Mahajanapadas and rise of Magadhan Empire


The literal meaning of Mahajanapadas is great kingdoms. They flourished in the north/north western parts of India before the rise of Buddhism. Aryans have migrated into India long time back and there were regular friction between them and the non aryan tribes concerning, cattle, fodder, land etc. These tribes of Aryans were called as Janas by many Vedic texts. Later on there was a merger of the Vedic Janas into Janapadas. Different regions of the Indian subcontinent were previously divided into Janapadas, this was a clear demarcation by boundaries. Many Janapadas by 600 BCE further developed into bigger political bodies. These kingdoms came to be known as Mahajanapadas in the Buddhist traditions.

Sixteen great kingdoms as they are referrd to by buddhist and other texts. The sixteen mahajanapadas include Kasi, Kosala, anga, Magadha, Vajji, Malla, Chedi, Vatsa, Kuru, Panchala,Machcha, Surasena, Assaka, Avanti, Gandhara and Kamboja.

Out of the above 16 states Kuru, Panchal, Shursen, Vats, Kaushal, Malla, Kashi and Chedi were present in Uttar Pradesh and are still in the state. More known among them were  Kaushal, Kashi and Vats beides these certain republican states were also within the boundary of Uttar Pradesh.


The name Kasi is the tribe who settled in the region around Varanasi where itself the capital was located. There is a belief that Varanasi got its name from the rivers that surround the city, namely Varuna and Asi. Kasi occupied a predominant position among the sixteen Mahajanapadas, before the rise of Buddha. We come to know a lot about Kasi from the Jatakas which were a voluminous body of myths and folklore revolving about prvious births of the buddha. This supremacy called for a long drawn conflict for mastery between other cities, like Kosala, Anga and Magadha with Kasi. Kasi was no doubt influencial that is the reason why we get a mention of Kasi in the Vedic texts. Matsya Purana and Alberuni are the texts where we read Kasi as Kausika and Kaushika, others read it as Kasi.


Among the sixteen Mahajanapadas, Kosala is one, which comprised of Shravasti, Kushavati, Saket and Ayodhya. Kosala constituted of the territories of modern Oudh or Awadh which is located in Uttar pradesh. The state capital of Kosala was Ayodhya which was under the command of Prosenjit the Kosala King, a contemporary of Gautama Buddha. The southern side it was bordered by the Ganges, the east had river Gandhak encircling it. Magadha was a neighbouring state to Kosala, and there were conflicts between them. Ajatshatru who was the king of Magadha and Prasenjit were in continuous struggle for power which finally came to an end with the alignment of the confederation of Lichchavis with Magadha. After Prasenjit, Vidudabha rose into power and Kosala ultimately amalgamated into Magadha.


India’s earliest empire was evolving around the Gangetic plains, which included the Mahajanapadas. Anga was one of these evolving states, which is one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas that prospered during that period. Malini, Champapuri, champa Malini, Kala Malini etc were the different names by which this sate was called. The Angas were first referred to in the Atharva Veda as the detested people. Atharva Veda considers Anga an unholy place and some even condemned it as a place where wives and children were sold. Mahabharata, testifies the people of Anga to be of noble birth or ‘Sujati’ proclaiming the sanctity of the place Champa as a pilgrimage. During the reign of Bimbisara, this Mahajanapada was usurped and taken over by Magadha. Champa was also a major seat for the spread of Jainism and Buddhism.


Magadha emerged as a powerful kingdom in the reign of Bimbisara and his son Ajatshatru. The earliest ruling dynasty according to Mahabharata and Puranas seems to be founded by king Brihadratha. The Vedas have a mention of the Magadhas as semi ‘brahmanised’ and this was a reason for the not so good impression of the people. Kikata was a non Aryan country according to Yasaka and the king Pramaganda is said to be the ruler of Kikata. Kikata on the other hand was considered a synonym for Magadha in later Vedic literature.

The city was known by many other names like Magadhapura, Brihadrathapura, Vasumati, Kushagrapura and Bimbisarapuri. Buddhism and Jainism were in vogue in the religious scenario during that time, and Magadha became a dynamic center of Jainism along with the first Budhist Council being held in Rajagriha in the Vaibhara Hills.

Vajji or Vriji:

Sixteen Mahajanapadas of ancient Inida includes Vajji as one of them. The Vajji was a confederation a many clans of which the Licchhavis, the Vedehans, Jnatrikas and the Vajjis were the most important. It was actually known as the Vajji Sangha or the union of Vajji, which comprised of many janapadas, gramas (villages), gosthas (groups). The eminent people were chosen from each khandas (districts) to represent on their behalf in Vajji gana parishad (people’s council of Vajji). The chairman of the council was called Ganapramukh (head of the democracy), but often he was addressed as the king.The other executives were Mahabaladhrikrit (equivalent to the minister of internal security), binishchayamatya (chief justice), dandadhikrit (other justices) etc. Vajji had its capital at Vaishali.


Malla was an ancient dynasty in India and is one of the sixteen mahajanapadas. Epics like Mahabharata mentions that the Mallas were considered along with the tribes of the Angas, Vangas and Kalingas. Buddhist and Jain works have the mention of the Mallas who existed in a republic that consisted of nine teritories. In a more original context it is evident that they actually had a monarchical form of government in the beginning but later they transformed into the republic form{Samgha). The Mallas were very warlike and brave people and have been mentioned and referred as Vrtaya Kshatriyas by Manusmriti, as Vasishthas in the Mahapparnibbana Suttanta. Mallas have also suffered domination by the Magadha empire after Buddha’s death.

Chedi or Cheti:

The Chedis were group of ancient people of India living on the south of the river Yamuna. They are mentioned in the Rigveda, and city called Suktimati is mentioned as the capital of Chedi. Chedi kingdom was one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas, and was ruled by Sisupala, an ally of Jarasandha of Magadha and Duryodhana of Kuru. Prominent Chedis during Kurukshetra War included Damaghosha, Shishupala, Dhrishtaketu, Suketu, Sarabha, Bhima’s wife and so on. Chedi was the place that was chosen for spending the 13th year of exile by the Pandavas.


The Vamsa or the Vatsa was the kingdom that followed the monarchical form of government. This kingdom is one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas, and the capital of this was located at Kausambi. One very important aspect of this city was that it formed the hub of all economic activitioes and had a prosperous trade and business relations. 6th century Bc has the account of Udyana to be the ruler of the, kingdom at the time of Buddha. About Udayana it is said that earlier there were resentments on his side regarding Budhism as he was very warlike and aggressive but in the later years became more tolerant and finnaly a folower of Buddha. So much he was affected by his teachings that he made buddhism his state religion.


The kuru janapada is one of the sixteen mahajanapadas. Regarding the origin of the Kurus it has been said that they belong to the Puru-Bharata family. Kurus were the specific origin of people living in the Kurukshetra and according to the Buddhist text Sumangavilasini, the kurus came from the Uttarakuru. Testified by the Vayu Purana, the founder of Kurukshetra or kuru janapada was Kuru who was the son of Samvarsana of the Puru lineage. During sixth/fifth century BCE, the Kurus are believed to have shifted to republic form of government.


Panchala was divided into Uttara-Panchala and Dakshina-Panchala. Counted among the sixteen Mahajanapadas, the northen Panchala had Chhatravati as its capital and the south had its capital at Kampilya. In Panchala is situated the renouned city of Kanyakubja. Like many other kingdoms it was seen that the Panchals tooo had shifted to a republican form of government in sixth and fifth century BCE from being a monarchy.

Machcha or Matsya:

The Kingdom of Matsya was again an important part of the sixten mahajanapadas. This lay south of the Kurus and west of the Yamuna which separated them from the Panchalas. The Machcha tribe inhabited this region which had its capital at Viratanagara. The Matsyas are generally linked up with the Surasenas in Pali literature. The Matsya tribe in comparison to the other janapadas were of not much poolitical emminence during the age of Buddha. Matsyas and the chhedis have a connection here when we see that they were once ruled by the same king Sujata, and Matsya was a part of the kingdom ofn Chedi.


The kingdom of Surasena, underwent a lot metamorphosis in terms of religion. The capital which was Mathura, was the centre of Krishna worship at the time of Megasthenes. Whereas Avantipura who was the king of Surasena was one of the first desciples of Buddha, and it gained prominence evr since then in Mathura. The geographical locattion of this kingdom among the sixteen mahajanapadas was south west of Matsya and west of the river Yamuna. There were various tribe that in habited the region and they were headed by a chief.

Assaka or Ashmaka:

Kingdom of Assaka or Ashmaka was situated in the southern part of India and one of the sixteen mahajanapadas. The Ashmaka had its capital located at Potana or Potali which have resemblences of Paudanya of Mahabharatha. The Assakas are placed in the north-west in the Markendeya Purana and the Brhat Samhita. There are numerous associations regarding the identification of assakas. That is why we have different views on this. Like the commentator of Akutilya’s Arthashahstra identifies it with Maharashtra.


Avanti was an important kingdom of the sixteen mahajanapadas, and it lay in the western part of India. Buddhism rose to its prominence in this kingdom and and this was one of the other kingdoms which initiated Buddhism in a larger manner. The kingdom was divided as north and south Avanti and the north had its capital at Ujjaini. Mahissati was the capital of Avanti in the beginning which was integrated into Ujjaini during the period of Mahavira and Buddha. Avanti in the later stages of historu was amalgamated into the Magadha empire under the reign of Shishunaga.


The Gandhara kingdom comprised of the Gandharas who were highly trained in the art of war and they have a mention in the Atharva Veda as well . though in the Vedas they are mentioned as the despised people along with some others due to their allegiance to non Aryan group. Puranic and Buuddhistic tradition included Gandharas in Uttarapatha. The Gandhara kingdom of the sixteen mahajanapadas was founded by Gandhara, son of Aruddha who was the son of Yayati. It was alos believed once according to Gandhara Jatakas that they they were a part of Kashmir. Gandhara was an important seat of international commercial activities, and provided communication with other countries like Iran and Central Asia.


Kamboja was believed to have composed of parts that were o the either side of the Hindukush. Whereas originally they were located somewhre else. The Kamboja Mahajanapada of the Buddhist traditions refers to the ‘cis-Hindukush branch’ of ancient Kambojas. The kamboja being one of the sixteen mahajanapadas were a republic since ages. There are many evidence from the Mahabharata, Kautiliya’s Arthashastra and Ashoka’s Edict No. XIII which affirms that the Kambojas were a republic people.

Magadha emerged as a very powerful mahajanapada with time and this marked the annexation of sevaral janapadas of the ‘Majjhimadesa’. The Kasis, Kurus, Panchalas, Vatsyas etc were certainly among the exterminated clans which had no trace in the folklore, poetry and so on. The sixteen Mahajanapadas were infact distinguished as the ones belonging to the Majjhimadesa or mid India, or Uttarpatha or the north-west region.

The rise of Magadhan Empire

In the sixth country B.C. North India was divided into sixteen kingdoms out of which Avanti, Vatsa, Kosala and Magadha rose into prominence by aggrandizing upon other weaker states.These four states involved themselves in internecine quarrel in which Magadha emerged as the most powerful state and acquired mastery in the political domain of India.

Magadha under Bimbisara:

Magadha rose into prominence under the rule of Bimbisara who belonged to the Haryanka dynasty. Most probably he overthrew the Brihadrathas from Magadha and assumed the title “Srinika” after his accession. He ruled Magadha from 544 B.C. to 493 B.C. His greatest achievement was the establishment of Magadhan empire. He followed fourfold policy in order to fulfill his programme of imperial expansion.

Policy of Matrimonial Alliance:

By adopting the policy of matrimonial alliance, Bimbisara tried to augment his power. He married Kosaladevi, daughter of king Mahakosala of Kosala, received the Kasi village as dowry, which yielded revenue of 1, 00,000. “Mahavamsa” mentions his marriage with Chellana the daughter of Chetak, the Lichchavi chief of Vaisali.

He then married Vasavi, a princess of Videha in the northward. He also got the hand of Khema, the daughter of king of Modra in Central Punjab. The establishment of matrimonial relations with these states added glory to the Magadhna empire and it also paved the way for the expansion of Magadhan empire and westward.

Policy of Conquest:

The next policy of Bimbisara for the expansion of Magadhan empire was the policy of conquest. Bimbisara led a campaign against the kingdom of Anga and defeated its king Brahmadatta. Anga along with its capital city Champa, was annexed to the Magadhan empire.



Friendly Relation with distant Neighbours:

As a farsighted diplomat, Bimbisara had followed the policy of friendship towards the distant neighbours to win their co-operation for the safety and security of his empire. He received an embassy and letter from Pukkusati, the ruler of Gandhar with which Pradyota had fought unsuccessfully. Magadha’s most formidable enemy was Chanda Pradyota Mahasena of Avanti who fought with Bimbisara but ultimately the two thought it wise to become friends. He also sent his physician Jivak to Ujjain when Pradyota was attacked by jaundice.

Consolidation of his Empire by a Good Administrative System:

By introducing a highly efficient system of administration, Bimbisara consolidated his conquests. His administration was found to have been really well-organised and efficient. The high officers were divided into three classes, viz. executive, military and judicial. The ‘Sabarthakas’ were responsible for the management of general administration.

“Senanayaka Mahamatras” were in charge of military affairs. “Vyavaharika Mahamatra’s” were in charge of judicial-administration. Provincial administration was also well-organised. The head of provincial administration was “Uparaja”. The villages enjoyed rural autonomy. “Gramika” was the head of the village administration. The penal laws were severe. Bimbisara also developed the means of communication by constructing good roads. He is said to have established a new capital at Rajagriha situated on the outskirts of the old capital Girivraja.

He made Magadha a paramount power in the sixth century B.C. It is said that his kingdom had consisted of 80,000 villages. He was also a devotee of Buddha. He donated a garden named “Belubana” to the Buddhist Sangha. According to the Buddhist chronicle Bimbisara ruled Magadha from 544 B.C. to 493 B.C. He was succeeded by his son Ajatasatru who had killed him and seized the throne for himself.


The reign of Ajatasatru witnessed the high watermark of Bimbisara dynasty. From the very beginning Ajatasatru pursued the policy of expansion and conquest. He began a prolonged war with Prasenjit of Kosala who had revoked the gift of the Kasi village made to Bimbisara. The war continued for some time with varying success to both sides till Prasenjit ended it by giving his daughter, Vajira Kumari in marriage to Ajatasatru and leaving him in possession of Kasi.

The next achievement of Ajatasatru was the conquest of Lichchavis of Vaisali. Chetak, chief of Lichchavis had formed a strong confederacy comprising 36 republics in order to fight Magadha. According to jaina sources, before his death, Bimbisara gave his elephant “Seyanaga” “Sechanaka” and two large bejewelled necklaces, one each to his sons Halla and Vehalla who were born of their Lichahhavi mother, Chellana.

Chetak had given them political assylum. After his accession, Ajatasatru requested chetak to surrender them. But Chetak refused to extradite Chetaka’s step brothers. So the conflict between Ajatasatru and Lichchhavis became inevitable.

According to Buddhist text Ajatasatru had entered into an agreement with Lichchhavis to divide among them the gems extracted from a mine at the foot of the hill near the river Ganges. But the Lichchhavis deprived Ajatasatru of his share. But Dr. H.C. Raychoudhury points out that the most potent cause of war was the common movement among the republican states against the rising imperialism of Magadha.

Ajatasatru made elaborate war preparations against the Lichchhavis. As a base for operation he constructed a fort at Patalagrama on the confluence of Ganga and the Son which eventually developed into the famous capital of Pataliputra. Ajatasatru also tried to create a division among members of Lichchhavi confederacy. He employed his minister Vassakara who successfully sowed the seeds of dissension among the members of Vajjian confederacy and broke their solidarity.

Thereafter Ajatasatru invaded their territory and it took him full sixteen years to destroy Lichchhavis. In this war he used some new weapons and devices like “mahasilakantaka” and “rathamushala” to overpower the enemy. Ultimately Lichchhavi was annexed to the Magadhan territory.

Ajatasatru faced danger from Avanti while he was engaged in war with Lichchhavis. King Chanda Pradyota of Avanti became jealous of his power and threatened an invasion of Magadha. To meet this danger Ajatasatru started fortification of Rajgiri. But the invasion did not materialize in his life time.

The successors of Ajatasatru:

Ajatasatru was succeeded by his son Udayin who ruled for sixteen years. The Buddhist texts describe him as a parricide where as the jaina literature mentions him as a devoted son to his father. Udayin built the city of Pataliputra at the fort of Patalagrama which commanded the strategically and commercial highway of eastern India. During his rule Avanti became jealous of the ascendancy of Magadha and a contest between the two started for mastery of Northern India.

However, Udayin was not destined to live to see the ultimate victory of Magadha against Avanti. According to the jaina texts he constructed a chaitya in Pataliputra. He also observed fasts on the eighth and fourteenth tithis as per the jaina tradition. It is said that Udayin have been murdered by assassin engaged by Palaka, the king of Avanti. According to Ceylonese chronicle Udayin was succeeded by three kings namely Aniruddha, Manda and Nagadasaka.

The Ceylonese chronicle describes that all the three kings were parasite. The people resented their rule and revolted against the last king Nagadasaka and raised an amatya Sisunaga on the throne of Magadha. With this restoration the rule of Haryanka dynasty came to end and the rule of Sisunaga dynasty came into being.

Sisunaga served as the viceroy of Kasi before he ascended the throne of Magadha. He established his capital at Girivaraja. His greatest achievement was the conquest and annexation of Avanti. This brought to an end the hundred year’s rivalry between Magadha and Avanti. Probably he had annexed Vatsa and Kosala Kingdoms to Magadha. Towards the later part of his regain he temporarily shifted his capital to Vaisali.

Sisunaga was succeeded by his son Kalasoka or Kakavarna. The reign of Kalasoka is important for two events, viz., the transfer of Magadha capital from Girivaraja to Pataliputra and holding of the second Buddhist Congress at Vaisali. Very unfortunately, he lost his life in a palace revolution, which brought the Nandas upon the throne of Magadha. The usurper was probably Mahapadma Nanda, the founder of Nanda dynasty and he also killed the ten sons of Kalasoka who ruled jointly. Thus the Sisunaga dynasty was followed by the new dynasty of the Nandas.


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