6 History

Kings, Kingdoms Early Republics

Learning Goals:

  • Kings and kingdoms
  • Varna system
  • Janapadas and Mahajanapadas
  • Magadha

Around 600 BC; which was about 3000 years ago; the status of the ruler changed significantly. Unlike the rajas of the Vedic period; the kings of this period became more powerful.


The method of choosing a raja changed; as compared to Vedic period. A person who wanted to become a raja had to perform big sacrifices to claim his authority. A raja usually performed ashwamedha yajna to assert his supremacy above other rajas.

Some of the details about ashwamedha yajna are as follows:

  • A horse was let loose to roam around in the surrounding areas; during the ritual.
  • If the horse was able to pass through any raja’s territory; this meant that that particular raja accepted the supremacy of the ambitious raja.
  • If someone blocked the horse’s path, he had to fight with the raja’s army.
  • The winner of that battle was to become the ultimate raja.
  • After the horse used to complete its round of all the territories; other rajas were sent invitation to attend the yajna. This used to mark the beginning of supremacy of the raja who performed the ashwadedha yajna.
  • Specially trained priests performed the rituals. The priests were rewarded with precious gifts. Cows used to be a major part of such gifts.
  • In those rituals; the main raja used to be the central figure. He was given the most important and the highest seat. Other rajas sat according to their individual status.
  • Since the charioteer of the raja always accompanied in all his exploits; he used to chant the raja’s tales of glory during the yajna. Other rajas were supposed to behave as mute spectators.
  • The relatives of the main raja got the opportunity to perform some minor rituals. The ordinary people (vish or vaishyas) were supposed to bring gifts for the raja. The shudras were not allowed to attend the ceremony.

The Varna System

The society was divided into four varnas, viz. the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras.

  • Brahmins: The Brahmins were considered as the supreme varna and were given the highest status. Brahmins were expected to study and teach the Vedas. They were expected to perform sacrifices. They used to receive gifts; in lieu of performing sacrifices and rituals.
  • Kshatriyas: The Kshatriya varna came at the second number. The rulers came under this varna. They were expected to fight battles and to protect people. They could also perform sacrifices.
  • Vaishyas: The vaishya varna came at the third number and included the farmers, herders and traders came under this varna. They could also perform sacrifices.
  • Shudras: The shudra varna was at the bottom of this hierarchy. They were expected to serve the other three varnas. Sometimes, women were also considered as shudras. The shudras were not allowed to perform sacrifices. They could not even attend such ceremonies.

A person’s varna was based on his birth. Thus, the son of a Brahmin was always a Brahmin. Similarly, the son of a shudra would always remain a shudra. A shudra was not allowed to do the work meant for other varnas. But some people did not agree with this system. Even some rajas did not agree with this system. For example; in the north-eastern part of India, the society was not as sharply polarized. In this part of the country, the priests did not enjoy so much power.


The term ‘janapada’ is composed of two Hindi words, i.e. jana and pada. This means a place where people (jana) set their feet (pada) and settle down. A janapada was bigger than the jana about which you have read in previous chapter. After successfully performing the ashwamedha yajna, a raja could become the king of a janapada. Even today; a district is called a janapad in Uttar Pradesh.

Although a janapada was bigger in size, yet people still lived in huts and reared cattle. People grew many crops; like rice, wheat, pulses, barley, sugarcane, sesame and mustard; were grown. The archaeologists have excavated many sites from the janapadas. For example; Purana Quila in Delhi, Hastinapur near Meerut and Atranjikhera near Etah (in UP).

Grey Ware: Clay pots were commonly used by the people. Some of the pots were grey, while some of them were red. Some grey wares were painted with ornate designs. These pots were possibly used on special occasions; like a feast.


mahajanapadas on map of India

Around 2500 years ago, some of the janapadas became bigger in size. They also became more important than other janapadas. The bigger and important janapadas were called the mahajanapadas. Some examples of mahajanapadas are; Magadha, Koshala, Anga, Panchala, etc. are examples of the mahajanapadas.

Fort: A mahajanapada used to have a capital city. The capital cities were usually fortified. Bricks, stones and wood were used for making forts. Fots were made to protect the city against enemies. They were also made to show off the might of the mahajanapada. A fortified city was also easier to manage.

Army: The raja maintained a regular army and soldiers were paid salaries on a regular basis.

Coins: Payments were made in the form of coins. Designs or motifs were made on these coins by punching. Hence, these are called punch coins. Thus, this period marks the change from barter system to a monetary system. In the barter system, people exchange goods for other goods. In the monetary system; we need to pay in currency.


The raja of a mahajanapada needed large amount of money to build fort and to maintain an army. While the rajas of the earlier period relied on gifts by people and other rajas; this could not be enough in the new system. So, the rajas began collecting taxes. People were employed for tax collection. Following are the ways and means for tax collection:

  • Farmers were the main source of taxes. One-sixth of the farm produce was collected as tax. This was known as the bhaga or share.
  • A craftsperson had to pay taxes in the form of free labor. He needed to work for one day every month for the king and that too without wages.
  • A herder used to pay tax in the form of animals and animal produce.
  • Taxes were also levied on goods that were bought and sold through trade.
  • Hunters and gatherers used to pay in the form of forest produce.

Changes in Agriculture:

Two major changes happened in agriculture:

  • Use of iron ploughshare: Use of iron ploughshare helped in increasing the area under cultivation. This helped in improving the crop yield.
  • Plantation of paddy saplings: Plantation of paddy saplings gives better results than scattering the seeds. But plantation of paddy sapling requires lot of human labor. Dasas, dasis and landless labourers were employed for this purpose. The landless labourer was called the kammakara.

Fifteen monarchical janapadas; according to Panini’s Ashtadhyayi: Salveya, Gandhari, Magadha, Kalinga, Surasena, Kosala, Ajada, Kuru, Salva, Pratyagratha, Kalakuta, Ashmaka, Kamboja, Avanti and Kunti.


The area around modern day south Bihar and parts of eastern UP; along the Ganges formed the Magadha. In the course of about 200 years, Magadha emerged as a prominent mahajanapada. It was under the rule of the Nanda dynasty. The factors which favoured the rise of Magadha are as follows:

  • This region is irrigated by rivers; like Ganga and Son and other tributaries of Ganga. Hence, the land was fertile and there was plenty of water. Fertile land ensured high crop yield. So, this area was prosperous. These rivers also served as good channel for water transport.
  • Some parts of Magadha had dense forest. The forest provided plenty of wood. Wood could be used for making buildings, chariots and carts. Elephants could be captured from the forest and trained for the army.

Bimbisara and Ajatasattu were two powerful rulers to rule over Magadha. They used all the possible means to conquer other janapadas.

Mahapadma Nanda was another powerful ruler. He further spread the Magadha territory to the north-western part of the subcontinent.

The Magadhan rulers were so powerful that even the army of Alexander the Great was afraid to venture into their territory. You may be aware that Alexander the Great was harbouring the ambitions to conquer the world. He was the king of Macedonia in Europe.

Rajgriha (the present day Rajgir) was the capital of Magadha. Later, the capital was shifted to Pataliputra which is known as Patna in the modern times. The term ‘patali’ means ‘port’ and ‘putra’ means ‘son’. Thus the term ‘Pataliputra’ means ‘son of the port’.


Vajji was another powerful kingdom; with its capital at Vaishali in modern day Bihar. While Magadha was under a monarchy; Vajji was under a democratic rule. The government was known as gana or sangha. A gana was not ruled by a single ruler but by a group of many rulers who were known as the raja. The rajas performed the rituals as a group and met in assemblies. Discussion and debate was used for taking major decisions. For example; preparation for a battle or plan for public welfare was chalked out by discussion in the assemblies. However, such meetings were out of bound for women, dasas and kammakaras.

Buddha and Mahavira also belonged to the ganas. Buddha and Mahavira were great thinkers of that period and their preaching are still important for us.

Many other rajas made several attempts to conquer the ganas of Vaishali. But they did not get success. The ganas survived till as later as about 1500 years ago. Finally, the last ganas were conquered by the Gupta rulers.