Some were adventurers, others ruthless and ambitious warriors, and still others brilliant strategists. These were the qualifications that made Emperors and Maharajas out of mere mortals. Today, thanks to the wealth of information from archaeology, comparative history, contemporary literature and historical research, we can trace the story of some of India’s ancient rulers, who built powerful kingdoms all across the subcontinent.
By the 6th century BCE, a large part of North India, especially the Indo-Gangetic plains, had seen a consolidation of Janapadas (regional republics) into Mahajanapadas (greater kingdoms). As these Mahajanapadas grew in importance, power equations within them too changed. Loyalty to ‘kin’ was replaced by loyalty to the ‘king’, and soon this title became a hereditary privilege.
It is around this time that we see the first expanding kingdom emerge in the subcontinent. Here’s the story of Bimbisara and those who followed in his footsteps, to carve out kingdoms and empires in the ancient world.
Bimbisara (543 BCE – 515 BCE)
Bimbisara has a special place in ancient Indian history. Born the son of a chieftain, he created a kingdom and this formed the strong core for all the great empires of Northern India that followed over the next 1,200 years. He ascended the throne at the age of 15 and laid the foundation of the Magadhan kingdom. He did this by bringing together a number of tribes and territories by using force, faith, marriage and even cunning.
Bimbisara built his capital on the rocky outcrop of Rajgir (in modern-day Bihar), where the Buddha delivered some of the most important sermons of his life. In fact, it is believed that Bimbisara had a close relationship with the Buddha. The cyclopean walls of Rajgir are still standing and are among the oldest archaeological remains in the region.
Chandragupta Maurya (324-297 BCE)
From possibly meeting Macedonian ruler Alexander to taking a Greek wife, the legends around Chandragupta Maurya are many. But what we do know for sure is that he ruled at a pivotal point in the subcontinent’s history. The country was then divided into multiple ‘states’, but a ‘low born’ Chandragupta became the first emperor to unify them into one big empire and found the Maurya dynasty.
In his 1st century CE work on Macedonian ruler Alexander, biographer Plutarch wrote about how Alexander had met a young man, Sandrokottos, who would eventually defeat the Nanda ruler Agrammes and claim the Magadha crown. Other Graeco-Roman accounts also made references to this ‘Sandrokottos’, who historians in India could not place. But a Sanskrit scholar and linguist, William Jones, chanced upon the answer when he came across a Sanskrit play, Mudrarakshasa, written between the 4th and 8th centuries CE by Vishakhadatta. The play narrated the story of the rise of King Chandragupta Maurya and how he had defeated the last Nanda ruler.
During his rise, Chandragupta was assisted by India’s most well-known strategist – Chanakya. He built one of India’s greatest empires, only to give it all up at the height of his power.
Chandragupta was succeeded by his son Bindusara, who extended the Mauryan Empire into the Deccan. And then came Indian history’s most popular king, Ashoka.
Ashoka (269 BCE – 232 BCE)
The 5th-century CE Buddhist text Mahavamsa mentions that when Ashoka’s mother was pregnant with him, she expressed a desire to “trample on the moon and the sun to play with the stars and to eat up the forests”. The elders interpreted this to be an omen – the ‘trampling’ indicated her child would conquer the people of the Indus and ‘eating’ indicated that he would kill his brothers who displeased him! And this is exactly what happened when Ashoka was born.
A promising young prince, Ashoka went on to reign over a region that stretched from the Hindu Kush mountains in the west to Bengal in the East, and covered the entire Indian subcontinent except for parts of present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala. But all the territories he conquered and the wars he fought for them brought him a brutal realisation.
The story about Ashoka and the war of Kalinga is well known. Renouncing violence, he became an evangelist of peace. He built 30-odd edicts to spread his message and 84,000 stupas across the Indian subcontinent. His Lion Capital became the emblem of the modern Republic of India.
But was Ashoka a genuine visionary or was he an opportunistic ruler who cashed in on a popular wave i.e. Buddhism?
Ashoka’s conquest of Kalinga had caused widespread devastation and wiped out a whole generation or two of people in the region. But barely seven years after Ashoka’s death, a new dynasty rose in Kalinga, in 225 BCE – that of the Chedis. Kharavela would emerge as the brightest star here.
Kharavela (2nd BCE - 1st BCE)
High up on one of the caves in Udayagiri, a complex of largely Jain rock-cut temples and viharas near Bhubaneswar in Odisha, is one of India’s most talked-about inscriptions. It was installed by Kharavela, the mighty king who rebuilt Kalinga, the kingdom destroyed by Ashoka, and greatly expanded its territory.
He was a powerful ruler belonging to the Chedi dynasty, and yet all we know about him is courtesy this 17-line inscription, called the Hathigumpha Inscription.
Kharavela had undergone training in finance, administration and law before he wore the crown at the age of 24. After that, he led expeditions and battles, thwarted Greek invaders, fixed irrigation systems, restored the ‘pride’ of Kalinga, patronised Jain monks and built great temple complexes and viharas. The inscription also mentions that he built himself a royal residence at the cost of “thirty-eight hundred thousand”. The remains of his palace can be seen in Sisupalgarh near Bhubaneswar.
Piecing together a great monarch from these scraps of information makes Kharavela a true enigma and raises many questions.