The Mahājanapadas were sixteen kingdoms or oligarchic republics that existed in ancient India from the sixth to fourth centuries BCE. Two of them were most probably ganatantras and others had forms of monarchy. From the 16th century onwards, the widespread use of Iron in eastern U.P. and western Bihar created conditions for the formation of large territorial states.

  • The new agricultural tools and implements enabled the peasants to produce more and the extra produce was collected by princes to meet military and administrative needs.
  • With this the ‘Janapadas’ started giving way to ‘Mahajanapadas’ and the land between the Himalayas and the Narmada was divided into 16 Mahajanapadas which are mentioned in the Buddhist literature ‘Anguttar Nikaya’.
  • These are Kamboj, Gandhara, Kuru, Panchal, Chedi, Avanti, Matsya, Sursena, Koshla, Vatsa, Malla, Vajjis, Anga, Magadha, Kashi, and Asmaka. Of these, Magadha, Kosala or Avadh, Vatsa and Avanti were more important.
  • Some of these were ruled by hereditary monarch but others were republican or oligarchial states, ruled either by representative of the people as a whole or by nobility.
  • Of the non-monarchial clans, the most important was the Vajjis confederacy of eight clans, the most powerful of which were the Lichchavis ruling from their capital at Vaishali.
  • There were matrimonial relations between the rulers of Magadha, Kosala, Vatsa and Avanti, but they did not prevent them from fighting with one another for supremacy.
  • Ultimately the Kingdom of Magadha emerged as the most powerful and succeeded in founding in empire.


5.1 Magadha Empire (6-4 B.C.)

Magadha embraced the former districts of Patna, Gaya and parts of Shahabad and grew to be the leading state of the time. Its success was attributed to its geographical position i.e. proximity to rich iron deposits which yielded effective weaponry and the benefits of the fertile Ganga soil. Also elephants were first used in war. Archaeologically 6th century B.C. marks the beginning of the NBPW (Northern Black Polished Ware); a glossy, shining type of pottery. This marked the beginning of the Second Urbanization in India.


5.2 Haryanka Dynasty

The Haryanka Dynasty was originally founded in 566 B.C. by the grandfather of Bimbisara, but the actual foundation in the true sense is credited to Bimbisara.


1. Bimbisara (544 B.C.-492 B.C)

A contemporary of Buddha, he conquered Anga (east Bihar) to gain control over the trade routes with the southern states. His capital was Rajgir (Girivaraja) and he strengthened his position by matrimonial alliances with the ruling families of Kosala, Vaishali and Modra (3 wives).

  • The earliest capital of Magadha was at Rajgir, which was called ‘Giriraja’ at that time. His capital was surrounded by 5 hills, the openings of which were closed by stone walls on all sides. This made Rajgir impregnable.


2. Ajatshatru (492 B.C.-460 B.C)

Bimbisara’s son who killed his father and seized the throne, Annexed Vaishali and Kosala (annexed Vaishali with the help of a war engine which was used    to throw stones like catapults. Also possessed a chariot to which a mace was attached, thus facilitating mass killings). Kosala was ruled by Prasenjit at the time.


3. Udayin (460-444 B.C.)

He founded the new capital of Pataliputra situated at the confluence of the Ganga and the Son. It is said that Udayin was among the five successor kings who had acquired throne by patricides; the people of Magadha finally outraged by this, deposed the last of the five in 413 BC and appointed Shishunaga, a viceroy of Benaras, as king.


5.3 Shishunaga Dynasty

It is founded by a minister Shishunaga who was succeeded by Kalashoka. The dynasty lasted for two generations only. Their greatest achievement was the destruction of the power of Avanti and its final incorporation into the Magadhan Empire. The most famous event was, the capital was shifted to Vaishali.


5.4 Nanda Dynasty

It is considered first of the non-Kshatriya dynasties. It was founded by Mahapadma Nanda who added Kalinga to his empire from where he brought an image of the Jina as a victory trophy. He claimed to be the Ekarat – the sole sovereign who destroyed all the other ruling princes. That the Nandas controlled some parts of Kalinga (Orissa) is borne out by the Hathigumpha Inscription of King Kharavela, assigned to the middle of the first century B.C. Alexander attacked India during the reign of Dhana Nanda who was called Agrammesor Xandrammems by Greek writers, in 326 B.C.

The Nandas were fabulously rich and extremely powerful; maintaining an infantry of 2, 00,000 soldiers, 60,000 cavalry and 6,000 war elephants which supposedly checked Alexander’s army from advancing towards Magadha. They had developed an effective taxation system, built canals and carried out irrigation projects and had a strong army. Nandas are described as the first Empire builders in India. The first Nanda king is described in Puranas as the “destroyer of all Kshatriyas and a second Parasurama or Bhargava etc”. The Nandas were overthrown by the Maurya Dynasty under which the Magadhan Empire reached the apex of its glory.


Foreign Invasions and Persian Conquests of India

During 6th century B.C. northwestern India had been isolated from the developments in the rest of India and closer connections with Persian Civilization, being politically a part of the Achaemenied Empire. A little before 530 B.C., Cyrus (the Achaemenid emperor of Persia) crossed the Hindukush mountains and received tributes from the tribes of Kamboja, Gandhara, and the trans-Indus region. During the lifetime of Buddha, the powerful Achaemenian emperor of Persia Darius I (522-486 B.C.) captured a portion of Punjab and Sindh. The Behistun Inscription of 519 B.C. states that Gadara (Gandhara) was a province which sent teak. Herodotus, the famous Greek historian, considered as father of history, mentions Gandhara as the 20th satrapy or province, counted amongst the most populous and wealthy in the Achaemmenid Empirre.

  • The Indian provinces provided mercenaries for the Persian armies’ fighting against the Greeks in the years 486-465 B.C.
  • Alexander came to India in order to reach the easternmost parts of Darius’s empire, to the ‘problem of ocean’; the limits of each were a puzzle to Greek geographers and to add this fabulous country to his list of conquests.
  • Herodotus mentions about a naval expedition dispatched by Darius under Skylax (517 B.C.) to explore the Indus. Herodotus says: “the population of the Indians is by far the greatest of all the people that we know; and they paid a tribute proportionately larger than the rest”.
  • Xerxes utilized his Indian provinces to secure an Indian contingent to fight his battles in Greece.
  • There were ‘Gandharians’ as well as ‘Indians’ in his contingent. The former bore bows of reed and short spears for fight at close quarters, while the latter, clad in cotton also bore similar bows and arrows tipped with iron. These Indian troops were the first Indians to fight in Europe.
  • The Persian Empire set the model for Mauryas as far as Imperial pretensions are concerned. The prevalence in the North-West of Kharosthi script which is only a localized adaptation of Aramaic and written from the right was perhaps a vestige of Persian rule.


5.5 Alexander’s Invasion

Alexander was the son of Philip of Macedonia (Greece) who invaded India in 326 B.C. At that time North-west India was split up into a number of small independent states like Taxila, Punjab (kingdom of Porus), Ghandara, etc. Except Porus who fought the famous Battle of Hydaspas (on the banks of Jhelum) with Alexander, all other kings submitted meekly. Ambhi (Omphis), the king of Taxila, submitted to Alexander in about the same time. Later, impressed by Porus, Alexander reinstated him in power. Then Alexander captured the tribal republic of Glauganikai (Glachukayanaka) with its 37 towns. When Alexander reached Beas his army refused to go further, forcing him to retreat. To mark the farthest point of his advance, he erected 12 huge stone altars on the northern banks of the Beas. Remaining in India for 19 months, Alexander finally died in Babylon in 323 B.C.

  • Alexander’s invasion opened up four distinct lines of communication (3 by land and 1 by sea) thus exposing India to Europe.
  • Due to this cultural contact, a cosmopolitan school of art came up in Gandhara which was characterized by sensuous art and continued till the Gupta Age.
  • It also paved the way for the unification of north India under Chandragupta Maurya by weakening the small states.
  • But the immediate effect of this expedition was the destruction of tribes, which had survived from earlier times.
  • The earliest instance of ‘Jauhar’ in recorded history occurred when Alexander encountered the Sibis (a rude tribe clad in skins) and the Agalassoi (Agrasrenis). The latter suffered terribly for daring to resist the invader. The people of one town to the number of 20,000 men, women, and children set their dwellings ablaze and threw themselves into the flames.

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