Mahajanapadas is a Sanskrit word (महाजनपद, Mahājanapadas) which means "Great Kingdoms" (from Maha, "great", and Janapada "foothold of a tribe", "country"). Ancient Buddhist texts make frequent reference to sixteen great kingdoms and republics (Solas Mahajanapadas) which had evolved and flourished in the northern/north-western parts of the Indian sub-continent prior to the rise of Buddhism in India.
In ancient India people used to fight for cattle, sheep and green pastures. They formed into several Janas (tribes) of Aryans, fighting among themselves and with other non-Aryan tribes for livelihood.
Tribal identity was more significant than geographical location in defining the territory of a Janapada, and the sparsity of the population made specific boundary lines unimportant. Often rivers formed the boundaries of two neighboring kingdoms, as was the case between the northern and southern Panchala and between the western (Pandava's Kingdom) and eastern (Kaurava's Kingdom) Kuru. Sometimes, large forests, which were larger than the kingdoms themselves, formed boundaries, such as the Naimisha Forest between Panchala and Kosala kingdoms. Mountain ranges like Himalaya, Vindhya and Sahya also formed boundaries.
According to Buddhist texts, there were 16 Great Nations before the time of Buddha. Anguttara Nikaya the ancient Buddhist texts, lists the fallowing as 16 Great Nations (Solasa Mahajanapadas).
- 1. Kasi
- 2. Kosala
- 3. Anga
- 4. Magadha
- 5. Vajji (or Vriji) Malla
- 6. Chedi
- 7. Vatsa (or Vamsa)
- 8. Kuru
- 9. Panchala
- 10. Machcha (or Matsya)
- 11. Malla
- 12. Chedi
- 13. Vatsa (or Vamsa)
- 14. Kuru
- 15. Panchala
- 16. Machcha (or Matsya)
Another Buddhist texts written in Pali, Digha Nikaya ("Collection of Long Discourses"), mentions only first 12 Mahajanapadas in this list and omits the last four.
The Jaina Bhagvati Sutra gives a slightly different list of 16 Mahajanapadas: Anga, Banga (Vanga), Magadha, Malaya, Malavaka, Accha, Vaccha, Kochcha (Kachcha?), Padha, Ladha (Lata), Bajji (Vajji), Moli (Malla), Kasi, Kosala, Avaha and Sambhuttara.
This Kingdom was located between the rivers Varuna and Asi, which gave Varanasi its name. The Kingdom of Kasi emerged as the most powerful of all Sixteen Mahajanapadas with a capital city of Varanasi. Some texts reveal that there was a long struggle for supremacy between Kashi and the three kingdoms of Kosala, Anga and Magadha. During this struggle, king Brihadratha conquered Kosala. But later King Kansa incorporated Kashi into Kosala.
Kosala was located to the north-west of Magadha, with its capital at Savatthi. It had the river Ganges for its southern, the river Gandak (Narayani) for its eastern, and the Himalaya mountain for its northern boundary. Kosala hold an important place in the Hindu scriptures, Itihas, and Purana. According to some texts, Koshala was the most powerful and biggest kingdom ever in the history. It was ruled by the famous king Prasenajit during the era of Mahavira and Buddha. Later king Vidudabha merged Kosala into Magadha.
The Anga Kingdom was first mentioned in Athravana-Veda along with the Magadhas, Gandharis and Mujavats. Anga was famous for its trade and commerce. Mechants used to sail to Suvarnabhumi regularly. In the final days Anga made as an integral part of Magadha Empire.
The Magadha was one of the most prominent and prosperous kingdom of mahajanapadas. The capital city Pataliputra (Patna, Bihar) was situated on the confluence of major rivers like the Ganga, Son, Punpun and Gandak. Its earliest capital was Girivraja or Rajagaha (modern Rajgir in the Nalanda district of Bihar). The other names for the city were Magadhapura, Brihadrathapura, Vasumati, Kushagrapura and Bimbisarapuri. Later on, Pataliputra became the capital of Magadha.
Vajji or Vriji
Vrijji was a confederacy of neighbouring clans including the Licchavis and one of the principal mahajanapadas of Ancient India. The capital city of Vriji was Vaishali. Most of the area in Mithila region in northern Bihar includes Vriji.
Buddhist and Jain texts often mention Mallas. Mallas were powerful people residing in Northern South Asia. According to Mahabharata, Panduputra Bhimasena is said to have conquered the chief of the Mallas/Malls in the course of his expedition in Eastern India.
Chedi or Cheti
Rigveda mentions about Chedis. They were an ancient people with extraordinary skills. The Chedis, Chetis or Chetyas had two distinct settlements of which one was in the mountains of Nepal and the other in Bundelkhand near Kausambi. According to old authorities, Chedis lay near Yamuna midway between the kingdom of Kurus and Vatsas. In the mediaeval period, the southern frontiers of Chedi extended to the banks of the river Narmada. Sotthivatnagara, the Sukti or Suktimati of Mahabharata, was the capital of Chedi.
Vamsa or Vatsa
The Vatsas are stated to be an offshoot of the Kurus. Their kingdom constitutes modern Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. It had a monarchical form of government with its capital at Kausambi. The prominent ruler of Vamsa was Udayana. Initially he opposed Buddhism but later on he became a follower of Buddha and encouraged Buddhism in his kingdom.
The Puranas trace the origin of Kurus from the Puru-Bharata family. Kuru was born after 25 generations of Puru's dynasty, and after 15 generations of Kuru, Kauravas and Pandavas were born. Aitareya Brahmana locates the Kurus in Madhyadesha and also refers to the Uttarakurus as living beyond the Himalayas. The country of the Kurus roughly corresponded to the modern Thanesar, state of Delhi, and Meerut district of Uttar Pradesh.
The Panchalas occupied the country to the east of the Kurus between the upper Himalayas and the river Ganga. Panchala roughly corresponded to modern Budaun, Farrukhabad and the adjoining districts of Uttar Pradesh. The country was divided into Uttara-Panchala and Dakshina-Panchala. The northern Panchala had its capital at Adhichhatra or Chhatravati (modern Ramnagar in the Bareilly District), while southern Panchala had it capital at Kampilya or Kampil in Farrukhabad District. The famous city of Kanyakubja or Kanauj was situated in the kingdom of Panchala. Originally a monarchical clan, the Panchals appear to have switched to republican corporation in the sixth and fifth century B.C.E. Fourth century B.C.E. Kautiliya's Arthashastra (4th century B.C.E.) attests to the Panchalas following the Rajashabdopajivin (king consul) constitution.
Machcha or Matsya
The country of the Matsya or Machcha tribe lay to the south of the Kurus and west of the Yamuna, which separated them from the Panchalas. It roughly corresponded to the former state of Jaipur in Rajasthan, and included the whole of Alwar with portions of Bharatpur. The capital of Matsya was at Viratanagara (modern Bairat) which is said to have been named after its founder king Virata. King Sujata ruled over both the Chedis and Matsyas, thus showing that Matsya once formed a part of the Chedi kingdom.
The country of the Surasenas lay to the east of Matsya and west of Yamuna. This corresponds roughly to the Brij region of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan and Gwalior region of Madhya Pradesh. It had its capital at Madhura or Mathura. Avantiputra, the king of Surasena, was the first among the chief disciples of Buddha, through whose help Buddhism gained ground in Mathura country. The Surasena kingdom had lost its independence on annexation by the Magadhan Empire.
Assaka or Ashmaka
Assaka (or Ashmaka) was located on the Dakshinapatha or southern high road, outside the pale of Madhyadesa. In Buddha's time, Assaka was located on the banks of the Godavari river and was the only mahajanapada south of Vindhya mountains. The capital of Assaka was Potana or Potali which corresponds to Paudanya of Mahabharata, and now lies in the Nandura Tehsil. The Ashmakas are also mentioned by Panini and placed in the north-west in the Markendeya Purana and the Brhat Samhita. The River Godavari separated the country of Assakas from that of the Mulakas (or Alakas). The commentator of Kautiliya's Arthashastra identifies Ashmaka with Maharashtra. At one time, Assaka included Mulaka and their country abutted with Avanti.
The country of the Avantis was an important kingdom of western India and was one of the four great monarchies in India in the post era of Mahavira and Buddha, the other three being Kosala, Vatsa and Magadha. Avanti was divided into north and south by the river Narmada. Initially, Mahishamati (Mahissati) was the capital of Southern Avanti, and Ujjaini was of northern Avanti, but at the times of Mahavira and Buddha, Ujjaini was the capital of integrated Avanti.
The wool of the Gandharis is referred to in the Rigveda. The Gandharas and their king figure prominently as strong allies of the Kurus against the Pandavas in the Mahabharata war. The Gandharas were furious people, well-trained in the art of war. According to Puranic traditions, this Janapada was founded by Gandhara, son of Aruddha, a descendant of Yayati. The princes of this country are said to have come from the line of Druhyu who was a famous king of the Rigvedic period. The river Indus watered the lands of Gandhara. Taksashila and Pushkalavati, the two cities of this Mahajanapada, are said to have been named after Taksa and Pushkara, the two sons of Bharata, a prince of Ayodhya.
Kambojas are also included in the Uttarapatha. In ancient literature, the Kamboja is variously associated with the Gandhara, Darada and the Bahlika. Ancient Kamboja is known to have comprised regions on either side of the Hindukush. The original Kamboja was located in eastern Oxus country as neighbor to Bahlika, but with time, some clans of the Kambojas appear to have crossed the Hindukush and planted colonies on its southern side also. These latter Kambojas are associated with the Daradas and Gandharas in Indian literature and also find mention in the Edicts of Ashoka. The evidence in the Mahabharata and in Ptolemy's Geography distinctly supports two Kamboja settlements. The cis-Hindukush region from Nurestan up to Rajauri in southwest of Kashmir sharing borders with the Daradas and the Gandharas constituted the Kamboja country. The capital of Kamboja was probably Rajapura in the south-west of Kashmir. The Kamboja Mahajanapada of the Buddhist traditions refers to this cis-Hindukush branch of ancient Kambojas.