Forgotten Civilisation 2: Mahajanpadas


The Mahajanapadas included sixteen major kingdoms that were prevalent in India during the ancient era. This came into existence as the tribes that existed during the vedic period formed separate kingdoms and identities. These came to be known as settlements that were exclusive to these tribes and were called mahajanpadas. This was the advent of political activity in the region. There were newer resources and metal harvesting techniques. Fertile land was beneficial for agricultural endeavors. There were prominent iron production centers that played a very important role in the diversification of the terrains. The smaller settlements of lands originally called janapadas hence came together to form larger mahajanpadas. This is where a proper form a monarchy was seen evidently. Some of these areas are known to have had democratic rule but mostly a single ruler was observed for each separate state. There were sixteen major mahajanpadas amongst which Gandhara, Panchala, Anga and Kuru are documented in religious scriptures.

The tradition of land acquiring began around this time in order to be able to hold a permanent settlement. These tribes took the form of well laid out communities which would form the origin of the dynasties that would be prominent in history. The states or janapadas involved a community of a certain tribal origin which was of great importance. The expansion of these states began where the amalgamation with the neighboring states gave rise to the formation of the mahajanpadas. Thus, the mahajanpadas began conquering smaller janapadas in order to expand their kingdoms and add wealth and value. This period of expansion was carried out around the Buddha period. Thus, relevant reference to the mahajanpadas can be observed in Buddhist texts and writings. There are many scriptures documenting the great sixteen kingdoms in the 4th and 6th centuries BCE. This is a pivotal period in history as it witnesses the creation of major Indian cities that came into existence after the Indus Valley period. 

These sixteen kingdoms included the following mahajanapadas:

  • Anga

The kingdom of Anga is popularly documented in Mahabharata. It was the kingdom that Duryodhan gifted to Karan as a sign of his friendship. The earliest mention of the kingdom of Anga is seen in the Atharva veda where they are described to be one of the earliest communities of Aryans. Eventually, Anga was seen to be a pivotal center for trade and related activities. This was the sector that brought in merchants and traders from the adjacent kingdoms. It is known to have has a rivalry with the kingdom of Magadha which were across a common river Champa. The river stood to be the sole source of water for both the kingdoms and hence there was obvious competition. Eventually Anga was taken over by Magadha under the rule of Bimbisara as one of his popular achievements. 

  • Assaka

The Assaka kingdom was established in the southern region of India. The Godavari river was share between the kingdom of Assaka and Mulaka. It served as the primary source of water for both and was a fortification between the two. The two kingdoms were once a singular state that was called Alaka. This was, however, split across the river Godavari and hence the kingdom of Assaka came into existence. The state of Potali was the capital of Assaka which was ruled by King Brahmadatta. This region is the present day state of Maharashtra which was then referred to as Anguttara Nikaya. The Godavari and its fertile area formed a crucial resource for this kingdom.

  • Avanti

After the period of Buddha, the kingdom of Avanti gained great prominence in the region. It had river Narmada as its source for all water and fertility needs. The river ran across the kingdom dividing it into North Avanti and South Avanti. In the reign of the Mahavir period both these kingdoms were united and served as one. Ujjaini was the capital of the joint kingdom during that era. This was a region where Buddhism prospered and thus has significant mention in Buddhist texts and scriptures. Later King Shishununga captured Avanti as a part of Magadha whe he won over Nandivardhana in the battle ground.

  • Chedi

The great kingdom of Chedi is mentioned and prominently documented in the Mahabharata. Shishupala was the ruler of the eminent Chedi kingdom. The state stood to be in alliance with Magadha and Kuru kingdoms. Suktimati was the capital of the Chedi state and has been documented in the writings of various travelers. This can be mapped to the present day region of Uttar Pradesh and the Rewa region of Madhya Pradesh.  There are many cultural and political annexure that have been documented and discovered throughout the region regarding the city and its capital. Thus, Chedi stood to be one amongst the prominent mahajanpadas in this era. 

  • Gandhara

This kingdom stood strong in the present day region of Peshawar. Gandhara has been a popularly known  kingdom which was well documented in the Vedas along with other religious scripture like Ramayana and Mahabharata. The river Indus ran across the kingsom and served its water needs. Takshashila was the capital of the state. Here the famous University of Takshashila was extablished as a prominent center of learning. Scholars from all over the world came to the state to gain greater knowledge. This has been a historical highlight for the kingdom of Gandhara which was a vast empire on its own.

  • Kashi

The pious land of Kashi had the blessings of two river bodies through its terrain The Varuna river fed its lands through the north whereas the river Assi was seen to be flowing through the south. Varanasi which was the capital of Kashi has hints of its culture from then which are preserved. The Assi ghat is still popularly visited by people from all over the world. Kashi was the most powerful center amongst all the mahajanapadas of the era right from the Buddha period. It is popularly documented as a very prosperous land with magnum amenities. Being the super powerful kingdom that it was, Kashi had constant conflict with the neighbouring kingdoms of Kosala, Magadha and Anga which held power. In the earlier times it captured Kosala but was later recaptured under the rule of King Kansa. 

  • Kamboja

Kamboja was known to be a republican land as documented in several ancient texts. There were two primary settlements pertaining to Kamboja. It was located on either sides of the Hidukush mountains. The kingdom prospered and was fortified by the mountain range. Later, the clans of Kamboja ventured across the mountain range to establish colonies in the south. These were the relatives of the Gandharas and the Daradas.

  • Kosala

The Kosala kingdom was situated near the state of Magadha. Ayodhya was the capital of Kosala which was intertwined between several river bodies. It has the Ganga flowing the south and Gandak in the east along with a Himalayan fortification in the north. Geographically, this was one of the most well-laid out kingdoms that was served by the natural habitat around. Thus, Kosala became the biggest and most powerful kingdom in the history of the janapadas. King Prasenajit ruled over the kingdom. The kingdom eventually merged with Magadha under the rule of King Vidudbha. The joint state saw major prosperity and continued to assume power. 

  • Kuru

This was the popularly known kingdom of Kuru as mentioned in the Mahabharata which was ruler by the Korvas. The capital Indraprastha which is the state of modern day Delhi, was well known for its prosperity and wealth. Other clans like the Panchalas and the Yadavaas were related with the Kuru clan as known in the popular documentations of the Mahabharata. Initially, the Kuru kingdom was seen as monarchial ruling but towards the fifth and the sixth centuries, there is a hint of a republican governance in the region. This has been mentioned in the compilation called Arthashastra that indicates towards the constitution of the king in the region.

  • Magadha

Magadha was a well known kingdom in ancient India. It was one of the most prosperous and wealthy states during this period. Thus, it became one of the most eminent mahajanapadas. The kingdom was naturally blessed with the Ganga running through the north and the Champa river in the east. The river Son ran through the west of region of the land. The earliest known ruler of the kingdom of Magadha was Brihadratha. This was a kingdom that witnessed the rise and reign of some really great and prominent rulers of history. King Bimbisara was one such ruler, under whom the kingdom flourished and there was peace far and wide. It is popularly known that Gautam Buddha spent significant years of his life in the kingdom of Magadha. Thus, Buddhism was a significant trait of the region and Magadha is considered a pious land for the Buddhists even to this day.

  • Malla

The Northern region was occupied by the Malla kingdom that stood to be one of the most powerful in the region. The kingdom consisted of nine territories that were republican in certain aspects. There were monarchial forms too that existed prior to this. However, a certain shift towards the republican domain could be clearly seen. The kingdom included cities of great religious importance like Pava and Kusinara. These were important cities for Buddhists and Jains and were thus crucial parts of the kingdom. Lord Mahavir left the earth from Kusinara and Gautam Buddha took his abode from Pava. Thus, these cities were of great significance for the Buddhist and Jain population.

  • Machcha

The Machha kingdom has its origin deep-rooted to an Indian Aryan tribe from the previous age. It was situated at the South of the Kuru kingdom and had river Yamuna to its east. The Yamuna separated the Machha kingdom from the Panchalas. Viratanagara was known to be the capital of the state under King Virata, after whom it was named. It is said that King Sujata ruled over the combined kingdoms of Machha and Chedi which were segregated at a later stage. The power of the state started to decline with the progressing years and increasing strength of the contemporaries.

  • Panchala

Towards the east of the kingdom of Kuru, Panchala was located. The Ganga river and the Himalayan mountain range surrounded the kingdom from different fronts. Panchala consisted of Dakshina Panchala and Uttara Panchala. The capital of the Uttara Panchala was Adhichhatra and Dakhshin Panchala had Kampilya as its capital. These two states ran in harmony together with a single monarchial rule. At a later stage, around the sixth century BCE, a republican wave was observed in the state. This is also mentioned in Arthashastra where the king’s constitution was used to govern the land. With the advent of the Mauryan Empire, Panchala was eventually captured by the Mauryas and then passed onto the Gupta kingdom. 

  • Surasena

Towards the east of the kingdom of Machha, the kingdom of Surasena was established. The river Yamuna ran across its east boundary. This was a very religiously significant land in the era.  It played a pivotal role in the transmission of Buddhism. The king, Avantiputra, was an ardent disciple of Buddha. Hence, under his reign Buddhism was advocated and flourished across the region. Mathura was the capital of Surasena. There is an eminent mention of Mathura in the scriptures regarding Kans as the king. The documentation shows this as a land intertwined with the story of Krishna. Thus, this became a land where Krishna was popularly worshipped. Eventually, the state was taken over by the kingdom of Magadha.

  • Vriji

Vriji was one amongst the most eminent mahajanapadas of the ancient era. It has noteworthy mentions in the Buddhist and Jain religious texts like Anguttara Nikaya and Bhagvati Sutra. Gandaki was the primary river flowing through the Vriji land in the west and the Ganga watered it towards the north. Vaishali was the capital of Vriji and was a peaceful city. There was conflict between Vriji and Malla as well as Kosala which were situated across the Gandaki as well. During the ancient era, there were several popular and significant cities in the kingdom of Vriji including Kundapura and Hatthigam. These have been documented and mentioned in several writings.

  • Vatsa

The kingdom of Vatsa was located in the North region. The king Udayna reigned over the kingdom with Kausambi as its capital. The state followed a monarchial approach of governance in the sixth and seventh centuries BCE. King Udayna made Buddhism the state religion of Kausambi after his spiritual rediscovery with Buddhism. He became an ardent follower of Buddha thus, making the kingdom a significant Buddhist state. The kingdom was also a major attraction for traders and merchants some of whom settled here owing to the prosperity of the land. It became an important sector in the trade network for goods and people coming from all over the Indian subcontinent. 

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