Mahajanapadas and Rise of Magadha

From the UPSC point of view, not many questions have been asked in the past, but it’s important to remember the chronology and significant events during this period. We will try to be brief and highlight important points which will be important in your understanding of coming events and Dynasties.

The period of Mahajanpadas (600 BCE) is also known as the Period of 2nd urbanization (IVC was the 1st urbanization) as the center of polity and economy shifted from India’s North-west to Eastern states (mainly Bihar). Urban settlement and the use of Iron tools enabled the formation of large territories called Mahajanapadas. At that time there were 16 such Mahajanapadas (as per Buddhist text Anguttara Nikaya)

Mahajanapadas and Rise of Magadha

Some of the Mahajanapada are (*arranged east to west)

MahajanapadaCapitalUnique Aspect
Anga (South of Ganga, Bihar)ChampaImportant trade center for traders moving to South-East Asia (Suvarnabhumi)
Vajji (North Bihar)Vajji (North Bihar)

Vajji (North Bihar)

VaishaliIt was Republic state with many clans e.g. Lichchavis (capital Vaishali), Videhans (capital Mithila), and Jnatrikas (Mahavira belonged to this clan)
MallaKushinagar and PavaIt was also a Republic state. Buddha took his last meal at Pava and entered Mahaparinirvana at Kushinagar
Kashi (Eastern UP)Varanashi
Magadha (Bihar)RajgirHaryanka Dynasty (* we will read this in detail)
Koshala (Ayodhya, Eastern UP)

Koshala (Ayodhya, Eastern UP)Koshala (Ayodhya, Eastern UP)

ShravastiIts King was Prasenjit (a contemporary of Buddha)
It included tribal Republic of Shakyas ( capital Kapilvastu) (Birth of Buddha at Lumbini)
VatsaVatsaKaushambi (confluence of river Ganga and Yamuna, modern Allahabad)Its King Udayana is the central character in three Sanskrit dramas:
  • Svapnavasavadatta (by Bhasa) (romantic narratives about Udayana and Vasavadatta, the daughter of the ruler of Avanti)
  • Ratnavalli (by Harsha) (story of beautiful princess named Ratnavali, and king Udayana)
  • Priyadarshika (also by Harsha)
Chetiya or Cheti (Central India)ShuktimatiIts king was Shishupala (also mentioned in Mahabharata)
Panchala (Western UP)Ahichchhatra (modern Bareilly)
Kuru (Western UP)IndraprasthaMahabharata tells the story of the conflict in the Kuru clan
Shurasena (Western UP)MathuraIts king Avantipura was the disciple of Buddha
Matsya (Eastern Rajasthan)Viratanagara
Avanti ( Central Malwa)- Divided by Vindhya RangeNorth Avanti: Ujjain
South Avanti: Mahismati
Assaka (situated on the bank of Godavari River)Potali (modern Nizamabad, Telangana)Only Mahajanapada lying south of Vindhyas
Gandhara (North-west Pakistan)TaxilaThe Behistun Inscription of the Achaemenid Emperor Darius mentions that Gandhara being conquered by the Persians in 2nd half of the 6th Century BC
Kamboja (North-west Pakistan)Poonch (J&K)It was situated on the Uttarapatha and was known for its excellent breed of horses and as remarkable horsemen

Types of Government

There were two types of Government- Monarchy (in Kingdoms) and Republics (or Gana-Sangha) E.g. Vajji (Confederation of many clans); Shakya, and Malla (were made up of single clan) were Republics.

Difference between Kingdoms and Gana-Sangha

FeaturesKingdomsGana-Sangha (Republic)
GovernmentCentralized and HereditaryDecentralized and was not hereditary
    • Authority was vested in a council consisting of the chief of the clan
LocationMost of them based in the foothills of the HimalayasMost of them are located in the Great alluvial plains of Ganga and its tributaries
Decision-makingThrough debate, discussion, and voting in the assembly called SanthagaraThrough King, who was advised by Mantri-Parishad (ministers)
ViewsTolerant towards unorthodox views e.g. Mahavira and Buddha views were contrary to the Vedic systemThe Brahmanical system did not tolerate other views
LoyaltiesClan loyaltyCaste and King loyalty

Rise of Magadha Empire

There were constant conflicts between various Mahajanapadas and ultimately Magadha emerged as the largest Empire. The 1st Dynasty to rule Magadha was Haryanka (founded by Bimbisara).

Various Kings in Magadha Empire

KingImportant Events
Bimbisara (Founder; Capital: Rajagriha)
  • He was the contemporary of Buddha and Mahavira
  • He followed the three-pronged policy
    • o Matrimonial Alliances: He married the princess of Kosala, Lichchavi, and Madra clan
    • o Friendship with strong rulers: e.g. He sent his royal physician ‘Jivika’ to Avanti King
    • o Conquest of weak neighbors: He conquered Anga (Champa was an important trading center)
  • Similar to Bimbisara, he followed expansionist policy using modern machines e.g. he used war engine to throw stones like catapults ( Mahashilakantaka) and Chariot with mace (Rathamusala)
    • He conquered Varanasi and Vaishali to his kingdom
  • His meeting with Buddha is depicted in sculptures of Barhut
  • He arranged 1st Buddhist Council
  • He founded the new capital at Patliputra (on the confluence of River Ganga and Son )
  • Haryanka dynasty started to deteriorate after him due to weak rule and Parricide (killing of parent and other relatives)
  • Shishunaga was an Amatya (minister) during Magadha Period. He became king and founded the Shishunaga dynasty
  • He defeated Avanti and made it part of Magadha, thus bringing an end to 100 years of rivalry between Magadha and Avanti
  • 2nd Buddhist council was held at Vaishali during his reign.
  • He was killed by Mahapadma Nanda (founder of the Nanda dynasty)
Mahapadma Nanda
  • He founded 1st non-Kshatriya dynasty as several sources say he belonged to lower caste
  • He is known as Empire builder (Ekarat): acquired Kalinga and Kosala to Magadha (Hathigumpha inscription)
  • He was the last king and become unpopular due to his oppressive taxes and exploitation. Chandragupta Maurya took advantage of such discontent and founded the Maurya dynasty
  • During his reign, Alexander invaded India but did not cross the Beas River due to the powerful army of Nandas

Reasons for Magadha’s success

  • Advantageous geographical position:
    • Magadha’s strategic location provided its proximity to the rich iron deposits. Magadhan Army had the high-quality weapon
    • Its capital Rajagriha: surrounded by 5 hills – provided a natural fortification
    • Patliputra: On the confluence of Rivers Ganga and Son: provided route for trade and commerce
    • Ganga plains provided rich ground for agriculture to feed its standing Army
  • Used Elephants on large scale: Unlike horses (used by Magadha’s rivals), Elephants can be used for storming fortresses and marching over areas lacking roads
  • Good leaders: E.g. Bimbisara, Ajatashatru, Mahapadma Nanda
  • Enthusiasm for expansion: Magadhan society support for unorthodox religion led to the quest for expansion to other areas

Different Aspects of the Age of Mahajanapads

The emergence of new types of Towns
  • Mahanagara: big city e.g. Kashi, Kaushambi, Shravasti, etc.
  • Rajdhani: Capital city e.g. Rajagriha, Patliputra, etc.
  • Pura (Nagara): fortified town
  • Nigama: Market town
  • Nagarka: small town
Three types of villages existed (as suggested in Vinay Pitaka)
  • Typical villages: consisted of mixed castes, communities. Most of the villages were of this type
  • Suburban villages: These were Craft villagesg. Chariotmakers’ villages, Carpenter’s village (Vaddhaki-grama)
  • Border Villages (Aramika-grama): situated on the periphery of the countryside
  • Brahmadeyas: granted to Brahmanas
The emergence of Guilds (association of craftsmen or merchants)
  • Artisans and merchants organized themselves into their respective guilds
  • Sethi was a high-level businessman\
  • Vessas (or merchant streets): where artisans and merchants live in fixed localities
Trade routesUttarapatha ( Taxila to Rajgriha and later extended to Tamrilipti) and Dakshinapatha
Use of MoneyUse of Money

Use of Money

Early series of punch-marked coins called Nishka and Satamana were generally made up of Silver, though a few copper coins were also there
  • Bali (voluntary payment) became compulsory and special officers called Bali-adhyaksha were appointed to collect it
  • One-sixth of the produce was paid by peasants as tax
  • Agrarian Expansion: aided by Iron ploughshare and fertile plains
  • Crops: Rice (paddy transplantation was widely practiced), Barley, Pulses, Millets, Cotton, and Sugarcane
Administrative System
  • Parishad (advisory council of King consisting exclusively of Brahmanas): Previous assemblies such as Sabha and Samiti almost disappeared and was replaced by Parishads
  • Officials:
    • Kammikas: Custom officials
    • Shulk-adhyaksha: Toll officials
    • Rajabhatas: deputed to safeguard the lives and property of travelers
Legal and Judicial SystemTribal laws were replaced by Civil and Criminal law based on Varna distinctions
  • Crime committed by Shudras were punished severely, while crimes committed by Brahmanas were treated lightly
  • Criminal laws were based on retributions (‘revenge’ i.e. ‘an eye for an eye’)
KinshipPeople had strong Kinship ties e.g. Even though Monks were to renounce family ties, monastic rules were bent to make allowances for them to continue their kinship ties
Condition of Women
  • There was Subordination of women through Patriarchal control and an endogamous caste system
  • Ideal code of conduct and expected roles were defined for women
PotteryPottery Shifted from Painted Grey Ware (PGW) culture to North Black Polished Ware (NBPW Phase)


Persian Invasion in India

Persian Invasion in India

In India’s North-west, the three Mahajanapadas of Kamboja, Madra, and Gandhara were continuously fighting with each other (there was no central authority as Magadha in the East). Taking advantage of political instability, the Persian Empire in the 6th century penetrated northwestern India. All Indian tribes west of the Indus River submitted to him and paid tribute.

Impact of the Persian Invasion:

  • The impetus to Indo-Persian trade and commerce
  • Persian Sigloi-type coins were copied in India
  • The use of Kharoshti script (a form of Persian writing) became popular in India’s north-west
    • Few of Ashoka’s edicts were also written in Kharoshti script.

Impact of the Persian InvasionInfluenced Mauryan art e.g. the monolithic pillars of Ashoka and sculptures carved on them esp. bell-shaped capitals and preambles of Ashoka’s Edict have a lot of Iranian Influence

Macedonian (Greek) Invasion in India

Alexander’s Invasion (326BC): Alexander (356-323 BC) after defeating Persian ruler Darius, captured most of North-West India. All the Kings submitted to him except for Porus who fought the battle of Hydaspas (near Jhelum River). His Armies were exhausted of battles and didn’t cross River Beas. On the Way to Greece, he died in Babylonia (323 BC)

Impact of Alexander’s Invasion to India:

  • Established direct contact between India and Greece: Writings of Greek Historians provide an invaluable source of information for Indian historical events
  • Greek merchants and craftsmen started trading with India
    • Established Gandhara school of arts
  • Exposed India to Invasion from the west: By opening four lines of communication (three routes by land and one by sea)
  • Unification of North India under Chandragupta Maurya: Alexander’s Invasion destroyed smaller states and thus aided Mauryan Empire’s expansion to the north-west.

Impact of Alexander’s Invasion to India

Not many MCQs have been asked about this topic in the UPSC exam. However, the Next Chapter Religious Reforms is very important for UPSC Prelims and Mains point of view. We will do that in Details.