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Mahajanapadas (महाजनपद) literally means "Great kingdoms" (from Sanskrit Maha = great, Janapada = foothold of tribe = country). Ancient Buddhist texts like Anguttara Nikaya (I. p 213; IV. pp 252, 256, 261) make frequent reference to sixteen great kingdoms and republics (Solas Mahajanapadas) which had evolved and flourished in the northern/north-western parts of the Indian sub-continent prior to the rise of Buddhism in India.
The political structure of the ancient Indo-Aryans appears to have started with semi-nomadic tribal units called Jana (meaning subjects). Early Vedic texts attest several Janas or tribes of the Aryans, living in semi-nomadic tribal state, fighting among themselves and with other Non-Aryan tribes for cows, sheep and green pastures. These early Vedic Janas later coalesced into Janapadas of the Epic Age.
The term "Janapada" literally means the foothold of a tribe. The fact that Janapada is derived from Jana points to an early stage of land-taking by the Jana tribe for a settled way of life. This process of first settlement on land had completed its final stage prior to the times of Buddha and Panini. The Pre-Buddhist North-west region of Indian sub-continent was divided into several Janapadas demarcated from each other by boundaries. In Panini, Janapada stands for country and Janapadin for its citizenry. These Janapadas were named after the tribes or the Janas who had settled in them. By circa 600 BCE, many of these Janapadas had further evolved into larger political entities by the process of land-grabbing which eventually led to the formation of kingdoms known in Buddhist traditions as the Mahajanapadas or the great nations (Sanskrit: Maha = great, Janapada = country).
The Buddhist and other texts only incidentally refer to sixteen great nations (Solasa Mahajanapadas) which were in existence before the time of Buddha. They do not give any connected history except in the case of Magadha. The Buddhist Anguttara Nikaya, at several places, gives a list of sixteen nations:
- Vajji (or Vriji)
- Vatsa (or Vamsa)
- Machcha (or Matsya)
Another Buddhist text Digha Nikaya mentions only first twelve Mahajanapadas and omits the last four in the above list (Digha Nikaya, Vol II, p 200).
Chulla-Niddesa, another ancient text of the Buddhist canon, adds Kalinga to the list and substitutes Yona for Gandhara, thus listing the Kamboja and the Yona as the only Mahajanapadas from Uttarapatha.
The Jaina Bhagvati Sutra gives slightly different list of sixteen Mahajanapadas viz: Anga, Banga (Vanga), Magadha, Malaya, Malavaka, Accha, Vaccha, Kochcha (Kachcha?), Padha, Ladha (Lata), Bajji (Vajji), Moli (Malla), Kasi, Kosala, Avaha and Sambhuttara. Obviously, the author of Bhagvati has a focus on the countries of Madhydesa and of far east and south only. He omits the nations from Uttarapatha like the Kamboja and Gandhara. The more extended horizon of the Bhagvati and the omission of all countries from Uttarapatha clearly shows that the Bhagvati list is of later origin and therefore less reliable (Political History of Ancient India, 1996, p 86; History & Culture of Indian People, Age of Imperial Unity, p 15-16).
The main idea in the minds of those who drew up the Janapada lists was basically more tribal than geographical, since the lists include names of the people and not the countries. As the Buddhist and Jaina texts only casually refer to the Mahajanapadas with no details on history, the following few isolated facts, at best, are gleaned from them and other ancient texts about these ancient nations.
The Kasis were Aryan people who had settled in the region around Varanasi (modern Banaras). The capital of Kasi was at Varanasi. The city was bounded by rivers Varuna and Asi on north and south which gave Varanasi its name. Before Buddha, Kasi was the most powerful of the sixteen Mahajanapadas. Several Jatakas bear witness to the superiority of its capital over other cities of India and speaks high of its prosperity and opulence. The Jatakas speak of long rivalry of Kasi with Kosala, Anga and Magadha. A struggle for supremacy went on among them for a time. Kasi was later incorporated into Kosala during Buddha’s time. The Kasis along with the Kosalas and Videhans find mention in Vedic texts and appear to have been a closely allied people. Matsya Purana and Alberuni read Kasi as Kausika and Kaushaka respectively. All other ancient texts read Kasi.
The country of Kosalas was located to the north-west of Magadha with its capital at Savathi (Sravasti). It was located about 70 miles to north-west of Gorakhpur and comprised territory corresponding to the modern Awadh (or Oudh) in Uttar Pradesh. It had river Ganga for its southern, river Gandhak for its eastern and the Himalaya mountains for its northern boundaries. The kingdom was ruled by king Prasenjit followed by his son Vidudabha. There was struggle for supremacy between king Prasenjit and king Ajatasatru of Magadha which was finally settled once the confederation of Lichchavis became aligned with Magadha. Kosala was ultimately merged into Magadha when Vidudabha was Kosala’s ruler. Ayodhya, Saketa and Sravasti were the three chief cities of Kosala.
The first reference to the Angas is found in the Atharva-Veda where they find mention along with the Magadhas, Gandharis and the Mujavats apparently as a despised people. The Jaina Prajnapana ranks Angas and Vangas in the first group of Aryan peoples. Based on Mahabharata evidence, the country of Anga roughly corresponded to the region of Bhagalpur and Monghyr in Bihar and parts of Bengal. River Champa formed the boundaries between the Magadha in the west and Anga in the east. Anga was bounded by river Ganga on the north. Its capital Champa, formerly known as Malini, was located on the right bank of river Ganga, near its junction with river Champa. It was one of the very flourishing cities and is referred to as one of six principal cities of ancient India (Digha Nikaya). It was also a great center of trade and commerce and its merchants regularly sailed to distant Suvarnabhumi. Anga was annexed by Magadha in the time of Bimbisara.
The first reference to the Magadhas occurs in the Atharva-Veda where they are found listed along with the Angas, Gandharis and the Mujavats as a despised people. The bards of Magadha are, however, referred to in early Vedic literature and are spoken of in terms of contempt. The Vedic dislike of the Magadhas in early times was due to the fact that the Magadhas were not yet wholly Brahmanised.
With the exception of Rigvedic Pramaganda, no other king of Magadha appears to be mentioned in Vedic literature. According to Mahabharata and the Puranas, the earliest ruling dynasty of Magadha was founded by king Brihadratha, but Magadha came into prominence only under king Bimbisara and his son Ajatasatru. In the war of supremacy which went on for long between the nations of Majjhimadesa, kingdom of Magadha finally emerged victorious and became a predominant empire in Mid India.
The kingdom of the Magadhas roughly corresponded to the modern districts of Patna and Gaya in southern Bihar, and parts of Bengal in the east. It was bounded on the north by river Ganga, on the east by the river Champa, on the south by Vindhya mountains and on the west by river Sona. During Buddha’s time, its boundaries included Anga. Its earliest capital was Girivraja or Rajagriha modern Rajgir in Patna district of Bihar. The other names for the city were Magadhapura, Brihadrathapura, Vasumati, Kushagrapura and Bimbisarapuri. It was an active center of Jainism in ancient times. The first Buddhist Council was held in Rajagriha in the Vaibhara Hills. Later on, Pataliputra became the capital of Magadha.
 Vajji or Vriji
The Vajjians or Virijis included eight or nine confederated clans of whom the Licchhavis, the Vedehans, the Jnatrikas and the Vajjis were the most important. Mithila (modern Janakpur in district of Tirhut) was the capital of Vedeha which became the important center of political and cultural activities of northern India. It was in the time of king Janaka that Vedeha came into prominence. The last king of Vadeha was Kalara who is said to have perished along with his kingdom on account of his attempt on a Brahmin maiden. On the ruins of his kingdom arose the republics of Lichchhavis, Vadehans and seven other small republics. The Lichchhavis were very independent people. Mother of Mahavira was a Lichchhavi princess. Vaishali (modern Basarh in Vaishali District of North Bihar) was the capital of Licchhavis and the political headquarters of powerful Varijian confederacy. Vaishali was located 25 miles north of river Ganga and 38 miles from Rajagriha and was a very prosperous town. The Second Buddhist Council was held at Vaishali. The Licchhavis were followers of Buddha. Buddha is said to have visited the Licchavis on many occasions. The Licchhavis were closely related by marriage to the Magadhas and are said to be the ancestors of the royal family of Nepal. The Licchavis are represented as (Vratya) Kshatriyas in Manusmriti. Vaishali, the headquarters of the powerful Vajji republic and the capital of Lichchavis was defeated by king Ajatasatru of Magadha.
The Mallas are frequently mentioned in Buddhist and Jain works. They were a powerful people dwelling in Eastern India. Panduputra Bhimasena is said to have conquered the chief of the Mallas in course of his expedition of Eastern India. Mahabharata mention Mallas along with the Angas, Vangas, and Kalingas as eastern tribes. The Mallas were republican people with their dominion consisting of nine territories (Kalpa Sutra; Nirayavali Sutra), one of each of the nine confederated clans. Two of these confederations...one with Kuśināra (modern Kasia near Gorakhpur) as its capital, second with Pava (modern Padrauna, 12 miles from Kasia) as the capital, had become very important at the time of Buddha. Kuśināra and Pava are very important in the history of Buddhism since Buddha took his last meal and was taken ill at Pava and breathed his last at Kusinara.
The Mallas, like the Lichchhavis, are mentioned by Manusmriti as Vratya Kshatriyas. They are called Vasishthas (Vasetthas) in the Mahapparnibbana Suttanta. The Mallas originally had a monarchical form of government but later they switched to Samgha (republic) of which the members called themselves rajas. The Mallas were a brave and warlike people. Jainism and Buddhism found many followers among the Mallas. The Mallas appeared to have formed alliance with Lichchhavis for self defense. They however, lost their independence not long after Buddha’s death and their dominions were annexed to the Magadhan empire.
The Mallas are widely found in Visakhapatnam District of Andhra Pradesh in a comunity called GAVARAS (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gavara) which is derived from Kauravas of Mahabharata. You can also find Mallas in Malaysia belonging to the same comunity. GAVARAS also have Surname Buddha who are found in Visakhapatnam district.
 Chedi or Cheti
The Chedis, Chetis or Chetyas had two distinct settlements of which one was in the mountains of Nepal and the other in Bundelkhand near Kausambi. According to old authorities, Chedis lay near Yamuna midway between the kingdom of Kurus and Vatsas. In the mediaeval period, the southern frontiers of Chedi extended to the banks of river Narmada. Sotthivatnagara, the Sukti or Suktimati of Mahabharata, was the capital of Chedi. The Chedis were an ancient peoples of India and are mentioned in the Rigveda. A Branch of Chedis found a royal dynasty in the kingdom of Kalinga according to the Hathigumpha Inscription of Kharvela.
 Vamsa or Vatsa
The Vatsas, Vamsas or Vachchas are stated to be an offshoot from the Kurus. The Vatsa or Vamsa country corresponded with territory of modern Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. It had monarchical form of government with its capital at Kausambi (identified with village Kosam, 38 miles from Allahabad). Kausambi had been very prosperous city where large number of millionaire merchants resided. It was most important entreport of goods and passengers from north-west and south. Udyana was the ruler of Vatsa in sixth century BCE at the time of Buddha. He was very powerful, warlike and found of hunting. Initially king Udyana was opposed to Buddhism but later on he became follower of Buddha and made Buddhism the state religion.
The Puranas trace the origin of Kurus from Puru-Bharata family. Aitareya Brahmana locates the Kurus in Madhyadesha and also refers to the Uttarakurus as living beyond the Himalayas. According to Buddhist text Sumangavilasini (II. p 481), the people of Kururashtra (the Kurus) came from the Uttarakuru. Vayu Purana attests that Kuru, son of Samvarsana of the Puru lineage, was the eponymous ancestor of the Kurus and the founder of Kururashtra (Kuru Janapada) in Kurukshetra. The country of the Kurus roughly corresponded to the modern Thaneswer, union territory of Delhi and Meerut district of Uttar Pradesh. According to Jatakas, the capital of Kurus was Indraprastha (Indapatta) near modern Delhi which extended on seven leagues. At Buddha’s time, the Kuru country was ruled by a titular chieftain (king consul) named Korayvya. The Kurus of Buddhist period did not occupy the same position as they did in the Vedic period but they continued to enjoy their ancient reputation for deep wisdom and sound health. The Kurus had matrimonial relations with Yadavas, the Bhojas and the Panchalas. There is a Jataka reference to king Dhananjaya introduced as prince from the race of Yudhishtra. Though a well known monarchical people in earlier period, the Kurus are known to have switched to republic form of government during sixth/fifth century BCE. Fourth century BCE Kautiliya’s Arthashastra also attests the Kurus following the Rajashabdopajivin (king consul) constitution.
The Panchalas occupied the country to the east of the Kurus between the mountains and river Ganga. It roughly corresponded to modern Budaun, Farrukhabad and the adjoining districts of Uttar Pradesh. The country was divided into Uttara-Panchala and Dakshina-Panchala. The northern Panchala had its capital at Adhichhatra or Chhatravati (modern Ramnagar in the Bareilly District), while southern Panchala had it capital at Kampilya or Kampil in Farrukhabad District. The famous city of Kanyakubja or Kanauj was situated in the kingdom of Panchala. Originally a monarchical clan, the Panchals appear to have switched to republican corporation in the sixth and fifth century BCE. Fourth century BCE Kautiliya’s Arthashastra also attests the Panchalas as following the Rajashabdopajivin (king consul) constitution.
 Machcha or Matsya
Country of Matsya or Machcha tribe lied to south of the Kurus and west of the Yamuna which separated them from the Panchalas, It roughly corresponded to former state of Jaipur in Rajasthan, and included the whole of Alwar with portions of Bharatpur. The capital of Matsya was at Viratanagara (modern Bairat) which is said to have been named after its founder king Virata. In Pali literature, the Matsyas are usually associated with the Surasenas. The western Matsya was the hill tract on the north bank of Chambal. A branch of Matsya is also found in later days in Vizagapatam region. The Matsyas had not much political importance of their own during the times of Buddha. King Sujata ruled over both the Chedis and Matsyas thus showing that Matsya once formed a part of Chedi kingdom.
Country of the Surasenas lied to south-west of Matsya and west of Yamuna. It had its capital at Madhura or Mathura. Avantiputra, the king of Surasena was the first among the chief disciples of Buddha through whose help, Buddhism gained ground in Mathura country. The Andhakas and Vrishinis of Mathura/Surasena are referred to in the Ashtadhyayi of Panini. In Kautiliya’s Arthashastra, the Vrishinis are described as Samgha or republic. The Vrishinis, Andhakas and other allied tribes of the Yadavas formed a Samgha and Vasudeva (Krishna) is described as the Samgha-mukhya. Mathura, the capital of Surasena was also known at the time of Megasthenes as the centre of Krishna worship. The Surasena kingdom had lost its independence on annexation by Magadhan empire.
 Assaka or Ashmaka
The Country of Assaka or Ashmaka tribe was located in Dakshinapatha or a southern India. In Buddha’s time, Assakas were located on the banks of river Godavari (south of Vindhya mountains). The capital of Assakas was Potana or Potali which corresponds to Paudanya of Mahabharata. The Ashmakas are also mentioned by Panini. They are placed in the north-west in the Markendeya Purana and the Brhat Samhita. River Godavari separated the country of Assakas from that of the Mulakas (or Alakas). The commentator of Kautiliya’s Arthashastra identifies Ashmaka with Maharashtra. The country of Assaka lay outside the pale of Madhyadesa. It lied on a southern high road or the Dakshinapatha. At one time, Assaka included Mulaka and their country abutted with Avanti (Dr Bhandarkaar).
Country of the Avantis was an important kingdom of western India and was one of the four great monarchies in India when Buddhism arose, the other three being Kosala, Vatsa and Magadha. Avanti was divided into north and south by river Vetravati. Initially, Mahissati (Sanskrit Mahishamati) was the capital of Southern Avanti, and Ujjaini (Sanskrit Ujjayini) was of northern Avanti, but at the times of Mahavira and Buddha, Ujjaini was the capital of integrated Avanti. The country of Avanti roughly corresponded to modern Malwa, Nimar and adjoining parts of the Madhya Pradesh. Both Mahishmati and Ujjaini stood on the southern high road called Dakshinapatha extending from Rajagriha to Pratishthana (modern Paithan). Avanti was an important center of Buddhism and some of the leading theras and theris were born and resided there. King Nandivardhana of Avanti was defeated by king Shishunaga of Magadha. Avanti later became part of Magadhan empire.
The wool of Gandharis is referred to in the Rigveda. The Gandharis, along with the Mujavantas, Angas and the Magadhas, are also mentioned in the Atharvaveda, but apparently as a despised people. Gandharas are included in the Uttarapatha division of Puranic and Buddhistic traditions. Aitareya Brahmana refers to king Naganajit of Gandhara who was contemporary of raja Janaka of Videha. According to Dr Zimmer, Gandharas were settled since the Vedic times on the south bank of river Kubha (Kabol) up to its mouth into Indus itself. Later the Gandhras crossed Indus and expanded into parts of north-west Panjab. Gandharas and their king figure prominently as strong allies of the Kurus against the Pandavas in Mahabharata war. The Gandharas were a furious people, well trained in the art of war. According to Puranic traditions, this Janapada was founded by Gandhara, son of Aruddha, a descendant of Yayati. The princes of this country are said to have come from the line of Druhyu who was a famous king of Rigvedic period. The river Indus watered the lands of Gandhara. Taksashila and Pushklavati, the two cities of this Mahajanapada, are said to have been named after Taksa and Pushkara, the two sons of Bharata, a prince of Ayodhya. According to Vayu Purana (II.36.107), the Gandharas were destroyed by Pramiti aka Kalika, at the end of Kalyuga. Panini has mentioned both Vedic form Gandhari as well as the later form Gandhara in his Ashtadhyayi. The Gandhara kingdom sometimes also included Kashmira (Jataka No 406). Hecataeus of Miletus (549-468) refers to Kaspapyros (Kasyapura i.e Kashmira) as Gandaric city. According to Gandhara Jataka, at one time, Gandhara formed a part of the kingdom of Kashmir. Jataka also gives another name Chandahara for Gandhara. Gandhara Mahajanapada of Buddhist traditions included territories of east Afghanistan, and north-west of the Panjab (modern districts of Peshawar (Purushapura) and Rawalpindi). Its capital was Takshasila (Prikrit Taxila). The Taxila University was a renowned center of learning in ancient times, where scholars from all over the world came to seek higher education. Panini, the Indian genius of grammar and Kautiliya are the world renowned products of Taxila University. King Pukkusati or Pushkarasarin of Gandhara in middle of sixth century BCE was the contemporary of king Bimbisara of Magadha. Gandhara was located on the grand northern high road (Uttarapatha) and was a centre of international commercial activities. It was an important channel of communication with ancient Iran and Central Asia. According to some scholars, [attribution needed] the Gandharas and Kambojas were same ethnic stock.
Kambojas are also included in the Uttarapatha. In ancient literature, the Kamboja is variously associated with the Gandhara, Darada and the Bahlika (Bactria). Ancient Kamboja is known to have comprised regions on either side of the Hindukush. The original Kamboja was located in eastern Oxus country as neighbor to Bahlika, but with time, some clans of Kambojas appear to have crossed Hindukush and planted colonies on its southern side also. These latter Kambojas are associated with the Daradas and Gandharas in Indian literature and also find mention in the Edicts of Ashoka. The evidence in Mahabharata and in Ptolemy’s Geography distinctly supports two Kamboja settlements. The cis-Hindukush region from Nurestan up to Rajori in southwest of Kashmir sharing borders with the Daradas and the Gandharas constituted the Kamboja country (MBH VII.4.5; II.27.23). The capital of Kamboja was probably Rajapura (modern Rajori) in south-west of Kashmir. The Kamboja Mahajanapada of the Buddhist traditions refers to this cis-Hindukush branch of ancient Kambojas (See: Problems of Ancient India, 2000, p 5-6; cf: Geographical Data in the Early Puranas, p 168)
The trans-Hindukush region including Pamirs and Badakhshan which shared borders with the Bahlikas (Bactria) in the west and the Lohas and Rishikas of Sogdiana/Fergana in the north, constituted the Parama-Kamboja country (MBH II.27.27).
The trans-Hindukush branch of the Kambojas remained pure Iranian but the Kambojas of cis-Hindukush appear to have come under Indian cultural influence. The Kambojas are known to have had both Iranian as well as Indian affinities.
The Kambojas were also a well known republican people since Epic times. Mahabharata refers to several Ganah (or Republics) of the Kambojas (MBH 7/91/39). Kautiliya’s Arthashastra (11/1/4) and Ashoka's Edict No. XIII also attest that the Kambojas followed republican constitution. Panini's Sutras (IV.1.168-175), though tend to convey that the Kamboja of Panini was a Kshatriya Monarchy, but the special rule and the exceptional form of derivative he gives to denote the ruler of the Kambojas implies that the king of Kamboja was a titular head (king consul) only (Dr K. P. Jayswal).
In a struggle for supremacy that followed in the sixth/fifth century BCE, the growing state of Magadhas emerged as the most predominant power in ancient India annexing several of the Janapadas of the Majjhimadesa. A bitter line in the Brahmin Puranas laments that Magadhan emperor Mahapadama Nanda exterminated all Kshatriyas, none worthy of the name Kshatrya being left thereafter. This obviously refers to the Kasis, Kosalas, Kurus, Panchalas, Vatsyas and other neo-Vedic tribes of the east Panjab of whom nothing was ever heard except in the legend and poetry.
The Kambojans and Gandharans, however, never came into direct contact with Magadhan state until Chandragupta and Kautiliya arose on the scene. But these nations also fell a prey to the Achaemenids of Persia during the reign of Cyrus (558-530 BCE) or in the first year of Darius. Kamboja and Gandhara formed the twentieth and richest strapy of Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus I is said to have destroyed the famous Kamboja city called Kapisi (modern Begram) in Paropamisadae.