The site of the Dashashwamedh Ghat, on the banks of the Ganga in Banaras, is indelibly etched in the minds of those who have been there. Kings have come and gone, empires have risen and fallen, yet the faithful have thronged here for many centuries to walk down the stairs and bow their heads to God and the river.
It is said that it was here, at this very site, that the King of Kashi or, as some others believe Brahma, the creator himself, sacrificed ten horses in an Ashwamedha yajna, all at once. People believe that those who bathe in the river on this ghat are showered with blessings, and it all emanates from that sacrifice thousands of years ago.
Described as one of the oldest living cities in the world, Banaras or Kashi, as it has always been called, is an enigma. It is a city of death and salvation and steeped in legend. Interestingly, Kashi has another distinction. It was not created by political power; it has been driven by faith and commerce. So deep is the faith of the devout that millions of pilgrims converge here, from every corner of the Indian subcontinent, for more than two millennia.
The legendary Ashwamedha yajna, which gives the Dashashwamedh Ghat its name, harks back to a time when this city first came into prominence. It was the time of the Mahajanapadas.
Archaeology corroborates the antiquity of Banaras, or Varanasi, as it is known today. Excavations conducted by a team of archaeologists headed by Vidula Jayaswal, who was formerly with Banaras Hindu University, in 2014 revealed that the area of Rajghat within the city, which probably represents ancient Kashi, goes back to the 11th-12th century BCE.
Earlier excavations in Aktha and Ramnagar, both near Banaras, had hinted at settlements dating back to even 1800 BCE.
This may have been a rather rudimentary settlement but it underlines just how long this area along the Ganga had been fertile ground for man.
The reason for Kashi’s growth was multi-fold. Banaras is situated at the confluence of the Varuna and Assi rivers, which flow into the Ganga. Thus, it was an important crossroad. This was also an area rich in cotton.
Interestingly, by the time the Buddha came to the deer park in Sarnath (10 km from Banaras) and delivered his first sermon after attaining enlightenment in the 5th century BCE (the date is contested), Kashi was already a famous seat of learning. Sushruta, the father of Indian surgery, was educated here, even earlier, in the 6th century BCE.
The ancient Buddhist scripture Vinaya Pitaka (attributed to the Buddha himself) also mentions Kashi (as Banaras was called then) as a popular halting station on the ancient northerly route, Uttarapatha, which connected Rajgir in the south-east and the sea coast, to faraway Taxila (now in Pakistan) in the north-west. This made Kashi a centre of robust commercial activities as well, 2,500 years ago. Cottage industries and textile manufacturing were thriving here. In fact, when the Buddha died, it is said that his remains were wrapped in cotton cloth woven in Kashi.
This combination of religion, commerce and a place of learning helped Kashi grow from a ‘janapada’ to a ‘mahajanapada’ by the 6th century BCE. In fact, Kashi was one of the 16 states that were a part of the transition from janapadas to mahajanapadas.
Literally meaning ‘a place of habitation’ by a jana or a tribe, the term ‘janapada’ first finds mention in the Aitareya Brahmana of the Rig Veda, dated to the 1st millennium BCE.
The Mahabharata lists about 230 janapadas, the longest list among all ancient texts (Puranic literature mentions around 170).
Names of the janapadas include Kuru, Panchala, Salva, Surasena, Magadha, Matsya, Abhira, Kashi, Kosala, Charmakhandika, Gandhara, Avanti, Bodha, etc.
The janapadas had humble beginnings. They started out as rural centres with rural economies but agrarian surpluses facilitated trade and ensured that these became growing urban centres with an expanding economy. Over time, craftsmen, merchants and traders flourished here.
What is interesting about the period of the janapadas is that craft specialization and skills became highly localized. The term used for this is ‘sippa’ and the occupational groups included wheel-makers, carpenters, needle-makers, reed-makers, blacksmiths, etc.
A very important part of the crafts economy was also the formation of guilds. In Panini’s grammar treatise, Ashtadyayi (5th century BCE), we find references to the terms sreni, puga and samgha, which are similar to ‘guilds’.
The Jatakas, although of a later period around the 4th century BCE, tell us about society and economy then, through its tales. They offer a vivid description of the localization of these crafts guilds. There is mention of ‘Vaddhakigama’, meaning a village of 1,000 families of carpenters. Then there is Kamaragama, a village of blacksmiths. Also mentioned is Malakara vithi, a street where garland-makers lived, and Dantakara vithi, a street of ivory-workers.
People in these janapadas spoke different dialects, observed different religious rites and, over time, began to have highly fortified capitals with strong walls and moats filled with snakes and crocodiles! There was also an emergence of a specific style of pottery known as Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW), indigenous coin types known as ‘punch-marked’ and ‘cast-copper’ coins; and the system of writing in Brahmi.
A Period of Consolidation
Some time in the 6th century BCE, numerous small janapadas made way for a few, larger mahajanapadas. The stronger states consumed the weaker ones. This had a lot to do with agrarian extension, control of trade routes and aggressive ambitions backed by more evolved iron weaponry and warfare. This period is also referred to as the ‘second urbanisation’ in Indian history – when pastoral life paved the way for agriculture, surpluses fuelled commerce and market towns became large, populous cities. (The ‘first urbanisation’ was during the Harappan Civilization).
Two texts, the Buddhist Anguttara Nikaya and Jain Bhagavatisutta, list 16 principalities – ‘solasa-mahajanapada’, or 16 mahajanapadas though the place names vary across these texts. Tentatively existing between c. 600 BCE and c. 345 BCE, they were Anga, Asmaka, Avanti, Chedi, Gandhara, Kashi, Kamboja, Kosala, Kuru, Magadha, Malla, Matsya, Panchala, Surasena, Vrijji and Vatsa.
Twelve of the mahajanapadas hugged the Yamuna and Ganga rivers. If during the Early Rig Vedic period, the settlements were centered on the north-west of the Indian subcontinent, this was a time when they moved a little south and eastwards, and the focus shifted to the Indo-Gangetic belt. This was a new age where new ideas were formed. Literature and field archaeology help us place ourselves in the middle of a land and a time bursting with activity.
In Anga, the First Buddhist Council was held during Buddha’s lifetime, and Mahavira spent three of his monsoon retreats in its capital city, Champa. Gandhara’s capital Taxila was home to the famous university which hosted students from far and wide. An individual we will hear of later in our series, the Mauryan Empire’s chief strategist Chanakya studied here, as did the Ayurvedic healer Charaka and the great Sanskrit grammarian Panini.
There was a constant exchange of goods between Magadha and Gandhara, tariff-free, according to records, and it was here that the existence of Indian punch-marked coins first came to light when a huge hoard of 1,055 coins was discovered at the Bhir mound in Taxila in 1924.
Kamboja, with its core in present-day Kabul, had such an excellent breed of horses and horsemen that they were requisitioned as cavalry troopers in ancient wars by nations in distant lands. Kaushambi, located in modern-day Allahabad, was the capital of Vatsa and first excavated in 1949 by Historian G R Sharma. The excavated layers suggested that the site may have been occupied as early as the 12th century BCE. Ruins of brick walls and bastions with numerous towers and gateways were excavated.
Most of these mahajanapadas had a monarchical form of government, where the kingdom was ruled by one person. However, Vrijji (present-day Mithila region of Bihar) and Malla (present-day Gorakhpur district in Uttar Pradesh) were oligarchies. The words ‘gana’ and ‘sangha’ have been used to describe them, referring to the fact that the supreme power of the state was vested in a considerable portion of the population. The ideological outfit of these mahajanapadas was well-defined by the caste system.
Archaeological research and numismatic data provide plenty of information about these mahajanapadas as thousands of coins have been discovered across the region. Almost every mahajanapada had distinguishable coinage, marked with a combination of about 450 symbols, although devoid of a script. The transition from a barter community to monetization was taking place. The coins had no fixed shape; instead, their weight was most important. The symbols on the coins included a cross-section of geometric forms, animals and plant motifs, and human figurines, giving us an insight into what life was like then.
Symbols like wheels, and bows and arrows represent a combatant environment, while plants in pots and trees in railings probably point towards the importance of nature. Animals include bulls, elephants, dogs, scorpions, fish and snakes.
But let’s not forget that the pursuit of commerce also pushed mahajanapadas into a state of flux. Wars, ambitious expansionists and political realignments, were at work. This is probably what Chanakya was referring to when he mentioned the popular term Matsya Nyaya in his political treatise the Arthashastra (c. 2nd century BCE). It refers to the fundamental law of nature that big fish eat small fish or the strong devour the weak.
By the 5th century BCE, Magadha became a pivot, a power centre whose ambitions grew to such an extent that it eventually swallowed most of the mahajanapadas. The Magadha mahajanapada and the region it controlled would continue to be a hub for the next 1,000 years. It is from here that successful empires would be built, for centuries to come.
One name that stands out prominently in Magadha’s ambitious rise is that of Bimbisara (c. 542-493 BCE), the ruler of Magadha.
He belonged to the Haryanka dynasty and was anointed king by his father at the age of 15. He emerges from the mist of myth and legend as the first real figure in early Indian history.
We know he was ambitious, smart and canny. He strengthened his position through strategic marriage alliances. We know of the three wives he had – the first was the daughter of the king of Kosala in the north, due to which he received Kashi as dowry. The second was Chellana, a Lichchhavi princess from Vaishali close to Magadha. His third wife was the daughter of the chief of the Madra clan, further afield in present-day Punjab.
Next came annexations. Magadha and Anga together consisted of about 80,000 villages and had a circumference of about 300 yojanas (one yojana is 12–15 km). Bimbisara led a military campaign against Anga and this gave root to his ambition of aggressive expansion. His impregnable capital, the fortified Rajgriha (present-day Rajgir in Bihar), gave him a distinct advantage as it was surrounded by a range of hills.
Remnants of Bimbisara’s ancient fort, which has subsequently been rebuilt, are still visible at Rajgir today. Here, locals will also tell you about the garden where Gautama Buddha lived. You will also find the Vulture’s Nest in the peak high above the city. It is sacred to both Buddhists (who believed the Buddha resided here on his sojourns to Magadha) and Jains (who believe Mahavira spent varshavaas or monsoons) here. In Rajgir, locals will also point you to the dungeon where Bimbisara was supposedly imprisoned by his son, in what was the first recorded case of patricide in the subcontinent’s history.
But that is another story.
The World in 600 BCE
The period of the mahajanapadas was very interesting. It marked the rise of small kingdoms and, as commerce grew, a consolidation that created even larger states, from over 170 janapadas, to a mere 16, which would play a pivotal role.
Interestingly, something similar was happening about 6,000 km west of the Indian subcontinent. We see unmistakable parallels between the janapadas and the Greek city-states (polis) with regard to their origin and evolution. There existed about 1,000 genos (like janas) in modern-day Greece, which eventually developed into polis (like janapadas) – Sparta, Athens, Corinth, Rhodes, etc. It was the Macedonians, like the Magadhas, who took advantage of the changing environment and succeeded in breaking the norm and creating large empires.
This article is part of our series ‘Two Thousand Years of India’s History’, where we focus on the period between 600 BCE- 1400 CE, and bring alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material - archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.
Find the first story of this series here: