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Salient Features of Mahajanapadas

  • Last Updated : 23 Dec, 2021

After the decline of the Harappan or Indus valley civilization, during the 6th BC and 4th BC centuries Mahajanapadas existed in the time of the second civilization. This urban plan emerged not only in the Indus plain but also in the Eastern UP and Bihar. This region was fertile because of better rainfall and river systems. This facilitated people to make weapons and tools, which were used to cut down the forest to make the land suitable for habitation. These permanent settlements led to the foundation of the Janapadas or territorial states under the control of the kings. The use of better weapons iron tools and weapons enabled some territorial states to become very large, and they came to be called Mahajanapadas.

Most of the Mahajanapadas were situated north of Vindhya’s between Bihar in the east to the northwest frontier of the subcontinent. From 600BCE, the political history of India is the history of interstate’s struggle for supremacy. According to the Buddhist text Anguttara Nikaya, in North India, the land between the Himalayas and Narmada was divided into 16 independent states known as the Mahajanapadas. 

The 16 states were Malla, Chedi, Vatsa, Kuru, Panchala, Magadha, Kasi, Kosala, Vajji, Matsya, Surasena, Assaka, Avanti, Gandhara, and Kamboj. Among them, Avanti, Vatsa, Kosala, and Magadha were very powerful. 

Features of the Mahajanapadas:

1. Location:

Magadha was located in an advantageous position. Both its capital, Rajagriha, and Patliputra, were strategically located. As Girivraja and Rajagriha were surrounded by five hills, it provided natural fortification and was almost impregnable. Patliputra was more like a fort of water since it was situated between the rivers Ganga and Son. Some of the Mahajanapadas are presently located at some important places like Anga (East Bihar), Magadha (South Bihar), Kashi (Varanasi), Kosala (Ayodhya), Vaji (North Bihar), Malla (Gorakhpur), Chedi (Bundelkhand), Vatsa (Allahabad). Mostly the Mahajanapadas were located in northern India and only Asmak (Godavari valley) was situated in the Deccan.

2. Capital City: 

It was seen that each mahajanapadas had a fortified city, which made it different was its history. All 16 states had their capital. The capital was fortified using bricks and mortar to protect it from invasion by other kings. It was seen that the majority of the towns had the monarchy system but there were also two states, Vrijji and Malla where republican forms of government were seen.

3. Agricultural Surplus:

The use of Iron ploughshare facilitated them to increase their agricultural production. As Magadha lay at the central part of the Gangetic plains, which was rich in fertile alluvium. This region was more productive and enhanced the income of the people and further generated growth for the economy.

4. Huge standing army: 

The high income of the state facilitated a vast standing army. The forests in southern areas provided timber and elephants, which gave a military advantage to Mahajanapadas to use horses and chariots in warfare. It was seen that Magadha used elephants on a large scale against its neighbours. The elephants could be used in storming fortresses and marching over areas lacking road and other means of communication.

5. Powerful rulers:

Among the 16 Mahajanapadas, four emerged as the most powerful state. This state was governed by rulers like Bimbisara, Ajatashatru of the Haryanka Dynasty, and Mahapadma Nanda of the Nanda Dynasty. There are also the names of kings like Prasenjit (of Kosala state), Udayana (of Vatsa state), in the history of Mahajanapadas. They employed all fair and foul means at their disposal to enlarge their kingdoms. The king enjoyed the highest official status and ruled with the help of officials. At the end, Magadha emerged as the powerful mahajanapad having a hold over the northern India. 

6. Economic Activity:

Before the 6th century, the economic activity was Scarce, but with the rise of Mahajanapadas, the trade, towns and circulation of metal money increased. The tolls levied too added to the treasury of Magadhan kings, which again helped them maintain the vast army. The internal trade routes joined the eternal trade routes, and there was evidence of flourishing trade of the subcontinent along with both the eastern (Bengal with Myanmar) and the western region (Taxila with Afghanistan, Iran, and Mesopotamia). Trade was facilitated by the use of money termed Nishka and stamina. Bali, a voluntary payment made by the tribesmen to their chiefs in the Vedic times, became a compulsory payment, and special agents called Balisadhakas were appointed to collect it.

7. Second Urban civilization:

After the Harappan civilization, the rise of 16 Mahajanapadas was said to be the second urban civilization with all facilities. It was the beginning of the NBPW (Northern Black Polished Ware Culture) phase. Along with metal money, burnt bricks and ring wells also appeared in the NBPW phase’s middle. All kinds of urban facilities were present in the Mahajanapadas. This phase plays a vital role in history as there was a shift in the social, political, and economic structure of the society.

8. Growth of village settlements:

During this phase, there was a significant expansion in the number and size of village settlements, towns and corresponding population growth in the Ganga valley. The village lands were divided into cultivable plots and divided into families, though the landholdings varied. The family cultivated the plots on their own and with hired agricultural labourers. There was also an irrigation system dug collectively under the supervision of the village headman.

9. Legal and Social system:

This period marks the origin of the Indian legal and judiciary systems. Earlier, people were governed by tribal law, which did not recognize any class distinction. However, with the emergence of the caste system, the legal system was biased towards the higher varna.

The society was divided into four varnas, and the functions of each varna were laid down. In the Rig Vedic age, we see a tribal society but in the phase of Mahajanapadas, the society was more of a political nature.

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