In the beginning of the 6th century B.C., the northern India consisted of a large number of independent kingdoms. Some of them had monarchical forms of government, while some others were republics. While there was a concentration of monarchies on the Gangetic plain, the republics were scattered in the foothills of the Himalayas and in northwestern India. Some of the republics consisted of only one tribe like the Sakyas, Licchavis and Mallas. In the republics, the power of decision in all matters of state vested with the Public Assembly which was composed of the tribal representatives or heads of families. All decisions were by a majority vote.
The Buddhist literature Anguttara Nikaya gives a list of sixteen great kingdoms called ‘Sixteen Mahajanapadas’. They were Anga, Magadha, Kasi, Kosala, Vajji, Malla, Chedi, Vatsa, Kuru, Panchala, Matsya, Surasena, Asmaka, Avanti, Gandhara and Kambhoja. The Jain texts also contain references to the existence of sixteen kingdoms. In course of time, the small and weak kingdoms either submitted to the stronger rulers or gradually got eliminated. Finally in the mid 6th century B.C., only four kingdoms – Vatsa, Avanti, Kosala and Magadha survived.
The Vatsa kingdom was situated on the banks of the river Yamuna. Its capital was Kausambi near modern Allahabad. Its most popular ruler was Udayana. He strengthened his position by entering into matrimonial alliances with Avanti, Anga and Magadha. After his death, Vatsa was annexed to the Avanti kingdom.
The capital of Avanti was Ujjain. The most important ruler of this kingdom was Pradyota. He became powerful by marrying Vasavadatta, the daughter of Udayana. He patronized Buddhism. The successors of Pradyota were weak and later this kingdom was taken over by the rulers of Magadha.
Ayodhya was the capital of Kosala. King Prasenajit was its famous ruler. He was highly educated. His position was further strengthened by the matrimonial alliance with Magadha. His sister was married to Bimbisara and Kasi was given to her as dowry. Subsequently there was a dispute with Ajatasatru. After the end of the conflict, Prasenajit married the daughter of Bimbisara. After the death of this powerful king, Kosala became part of the Magadha.
Of all the kingdoms of north India, Magadha emerged powerful and prosperous. It became the nerve centre of political activity in north India. Magadha was endowed by nature with certain geographical and strategic advantages. These made her to rise to imperial greatness. Her strategic position between the upper and lower part of the Gangetic valley was a great advantage. It had a fertile soil. The iron ores in the hills near Rajgir and copper and iron deposits near Gaya added to its natural assets. Her location at the centre of the highways of trade of those days contributed to her wealth. Rajagriha was the capital of Magadha. During the reign of
Bimbisara and Ajatasatru, the prosperity of Magadha reached its zenith.
Bimbisara (546 – 494 B.C.)
Bimbisara belonged to the Haryanka dynasty. He consolidated his position by matrimonial alliances. His first matrimonial alliance was with the ruling family of Kosala. He married Kosaladevi, sister of Prasenajit. He was given the Kasi region as dowry which yielded large revenue. Bimbisara married Chellana, a princess of the Licchavi family of Vaisali. This matrimonial alliance secured for him the safety of the northern frontier. Moreover, it facilitated the expansion of Magadha northwards to the borders of Nepal. He also married Khema of the royal house of Madra in central Punjab. Bimbisara also undertook many expeditions and added more territories to his empire. He defeated Brahmadatta of Anga and annexed that kingdom. He maintained friendly relations with Avanti. He had also efficiently reorganized the administration of his kingdom. Bimbisara was a contemporary of both Vardhamana Mahavira and Gautama Buddha. However, both religions claim him as their supporter and devotee. He seems to have made numerous gifts to the Buddhist Sangha.
Ajatasatru (494 – 462 B.C.)
The reign of Ajatasatru was remarkable for his military conquests. He fought against Kosala and Vaisali. His won a great success against a formidable confederacy led by the Lichchavis of Vaisali. This had increased his power and prestige. This war lasted for about sixteen years. It was at this time that Ajatasatru realised the strategic importance of the small village, Pataligrama (future Pataliputra). He fortified it to serve as a convenient base of operations against Vaisali. Buddhists and Jains both claim that Ajatasatru was a follower of their religion. But it is generally believed that in the beginning he was a follower of Jainism and subsequently embraced Buddhism. He is said to have met Gautama Buddha. This scene is also depicted in the sculptures of Barhut. According to the Mahavamsa, he constructed several chaityas and viharas. He was also instrumental in convening the First Buddhist Council at Rajagriha soon after the death of the Buddha. The immediate successor of Ajatasatru was Udayin. He laid the foundation of the new capital at Pataliputra situated at the confluence of the two rivers, the Ganges and the Son. Later it became famous as the imperial capital of the Mauryas. Udayin’s successors were weak rulers and hence Magadha was captured by Saisunaga. Thus the Haryanka dynasty came to an end and the Saisunagadynasty came to power. Saisunaga dynasty The genealogy and chronology of the Saisunagas are not clear. Saisunaga defeated the king of Avanti which was made part of the Magadhan Empire. After Saisunaga, the mighty empire began to collapse. His successor was Kakavarman or Kalasoka. During his reign the second Buddhist Council was held at Vaisali. Kalasoka was killed by the founder of the Nanda dynasty.
The fame of Magadha scaled new heights under the Nanda dynasty. Their conquests went beyond the boundaries of the Gangetic basin and in North India they carved a well-knit and vast empire. Mahapadma Nanda was a powerful ruler of the Nanda dynasty. He uprooted the kshatriya dynasties in north India and assumed the title ekarat. The Puranas speak of the extensive conquests made by Mahapadma. The Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavela of Kalinga refers to the conquest of Kalinga by the Nandas. Many historians believe that a considerable portion of the Deccan was also under the control of the Nandas. Therefore, Mahapadma Nanda may be regarded as a great empire builder. According to the Buddhist tradition, Mahapadma Nanda ruled about ten years. He was succeeded by his eight sons, who ruled successively. The last Nanda ruler was Dhana Nanda. He kept the Magadhan empire intact and possessed a powerful army and enormous wealth. The fabulous wealth of the Nandas is also mentioned by several sources. The enormous wealth of the Nandas is also referred to in the Tamil Sangam work Ahananuru by the poet Mamulanar. The flourishing state of agriculture in the Nanda dominions and the general prosperity of the country must have brought to the royal treasury enormous revenue. The oppressive way of tax collection by Dhana Nanda was resented by the people.
Taking advantage of this, Chandragupta Maurya and Kautilyainitiated a popular movement against the Nanda rule. It was during this time that Alexander invaded India.
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Read About: Alexander’s Invasion of India
UPSC Exam related Question:
1. The rise of Magatha and the different dynasties ruled over it.
2. The achievements of Bimbisara, Mahapadma Nanda and other kings.
3. Persian invasions and their occupation of northwest India.
4. Effects of Persian invasion and occupation.
5. Causes and course of Alexander’s invasion of India.
6. Effects of Alexander’s invasion.