UPSC History Early empire (6 BCE to 1 CE) NCERT Extracts - The Mahajanapads

NCERT Extracts - The Mahajanapads

Category : UPSC


  • From the sixth century B.C. onwards, the widespread use of iron in eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar created conditions for the formation of large territorial states. The new agricultural tools and implements made of iron enable the peasants to produce far more food grains than they required for consumption.
  • The extra product could be collected by the princes to meet their military and administrative needs. The surplus food grains could also be made available to the towns which had sprung up in the sixth-fifth century B.C.
  • Janapada means the land where a jana (a people, clan or tribe) sets its foot or settles. It is a word used in both Prakrit and Sanskrit.


The Mahajanapadas


  • In the age of the Buddha we find 16 large states called Mahajanapadas. Of these, Magadha, Koshala, Vatsa and Avanti seem to have been considerably powerful.
  • The kingdom of Anga covered the modem districts of Monger and Bhagalpur in Bihar. It had its capital at Champa.
  • Magadha embraced the former districts of Patna, Gaya and parts of Shahbad, and grew to be the leading state of the time. North of the Ganga in the division of Tirhut was the state of the Vajjis which included eight clans.
  • But the most powerful were the Lichchhavis with their capital at Vaishali which is identical with the village of Basarh in the district of Vaishali in Bihar
  • Further west we find the kingdom of Kashi with its capital at Varanasi.
  • In the beginning Kashi appears to be the most powerful of the states, but eventually it had to submit to the power of Koshala.
  • Koshala embraced the area occupied by eastern Uttar Pradesh and had its capital at Shravasti which is identical with Sahet-Mahet on the borders of Gonda and Baharaich districts in Uttar pradesh.
  • Koshala contained an important city called Ayodhya.
  • Koshala also included the tribal republican territory of the Shakyas of Kapilavastu.
  • The capital of Kapilavastu has been identified with Piprahwa in Basti district.
  • Lumbini (Nepal) served as another capital of the Shakyas.
  • In an Ashokan inscription it is called the birthplace of Gautama Buddha and it was here that he was brought up.
  • In the neighbourhood of Koshala lay the republican clan of the Mallas, whose territory touched the northern border of the Vajji state.
  • One of the capitals of the Mallas lay at Kushinara where Gautama Buddha passed away. Kushinara is identical with Kasia in Deoria district of Uttar Pradesh.



  • Further west lay the kingdom of the Vatsas, along the bank of the Yamuna, with its cap at Kaushambi near Allahabad.
  • Kaushambi was chosen because of its location near the confluence of the Ganga and1 Yamuna. The Kurus and the Panchalas were situated in western Uttar Pradesh.
  • In central Malwa and the adjoining parts ofMadhya Pradesh lay the state of the Avantis It was divided into two parts. The northern part had its capital at Ujjain, and the southern part at Mahishamati.  
  • The political history of India from the sixth century B.C. onwards is the history of struggles between these states for supremacy.
  • Ultimately the kingdom of Magadha emerged to be the most powerful and succeeded founding an empire.


Rise and Growth of the Magadhan Empire


  • Magadha came into prominence under the leadership of Bimbisara, who belonged to the Haryanka dynasty. He was a contemporary of the Buddha.
  • He started the policy of conquest and aggression which ended with the Kalinga war.
  • Bimbisara acquired Anga and placed it under the viceroyalty of his son Ajatashatru.
  • He also strengthened his position by marriage alliances. He took three wives. His first wife was the daughter of the king of Koshala and the sister of Prasenajit.
  • His second wife Chellana was a Lichchhavi princess from Vaishali who gave birth to Ajatashatru and his third wife was the daughter of the chief of the Madra clan of Punjab. Marriage relations with the different princely families gave enormous diplomatic prestige and paved the way for  the expansion of Magadha westward and northward.
  • Magadha's most serious rival was Avanti with its capital at Ujjain.
  • Its king Chanda Pradyota Mahasena fought Bimbisara.
  • Later when Pradyota was attacked by jaundice, at the Avanti king's request Bimbisara sent the royal physician Jivaka to Ujjain.
  • Bimbisara had received an embassy and a letter from the ruler of Gandhara.
  • So through his conquests and diplomacy Bimbisara made Magadha the paramount power. The earliest capital of Magadha was at Rajgir, which was called Girivraja at that time. It was surrounded by five hills, the openings in which were closed by stone-walls on all sides. This made Rajgir impregnable.
  • Ajatashatru (492-460 B.C.) killed his father (Bimbisara) and seized the throne for himself.
  • Ajatashatru led a war against Vaishali. It took him full 16 years to destroy Vaishali. Eventually he succeeded in doing so because of a war engine which was used to throw stones like catapults. He also possessed a chariot to which a mace was attached, and it facilitated mass killings.
  • Ajatashatru was succeeded by Udayin (460-444 B.C.).
  • He built a fort upon the confluence of the Ganga and Son at Patna.
  • Udayin was succeeded by the dynasty of Shishunagas, who temporarily shifted the capital to Vaishali.Their greatest achievement was the destruction of the power of Avanti.
  • The Shishunagas were succeeded by the Nandas, who proved to be the most powerful rulers of Magadha. So great was their power that Alexander, who invaded Punjab at that time, did not dare to move towards the east.
  • The Nandas were fabulously rich and enormously powerful.
  • It is said that they maintained a huge army 2,00,000 infantry, 60,000 cavalry and 3000 to 6000 war elephant.


The history of Pataliputra

  • Pataliputra began as a village known as Pataligrama. In the fifth century BCE, the Magadhan rulers shifted their capital from Rajagaha to this settlement and renamed it. By the fourth  entury BCE, it was the capital of the Mauryan Empire and one of the largest cities in Asia. Subsequently, its importance apparently declined.
  • When the Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zang visited the city in the seventh century CE, he found it in ruins, and with a very small population.


Administering the empire                                                 

  • There were five major political centers in the empire - the capital Pataliputra and the provincial centers of Taxila, Ujjayini, Tosali and Suvamagiri, all mentioned m Asokan                               
  • It is likely that administrative control was strongest in areas around the capital and the provincial centres. These centres were carefully chosen, both Taxila and UjJayim being situated on important long-distance trade routes, while Suvamagin (literally, the golden mountain) was possibly important for tapping the gold mines of Kamataka


Causes of Magadha's Success

  • The formation of the largest state in India during this period was the work of several enterprising and ambitious rulers such as Bimbisara, Ajatashatru and Mahapadma Nanda. They employed all means, fair and foul, at their disposal to enlarge their kingdoms and to strengthen their states.
  • Magadha enjoyed an advantageous geographical position in the age of iron, because the richest iron deposits were situated not far away from Rajgir.
  • The Magadhan princes equipped themselves with effective weapons which were not easily available to their rivals.
  • Magadha enjoyed certain other advantages. The two capitals of Magadha, the first at Rajgir and the second at Pataliputra, were situated at very strategic points.
  • Rajgir was surrounded by a group of five hills, and so it was rendered impregnable.
  • Pataliputra was situated at the confluence of the Ganga, the Gandak and the Son, and a fourth river called the Ghaghra.
  • The position of Patna itself was rendered invulnerable because of its being surrounded by rivers on almost all sides.
  • Pataliputra therefore was a true water-fort Qaladurga), and it was not easy to capture. Magadha lay at the centre of the middle Gangetic plain.
  • This area was far more productive than the areas to the west of Allahabad.
  • This naturally enabled the peasants to produce considerable surplus, which could be mopped up by the rulers in the form of taxes.
  • Magadha enjoyed a special advantage in military organization.
  • It was Magadha which first used elephants on a large scale in its wars against its neighbours. We leam from Greek sources that the Nandas maintained 6,000 elephants.
  • Elephants could be used in storming fortresses and in marching over marshy and other areas lacking roads and other means of communication.
  • Finally, we may refer to the unorthodox character of the Magadhan society.
  • Since it was recently Vedicised it showed more enthusiasm for expansion than the kingdoms which had been brought under the Vedic influence earlier.
  • On account of all these reasons Magadha succeeded in defeating the other kingdoms and in founding the first empire in India.




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