In the sixth century BC, ancient India had a number of kingdoms which emerged during the Vedic Age. This period saw socio-economic development, along with religious and political developments across the Indo-Gangetic plain. These permanent settlements led to the evolution from Janapadas to Mahajanapadas.
The centre of major political activity shifted from the western part of the Gangetic plain to the eastern part, comprising present-day Bihar, and eastern UP. The fertile lands of this area with abundant rainfall and rivers, and their closeness to iron production centres also played a key role in this shift. In fact, it was the increased use of iron tools and weapons that enabled small states to become kingdoms, known as Mahajanapadas.
• A majority of these states were monarchical but some were also republics, known as “ganasanghas”.
• Ganasanghas had an oligarchic system of governance where the administration was headed by an elected king with a large council for his aid. This could loosely be termed a democracy but the common man had no say in administration.
There were 16 Mahajanapadas/kingdoms which are mentioned in ancient Indian literature and scriptures. It must be noted that these Mahajanapadas were in existence before the rise of Buddhism in India.
• Anga: This Mahajanapada finds mention in the Atharva Veda and the Mahabharata. During the reign of Bimbisara, it was taken over by the Magadha Empire. It is located in present-day Bihar and West Bengal.
• Magadha: This implies that Magadha was a semi-Brahmanical place. It was situated in present-day Bihar close to Anga, separated by the River Champa. Later, Magadha became a centre of Jainism. Along with it, the first Buddhist council was held in Rajagriha.
• Kasi: It was located around Varanasi, also the capital city. It is believed that this city got its name from the rivers Varuna and Asi as mentioned in Matsya Purana.
• Vatsa or Vamsa: This Mahajanapada followed the monarchical form of governance
and its capital was Kausambi. This was an important city for trade and commerce. After the rise of Buddha, the ruler Udayana made Buddhism a state religion. Vatsa was located around present-day Allahabad.
• Kosala: It was located in the Awadh region of UP. Its capital was Ayodhya.
• Saurasena: Its capital was Mathura. This place was a centre of Krishna worship at the time of Megasthenes.
• Panchala: Its capital was Ahichchatra and Kampilaya for its northern and southern regions, respectively. It was located in present-day western UP. And, it shifted from monarchy to being a republic later.
• Kuru: Their capital was Indraprastha in present-day Meerut and Haryana. The region around Kurukshetra was supposedly the site for Kuru Mahajanapada. It shifted to a republic form of governance later.
• Matsya: It was located to the south of the Kurus and west of the Panchalas. Its capital was Viratanagar, which is around present-day Jaipur.
• Chedi: This was mentioned in the Rig Veda. Its capital was Sothivati. It was around present-day Bundelkhand region.
• Avanti: Avanti was important in terms of the rise of Buddhism. Its capital was at Ujjaini or Mahismati. It was located around present-day Malwa and Madhya Pradesh.
• Gandhara: Their capital was at Taxila. Gandhara is mentioned in the Atharva Veda as people who were highly trained in the art of war.
• Kamboja: Kamboja had a capital named Pooncha. It was located in present-day Kashmir and Hindukush.
• Ashmaka or Assaka: The capital of this Mahajanapada was located at Pratisthan or Paithan. Ashmaka was located on the banks of the Godavari River.
• Vajji: Its capital was Vaishali. The major races residing here were Licchavis, Vedehans, Jnatrikas, and Vajjis.
• Malla: It finds mention in the Mahabharata, Buddhist, and Jain texts. They were a republic (Sangha). Their capital was Kusinara in present-day Deoria and UP.
Rise of Magadha
Of all the kingdoms of India, Magadha had emerged prosperous and powerful. Its rise in ancient India was aided by these factors:
• Location of Magadha was across the upper and lower parts of the Gangetic valley, which was highly advantageous.
• This area had fertile soil, which supported agriculture.
• Rajgir, the capital city of Magadha, had reserves of iron ore readily available.
• There were copper and iron deposits near Gaya.
• Magadha was situated on the highways of trade which contributed to its wealth.
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