Mahajanapadas are mentioned in some Vedic and Buddhist texts and it is from here that we derive our understanding of the term Mahajanapada. As society developed so did the economy and this transformed simple tribes into complex villages called Janapadas and it is these Janapadas that evolved into Mahajanapadas. These were also units of settlements but were larger and had a more developed socio political scene.
Many of the Mahajanapadas came about after the smaller Janapadas had joined together. These were ruled by powerful kings, the basic unit of settlement was the grams or village. These villages specialized in various activities other than agriculture. This indicates that these was regular exchange of goods that is goods in view of grains, etc. Hence there was trade and prosperity. When trade became a major occupation the merchants became all important. Eventually these units evolved into important centers of trade and commerce.
In the Buddhist-texts and sources we find references to 16 Mahajanaparlas which existed during the lifetime of Buddha. These reflect the society of this period and give us a picture of the political and economic conditions of various regions in India. These Mahajanapadas expanded form NW Pakistan to East Bihar and from Himalayas in the North to river Godavari in the South. An extreme account of the history and geography is explained in the Mahavastu and Bhagvati Sutra.
Kashi : Kashi seems to have been the most powerful of the Mahajanapadas. It was situated in and around present day Varanasi. This area was very fertile agriculturally and was famous for its cotton textile, there is evidence to confirm this as we learn that the brown robes called Kashya worn by the Buddhist monks were manufactured here. Important literally and religious traditions are associated with Kashi.
Kosala: Kosala was situated between the river Gomti on the West upto the river Sadaina in the east-towards the North it ran along the hills of Nepal and in
the South the river Syandina defined it boundary. Since Kosala was an assimilation of many smaller provinces and lineages we see Kosala being ruled by many smaller chiefs from small towns. But by the end of 6th Prasenajita and Vidudhaba brought all the smaller chiefs under one rule and this made Kosala a prosperous Kingdom.
Anga: Anga was made up of Bhagalpur and Mongher Bihar. Its capital was Champa. Since it was situated on the confluence of rivers Champa and Ganga it excelled in trade and commerce via boats and this gave Champa the status of one of the six great cities of 6th century B.C.
Magadha: Magadha consisted of the areas around Ratna and Gaya in South Bihar. It had 2 major rivers Son and Ganga, and its capital was Girivraja or Rajagriha. This capital shows the earliest evidence of fortification. The society did not follow the Varna system and Brahmanical rituals. In Brahmanical texts this fact is criticized but the Buddhist attach importance to Magadha as this was the site where Buddha attained enlightenment. The land was fertile and apt to grow rice where as the rich deposits of iron ore gave a boost to trade on the rivers of Ganges, Gandak and Son, which brought in substantial revenues making it a rich kingdom.
Vajji: The Vajji’s were situated north of the Ganga around the Vaisali district of Bihar. They were different from other Mahajanapadas in the queues that they followed a republic kind of a political system where the king was all important. The Vaiji’s were made up of eight such ruling clans out where three were most well known :
- Videhas who had their capital in Mithila
- Liccharis whose capital was Vaisali,.
- Jnatrikas were located on the suburbs of Vaisali.
It was Vaisali among these which was the metropolis, here assemblies were held to decide political affairs. Mahavira the Jain teacher came from the Jnatrika clan of the Vajji’s, but we do not find reference to a standing army or a system of tax collection. It was king Ajatsatru who conquered this Mahajanapada.
Malla: The Mallas were from the Kshatriya lineage, they seem to have had several small units of which Two were their major headquarters. i.e. Pava and Kusinagara. The Mallas were located to the east and south-east of the Sakyas and it is in the area of Kusinagara that Buddha breathed his last.
Chedi: Chedi was located in the eastern parts of present day Bundelkhand. Its capital was Sotthivati located in the Banda district of M.P. There is literal evidence of the Chedi kings having close touch with chiefs of Matsya, Kasis and Karusas.
Vatsa: The Vatsas were located around present day, Allahabad with their capital at Kausambi. There are texts which elaborate the remature affairs and conquests of a Vatsa king called Udayana, but gradually Vatsa lost importance by failing to overpower its opponents Magadha.
Kum: Our information about the Kuru’s is based on the Arthshastra which refers to them as carrying titles of kings i.e. there was no absolute monarchy since there is mention of many political centers like Hastinapur. Isukam, the kings of Kurus belonged to the family of Yudhisthira. They were situated around the Delhi-Meerut region. The other source of information is the legendary epic of Mahabharata which is the story of the war of succession between the Pandavas and Kaurvas. It intermeans the themes of love, war, conspiracy, hatred, etc.
Panchala:There are references to two lineages of the Panchalas i.e. the northern Panchalas who had their capital at Ahicchatra located in the Bareilly district and the southern Panchalas had Kampilya as their capital. These two were divided by the Bhagirathi river. They were closely related to the Kurus, there is very limited information covering the Panchalas but by 6th century B.C. they had become an eliminating power.
Matsya: The Matsya’s were located in the Jaipur-Bharatpur-Alsvar region of Rajasthan. Their capital being at Viratnagara. This region was best opt for cattle rearing and hence had frequent wars over cattle. Matsya was perhaps a nomadic tribe which could not complete with the well settled agricultural societies who had major reserves. So eventually it got absorbed into the Maghadha empire.
Sursena: The Sursenas had their capital Mathura which was a transits point in the Indian trade route. Mathura made a connection between the agricultural plains of Ganga in the North and the sparsely populated pasture lands of the Malwa Plateau and for this very reason it gained lot of importance and is prominently featured in the Mahabharata and Puranas. But because of a small political set up it could not hold out to the bigger kingdoms.
Assaka: The Assakas were located on the banks of the river Godavari near modern Paithan in Maharashtra, this intact was their capital which was called Pratisthana. Though there is limited information regarding the Assakas but there are references to the major southern route Kaksinapatha connecting Pratisthana with northern cities.
Avanti: Avanti is described as one of the most powerful Mahajanapada in the 6th century B.C. it extended from Ujjain to river Narmada. It was large and strategically located on a trade route with very fertile soil. Its capital is referred to as Mahismati, but Avanti’s location made the kingdom prosperous and powerful.
Gandhara: Gandhara was located between Kabul and Rawalpindi in North-West province. Its capital was situated at Taxila where people went for education and trading. Gandhara had lot of importance in the Vedic period but in the Brahmanical and Buddhist phase this importance began to face away excavations show that ever in 1000 B.C. there are signs of a township.
Kamboja: Kamboja was located somewhere close to Gandhara, may be somewhere near modern day Punch area. According to the Brahmanical texts the Kambojas were considered uncultured in the 4th century B.C. The Arthshastra refers to them as agriculturists, herdsmen, traders and warriors