Janapadas and Mahajanapadas

We find information about the Janapadas and the Mahajanapadas from some Vedic and Buddhist texts. These texts have clear references to various regions and geographical divisions. Excavations at Hastinapur, Ahichchatra, Kaushambi, Ujjaini, Sravasti, Vaishali suggest prosperous agricultural settlements and towns. The contemporary texts also indicate changes in society and economy which were taking place in well-defined geographical space.


The emergence of Janapadas signified the birth of geography in Indian history. During the Vedic times people were not attached to any particular geographical region because they led a nomadic life wandering in search of food from one place to another. Their affiliation was only towards the tribe which was a collection of people staying together to have a communal living. With the passage of time, people developed ways and means to earn a source of livelihood not only by depending on the forces of nature but by practicing agriculture and engaging themselves in the production of food. Each group came to be distinctly recognized by the production of a certain type of crop. The barter system among the various tribes for their living led them to have a newly acquired need for a settled life and familiarising themselves with surrounding landscape. This was the time when they learnt to call a particular surrounding as their own. This geographical space was separated from those of the other communities (Janapadas) who might be friendly or hostile to them. These Janapadas characterised by cohesion inside and separation from the outside world, proved to be a seminal development in ancient India. These units or Janapadas became the centres for the development of uniform language, customs and beliefs.

With progress in agriculture and settlement by 500 BCEJanapadas became a common feature. Around 450 BCE, over forty Janapadas covering even Afghanistan and south-eastern Central Asia are mentioned by Panini. However, the major part of southern India was excluded.


By the sixth century BCE, some of the Janapadas developed into Mahajanapadas. This happened as a result of the series of changes in the internal social and political organisation of the Janapadas. One such important change as mentioned earlier was the expansion of agricultural communities. Agricultural land now came to be considered as an important economic asset as against cattle. Another important change was the emergence of new categories and groups of people in the society, namely the Gahapati or the master of an individual household which owned land, and merchants or settlers or a person having the best, a term used by the Buddhist texts for people who dealt with money and had acquired considerable prestige and power. Combined with developments in the social and economic fields were changes in the nature of the polity of the Mahajanapadas. In the period prior to our period of study the word Raja was referred to as the chief of a lineage. Rama was referred to as Raghukularaja meaning one who rules over Raghu clan. Similarly, Yudhishthira is called Kuru or Raja. They ruled over their lineage and the concept of ruling over a territory had not come into existence. The taxes collected from the Kinsmen were mostly voluntary contributions. King was a father figure who ensured the safety and prosperity of the lineage. He did not function independently and taxation or maintenance of independent army was not his prerogative. The reference to kings in the sixth century BCE on the other hand indicate his rule over a geographical unit belonging to him with a regular taxation system and an army. The distinction between Raja or Ruler and Praja or the ruled became more pronounced. There are references to Krsaka or peasants who paid taxes to the king. The cattle raids of the preceding period were now replaced by organised campaigns in which territory was annexed and the agriculturists and craftsmen were to pay taxes. Bhaga or share of the agricultural produce was given to the king for safeguarding their interests and welfare and for being in subordination to the king. Survey of the agricultural land was done by an officer called rajjugahaka besides bhagadugha an officer who collected bhaga. These officers are mentioned in the contemporary literature. The Jatakas also mention royal officials measuring out grain to send to royal granary. The Mahajanapadas did not bear the name of the dominant Kshatriya lineage. For example, Kosala, Magadha, Avanti. Vatsa were not named after any Kshatirya lineage. Thus one notices that a new political system had emerged by the sixth century BCE. The word ‘Mahajanapadas’ denoted large Janapadas like those of Magadha, Kosala etc. which were ruled by powerful kings or oligarchs. In fact, many of the Mahajanapadas of the sixth century BCE came up by incorporating Janapadas which were earlier independent. For example, Kosala Mahajanapada included the Janapada of the Sakyas and of Kashi. Magadha came to include the Janapada of Anga, Vajji etc. even before it grew into an empire.

In the Mahajanapadas, the basic unit of settlement was the Gama meaning village. Agriculture was the main occupation of people in agriculture settlements. This shows a transition from pastoral and nomadic economy to an agricultural and settled economy. The villages were small and large varying form a single household to many families. Probably the households were part of an extended king group where each person was related to another in the village. However, with the emergence of families who had large landholdings and who took the services of dasas, karmakara and porisas, villages inhabited by non-kingship groups also came into being. Land ownership and tenancy rights find mention in the contemporary literature. Ksetrika or Kassaka denoted the peasantry class who generally belonged to the shudrajati. Since caste system was fully entrenched in the social and economic hierarchy, these peasants must have formed the lowest rung of the hierarchical order. The leaders of the villages were called Gamini meaning managers of stage, soldiers or elephant and horse trainers.References to villages of cattle keepers, iron smiths, woodworkers indicate specialization of crafts by now. Increasing trade and prosperity of the economy is reflected by the engagement of villagers not only in agriculture but is diversified arts and crafts. Barter system and regular exchange of goods became an integral part of the economic life of the people. Specialisation of crafts along with localization of the people led to a major change in the socio-economic and political life of the sixth century BCE.

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