Magadha & the First Empire (543 - 330 BCE)



Ajatashatru, king of Magadha and Anga, son of the illustrious Bimbisara, shivered in his fine yellow Kashi muslin garments and the thick, woollen Kamboja cloak sent by the King of Taxila as a gift. He paced the balcony of his great palace overlooking the cyclopean walls of his capital city of Rajagriha. He had received news the previous day that the Sakyamuni Gautama, whom the laity called the Buddha, his father’s friend, would be in the city the next day. How was he going to tell him that his friend, Bimbisara, had died at his son’s hands? Would the benevolent one grant absolution or just smile sorrowfully and tell him of his uncontrolled desires for the throne and how they led him down this dark path? The questions plagued the king of Magadha and robbed him of his sleep as he stared at the Vulture’s Peak, atop the hills overlooking the city, where the Buddha slept in serene repose.

Ajatashatru and his father Bimbisara are perhaps the earliest kings who step out of the mist of legend and tales, into reality. They were historic figures and they left behind parts of their large fort in the old Magadhan capital Rajgriha. Thanks to a proliferation of texts - chronicling the rise of two new faiths - Buddhism and Jainism that emerged during their reign ( 543-460 BCE), we have textual, archaeological and sculptural reference to the rulers of Magadha, who forged the first great Empire of the North - Magadha.

The first empire in India owes its beginnings to a humble chieftain’s son, who ascended the throne at the age of 15 in 543 BCE. His name was Bimbisara and he went on to found the Magadhan Empire, which created a core for all the great empires of Northern India that followed over the next 1,200 years.

Bimbisara founded the state of Magadha by bringing together a number of tribes and territories. Magadha, located in what is now south Bihar, was one of the 16 mahajanapadas, or local kingdoms that dominated Northern India between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE.

After consolidating his kingdom and strengthening its economy and armies, Bimbisara began to expand the state of Magadha by first invading the territories of his father’s enemies in the neighbouring state of Anga to the east. Bimbisara appointed his son and heir, Ajatashatru, as Governor of Anga and then turned his sights on all the other mahajanapadas in the vicinity. The annexation of Anga and its amalgamation with Magadha was the first step in a long march.

Territorial expansion of the Magadha empires 6th century BCE onwards
Territorial expansion of the Magadha empires 6th century BCE onwards|Wikimedia Commons

What he could not gain through war, he set about gaining through marriage. Bimbisara married Kosala Devi, the sister of Prasenjit, the king of Kosala, and she brought him as part of her dowry the city-state of Kashi, renowned for its yellow, cotton cloth, advantageous location (it was situated plumb in the middle of a great ford on the Ganges River), and renowned scholarship.

This marriage ensured peace between Magadha and Kosala and left Bimbisara free to prey on his neighbours. His second wife was Chellana, a princess of the great Lichchhavi oligarchy which ruled from Vaishali, and the daughter of its king Chetaka. His third wife was Kshema, daughter of the Madras of Punjab.

Bimbisara thus forged strong alliances to the north and the west with the Vijjians and Kosala. His eastern frontiers were already solidly buttressed by his conquest of Anga. His marriage to Kshema put him within striking distance of Gandhara in the north-west, while also keeping open his trade routes through the Indus headwaters.

The kingdoms of the central Ganga Valley were caught in a tweezer’s grip, thus ensuring that they would not ally with his greatest rival, King Chanda Pradyota Mahasena of Avanti. An astute leader, Bimbisara also made diplomatic overtures to Avanti and Gandhara, where he maintained an embassy.

Rajagriha: The Original Capital

We know a lot about Bimbisara as he is well represented in Buddhist and Jain texts. He is said to have been a personal acquaintance of the Buddha. He built his capital on the rocky outcrop of Rajagriha or Rajgir, which is still a place of great pilgrimage for the Jains. The cyclopean walls of Rajagriha are still standing and are among the oldest archaeological remains in the region and a testament to Bimbisara’s building skills. Vulture’s Peak, atop the hill overlooking Rajagriha, was a favourite haunt of the Buddha and he stayed here whenever he was in the city.

He also gave some of the most important sermons of his life here. According to the Mahayana Sutras, almost every one of the Buddha’s most important sermons was first recited here. These include his last great sermon, The Heart Sutra - Pajnaparamita Sutra, in which he preaches that everything is shunyata (form is empty); The Lotus SutraSadharmapundrika Sutra, which is considered the final teaching of the Buddha and enough to attain salvation; and the Surangama Samadhi Sutra, which contains the teachings of Yogacharya and Vajrayana. This makes it an extremely important place of pilgrimage for Buddhists.

Vulture’s Peak, Rajagriha
Vulture’s Peak, Rajagriha|Wikimedia Commons

The caves below the mountain and Vulture’s Peak are also very sacred to Jains, who believe that Mahavira spent varshavaas (the monsoon months when he ceased to wander as a mendicant) here. There is a small inscription in the Son-Bhandar Caves, stating very clearly that they were built for Jain monks by a Jain Muni. According to secular tradition, these were the treasure vaults (Son-Bhandar or Gold Storerooms) of Rajagriha.

Interestingly, both Buddhists and Jains claim that Bimbisara followed their respective faiths. As a smart statesman, he probably listened to and favoured both, without really committing to either. This shows us just how astute Bimbisara was.

The site of Rajagriha must have been truly impressive in its heyday, and even 2,500 years later, the ruins are still awe-inspiring. The massive ‘cyclopean’ stone fortifications are second to none. The city of Rajagriha is perhaps the most imposing set of ruins from the age of the mahajanapadas and the Magadhan Empire.

No other city was built using as much stone as did Rajagriha and its location with the hills as its backdrop makes it even more breathtaking. Equally remarkable are the lookout point known as Vulture’s Nest, the rock-cut caves and the ruins of the palace.

The places mentioned in ancient texts like Jivaka’s mango orchard and Bimbisara’s jail can be identified even today. Admittedly, in many cases, it is only oral tradition that refers to them but we cannot overlook the fact that these traditions have persisted for more than two millennia.

King Bimbisara visits the Bamboo Garden (Venuvana) in Rajagriha; artwork from Sanchi 
King Bimbisara visits the Bamboo Garden (Venuvana) in Rajagriha; artwork from Sanchi |Wikimedia Commons

Bimbisara was perhaps also responsible for the first extended government in India and he had appointed administrators at various levels of administration, from village heads to the national level, ensuring a smooth flow of taxes.

After an eventful reign of 28 years, which was very long for that era, Bimbisara handed over his throne to his favourite son, Ajatashatru, and retired into private life. Some sources say Bimbisara met an untimely death at the hands of Ajatashatru, who was in too much of a hurry to be king, while other sources say that Ajatashatru imprisoned his father.

Jain sources are a little more charitable to Ajatashatru. They claim that Bimbisara committed suicide in captivity, whereas Buddhists say that Ajatashatru killed his father under the influence of the Buddha’s evil cousin, Devadutta. In early Buddhist texts, Devadutta is often portrayed as a sly and selfish person.

First Council at Rahagriha, painting at the Nava Jetavana, Shravasti  
First Council at Rahagriha, painting at the Nava Jetavana, Shravasti  |Wikimedia Commons

Devadutta is infamous because he joined the Buddhist Sangha and then created its first schism when he walked away with 500 monks to create his own order. He was often at loggerheads with the Buddha and sought to counter-influence the Buddha’s friends and followers. According to Buddhist sources, Ajatashatru eventually came to his senses and was wracked by guilt and confessed his crime to the Buddha. The Buddha consoled him and told him that if his remorse was true, he would attain salvation in his next life.

The Kingdom Expands

The death of Bimbisara brought Ajatashatru into direct conflict with his uncle Prasenjit of Kosala. The wars between Kosala and Magadha flowed both ways. In one battle, Ajatashatru was captured but pardoned and he married one of Prasenjit’s daughters. We don’t know exactly when but at some point during Ajatashatru’s reign, Kosala ceased to be an independent kingdom and became a part of the Magadhan Empire.

War over the Buddha’s Relics, kept by the city of Kushinagar, South Gate, Stupa no.1, Sanchi 
War over the Buddha’s Relics, kept by the city of Kushinagar, South Gate, Stupa no.1, Sanchi |Wikimedia Commons

After conquering the mighty Kosalan kingdom, Ajatashatru turned his sights northwards, towards the Lichchhavis. The Buddha had warned him that as long as the Vijjian confederacy was united, they would never be conquered. Ajatashatru was a cunning ruler and he devised an elaborate strategy to bring down the Vijjians. One of his key ministers, Vassakara, is said to have infiltrated the enemy ranks. He is then said to have patiently and insidiously created fissures within the ranks across 3 years. His strategy worked and, eventually, the once invincible Vijjians were at loggerheads with each other.

Ajatashatru built the fortified city of Pataliputra as a launch pad for his attacks on the confederacy; Rajagriha, the earlier capital, was too far away. According to Jaina sources, Ajatashatru also added two weapons to his army’s repertoire – a catapult that shot large stone boulders and a chariot, probably with wheel blades that created havoc by wheeling around. The sources claim that these chariots had no horses. Noted Orientalist Rudolf Hoernle believes that they may have been propelled from within, perhaps like medieval devices akin to these.

The disunited Vijjian confederacy was unable to counter the invasion and Ajatashatru was triumphant. With the Vijjian capital Vaishali under his control, Ajatashatru’s kingdom now extended from the foothills of the Himalayas to the Ganges, and from the lower Ganga valley to the middle Ganga valley. The fortress erected by Ajatashatru at the village of Patali at the confluence of the Son and the Ganges rivers soon grew into a very important city.

Ananda Stupa, built by the Licchavis at Vaishali, which served as the capital of Vajji
Ananda Stupa, built by the Licchavis at Vaishali, which served as the capital of Vajji|Wikimedia Commons

The main ghat at Pataliputra was named Gotama Ghat after the Buddha. It is said that when the Buddha visited the new city, he prophesied that it would one day grow to be the chief city of the Aryans. It was Ajatashatru’s son Udayan who later shifted the capital of Magadha to Pataliputra.

According to Buddhist sources, Ajatashatru became a Buddhist in his search for solace on the death of his father. There is a famous panel at the Bahrut Stupa depicting Ajatashatru and his wives visiting the Buddha. When the Buddha died, Ajatashatru hastened to Kusinagara and claimed a lion’s share of the Buddha’s cremated remains from Mahakassapa, the Buddha’s chief disciple and the one who oversaw his last rites. He is then said to have built numerous stupas at Rajagriha and revived multiple Buddhist monasteries. He is seen as a great patron by Buddhists.

Ruins of pillared hall at Kumrahar site at Pataliputra 
Ruins of pillared hall at Kumrahar site at Pataliputra |Wikimedia commons

Ajatashatru’s death, according to Buddhist tradition, was truly karmic. He died at the hands of his son, Udayan, who yearned for the throne and couldn’t wait for his father to die. The Jaina traditions tell us that Udayan in turn was murdered at the behest of the ruler of Avanti.

With the death of Ajatashatru, the Magadhan Empire saw the end of its glory days. Udayan, who succeeded Ajatashatru, was a king of some renown but his two successors failed to leave a mark. Thus, the Empire of Bimbisara and Ajatashatru came to an end.

The Puranas have a different take on the story and say that Ajatashatru was succeeded by his son Darshaka, who after a short reign was succeeded in turn by his son Udayan, who was married to a princess of Avanti and was a great king. According to the Puranas too, the successors of Udayan were mere shadows of the great Magadhan kings and the empire was finally usurped by the son of a Sudra woman. Surprisingly, the Puranas say each of the kings ascended the throne by killing his predecessor.

After Bimbisara’s line came to an end, the people of Magadha are said to have elected a Prime Minister called Sisunaga to rule over the kingdom. Things become confusing here as the Puranas offer conflicting details, much of which cannot be verified.

Magadha coin, c. 350 BCE
Magadha coin, c. 350 BCE|Wikimedia Commons

Sisunaga is said to have destroyed the powers of Magadha’s great rival, the Pradyotas of Avanti, and incorporated Avanti into Magadha. His son, Kalasoka, succeeded him and it was during his reign that the Second Buddhist Council was held in 383 BCE. Bana, Harshavardhana’s court poet writing in the 7th century CE, tells us that Kalasoka met with a terrible end; he was stabbed by a dagger in his throat. The deed was done by his barber, who had become the paramour of his queen!

Quintus Curtius Rufus, the 1st century CE Roman historian and writer of Histories of Alexander The Great, tells us that, ‘... the barber then killed all the sons of Kalasoka and made himself the first king of the Nanda dynasty.’ His name, according to some historians, was Mahapadma Nanda and he is reviled as a low-caste usurper by the Puranas, which call him the son of the last king, Mahanandin, by a Sudra woman.

Jaina sources call him the ‘slave of a barber’. The Puranas also refer to Mahapadma Nanda as the second Parsurama, who exterminated the Kshatriyas and brought all their territories into his own. According to Greek historians, the Nanda Empire stretched from Punjab to Bengal and from the foothills of the Himalayas to the Godavari River.

Possible extent of the Nanda Empire under its last ruler Dhana Nanda (c. 325 BCE).
Possible extent of the Nanda Empire under its last ruler Dhana Nanda (c. 325 BCE).|Wikimedia Commons

Puranic and other texts confusingly talk of nine sons who ruled after Sisunaga, the last of whom was referred to as Agrammes or Xandrames by the Greeks. It was Agrammes who was on the throne of Magadha at Pataliputra when Alexander arrived on the subcontinent in 326 BCE.

What we do know apart from the ‘base born nature’ of the Nanda dynasty is that Mahapadma Nanda went on to forge the Nanda Empire, which Chandragupta Maurya inherited. Chandragupta did not conquer most of the lands that made up his empire. With the exception of Gandhara, all the lands ruled by him had been conquered by the Nanda emperors. The Nandas were emperors with the largest standing army in the world at the time, a fact that has been corroborated by none other than Alexander’s own historians.

According to these records, the size and reputation of the Nanda army acted as a deterrent to Alexander and his tired forces. Quintus Curtius Rufus speaks of an army of 2,00,000 infantry, 20,000 cavalry, 2,000 four-horse chariots of war and 3,000 elephants.

The texts may revile the Nandas but what we cannot overlook is that the empire builders of this era – first Bimbisara and then Mahapadma Nanda – marched in, ushering in a new phase in the subcontinent’s history. Small kingdoms were seen as weak and this was proved as Alexander inched closer, and they fell.

Small was out. It was time for change !

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.

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