Everything You Need To Know About Mahajanapadas

16 Mahajanapadas – History, Capital and Location


  • ‘Janapada’ (spelt as Janpad) comes from the Sanskrit root Jana meaning a tribe, and pada meaning feet. Thus, ‘Janapada’ means the area where the people of the ‘Jana’ tribe set foot.
  • In Vedic society, a clan was essentially a pastoral group constantly moving in search of greener pastures. This meant that the area of the ‘Janapada’ changed frequently. Nevertheless, getting control of the best pasture land became the prime political motive in the Vedic period.
  • However, in the later Vedic period (1000BCE – 600BCE), themembersof the ‘Jana’ took up agriculture and began to settle down. These fixed agricultural settlements, i.e. the Janapadas, transformed into territories of the state.
  • The Formation of states or Rashtra is a distinguishing feature of this age, which could be both monarchical and republican.
  • From the 6th century BCE onwards, some Janapads developed into Mahajanapadas (spelt as mahajanpadas). This change is attributed to a series of developments in the socio-economic structures, such as:
  • The land now became the most important source of wealth instead of cattle.
  • In addition, Iron weapons caused the warrior class to play a more significant role in political life.
  • The new agricultural tools and implements led to surplus production, which the state could tax to meet its military and administrative needs.
  • Towns started developing due to surplus production and increasing trade activities.

The Sixteen Mahajanapadas

We find them mentioned in the Buddhist and later Vedic texts. These Mahajanapadas were a conglomerate of thousands of villages and a few towns. They extended from North Western Pakistan to Bengal and from the sub-montane regions of the Himalayas to the Godavari.

The Buddhist text Anguttara Nikaya of the SuttaPitaka gives the list of the following sixteen Mahajanapadas in the time of Buddha:

Sixteen Mahajanapadas Capitals Important Facts
Anga Champa Magadha swallowed it up during Bimbisara’s rule.Its capital Champa is located at the confluence of Ganga and Champa.
Magadha Rajgriha Became a centre of Jainism and Buddhism. The second Buddhist council was organized here.
Kasi Kasi The capital city got its name from the rivers Varuna and Asi, as mentioned in Matsya Purana.Initially, it was powerful, but eventually, it had to submit to the power of Koshala.
Vatsa/Vamsa Kausambi Vatsa were a breakaway Kuru clan which shifted from Hastinapur and settled down at Kaushambi.Located on the banks of Yamuna.
Kosala Shravasti (Northern) Kushavati (Southern) Prasenjit was an important king. He was a contemporary of Buddha.
Shurasena Mathura Its capital was Mathura, situated on the banks of the Yamuna.
Panchala Achchhitara & Kamilaya Like Kuru, it no longer enjoyed the political importance that it had attained in the later Vedic period.Kannauj city was situated here.Later the nature of governance changed from a monarchy to a republic.
Kuru Indraprastha The story of Mahabharta is about Kurus.Here also nature of governance changed from a monarchy to a republican.
Matsya Viratnagar It was founded by Virata and situated around the present-day Jaipur, Alwar and Bharatpur areas of Rajasthan.
Chedi Sothivati Shishupala was king here, mentioned in the Mahabharata war.
Avanti Ujjaini Or Mahishmati It was an important place in terms of the development of Buddhism.
Gandhara Taxila An important centre of international trade.Persians captured it in the later part of the Mahajanapada period.
Kamboja Pooncha It was located on the Uttarapatha and was known for its excellent breed of horses.
Asmaka/ Assaka Pratisthan/ Paithan It was situated along the river Godavari on the Dakshinapath.It was the only Mahajanapada situated beyond the Vindhya range.
Vajji Vaishali It was a republic with many clans, e.g. Lichchavis (capital Vaishali), Videhans (capital Mithila), and Jnatrikas (Mahavira belonged to this clan), ruling in consonance.Ajatshatru of Magadha defeated them.
Malla Kushinara It was a republic.Gautam Buddha attained Mahaparinirvana in the capital city of Kushinara.

However, the Anguttara Nikaya fails to mention several important Janapadas still. For example, Kalinga grew into a powerful kingdom after the Magadha’s reign. Vanga later developed into Banga(Bengal). The Andhras later evolved into a powerful Satvahana dynasty.

Nevertheless, four of the sixteen Mahajanapadas grew into even stronger kingdoms.

Four Major Mahajanapadas

Out of the 16 mahajanapadas, four mahajanapadas, namely Magadh, Kosala, Avanti and Vatsa, fought amongst themselves for supremacy. Ultimately, Magadha emerged victorious and became the most powerful kingdom in northern India.


  • It was situated in the modern-day Malwa Plateau and had  Ujjaini as its northern capital and Mahishmati as its southern capital.
  • Avanti had a significant place in the development of Buddhism.
  • During the lifetime of Buddha, Chandra Pradyota riled Avanti.
  • It was finally annexed by Magadha in the 4th  century BC.


  • It was located in modern-day eastern Uttar Pradesh, particularly the Awadh region, and had its capital at Shravasti.
  • It included the tribal republican territory of the Shakyas of Kapilvastu, which is also associated with the birthplace of Gautam Buddha.
  • Ayodhya was an important city.


  • It was situated along the bank of Yamuna, with its capital at Kaushambi near Prayagraj.
  • The ruler Udayana made Buddhism a state religion.
  • It was later annexed to the Avanti kingdom.
  • It was a centre of trade and economic activities.


  • Magadha’s eventually emerged as the most powerful empire, which consolidated most of the Mahajanapadas
  • It first expanded under the leadership of Bimbisara of the Haryanka dynasty, who started a policy of conquest and aggression, which ended with the Kalinga war during the rule of  Ashoka.
  • By the end of this phase, Magadha controlled almost all of the Indian subcontinent.

Rise of the Magadha Empire

Factors that favoured the rise of Magadha:

  1. Ambitious rulers such as Bimbisara, Ajatsatru and Mahapadmananda expanded the kingdom by employing all means, fair and foul.
  2. The Geographical advantage in terms of the availability of the Iron deposits enabled the Magadhan princes to equip themselves with effective weapons. Besides this, the two capital of Magadh, the first at Rajgriha and the second at Patliputra, were strategically located and were virtually impregnable due to surrounding hills and rivers.
  3. Agricultural Productivity: Immensely fertile alluvial land due to its location at the Centre of the middle Gangetic plain and heavy rainfall significantly increased agricultural productivity and hence generated surplus, which could be mopped up by rulers in the form of taxes.
  4. Urbanization: The rise of towns and the use of metal money supported trade and commerce.
  5. Military: Magadha enjoyed a unique advantage in its military organization. They were the first to use elephants on such a large scale in the war against their neighbours. Moreover, they had a constant supply of war elephants from the forests of the Chhota Nagpur plateau.

Haryanka Dynasty (544 BCE-412 BCE)

Bimbisara (558 BCE-491 BCE)

  • He had his capital at Girivraja/Rajagriha (Rajgir). It was surrounded by five hills, the openings of which were closed by stone walls on all sides. This made Rajagriha impregnable.
  • [Married Kosaladevi and Lichchhavi Princess from Vaisali]
  • He was the first to have a standing army. He started the practice of marriage alliances to strengthen his position.

Ajatsatru (492 BCE – 460 BCE)

  1. He killed his own father and captured the throne.
  2. He embraced Buddhism and convened the First Buddhist Council at Rajagriha just after the death of Buddha in 483 BCE.

Udayabhadra/UDAYIN (460 BCE – 444 BCE)

  1. He was the son of Ajatsatru.
  2. He moved the capital to Pataliputra from Rajgriha.

 Sisunaga Dynasty (413 BCE -345 BCE)


  • A son of Lichchhavi ruler, and a viceroy of Varanasi when revolt in Magadha started under last Harayanka ruler.
  • Ended the 100-year rivalry between Magadh and Avanti by destroying Avanti.
  • Moved the capital to Vaishali from Rajgriha.


  • He was the son of Sisunaga and was also known as Kakavarna.
  • He shifted the capital to Pataliputra.
  • He was killed in a palace feud which brought the Nanda dynasty to the throne.
  • He is best known for organizing the second Buddhist council at Vaishali.

Nanda Dynasty (345 BCE-321 BCE)

It was the first non-Kshatriya dynasty. They were the most powerful kingdom of their time. Even Alexander, who invaded Punjab then, did not dare to move toward the east. There were reportedly nine Nanda rulers; however, only the first and last are deemed historically significant.


  • He became king after murdering Kalasoka.
  • He added Kalinga to Magadha and brought an image of Jina as a victory trophy.
  • He claimed to be an Ekarat, i.e. the sole sovereign who destroyed all other princes.


  • He was the last ruler of the Nanda dynasty. He became highly unpopular among his subjects due to his oppressive taxation.
  • Chandragupta Maurya overthrew Dhanananda with the support of Kautilya, who took advantage of the public resentment against Dhanananda. 


  • Metal Technology:  The use of iron is the distinguishing feature of this age. The smiths knew how to harden iron tools.
  • Agriculture:
    • With the introduction of Iron implements, rainfed forests could be cleared, and hard-soil areas could be turned using iron-tipped ploughshare, which allowed for large-scale cultivation and settlement.
  • Further, the immense fertility of the alluvial soil in the newly cleared areas in the Ganga plains contributed to the growth of agriculture.
  • Rice was the staple cereal produced in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Paddy transplantation, which means saplings were grown and then transplanted in the fields, enormously adding to the yield.
  • Metal Coins/Legal tenders: Coins made of metal appeared first in the 7th -6th century BCE. The earliest coins are predominantly silver coins though a few copper coins also appear. They are called Punch-marked coins because they were punched with several specific figures, one by one.
    • They were initially issued by the merchant Guilds and later by the States. They represented a trade currency, a “mark of surety” of future delivery of material. This shows the growth of intensive trade activity and urban development.
    • The state-issued coins are attributed to two different periods: the first is the Janapadas, and the second is the Mauryans.
    • These coins draw various natural motifs, like the sun, animal motifs, trees, hills etc., and some were geometrical symbols. However, they carry no script.
  • Taxation: The warrior and Priest class, i.e., the Kshatriyas and Brahmins, were exempted from paying taxes, and the burden fell on Vaishyas or Grihapatis. Bali, a voluntary payment during the Vedic age, became compulsory, and officers called Balisadhakas were appointed to collect it. Even artisans and traders were taxed.

Polity and Administration

  • The Republican Experiment: While most states were monarchies, we hear about a few GanaSanghas or republics as well. These were tribal oligarchies which elected the king, and he ruled with the assistance of a council. Shakyas and Lichchhavis were such republics.
  • The Decline of Popular assemblies: The territorial kings discarded Sabha and Samiti, and ‘popular assemblies’ lost their relevance.
  • The Emergence of a uniform Legal and Judicial System: In place of tribal laws, the Dharmasutras laid down the duties as well as civil and criminal laws according to the varna division. However, the customs and traditions of non-Vedic tribal groups were not completely ignored, which gradually got absorbed into the Brahmanical social order. As the name suggests, these were written in aphoristic (sutra) style.
  • Retributive Justice: Rough and harsh punishments were given. In many cases, criminal offences were governed by the idea of revenge.
  • Rise of cities: Each Mahajanapada had a capital which used to be fortified.
  • Army: Unlike the Vedic age, now the king had a standing army.

Society and Religion

  • The Varna Division: The society was divided into four Varnas. The stature of the Brahmans saw a huge rise due to the introduction of more elaborate rituals in the later Vedic texts.
  • Challenge to Brahmanas: There is a sense of competition between Brahmans and Kshatriyas for prominence. For example, both Buddha and Mahavira belonged to the Kshatriya clan but ventured into religion, which was the sole authority of the Brahmanas.
  • Religion: This period is also known as the age of Buddha. We see the emergence of two important religious sects, Buddhism and Jainism, during this period. They caused several changes in the social and economic life of the people and tried to mitigate the evils that originated from the Brahmanical social order. It opened the doors for women and Shudras.
  • Position of Shudras: The varna division of society took a heavy toll on Shudras, who had been relegated to the lowest status in society. They were deprived of religious and legal rights. Even the rise of Buddhism and Jainism did not materially change their position, and their general position continued to be low.

Material Life

  • NBPW Phase(700-200BCE): Archaeologically, the 7th century BC marks the beginning of the Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) phase. It is representative pottery of the Mahajanapada era in North India. NBPW was a very glossy shining type of pottery and could have served as the tableware of wealthier people.
  • Urbanization: The NBPW phase marked the beginning of the second urbanization in India.
  • However, the structures excavated till now are far less impressive than the Harappan cities. However, they indicate a significant increase in population when compared with Painted Grey Ware (PGW) settlements.
  • Each town played an important role as a marketplace and came to be inhabited by artisans and merchants who organized themselves into guilds(shrenis) under their respective chiefs. These guilds later developed into Jatis in the post-Mauryan period.
    • Many cities like Mathura were bustling centres of commercial, cultural and political activity.
  • The Art of Writing: After the end of Harappan culture, we find written markings only in this period. The Writing led to the compilation of laws and bookkeeping, which was essential to trade, tax collection and maintenance of a large professional army.
  • Mathematics and Science:
    • Shulba Sutras or Śulbasūtras: This period also produced texts dealing with sophisticated measurement (Sulvasutras). However, the earliest records have perished since they were not written on stone or metal. It contains descriptions related to the geometry of the fire-altar construction. There are four types of Shulba Sutras, which are mathematically the most significant. These are attributed to Baudhayana, Manava, Apastamba and Katyayana.
    • Baudhayana (c. 8th century BCE) composed the Baudhayana Sulba Sutra, the best-known Sulba Sutra, which contains examples of simple Pythagorean triples, such as (3, 4, 5), (5,12,13). Baudhayana also established a way to compute the square root of two, which is the length of a diagonal of a unit square.
  • Transport and Communication: Nearly all towns were along communication routes.
  • Pataliputra was located on the riverine route
  • Ujjaini was located along land routes.
  • Many cities like Mathura were bustling centres of commercial, cultural and political activity.

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