The period from the fall of the kingdom of Videha early in the sixth century B.C. till the rise of the kingdom of Magadha in the middle of the same century is known as the Age of sixteen Mahajanapadas.
Reference to the Age of sixteen Mahajanapadas is to be found in the Buddhist Angauttara Nikaya. Reference is also to be found in the Jaina Bhagabati Sutra but the lists of Mahajanapadas in the Buddhist and the Jaina sources differ in respect of certain names.
But both the lists contain the names of the comparatively large kingdoms. Dr. Roychaudhuri is, however, of opinion that of the two books Buddhist Angauttara Nikaya and Jaina Bhagabati Sutra, the former was written at a time nearer to the Age of Sixteen Mahajanapadas than the latter.
He, therefore, thinks that the list of the sixteen Mahajanapadas given by the Buddhist Angauttara Nikaya is more reliable.
The names given by the Buddhist source are:
- Vriji or Vajji
- Malla or Malava
- Vamsa or Vatsya
In the Age of the sixteen Mahajanapadas the kingdom of Kasi was first to rise into prominence. Its capital was Baranasi which was more prosperous than the capitals of other kingdoms. Dr. H. C. Roychaudhuri is of opinion that the kingdom of Kasi reduced the kingdom of Videha and not only that the kings of Kasi dreamed of conquering whole of Jambudwipa, that is, India. The Buddhist and Jaina texts also testify to the power and greatness of the kingdom of Kasi. Kings of Kasi attacked the kingdom of Kosala more than once.
King Manoj of Kasi is said to have conquered Kosala, Anga and Magadha. The Jatakas testify to this achievement of King Manoj. The power and prosperity of Kasi particularly its capital Baranasi roused the jealousy of the neighbouring kingdoms. Once as many as seven of the neighbouring kingdoms jointly besieged the kingdom of Kasi. The power, prestige and predominance of the kingdom of Kasi did not last long.
The kingdom of Kosala comprised Keshputra and Kapilavastu regions and was surrounded by the rivers Gomati, Sarpika and Sadanira and the Nepal hills. In the middle of the sixth century B.C. the small kingdom of Kapilavastu was compelled to accept the suzerainty of Kosala. Ajodhya, Saketa, Sravasti, etc. were very prosperous cities of the kingdom of Kosala and showed how great was the kingdom of Kosala. The kings of Kosala belonged to the Ikshaku dynasty. Sravasti was the capital of Kosala.
The kingdom of Anga was situated in the west of the Rajmahal mountain range and east of Magadha. This kingdom acquired great power and prestige for a time and conquered a number of neighbouring countries. This is borne out by the Aiteriya Brahman. The capital of Anga was Champa which was on the confluence of the rivers, the’ Ganges and the Champa (modern Chandan).
Anga was one of the six great kingdoms of India till the demise of Gautama Buddha. The capital of Anga—Champa, was particularly noted for the great volume of trade and commerce it had with other countries as also for its great prosperity. Many a businessman would sail to the Suvarnabhumi for commercial purposes from Champa. It was after the name of Champa, the capital ok Anga, that the Hindu colony of Annam in Indo-China was named Champa.
The kingdom of Magadha in the Age of sixteen Mahajanapadas comprised the modern districts of Patna and Gaya in Bihar. Magadha was encircled by the rivers, the son and the Ganges. Giri- braja was the original capital of Magadha. Later, however, its new capital was set up at Pataliputra. Of the different dynasties that ruled over Magaddha the Sishunaga dynasty was the most noteworthy. At the time of Gautama Buddha Bimbisara was the King of Magadha He belonged to Haryanka dynasty.
(5) Vriji or Vajji:
The kingdom of Vriji or Vajji extended from the north of the Ganges to the Nepal Hills., It was a federation of eight tribal principalities. Among these tribal principalities, Videha, Licchavi, Yatrika and Vriji or Vajji were particularly important. The capital of Vriji was Vaisali.
(6) Malava or Malla:
The kingdom of Malla or Malava was divided into two parts, each having its own capital. Pava was the capital of one and Kushinara was that of the other. It was at Kushinara that Gautama Buddha breathed his last. Wilson, Cunningham and other archaeologists are of opinion that the modern village called Kasai was the site of Kushinara or Kushinagara. Pava was situated ten miles away from Kushinagara towards the east. Malla or Malava was originally a kingship but later it adopted a republican form of government. When Alexander invaded India Malava or Malla was a republic.
Chedi kingdom was near the Jumna. Its capital was Shuktimati. Reference to the inhabitants of Chedi is to be found in the Rig-Veda. The kingdom of Chedi was on close friendly terms with the kingdoms of Kasi and Matsya. There was a highway connecting Chedi with Benaras. But the journey along this road was very unsafe in those days.
(8) Vamsa or Vatsya:
The kingdom of Vamsa or Vatsya was on the south of the Ganges and its capital was Kausambi. Many historians are of opinion that the kings of Vamsa or Vatsya belonged to the royal dynasty of Kasi But in Swapna Vasabadatta, a work of Bhasa, King Udayan of Kausambi is described as a scion of the royal dynasty called Bharatakul. Udayana, Gautama Buddha, Pradyot, King of Avanti and Bimbisara and Ajatasatru of Magadha were contemporaries.
The kings of Kuru according to Pali texts belonged to Yudhisthira Gotra. The capital of the kingdom was Indrapath or Indraprashtha. It was a vast city extending over seven Yojana. According to Pali texts the scions of Yudhisthira ruled over Kuru in the sixth century, B.C. In the Buddhist Jataka reference is there of Dhananjay Kauravya, Suttasoma etc. as the kings of Kuru. In any case, the real identity of the royal dynasty of Kuru cannot be ascertained properly.
The kingdom of Panchala comprised parts of the Central Indian Duab and Rohilkhand. The northern bank of the river Bhagirath was called Uttar Panchal or North Panchal and the southern bank was known as Dakshin Panchal or South Panchal. The king of Kuru attempted to occupy North Panchal and this led to a war between the kingdoms of Panchal and Kuru. The capital of North Panchal was Ahichhatra and that of South Panchal was Kampilya.
The ancient kingdom of Matsya comprised the area in the middle of the forests on the banks of the rivers Chambal and Saraswati, covered by modern Jaipur. For a time, Matsya was conquered by the king of Chedi after which again, it became a part of the Magadhan Empire. Asokan inscriptions have been discovered in the middle of the Matsya kingdom. ‘The capital of Matsya was Viratnagara.
The kingdom of Surasena was situated on the bank of the river Jumna and its capital was Mathura. The kingdom of Sourasenoi referred to by the Greeks has been identified with the kingdom of Suraseana. The Jadu or the Jadavas used to rule over this kingdom.
On the bank of the river Godavari has situated the kingdom of Asmaka with its capital at Potali, Potan or Podan. In the Vayu Purana, the kings of Asmaka were mentioned as have been scions of the Ikshaku clan. In the Asmaka Jataka there is mention of the supremacy of the kingdom of Kashi on the Asmaka kingdom for a time.
The kingdom of Avanti included Ujjain and a part of the Narmada valley. The kingdom was divided into two parts by the Vindhyas, each of which had a capital of its own. The upper part, that is, the northern part had its capital at Ujjain or Ujjaini and its most important river was Sipra. The capital of the southern part was Mahiswati or Mahisamati and its main river was Narmada. In the Puranas the kings of Avanti are referred to as belonging to the Jadu dynasty.
The Kashmir valley and Taxila formed the kingdom of Gandhara. In the middle of the sixth century B.C. Pukkasati was the king of the Gandhara kingdom. He sent an emissary to the court of Bimbisara, king of Magadh. He had defeated Pradyut, king of Avanti but towards the end of the sixth century B.C. his kingdom was occupied by the Emperor, of Persia. Reference to the conquest of Gandhara by the Persian Emperor Darius is to be found in the Behestan inscription. The capital of Gandhara was Taxila, modern Rawalpindi.
In north-west India, not far from the kingdom of Gandhara was situated the kingdom of Kamboj. Its capital was Rajpur. In the post-Vedic period, Kamboj grew into a very important center of the study of Brahmanical religion. There were friendly relations between the kingdom of Kamboj and Gandhra. Several centuries afterwards, the Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang referred to the cordial relations between these two kingdoms.
It may be mentioned here that the manners and customs of Kamboj as were far different from the Aryans of other parts of India. There was a remarkable political development in the kingdom of Kamboj. Originally it was a kingship but later on the administration of the country was carried on by a corporate body comprising the peasants, businessmen, soldiers etc.
Apart from the Mahajanapadas mentioned above which were ruled over by kings, there were also tribal states ruled by tribal Chiefs in full independence. Reference to the Sakyas of Kapilavastu may be made in this connection. The Moriyas or the Mauryas of Pippalivana, the Kolias of Ramgram were also independent tribal Chiefs.
Reference to the Vaggas, a similarly independent tribe, is to be found in Aiteriya Brahman, Mahabharata and Harivamsa. These tribes were originally under kingship but later on they passed under Aristocracy or a Republican form of government. Megasthenes also referred to this change in the political system of the above tribes.
The reason for the decay of kingship and rise of Aristocratic or Oligarchic and republican forms of government was almost similar to that which had led to the decay of monarchical form of government in ancient Greece or Rome. The lack of capable successors of kings led to lack of efficiency in rule but repression of the subjects remaining unchanged led to the downfall of kingship.
Having lived under kingship for long years, the people did not lose initiative nor did they lose the power of self-assertion. This was certainly due to political liberty enjoyed by the people under kingship. Political liberty helped the growth of mental and moral liberty which was exemplified in the rise of Mahavira and Buddha from autonomous tribal states.
The Age of the Sixteen Mahajanapadas was not very long. In the fifth century B.C. the Mahajanapadas were deeply engrossed in mutual warfare and in the process the smaller ones were occupied by the larger ones, eventually giving to a vast empire.
Of the sixteen kingdoms that of Kasi was first to fall. Kasi and Kosala were mutually at war for long and at the initial stage although Kasi fared well but ultimately Kosala became victorious. After Kosala, Magadha rose into prominence. King Bimbisara of Magadha was a contemporary of the king Mahakosala of Kosala. It was Magadha which embarked on a career of imperial conquests and ultimately grew into a vast empire.