16 Mahajanapadas [NCERT Notes on Ancient Indian History For UPSC]

Angutara Nikaya, a Buddhist scripture mentions 16 great kingdoms or Mahajanapadas at the beginning of the 6th century BC in India. They emerged during the Vedic Age. The history of the emergence of mahajanapadas can be linked to the development of eastern Uttar Pardesh(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 and later addressed as 16 highly developed regions or the Mahajanapadas.

This is an important topic for IAS Exam and is also relevant for other government exams.

Comprehensive News Analysis -UPSC 2020

Emergence of Mahajanapads from Janapadas

The Janapadas were the major kingdoms of Vedic India. During that period, Aryans were the most powerful tribes and were called as ‘Janas’. This gave rise to the term Janapada where Jana means ‘people’ and Pada means ‘foot’.

By the 6th century B.C., 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.

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:

16 Mahajanapadas - UPSC 2020

The list below provides you with the names of 16 mahajanapadas:

  1. Kasi
  2. Kosala
  3. Anga
  4. Magadha
  5. Vajji
  6. Malla
  7. Chedi
  8. Vatsa
  9. Kuru
  10. Panchala
  11. Matsya
  12. Surasena
  13. Assaka
  14. Avanti
  15. Gandhara
  16. Kamboja

In the course of time, smaller or weak kingdoms, and the republics were eliminated by the stronger rulers. In the 6th century only 4 powerful kingdoms remained:

  1. Magadha (Important rulers: Bimbisara, Ajatashatru)
  2. Avanti (Important ruler: Pradyota)
  3. Kosala (Important rulers: Prasenjit)
  4. Vatsa (Important rulers: Udayana)

Later, all of them were annexed to or became part of Magadha.

16 Mahajanapadas – Facts for UPSC Exam

Ancient India had several kingdoms in the 6th century BC. This era saw socio-economic growth along with religious and political developments crossways the Indo-Gangetic plain.

These settlements led the growth from Janapadas to Mahajanpadas. By 6th BC, the focus of chief political activity moved from the western part of Gangetic plain to the eastern part. The eastern part of Gangetic plain consists of present-day Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. The main reason for this shift was the fertile lands, better climate and topography condition bestowed with rainfall and rivers. In fact, it was the augmented use of iron tools and weapons that empowered small states to develop as a kingdom which is later known as Mahajanapadas.

The table gives you the details of 16 Mahajanapadas:

16 Mahajanapadas Capital of 16 Mahajanapadas Modern Location of 16 Mahajanapadas Facts about 16 Mahajanapadas
Anga Champa Munger and Bhagalpur
  • Anga Mahajanapada finds reference in the Mahabharata and Atharva Veda
  • During the rule of Bimbisara, it was taken over by Magadha Empire.
  • It is situated in present-day Bihar and West Bengal.
Magadha Girivraja| Rajagriha Gaya and Patna
  • Magadha finds mention in the Atharva Veda which conveys that Magadha was semi-Brahmanical habitation.
  • It was located in present day Bihar close to Anga, divided by river Champa.
  • Later, Magadha became a centre of Jainism and the first Buddhist Council was held in Rajagriha.
Kasi Kasi Banaras
  • It was located in Varanasi.
  • This city got its name from rivers Varuna and Asi as cited in the Matsya Purana.
Vatsa Kausambi Allahabad
  • Vatsa is also known as Vamsa
  • This Mahajanapada followed the monarchical form of governance.
  • The capital is Kausambi.
  • This was a central city for economic activities.
  • There was a prosperous trade and business scenario in the 6th century BC. After the rise of Buddha, the ruler Udayana made Buddhism a state religion.
  • Vatsa was located around the present-day Allahabad.
Kosala Sravasti Eastern Uttar Pradesh
  • It was located in modern Awadh region of Uttar Pradesh.
  • Its capital was Sravasti
Saurasena Mathura Western Uttar Pradesh
  • This place was a centre of Krishna worship at the time of Megasthenes. Also, there was a dominant followership of Buddha here.
Panchala Ahichchatra and Kampliya Western Uttar Pradesh
  • Its capital for northern Panchala was Ahichchatra and Kampilaya for its southern regions.
  • It was situated in present-day western Uttar Pradesh.
  • Later the nature of governance shifted from monarchy to republic.
Kuru Indraprastha Meerut and Southeastern Haryana
  • The area around Kurukshetra was apparently the site for Kuru Mahajanapada.
  • It moved to a republic form of governance.
Matsya Viratnagar Jaipur
  • It was situated to the west of the Panchalas and south of the Kurus.
  • The capital was at Viratanagar
  • It is situated around present-day Jaipur.
Chedi Sothivati Jaipur
  • This was cited in the Rigveda
  • The capital was Sothivati.
  • It located in the present-day Bundelkhand region.
Avanti Ujjaini or Mahismati Malwa and Madhya Pradesh
  • Avanti was significant in relation to the rise of Buddhism.
  • The capital of Avanti was located at Ujjaini or Mahismati.
  • It was situated around present-day Malwa and Madhya Pradesh.
Gandhara Taxila Rawalpindi
  • The capital was at Taxila.
  • Gandhara is cited in the Atharva Veda
  • The people were highly trained in the art of war.
  • It was significant for international commercial activities.
Kamboja Pooncha Rajori and Hajra
  • The capital of Kamboj is Poonch.
  • It is situated in present-day Kashmir and Hindukush.
  • Several literary sources mention that Kamboja was a republic.
Ashmaka or Assaka Pratisthan/ Paithan Bank of Godavari
  • The capital of this Mahajanapada was located at Pratisthan or Paithan.
  • It was located on the bank of Godavari.
Vajji Vaishali Bihar
  • It is the capital of Vajji was Vaishali.
  • The main races residing in this Mahajanapadas were Licchavis, Vedehans, Jnatrikas and Vajjis.
  • Malla
Malla Kusinara Deoria and Uttar Pradesh
  • It finds a reference in Buddhist and Jain texts and Mahabharata.
  • Malla was a republic
  • Their capital was Kusinara situated around present-day 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:

  1. The growing use of iron ploughshares. This increased production.
  2. 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.

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