critical surplus of agricultural production, which enabled urban society to merge and sustain itself.
The emergence of Mahajanapadas provided the foundation of our social, political, cultural and economic traditions, which were carried farther and crystallised in the subsequent period. Their antiquity therefore can never be lost, rather it’s very much alive to this day (table 2). You only need to discover it!
Modern Delhi is a combination of seven cities whose foundation was laid by Indraprastha. A list of the other six cities laid over the centuries by different dynasties is given in the table above. About 100 BC, Raju Dillu of Mauryan dynasty rebuilt the town and the present name is ascribed to him.