Travel about 35 km north-west from Pakistan’s capital city Islamabad and you will find an archaeological site that has been the epicentre of a fair bit of historical debate as three great empires - that of the Achaemenids (Persia), Macedonians (Greek) and Mauryans - laid claim to it. This site which is today known as the Bhir Mound, forms a part of the famous ancient city Taxila and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It provides one of the earliest documented evidence of urbanisation in the Indian subcontinent dating between 800-525 BCE. It was from here that Alexander the Great made his historic entry into India as King Ambhi capitulated to him and offered him a force of soldiers mounted on elephants later in the 4th century BCE. But centuries before Alexander came, this region was a thriving center of learning and trade.
The Bhir Mound was first excavated from 1913-1925 by Sir John Marshall, the head of the Archaeological Survey of India, who also oversaw the excavations at Harappa and Mohenjodaro. Interestingly, Marshall came to the Bhir Mound project soon after his work in Athens, expecting to find a Greek city in Taxila as the region was once under the Greeks between 326-317 BCE after Alexander had occupied it. But as Marshall and his team dug deeper, they found that what was excavated had rather striking similarities with the faraway cities in the Ganges valley, across India. Ring-wells, terracotta figurines and Northern Black Polished Ware were all distinctively of the Later Vedic period. Further, it was here that the existence of the first currency - the Indian punch-marked coins and their circulation first came to light during the discovery of 1167 coins in 1924. The hoard included 1055 punch-marked coins, 33 silver bent-bar coins and 79 minute coins. The bent-bar coins found with a six-armed motif were a novelty and could be dated as far back as 400 BCE. These were among the earliest coins struck and issued by the Gandhara Mahajanapada, of which Taxila was the capital. Given that this is the earliest reference to coins, it is believed that coinage spread from here south and soon the punch-marked coins were produced in many other Mahajanapadas of northern and central India. The different Mahajanapada coins can be recognized from their find spots, the number of punches and about 450 peculiar symbols they had over time.
Gandhara was one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas which existed in ancient India from the 6th to 4th centuries BCE. Nearly twelve of them hugged the Yamuna and the Ganga. This was a new age, known as the period of the second urbanisation in Indian history (the first one being the Harappan civilization), where new ideas were formed. Pastoral life paved the way for agriculture, surpluses fuelled commerce and market towns became large populous cities. The transition from a barter community to monetization was clear. Literature and field archaeology help us place ourselves in the middle of a land and time which was bursting with activity.
We know that there was regular trade between all of these cities, for example, there is a reference to a tariff-free trade between Gandhara and Magadha as the former was strategically located just off what later came to be known as the ‘Grand Trunk Road’. Located in what was called the Uttarapatha in ancient times, Gandhara covered the Kabul, Peshawar and Rawalpindi regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan today. This kingdom flourished, being at the crossroads of Asia, connecting trade routes and absorbing cultural influences from diverse civilizations. Down the centuries between 1st BCE and 3rd CE, Gandhara came to be known for its own unique tradition of art - Gandhara or Greco-Buddhist Art. It also remained an extremely important centre of administration and commerce, not to forget education as students from across Asia and the subcontinent came to study at the Taxila University. They included Indian greats like the grammarian Panini in 4th century BCE; Charaka, who wrote a medical treatise on Ayurveda in 3rd century BCE; and Kautilya, the author of Arthashastra and kingmaker to Chandragupta Maurya in the 3rd century BCE.
Gandhara in its north-west was neighboured by Kambhoja, one of the larger Mahajanapadas which was known for its excellent breed of horses and horsemen who were requisitioned as cavalry troopers in ancient wars by outside states or kingdoms. In fact, British historian Arnold Toynbee suggests ‘that the conquest of the world by elder branch of the House of Achaemenes had been achieved by the valor of the Kuru and Kamboja nomad reinforcements, hence as a commemoration, the elder branch of the House had named all their great princes from Cyrus I onwards, alternately, as Cyrus (Kurosh/Kuru) and Cambyses (Kambujiya/Kamboja).’
The Buddhist Pali scripture Petavatthu (c. 300 BCE) states that Kambhoja was directly connected to the port of Dwarka (in present-day Gujarat) by a road. This caravan route permitted goods from Afghanistan and China to be exported by sea to southern India, Sri Lanka, the Middle East and Ancient Greece and Rome.
Another old settlement that transformed into a Mahajanapada was Kuru. According to Buddhist lore, the Kuru kingdom was ruled by kings belonging to the family of Yudhishthira, from their capital at Indraprastha. A site that played such a pivotal role in the Mahabharata, scholars are continuously trying to establish a link between literature and archaeology, here.
Excavations conducted at Hastinapur, another important Kuru city, by BB Lal (former Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India) in the 1950s have dug up artefacts like arrowheads, spearheads, celt and beads dated earliest to Painted Grey Ware (PGW) culture period i.e. between 1200 BCE to 600 BCE. The Kurus figure prominently in Vedic literature which says that the Kuru tribe was formed as a result of the merger between the Bharata and Puru tribes in the aftermath of the Battle of the Ten Kings sometime between 1700-1200 BCE. From the Kuru period, we know of one of the most elaborate public altars which was shaped like a giant falcon/eagle poised for flight. It was probably meant for rituals in homage to God Agni (Fire) and ensured a person’s passage to heaven.
From the Kuru Dynasty branched out another Mahajanapada called Vatsa with its capital at Kaushambi (modern-day Allahabad region). Located on the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna, it emerged as an important entrepot of goods and passengers attracting many wealthy merchants to reside here. Excavations conducted here by historian GR Sharma, first in 1949, suggested that the site may have been occupied as early as the 12th century BCE. Also revealed were ruins of brick walls, bastions, numerous towers, battlements and gateways dating between the 7th and 5th centuries BCE. This shows what a prosperous fortified city Kaushambi would have been.
Vatsa was also noted for its fine cotton textiles. Historian Upinder Singh, in her book A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India, writes about “legends which recount the rivalry between kings Udayana of Vatsa and Pradyota of Avanti, and refer to a love affair between Udayana and Vasavadatta, Pradyota’s daughter.” Udayana went on to become the romantic hero of three Sanskrit dramas of later times - the Svapna-Vasavadatta of Bhasa (2nd-3rd century CE); and Ratnavali and Priyadarshika - both attributed to Emperor Harshavardhan (606–648 CE).
Avanti, founded by Chandapradyota Mahasena, was one of the most flourishing kingdoms of ancient India with the river Narmada flowing through it. Mahasena was a contemporary of the Buddha and interestingly, he is said to have waged a war as far off as Taxila, against ruler Pushkarasarin. Archaeologist DR Bhandarkar points out that Avanti was divided into two parts - the northern, with its capital Ujjayini (modern-day Ujjain) and the southern with its capital Mahishmati (modern-day Maheshwar). In the Ramayana, Mahishmati is supposed to have been the kingdom where the mighty Ravana was defeated by a local ruler Kartavirya Arjuna.
Avanti was also an important centre of Buddhism as many senior Buddhist monks like Katyayana, Isidatta and Paramartha were either born here or resided here. The antiquity of the region can be told from the Khalghat site situated in the Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh. In 1990, during a village-to-village survey of the submergence of Sardar Sarovar Project, a mound was located and further exploration yielded artefacts from pre-Mauryan age like black and redware pottery, terracotta beads from 600 BCE.
Another Mahajanapada which finds mention in the epics is Panchala. While in the epic Mahabharata, Draupadi, to whom the Kuru princes married, belonged from this region, it is interesting to note that according to political scientist Sudama Misra, Panchala derives its name from a fusion of five (pancha) janas (tribes). Its capital was the famous site of Ahichchhatra (in present-day Bareilly district), the ruins of which reveal that the city had a triangular shape.
Around 1000 BC, it reached at least 40 hectares of area, making it one of the largest (and earliest to be identified) Painted Grey Ware culture sites. Regular excavations at this site by the Archaeological Survey of India were started in 1940 and it revealed cultures of eight periods here. It is also one of the sites to have a pyramid.
This place is also holy to the followers of Jain faith as it is believed that it was here that the 23rd Tirthankar Parshvanath during his meditation was protected from rain and storm by a couple of snakes who formed a canopy (chhatra) over his head. Buddhist scriptures like Anguttara Nikaya mention that Panchala had an abundance of seven kinds of gems and consisted of a large army of foot soldiers, men skilful in fight and in the use of steel weapons.
Along with this Mahajanapada, usually mentioned is Surasena with Mathura as its capital. Interestingly, as Karam Tej Sarao, a faculty member of the Department of Buddhist Studies at the University of Delhi writes in his paper Janapadas, Mahajanapadas, Kingdoms and Republics, “Mathura was perhaps the only city...about which the Buddha made somewhat uncharitable comments perhaps due to its close connections with the Jains. According to the Buddha, this city had too much dust, uneven ground, too many dogs, bestial yakkahas, and was short of alms.”
No doubt, Mathura was a boiling pot of religions and continues to be so with being sacred to Hindus as the birthplace of Krishna. Excavations in the 1870s and 1880s at Kankali Tila site in Mathura not only brought forth ruins of Jain temples but also many treasures of Jain art dating between the 2nd century BCE to 12th century CE. This is also the only site that provides evidence of a Jain stupa with a gate, which can be easily mistaken with that of the Sanchi stupa.
Sharing borders with Surasena was the Matsya Mahajanapada and in the middle of a thick forest in Rajasthan’s Jaipur district lie the remnants of Matsya’s capital Viratnagar. According to legend, it is said to have been founded by King Kirat in whose kingdom the Pandavas spent their 13th year in exile in disguise. It was excavated by archaeologist Daya Ram Sahni in the 1930s.
What makes Viratnagar (present-day Bairat) significant is that above a rocky hill known as Bijak-ki-Pahadi here, there are the remains of India's earliest known free-standing Buddhist chaityagriha or prayer hall with a stupa at its center. In this region, we also find many Ashokan inscriptions like the Bairat edicts of Ashoka. The low bare red hills of Bairat seem to have had continued significance also as a house of zinc and copper mines that go back at least 2000 years. The Mughal chronicler Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari also confirms this with the presence of Mughal mints in the region.
The Mahajanapada of Chedi is also associated with the Pandavas’ last year in exile. Its capital was Suktimati (Sukti means oysters) and the Chedi people are mentioned as early as the Rig Veda. Their king Kasu Chaidya is praised in one of the Danastutis (hymns in praise of donors) of Rig Veda. While most of the routes mentioned in ancient literature deal with trade, Vedabbha Jataka tells us that the road from Kashi to Chedi was unsafe and infested by robbers. The location of Suktimati has not been established with certainty. Historian Hem Chandra Raychaudhuri and F. E. Pargiter believed that it was in the vicinity of Banda in Uttar Pradesh. Archaeologist Dilip Kumar Chakrabarti has proposed that Suktimati can be identified as the ruins of a large early historical city, at a place with the modern-day name Itaha, on the outskirts of Rewa, Madhya Pradesh.
Kashi has been described as one of the oldest living cities in the world. Religion, trade, education all aligned here, giving rise to one of the most important Mahajanapadas. Cottage industries and textile manufacturing were thriving here. In fact, when Lord Buddha died, it is said that his remains were wrapped in a ‘yellow’ cotton cloth woven in Kashi. In later times, the kingdom of Kashi was usurped by the more powerful, Kosala Mahajanapada which followingly gave away Kashi as a dowry to Magadha Mahajanapada when both the rulers participated in a matrimonial alliance. That tale makes for an entirely different story in itself.
The capital of Kosala was Sravasti and this Mahajanapada corresponds roughly with the area with the region of Awadh in present-day Uttar Pradesh. Besides Kashi, during the 5th century BCE, Kosala incorporated the territory of the Shakyas of Kapilavastu too, to which the Buddha belonged. The Majjhima Nikaya describes the Buddha as a Kosalan.
Magadha, the foremost of all, 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 (Mauryas and Guptas) that would rule for centuries to come. It was an important political and commercial centre and people from all parts of northern India flocked here for trade and commerce. Its early capital was Rajgriha and later Pataliputra.
One name that stands out prominently in Magadha’s ambitious rise is that of Bimbisara (c. 542-493 BCE). He belonged to the Haryanka dynasty and was anointed king by his father at the age of 15. Out of the smoke of myths and legends, he emerges as the first real figure in early Indian history. Besides direct annexations, he strengthened his position through strategic marriage alliances. He is said to have taken three wives - the first the daughter of the king of Kosala, in the north - thanks to which he received Kashi, as dowry. The second was Chellana, a Lichchhavi princess from Vaishali close to Magadha, and the third, the daughter of the chief of the Madra clan, further afield in present-day Punjab.
Magadha’s greatest rival was the Anga Mahajanapada. Located on its east, Magadha and Anga together consisted of about eighty thousand villages and had a circumference of about three hundred yojanas (one yojana is about 12–15 km). The Ramayana narrates the origin of the name Anga as the place where Kamadeva was burnt to death by Siva and where his body parts (angas) are scattered. In Mahabharata, it was the territory of Anga that was given to Karna by Duryodhana. Its capital Champa (in present-day Bhagalpur, Bihar) was situated at the confluence of the Ganga and the Champa rivers, on the banks of which, Gautam Buddha is said to have brought a congregation of 500 monks for a religious meeting. Historian Prof Raman Sinha of S M College in Bhagalpur interprets this as the first Buddhist Council, one that was held during the Buddha’s lifetime. Besides Buddhism, the region is important to the Jain faith as well. It is believed that the 12th Tirthankara Vasupujya was born here and the last Tirthankara Mahavir spent three monsoon retreats in Champa. A mound called Karangadh in Bhagalpur was excavated between 1969-70 by archaeologist B P Sinha and many terracotta objects, vessels and ornaments were found here.
Interestingly, according to the Jataka tales, the people of Champa were very wealthy and set up another Champa in South-East Asia. While this may be just a legend, we can definitely see that Vietnam too has a city named Champa which was often visited by Indian traders who have left behind their influence on the city. Including the adoption of the Indian calendar and astronomical and philosophical systems.
If Anga was the easternmost, the southernmost Mahajanapada was Asmaka located on the banks of the Godavari, unlike others which were situated in the Ganga-Yamuna Doab. Its capital variously called Potali or Podana has been identified with modern-day Bodhan in Telangana by historian Shailendra Nath Sen. However, some scholars consider Pratishthana (present-day Paithan in Maharashtra) to have been the capital of Asmaka.
Excavations at the Kotilingala site in Telangana, which was included in the Asmaka territory have found Punch-marked coins of rulers Gobada, Narana, Kamvayasa, Sirivayasa and Samagopa. Not much is known about them. The city of Pauni is Maharashtra was the southernmost fortified city belonging to this period.
All of the above Mahajanapadas had a monarchical form of government where the kingdom was ruled by one person assisted by a samiti. However, Vajji and Malla 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.
Malla was located in the present-day Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh. The Mahajanapada was divided into two main parts and the river Kakuttha (present-day Kuku) was probably the dividing line. The capitals of these two parts were Kusavati and Pava which have the distinction of providing the place of eternal rest to the two greats - Buddha and Mahavira respectively.
Last but not least and probably the most diverse was the Vajji Mahajanapada. The territory lay north of the Ganga and extended as far as the Nepal hills. It was composed of several confederate clans (about eight), of whom the Lichchavis, the Videhas, the Jnatrikas and the Vajji proper were the most important. The introductory portion of the Ekapanna Jataka tells that a triple wall encompassed the city. Each wall was a league distance from the next.
For over 300 years, the Mahajanapadas were the nerve centres in the political, religious and economic life of ancient India with no one paramount ruling power in place. What stands out is how these regions and cities especially those like Mathura, Patna, Varanasi, Peshawar and Allahabad continue to be relevant through time and are great cities of the northern Indian subcontinent even today, 2500 years later.
The World at that Time
While these Mahajanapadas were forming and growing in this part of the world, there was much activity in the rest of the known world then, too. Just west of River Indus lay the Achaemenid Empire, which at its height was larger than any other empire previously known in history stretching all the way till Greece and Egypt. Its ruler Darius I (550 - 486 BCE) would conquer much of the Indus river valley around 518 BCE and make it the 7th province of the Achaemenid Empire. It was King Darius I who sent a Greek explorer named Scylax of Caryanda to sail down the Indus river and prepare an account of what he saw. The ‘report’ that was prepared, named ‘Periplus of Scylax’ , through now lost in time, is considered the earliest known account of India by a Westerner.
Meanwhile, in Greece, the city-states of Athens and Sparta would emerge as great powers, with 500 BCE marking the beginning of the ‘Classical Period’ in Greek history. In Africa, the city-state of Carthage (in present-day Tunisia) emerged as a major trading power controlling the trade between the Mediterranian Sea and Sub Saharan Africa. While in China, the long-ruling Zhou dynasty collapses leading to a hundred smaller kingdoms. It is known as the ‘Warring Kingdoms’ period in Chinese history. It also saw the rise of what is called ‘Hundred Schools of Thought’, numerous philosophies like ‘Confucianism’ ,‘Taoism’ and ‘Mohism’ which still have followers in China to this day. An interesting parallel to the rise of philosophies like Buddhism and Jainism in India.
This article is part of our 'The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing 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.
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