Ancient Indian History Notes [Part 6] Magadha Empire

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Rise of Magadha
Rise of Magadha empire upsc

In this post, we will study from 6th century BC to 4th century BC. 

Bimbisara | king of Magadha

The growth of Magadha started from the times of Bimbisara. He annexed Anga and kept it under the viceroyalty of Ajatashatru. He married 3 princess- one of Licchavi, one of Vrijji and other from Madra. He had enmity with Avanti under king Chanda Pradyota Mahasena which was the biggest competitor of Magadha. He established friendly relations with Avanti through diplomacy and continued the suzerainty of Magadha.

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Ajatashatru |son of King Bimbisara

Bimbisara is said to have ruled for 52 years and was succeeded by Ajatashatru (492-460 BC) who was a belligerent war monger. He attacked Kashi, Prasenjit of Kosala and even Licchavi. Using Varshakara, he created dissention in the Gana Sangha of Lichhavi. Meanwhile Avanti had defeated the Vatsas and also expanded. At this time, the Magadhan capital was at Rajgir in the foothills of 5 hills which made it impregnable.

Udayin |Son of Ajatashatru

Successor of Ajatashatru was Udayan who shifted the capital to Patliputra. After him, the Shishunaga dynasty ruled Magadha. Their biggest achievement was subjugation of Avanti permanently. They were taken over by the 8 kings of Nanda dynasty. Mahapadma Nanda was succeeded by Chandragupta Maurya (322 BC to 298 BC)

Reasons for Magadha’s success were
Magadha empire upsc
  • DD Kosambi – Closeness to iron mines in the age of ir on which made them use superior iron weapons. However, Niharranjan Ray has countered him saying forests could be burnt too and that equal quality iron was found in Avanti region too.
  • Usage of elephants in war as they were easily available in east India
  • Strategic position of Rajgir and Patliputra
  • Fertile soil and wet climate facilitated growth of trade which filled the treasury of the kingdom
  • Magadha kings employed all means, fair and foul, to gain control over the surrounding areas.
  • Center of Upanishadic philosophy and in later times, Buddhism and Jainism. Thus it became a center of learning that gave it soft power over other kingdoms
First Invasion in India

Iranian Invasion (Achaemenid Empire) –

Achaemenid coin upsc
  • Iranian empire was also growing side by side the Magadhan Empire. The king Darius of Iran attacked north-west India in 516 BC taking advantage of the small kingdoms of Madra, Gandhara, Kamboja, Kekaya, etc and their constant wars amongst each other.
  • The Iranian influence stayed in north-west India till Alexander’s invasion in 326 BC.
  • Behistun inscription of Darius mentions people of Gadara, Harauvati and Maka as his subjects. Herodotus mentions that Indian soldiers with arrow heads of iron participated in war with Persian king Xerxes.
  • Darius was succeeded by Xerxes who used Indian soldiers against Greeks.
  • The Iranians had profound influence on India. They brought a script called as Kharoshthi. In 4th century, we find Ashokan inscriptions in that script. Many edicts of Ashoka are found. Ashokan sculpture also went a metamorphosis.
  • India was one of the most prosperous provinces of the Iranian empire owing to its wealth. Perhaps due to Iranian influence, Greeks came to know about India and her fabulous wealth according to RS Sharma. Taxila became the center for mixing of Iranian and Indian ideas.
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Northern Black Polished Ware – after 6th century BC
Northern Black Polished Ware
  • NBPW is a well-fired, wheel-turned pottery made up of well mixed clay.
  • The pottery had glossy surface.
  • The glossy surface came due to use of a magnetic iron oxide and the polished surface by applying an alkalinic substance and firing in reducing conditions.
  • It was fairly famous because it has been found from Taxila, Charsadda to Amravati in Andhra, Prabhas Patan in Gujarat to Tamluk in Bengal.
  • The layers of NBPW were successors of PGW phase and overlapped in many places.

Village life

  • Pali texts in this era mention the village life. Naturally, with big towns of trade, agriculture and related activities were supplemented by the villages.
  • Pali texts mention 3 types of villages – one where all communities lived together with its head Bhojaka, second where guild specific communities existed like a carpenter’s village near Varanasi, third where people lived near forest fringes who collected forest produce.
  • Concept of hired agri labour or Karmakara came up
  • Agriculture was practiced in a systematic manner with plots divided among the families and areas demarcated for living.
  • Iron technology helped in producing surplus especially of rice and sugarcane. Atranjikhera period IV A and IV B have revealed more than 200 iron artifacts.
  • The irrigation canals were collectively dug for collective usage.
  • Taxes were directly paid to the royal agents with no possible middlemen. Gautama Dharmasutra says the cultivators must pay a tax from 1/10th to 1/6th of produce.
  • Some villages have said to be gifted to Brahmins or landlords. Digha Nikaya mentions lands given to Brahmanas and Sangha by Bimbisara and Prasenjit.

Agriculture– Rice was the staple crop with pulses, millets, barley and sugarcane being cultivated. The rich alluvium supplemented by the usage of high quality iron from Chhota Nagpur plateau were responsible for setting up of a full-fledged agricultural economy which was absent in the early Vedic ages as seen in the Chalcolithic settlements in western UP (painted grey ware ).

Shatapatha Brahmana mentions clearing of forest by fire. Pali texts mention communities settled in forests practicing agriculture. They grew rice in summer and wheat in winter

Water was also available in large quantities. Many irrigation canals were built. Thus, a successful rural economy based on agriculture formed the basis of this wave of urbanization.

Growth of Urban centres

  • Pali texts mention the hierarchy of settlements was – Pura or town, nigama (market cities) and nagara or mahanagara. Rajdhani was the capital city.
  • Role of agricultural surplus
  • Role of iron technology
  • Role of differentiation of crafts- Digha Nikaya mentions 28 crafts. Helped by agriculture.
  • Role of guilds- standardization, quality and wealth generation
  • Settling of monarchial systems and growth of Mahajanapadas
  • Role of trade and commerce – Uttarapatha, increase in demand from urban centers, Gahapati
  • Role of heterodox sects to break Vedic orthodoxy and favor Vaishyas for wealth generation
  • Role of coins- silver punch marked coins date not before age of Buddha. Bank, usury, capital
  • Archaeology- excavations from north-west to lower Gangetic valley show this period of urbanization. Bhira mound at Taxila shows evidence of well planned city dating from 6th century to 2nd century, Hastinapura has thrown up NBPW pottery from 600-200 BCE, so has Ayodhya, Ujjaiyini, Rajgir, etc.
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  • king was the supreme head and was assisted by his council of ministers.
  • The ministers were called Mahamantris and were given posts like chief justice, treasurer, political advisors, etc.
  • Famous ministers were Varshakara of Magadha and Dirghacharayana of Kosala.
  • The army was completely under the control of the king.
  • Senapati was the head of the army.
  • The village was headed by a Gramik. Evidence says Bimbisara summoned 80000 Gramikas for a meeting showing the extent of his kingdom.
  • There is evidence from the Pali texts and Jatakas about the kings and their valor.
  • Sabhas which would be convened by the kings reduced as the kingdoms grew in size.
  • The vedic tribes were now settled people over large areas. Hence, the practice of summoning people almost stopped.
  • A Parishad used to be convened consisted mainly of Brahmins.

Taxation– Revenue system comes into picture. It was oppressive in many cases with Brahmins and kshatriyas being exempt and the entire burden fell on the vaishyas and shudras. Many a times, shudras were forced in labour for the king. The vaishyas were made to pay custom duties for trade. The taxes collected in earlier times called Bali were made compulsory for peasants and Balisadhakas were common in the times of Buddha. In the Vedic times, the Shulkadhyakshas were common. Popularly, the tax was one sixth of the income of people. Gautama Dharmasutra says the cultivators must pay a tax from 1/10th to 1/6th of produce.

Army – the army was maintained completely on the exchequer. Huge armies were maintained by kingdoms like Magadha and Kosala. It is mentioned that at a time, Magadha had huge infantry of 2 lakh. It used elephants too. Chariots went out of fashion.

Sethi/ Gahapati– Vedic texts talk of Grihapati as the head of the household. A kind of Agni is mentiones to be used in household sacrifice called Garhapatya. The role got enlarged after 6th century BCE. The growth of urban centres and prosperity gave rise to households that owned property and were wealthy. Thus, the Pali cannon mentions Gahapati and his importance as a donator to the Sangha.

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Various names are used like Gihi, Gahastha, etc. As society progressed, house or Griha became an important unit. Grihapati or Gahapati was its head. Uma Chakravarti has concluded that he was not only the head of the family but also associated with wealth generation and agriculture. Anguttara Nikaya talks of the functions of Gahapati as Kamma or work and Sippa or craft. Here, he is considered separate from Khatriya and Bammana.

Thus, a Grihapati could be a general term for a house leader and also a separate class of wealth farmers and land owners in society. His is important because he is considered one of seven treasures of a Chakkavatti. Their money power can be seen from fact that one Gahapati spent thousands of Kahapanas for treatment from physician Jivika. Support for Nastika sects.

Growth of trade

  • Draw map of Uttarapatha and Dakshinapatha
  • Growth of urban centers, role of agriculture and surplus produce to feed non-agri craftsmen. Domestic demand due to urban population in urban centers.
  • The trade is by two routes- land and rivers
  • The Uttarapatha and Dakahinapatha connected major cities, ports like Bharoch Tamralipti and evenue went outside India through Purushpura.
  • Nayanjyot Lahiri’s study has revesled that the NBPW settlements along

Uttarpatha coroborate the literary evidence of trade. Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan is found as far as Burdwan in Bengal.

  • Arthashastra also mentions Dakshinapatha which connected Magadha to Avanti, Bharoch and Paithana. Physician Jivika is said to have travelled to Avanti through Dakshinapatha.
  • Discovery of NBPW and PGW pottery evidences in Ujjain and sites in Deccan
  • Riverine trade was the most profitable in northern rivers. Buddhist texts and Ashtadhyayi mention ferries and trade they carried through rivers
  • However, sea travel seems limited. Anguttara Jataka mentions a bird possessed by a sailor to trace land.
  • Trade was profitable as the kings could levy custom duties for transport of goods.
Alexander’s Invasion
Alexander’s Invasion upsc

Greeks were known to ancient Indians as Ionian (Yavana), a branch of Greeks known to ancient Indians. Alexander invaded India in 326 BC and first destroyed the Iranian empire and came towards India. He passed the Khyber pass and made peace with king Ambhi of Gandhara.

He fought with king Porus of Jhelum-Chenab doab. He later made Porus his ally. But his soldiers did not wish to go ahead and Alexander returned. While returning, he travelled entirely till the mouth of Indus facing tremendous hardships.

He then sent one part of his army via sea through the Persian Gulf and the other tried to move out through the inhospitable coast of Makran. Alexander suffered injuries and died while returning.