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Vedic King Yudhisthira performs the Rajasuya Sacrifice.

The Janapadas: Tribal Footholds in Bronze and Iron Age India

Changes were underway in India during the period of the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age. The Vedas were written, and ancient Indian culture, society, and religion were all being transformed. One of the major transformations took place in the political organization of the subcontinent – janapadas were forming and altering the way people lived.

The Vedic period in India is traditionally dated to between 1500 and 500 BC. This period succeeded the Indus Valley Civilization, and in turn was succeeded by the Maurya Empire. It was a culturally and religiously significant time, as it was during this era that the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism, were being composed. Politically speaking, the Vedic period, specifically towards the end of it, saw the formation of various Indian states in the north that are known as janapadas. Over time, these states would develop into 16 major states, which are collectively known as the mahajanapadas.

Modern replica of utensils and falcon shaped altar used for Agnicayana, an elaborate shrauta ritual originating from the Kuru Kingdom, around 1000 BC. (Arayilpdas/CC BY SA 3.0)

Modern replica of utensils and falcon shaped altar used for Agnicayana, an elaborate shrauta ritual originating from the Kuru Kingdom, around 1000 BC. (Arayilpdas/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Etymology of Janapada

The word ‘jana’ may be literally translated to mean ‘people’, or ‘ethnic group’ / ‘tribe’, by extension. ‘Pada’, on the other hand, means ‘foot’. Therefore, taken together, ‘janapada’ may be taken to mean ‘foothold of a tribe’. During the Vedic period prior to the formation of the janapadas, the Indo-Aryans of India were living in tribes called janas. These tribes were semi-nomadic, though they later adopted a sedentary way of life.

By settling permanently in a certain area, a tribe could claim possession of it, which in turn would give the tribe a geographical identity. The relationship between tribe and land may be seen in the fact that areas were often named after the tribe that settled on them. This new lifestyle required a new political organization, which was important so as to ensure that the tribe could maintain possession of the land. Thus, the janas were replaced by janapadas.

Monarchies and Republics

There were two types of janapadas – monarchies and republics. Monarchies were ruled by rajas, or kings who had absolute authority. In such janapadas, the king was regarded to be divine, and was the owner of the land. As the people were working on ‘his’ land, they were thus required to pay taxes, the rate of which was generally 1/6 of the produce. To ensure that these taxes were paid, tax collectors were appointed, and a royal standing army was established.

Janapadas that were republican in nature may also have rajas, although these were not the same as those belonging to monarchies. In republican janapadas, the raja was a title given to a chief who presided over the janapada’s Assembly, and the office is not hereditary. Real power was in the hands of the Assembly, which consisted of the representatives of the tribes, or the heads of the families.

Ahichchhatra (or Ahi-Kshetra) was the ancient capital of Northern Panchala, a northern Indian kingdom mentioned in Mahabharata. The remains of this city have been discovered in Ramnagar, a village situated in Bareilly District in Uttar Pradesh, India. (CC BY SA 4.0)

Ahichchhatra (or Ahi-Kshetra) was the ancient capital of Northern Panchala, a northern Indian kingdom mentioned in Mahabharata. The remains of this city have been discovered in Ramnagar, a village situated in Bareilly District in Uttar Pradesh, India. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

Significant Mahajanapadas

Over the course of time, the more powerful janapadas conquered the weaker ones, and eventually, 16 mahajanapadas, or ‘great janapadas’, emerged. The mahajanapadas are important in the history of India as they are the historical context in which the two great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were composed. The mahajanapadas are mentioned in both these literary works. For example, some of the mahajanapadas, including Magadha, Anga, and Gandhara are mentioned in the Mahabharata.

Additionally, the mahajanapadas also provide the social and political context in which Jainism and Buddhism emerged. Nevertheless, the mahajanapadas are mentioned only in passing by the texts of these religions, although the list differs from one text to another. In the Anguttara Nikaya , a Buddhist text, for instance, a list of the 16 mahajanapadas is given, which is as follows: Kasi, Kosala, Anga, Magadha, Vajji (or Vriji), Malla, Chedi, Vatsa (or Vamsa), Kuru, Panchala, Machcha (or Matsya), Surasena, Assaka, Avanti, Gandhara, and Kamboja.

Silver coin of Avanti mahajanapada (4th century BC). (Jean-Michel Moullec/CC BY 2.0)

Silver coin of Avanti mahajanapada (4th century BC). (Jean-Michel Moullec/ CC BY 2.0 )

By comparison, another Buddhist text, the Digha Nikaya , has only 12 mahajanapadas on its list, whilst the Bhagvati Sutra , a Jain text, includes southern and eastern Indian states, but omits northern ones, in its list of mahajanapadas. This suggests that the list was compiled at a later date.

The age of the mahajanapadas came to an end with the rise of the Maurya Empire, which succeeded in conquering much of the Indian sub-continent.

Top Image: Vedic King Yudhisthira performs the Rajasuya Sacrifice. Source: Public Domain

By Wu Mingren

References

Alsprep, 2016. The Rise of Territorail States. [Online]
Available at: http://www.alsprep.com/Pages/Ancient-History/The-Rise-of-Territorial-States

Anwar, S., 2017. List of Ancient Janapadas and Mahajanapadas. [Online]
Available at: https://www.jagranjosh.com/general-knowledge/list-of-ancient-janapadas-and-mahajanapadas-1492491365-1

Josh, J., 2014. Janapadas and Mahajanapadas. [Online]
Available at: https://www.jagranjosh.com/general-knowledge/janapadas-and-mahajanapadas-1396997474-1

New World Encyclopedia, 2014. Mahajanapadas. [Online]
Available at: http://web.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Mahajanapadas

New World Encyclopedia, 2016. Vedic Period. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Vedic_Period

selfstudyhistory, 2015. Formation of States (Mahajanapadas): Republic and Monarchies. [Online]
Available at: https://selfstudyhistory.com/2015/03/06/mahajanapada/

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. India - Early Vedic Period. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/India/Early-Vedic-period

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