Ancient India

Territorial States and the Magadhan Empire

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. Because of iron weapons the warrior class now played an important part. The new agricultural tools and implements enabled the peasants to produce far more foodgrains than they required for consumption. The extra product could be collected by the princes to meet their military and administrative needs. The surplus could also be made available to the towns which had sprung up in the sixth-fifth century B.C. These material advantages naturally enabled the people to stick to their land and also to expand at the cost of the neighbouring areas. The rise of large states with towns as their base of operations strengthened the territorial idea. People owed strong allegiance to the Janapadas the territory to which they belonged and not to the Jana or the tribe to which they belonged.

The Mahaj anapadas

In the age of the Buddha we find 16 large states called Mahajanapadas. They were mostly situated north of the Vindhyas and extended from the north-west frontier to Bihar. Of these, Magadha, Koshala, Vatsa and Avanti seem to have been considerably powerful. Beginning from the east we hear of the kingdom of Anga which covered the modem districts of Monghyr and Bhagalpur. It had its capital at Champa, which shows signs of habitation in the sixth century B.C. We find a mud fort of about the fifth century B.C. Eventually the kingdom of Anga was swallowed by its powerful neighbour Magadha.

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. The Puranas push the antiquity of Vaishali to a much earlier period, but archaeologically Basarh was not settled until the sixth century B.C.

Further west we find the kingdom of Kashi with its capital at Varanasi. Excavations at Rajghat show that the earliest habitations started around 500 B C and the city was enclosed by mud embankments about the same time. 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 Bahraich districts in Uttar Pradesh. Diggings indicate that Sahet-Mahet did not possess any large settlement in the sixth century B.C. But we see the beginnings of a mud fort. Koshala contained an important city called Ayodhya, which is associated with the story in the Ramayana. But excavations show that it was not settled on any scale before the fifth century B.C. Koshala also included the tribal republican territory of the Shakyas of Kapilavastu. The capital of Kapilavastu has been identified with Piprahwa in Basti district. Habitation at Piprahwa is not earlier than C. 500 B.C. Lumbini, which lies at a distance of 15 km from Piprahwa in Nepal, served as another capital of the Shakyais. 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.

Further west lay the kingdom of the Vatsas, along the bank of the Yamuna, with itte capital at Kaushambi near Allahabad. The Vatsas were a Kufu clan who had shifted from Hastipapur and settled down at Kaushanibi. Kaushambi was chosen because of its location near the confluence of the Ganga and theYamuna. In the fifth century B.C. it had a mud fortification as can be gathered from excavations.

We also hear of the older states of the Kurus and the Panchalas which were situated in western Uttar Pradesh, but they no longer enjoyed the political importance which they had attained in the later Vedic period.

In central Malwa and the adjoining parts of Madhya 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. Excavations show that both these towns became fairly important from the sixth century B.C. onwards, though eventually Ujjain surpassed Mahishamati. It developed large-scale working in iron and erected strong fortification.

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 emeijged to be the most powerful and succeeded in founding an empire.

Rise and Growth of the Magadhan Empire

Magadha came into prominence under the leadership of Bimbisara who belonged to the Haryanka dynast. He was a contemporary of the, Buddlha. He started the policy of conquest and aggression which ended with the Kalinga war of Ashoka. Bimbisara acquired Anga and placed it-under the viceroyalty of his son Ajatashatru at Champa. 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 Parsenajit. The Koshalan bride brought him as dowry a Kashi village, yielding revenue of 100,000 which suggests that revenues were collected in terms of coins. The marriage bought off the hostility of Koshala and gave him a free hand in dealing with the other states. 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, but ultimately the two thought it wise to become friends. Later when Pradyota was at tacked by jaundice, at the Avanti king’s request Bimbisara sent the royal physician Jivaka to Ujjain. Bimbisara is also said to have received an embassy and a letter from the ruler of Gandhara with which Pradyota had fought unsuccessfully. So through his conquests and diplomacy Bimbisara made Magadha the paramount power in the sixth century B.C. His kingdom is said to have consisted of 80,000 villages, which is a conventional number.

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.

According to the Buddhist chronicles, Bimbisara ruled for 52 years, roughly from 544 B.C to 492.

B.C. He was succeeded by his son Ajatashatru (492-460 B.C.). Ajatashatru killed his father and seized the throne for himself. His reign saw the high watermark of the Bimbisara dynasty. He fought two wars and made preparations for the third. Throughout his reign he pursued an aggressive policy of expansion. This provoked against him a combination of Kashi and Koshala. There began a prolonged conflict between Magadha and Koshala. Ultimately Ajatashatru got the best of the war and the Koshalan king was compelled to purchase peace by giving his daughter in marriage to Ajatashatru and leaving him in sole possession of Kashi.

Ajatashatru was no respecter of relations. Although his mother was a Lichchhavi princess, this did not prevent him from making war against Vaishali. The excuse was that the Lichchhavis were the allies of Koshala. He created dissensions in the ranks of the Lichchhavis and finally destroyed their independence by invading their territory and by defeating them in battle. 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, The Magadhan empire was thus enlarged with the addition of Kashi and Vaishali.

Ajatashatru faced a stronger rival in the ruler of Avanti. Avanti had defeated the Vatsas of Kaushambi and now threatened an invasion of

Magadha. To meet this danger Ajatashatru began the fortification of Rajgir. The remains of the walls can be still seen. However, the invasion did not materialize in his lifetime.

Ajatashatru was succeeded by Udayin (460-444 B.C.) His reign is important because he built the fort upon the confluence of the Ganga and Son at Patna. This was done because Patna lay in the centre of the Magadhan kingdom, which now extended from the Himalayas in the north to the hills of Chotanagpur in the south. Patna’s position, as will be seen later, was crucially strategic.

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 with its capital at Ujjain. This brought to an end the 100 year old rivalry between Magadha and Avanti. From now onwards Avanri became a part of the Magadhan empire and continued to be so till the end of the Maurya rule.

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 added to the Magadhan power by conquering Kalinga from where they brought an image of the Jina as a victory trophy. All this took place in the reign of Mahapadma Nanda. He claimed to be ekarat, the sole sovereign who destroyed all the other ruling princes. It seems that he acquired not only Kalinga but also Koshala which had probably rebelled against him.

The Nandas were fabulously rich and enormously powerful. It is said that they maintained 200,000 infantry, 60,000 cavalry and 3000 to 6000 war elephants. Such a huge army could be maintained only through an effective taxation system. It was because of these considerations that Alexander (did not advance against Nandas.

The later Nandas turned out to be weak and unpopular; their rule in Magadha was supplanted by that of the Maurya dynasty under which the Magadhan empire reached the apex of glory

Causes of Magadh’s Success

The march of the Magadhan empire during the two centuries preceding the rise of the Mauryas is like the march of the Iranian empire during the same period. The formation of the largest state in India during this period was the work of several enterprising and ambitious rulers such as Bimbisara, Ajatashatxu and Mahapadma Nanda. They employed all means, fair and foul, at their disposal to enlarge their kingdoms and to strengthen their states. But this was not the only reason for the expansion of Magadha.

There were some other important factors. Magadha enjoyed an advantageous geographical position in the age of iron, because the richest iron deposits were situated not far away from Rajgir, the earliest capital of Magadha. The ready availability of the rich iron ores in the neighbourhood enabled the Magadhan princes to equip themselves with effective weapons, which were not easily available to their rivals. Iron mines are also found in eastern Madhya Pradesh and were not far from the kingdom of the Avantis with their capital at Ujjain. Around 500 B.C. iron was certainly forged and smelted in Ujjain and probably the smiths manufactured weapons of good quality. On account of this Avanti proved to be the, most serious competitor of Magadha for the supremacy of north India and Magadha took about a hundred years to subjugate Ujjain.

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 in those days when there was no easy means of storming citadels such as cannons which came to be invented much later. It was not easy to destroy forts like Rajgir in those days. In the fifth century B.C the Magadhan princes shifted their capital from Rajgir to Pataliputra, which occupied a pivotal position commanding communications on all sides. Pataliputra was situated at the, confluence of the Ganga; the Gandak and the Son and a fourth river called the Ghaghra joined the Ganga not far from Pataliputra. In pre-industrial days, when communications were difficult, the army could move North West south and east by following the courses of the, rivers. Further, the position of Patna itself was rendered invulnerable because of its being surrounded by rivers on almost all sides. While the Son and the Ganga surrounded it on the north and west, the Poonpun surrounded it on the south and east. Pataliputra therefore was a true water-fort (jaladurga) and it was not easy to capture this town in those days.

Magadha lay at the centre of the middle Gangetic plain. The alluvium, once cleared of the jungles, proved immensely fertile. Because of heavy rainfall the area could be made productive even without irrigation. The country produced varieties of paddy, which are mentioned in the early Buddhist texts. 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.

The princes of Magadha also benefited from the rise of towns and use of metal money. On account of trade and commerce in north-east India, the princes could levy tolls on the sale of commodities and accumulate wealth to pay and maintain their army.

Magadha enjoyed a Special advantage in military organization. Although the Indian states were well acquainted with the use of horses and chariots, it was Magadha which first used elephants on a large scale in its wars against its neighbours. The eastern part of the country could supply elephants to the princes of Magadha and we learn from Greek sources that the Nandas maintained 6000 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. It was inhabited by the Kiratas and Magadhas, who were held in low esteem by the orthodox brahmanas.

But it underwent a happy racial admixture on account of the advent of the Vedic people. 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.


  1. Describe the political condition of India in the sixth century B.C. Discuss the significance of the rise, of the Mahajanapadas in the history of 2 Discuss the reasons for the rise of Magadha as an empire.
  2. Trace the expansion of the Magadha Empire. Describe the methods adopted by the rulers of Magadha for this.
  3. On an outline map of India, show the Mahajanapadas that arose in the sixth century B.C. Indicate the modern names of the places and regions in which they were located.
  4. Find out the names of the Sites connected with the Mahajanapadas that have been excavated. Try to collect pictures of the excavated sites.


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