This article deals with ‘Mahajanapadas’ . This is part of our series on ‘Ancient History’ which is important pillar of GS-1 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here.


  • During this period , people began to settle on lands and started to call certain areas to be their own  . Hence, Janapadas emerged .
  • Kings, Monks and monarchs emerged on the stage of history.
  • This was the age of intense philosophical speculation . Buddhism, Jainism and many other heterodox sects emerged  as well.

Sources of Information

1 . Literary Sources 

Literary sources include

  1. Brahmanas : Brahmanas (eg Shatapatha Brahmana) are the category of Vedic texts which deals with the methods of performing Vedic rituals. 
  2. Puranas :Puranas provide useful dynastic history .
  3. Upanishads : Upanishads deal with the philosophical problems of the period and were composed 800 BCE onwards.
  4. Buddhist Texts : Sutta Pitaka and Vinaya Pitaka were composed during this period and they  give us graphic descriptions of the contemporary society.
  5. Ashtadhayayi : It is the book on Sanskrit grammar written by Panini in 5th-4th century BCE. Panini mapped out the grammatical rules as it existed in his time .  His book became landmark in history of Sanskrit from Vedic Sanskrit to Classical Sanskrit . Ashtadhayayi is work of grammar but in order to illustrate the rules of grammar , Panini referred incidentally to many aspects of his time – places, people, customs, institutions, coins, weights & measures .

2. Archaeological sources

  • Iron objects such as hoes, sickles, knives, hooks, nails, arrowheads, vessels and mirrors confirm the widespread use of iron technology.
  • Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) is the characteristic pottery of this period.
  • Textiles, beads,, ivory objects, ceramics and glassware and artefacts of other metals are found.
  • A large number of terracotta artefacts have also been found.
  • Sites belonging to this period include series of punch marked coins which marked use of money in subcontinent .

Developments in the Gangetic Plains

Development of Agriculture

  • Agriculture improved during this phase in the middle Gangetic plains creating the necessary surplus as
    1. Wet rice cultivation began to yield more produce of rice than other crops.
    2. Iron technology also played a crucial role.
  • Reasons for improvement of agriculture were 
Use of Iron Iron axes could be used to clear forests and iron plough shares could facilitate agricultural operations. Iron ploughshare increased the productivity of land .
Practice of wet rice cultivation This was especially useful in the Middle Gangetic Valley. Wet rice cultivation is substantially higher than those  of wheat or millet in traditional agriculture, leading to creation of large surplus .
Rise of Organised State State helped in establishment of new settlements by shifting surplus population from overpopulated areas, providing  cattle, seed, money and irrigational facilities and providing remission of taxes and other concessions to peasants in new establishments
Role of Buddhism Buddhism was against sacrifices . It insisted on the protection of cattle and preservation of cattle wealth for agricultural purposes was encouraged .
  • Leisure time provided by agricultural surplus and technology led to growth of crafts, which in turn aided vibrant trade.

Second Urbanisation

  • Agricultural surplus, the growth of crafts and trade, and the growing population led to the emergence of towns in the Gangetic plains. This is called the second urbanisation in Indian history after the first urbanisation evident  in the Harappan Civilization.


  • The Later Vedic period (1000–600 BCE) witnessed the transition from a tribal polity based on lineage to a territorial state.  The loyalty of the people shifted from  Jana (tribe or clan) to Janapada (territory). The Janapadas fought with one another for resources and political dominance. Some Janapadas extended their territories and brought various Janas within their jurisdiction. Such Janapadas grew into Mahajanapadas .
  • In Mahajanapadas,
    1. The king headed the government aided by a centralised administration.
    2. The king was also the sovereign ruler.
    3. The king levied taxes out of agricultural surplus and redistributed it and ensured maintenance of law and order in a hierarchical society by force and coercion.

16 Mahajanapadas

  • According to Puranic, Buddhist and Jaina traditions, there were 16 Mahajanapadas. These were
    1. Gandhara
    2. Kamboja
    3. Assaka
    4. Vatsa
    5. Avanti
    6. Shurasena
    7. Chedi
    8. Malla
    9. Kuru
    10. Panchala
    11. Matsya
    12. Vajji (Vrijji)
    13. Anga
    14. Kasi
    15. Kosala
    16. Magadha
  • The Mahajanapadas are further classified as Gana-Sanghas and Monarchies based on the nature of their polity.


  • Gana-Sanghas were oligarchies, which were centred on clans.
  • These kingdoms did not come under the single decision-making authority of a king but decisions were taken on a collective basis by the heads of the different clans together.
  • Powerful monarchies have large standing armies but such organisation may be absent in Gana-Sanghas . Their  military defeats from monarchical states was because of  inability  of military system to meet challenge of empire building.
  • Varna organisation did not determine social status . Two broad categories were those who owned land and those who laboured on it. Brahmans might not have enjoyed same prestige as there was hardly any reference of gift to Brahmana .
  • Two Mahajanapadas –  Vajji & Malla were Gana-Sanghas.

Side Topic : Were Gana-Sanghas Republic?

  • Translation of this as Republic is misleading . These were oligarchies where power was vested in heads of leading Kshatriya families with no single hereditary monarch  .
  • Early studies on ganas by nationalist historians tended to glorify them by exaggerating their democratic features . Comparisons were made with republics of Greece & Rome & modern political institutions . Lot was to disprove the assertion of western scholars that Indians had never known anything other than despotic rule .
  • Their governance was marked by Corporate element . Arthashastra (a later text although) outlines special strategies that ‘to be conqueror’ could use to vanquish ganas (advise focussed on creating dissension among their ranks) .


  • Monarchical states had the king as head .
  • There was well developed taxation system with standing armies .
  • Vedic orthodoxy was an established practice in these kingdoms. The priestly class enjoyed a preeminent status in the Mahajanapadas .  The Brahman priests provided the legitimacy to the king through various rituals.
  • The kingship was hereditary and the succession was in most cases based on the law of primogeniture.
  • The king was assisted by councils called Parishad and Sabha. The councils were advisory in nature.
  • There was well developed taxation system in Monarchical states. The revenue thus raised was used to maintain elaborate administrative system and army.


Rural Economy

  • here was emergence of the  private property in land
  • Agriculture started to produce surplus which led to rise of urban centres.
  • State also encouraged expansion of agriculture .

Urban Economy

  • This period led to the start of 2nd Urbanism .
  • Formation of states gave impetus to Urban economy. Small aristocracy which extracted taxes started to demand luxurious items giving push to artistic activities and trade .
  • Age of barter trade was almost over. Punch marked coins  of copper & silver came to use  . 
Economy of Mahajanapadas


  • There was shift in geographical region to Upper & Middle Gangetic Plains .
  • This period led to the institutionalisation of inequality in the society and hardening of caste system  .
  • Practice of untouchability started . Dharmasutras equated them with crows & dogs. Contact even accidental was considered polluting .
  • Strict control over women’s sexuality was practiced as it was essential for the patrilineal transmission of property and for maintenance and perpetuation of  endogamous caste structure. 
  • Wandering Ascetics
    • Paribrajakas and Sramanas. These were people who had renounced families
    • They travelled from place to place and held discussions on  meaning of life, society and spirituality.
    • Among them were Buddha and Mahavira .  

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