Angutara Nikaya, a Buddhist scripture mentions 16 great kingdoms or Mahajanapadas at the beginning of the 6th century BCE in India. They emerged during the Vedic Age. The history of the emergence of Mahajanapadas can be linked to the development of eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar during the 6th to 4th century BCE where agriculture flourished due to the availability of fertile lands and iron production increased due to availability of iron ore in large quantities. This resulted in the expansion of the territories of the Janapadas (due to the use of iron weapons) and later addressed as 16 highly developed regions or the Mahajanapadas.
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This is an important topic for IAS Exam and is also relevant for other government exams.
Emergence of Mahajanapadas from Janapadas
The Janapadas were the major kingdoms of Vedic India. During that period, Aryans were the most powerful tribes and were called ‘Janas’. This gave rise to the term Janapada where Jana means ‘people’ and Pada means ‘foot’.
By the 6th century BCE, there were approximately 22 different Janapadas. Socio-economic developments chiefly due to the use of iron tools in agriculture and military, along with religious and political developments led to the rise of the Mahajanapadas from small kingdoms or Janapadas. The people gained a strong allegiance to the territory or Janapada they belonged to rather than the tribe or the jana. This period is also known as the era of second urbanisation, first being the Harappan civilisation.
During that period, the political centre shifted from the west of the Indo-Gangetic plains to the eastern side of it. This was due to better fertility of the land because of more rainfall and rivers. Also, this region was closer to iron production centres.
Which were the 16 Mahajanapadas?
List of 16 Mahajanapadas that arose before the rise of Buddhism in India:
The list below provides you with the names of 16 Mahajanapadas:
In the course of time, smaller or weak kingdoms, and the republics were eliminated by the stronger rulers. Vajji and Malla were Gana-Sanghas. The Gana-Sanghas had a government by assembly and within the assembly they had oligarchy. In the 6th century only 4 powerful kingdoms remained:
- Magadha (Important rulers: Bimbisara, Ajatashatru)
- Avanti (Important ruler: Pradyota)
- Kosala (Important ruler: Prasenjit)
- Vatsa (Important ruler: Udayana)
Later, all of them were annexed to or became part of Magadha. Know more about the rise and growth of the Magadha Empire in the linked article.
16 Mahajanapadas – Facts for UPSC Exam
The table gives you the details of the 16 Mahajanapadas:
|16 Mahajanapadas||Capital of the Mahajanapadas||Modern Location||Facts about 16 Mahajanapadas|
|Anga||Champa||Munger and Bhagalpur||
|Magadha||Girivraja/ Rajagriha||Gaya and Patna||
|Eastern Uttar Pradesh||
|Shurasena||Mathura||Western Uttar Pradesh||
|Panchala||Ahichchatra and Kampilya||Western Uttar Pradesh||
|Kuru||Indraprastha||Meerut and Southeastern Haryana||
|Avanti||Ujjaini or Mahismati||Malwa and Madhya Pradesh||
|Kamboja||Poonch||Rajouri and Hajra (Kashmir), NWFP (Pakistan)||
|Asmaka or Assaka||Potali/Podana||Banks of Godavari||
|Malla||Kusinara||Deoria and Uttar Pradesh||
Political Structure of the Mahajanapadas
- Most of the states were monarchies but some were republics known as Ganas or Sanghas. These Ganasanghas were oligarchies where the king was elected and he ruled with the help of a council. Vajji was an important Mahajanapada with a Sangha form of government.
- The founders of Jainism and Buddhism came from republican states.
- Each Mahajanapada had a capital city.
- Most of them had forts built around them for protection from other kings.
- Regular armies were maintained by these new kings or Rajas.
- They also collected taxes from the people. Usually, the tax on crops was 1/6th of the produce. This was known as Bhaga or share.
- Even craftsmen, herders, hunters and traders were taxed.
Changes in agriculture
There were two major changes in agriculture:
- The growing use of iron ploughshares. This increased production.
- The farmers began transplanting paddy. This means that instead of scattering seeds on the soil, saplings were grown and planted in the fields. This greatly increased the production but work also increased manifold.
Significance of the 6th century
It is from the 6th century BC that a continuous political history of India can be stated.
Difference between Gana-Sanghas and Kingdoms
Gana – Sanghas
|1. The chief office was not hereditary and was known as Ganapati or Ganaraja.||1. All the powers were vested with the King and his family.|
|2. The Ganas were located in or near the Himalayan foothills in eastern India.||2. Majority of the kingdoms occupied the fertile alluvial tracts of the Ganga valley.|
|3. Representative form of government. The council discussed and debated the issues in a hall, called Santhagara. Salakas (pieces of wood) were used for voting and Salaka-Gahapaka (collector of votes) ensured honesty and impartiality.||3. Political power was concentrated in the king who was assisted by ministers, advisory councils such as Parishad and Sabha. However, with the emergence of the concept of the divinity of king and more emphasis on priestly rituals, the centrality of the popular assemblies was reduced.|
|4. The Gana-Sanghas had only two strata- the Kshatriya Rajakula (ruling families) and the Dasa Karmakara (slaves and labourers).||4. The focus was mainly on caste loyalties and loyalty towards the king.|
|5. Gana Sanghas were more tolerant than the kingdoms. It is because of this tolerance – Mahavira (Jainism, belonged to Vajji confederacy) and Buddha (Buddhism, belonged to Shakya clan) were able to propagate their philosophy in a more unrestricted way in Gana-Sanghas as compared to Kingdoms.||5. The Brahmanical political, social and religious theory was more deeply entrenched in the kingdoms.|
Frequently asked Questions about the Mahajanapadas
Which state emerged as the strongest among all the 16 Mahajanapadas?
What is the origin of the Mahajanapadas?