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A Brief History of India: Iron Age

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 29 January 2011

By the sixth century BC, the Vedic tribes (the Janapadas, from 'Jana', 'people' or 'tribe', and 'pada', or 'foot') had subdivided into sixteen great Mahajanapadas ('maha' means 'great').

These were Magadha (southern Bihar), Kashi (Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh), Kosala (Awadh in Uttar Pradesh), Anga (Eastern India), Vriji (northern Bihar), Malla (north-central India), Panchala (Budaun, Farukabad, Uttar Pradesh), Matsya (Jaipur, Alwar, and Bharatpur in Rajasthan), Surasena (Mathura in Utar Pradesh), Ashmaka (south of the Vindhya Mountains, in Maharashtra), Avanti (Madhya Pradesh), Gandhara (Kandahar in Afghanistan), and Kamboja (the Hindu Kush region in Afghanistan).

Eventually four major kingdoms became the most powerful. These were Kosala, Kashi, Magadha and the Vriji confederacy.

In the first half of the first millennium BC, Magadha was ruled by King Bimbisara of the Haryanaka dynasty. He was murdered by his own son, Ajatshatru, who then ascended the throne.

Ajatashatru subdued Kosala, Kashi and Vriji and became the undisputed king of northern India. As destiny would have it, Ajatashatru was also killed by his own son for the Magadha throne. This history of parricide was repeated amongst successive kings (Udayabhadra, Anirudha, Munda, and Nagadasaka) until the dynasty was overthrown amidst a popular rebellion, after which their minister, Shishunaga, became king. However, Shishunaga was murdered (as related by Thapar) by a usurper (although some say that the murder victim was his son, Kalasoka, including Prasad, while according to other sources there were at least five kings ruling after him - the sons of Kalasoka: Nandivardhan, Kshemadharman, Kshemajit, Bimbisara II, and Mahanandin).

The usurper's name was Mahapadma Nanda, a shudra by birth who founded the Nanda dynasty. Under the Nandas, Magadha emerged as a very powerful empire. Most of the surrounding kingdoms were either subsumed by Magadha or ended up as its vassals. This position with Magadha being totally dominant remained the case for centuries to come. There were supposedly eight kings (Pandhuka, Panghupati, Bhutapala, Rashtrapala, Govishankara, Dashasidhkhaka, Kaivarta, and Dhanananda) who followed after Mahapadma Nanda.

Later the region that today forms part of Afghanistan came under the rule of Cyrus, the Achaemenid king of Persia.

In 326 BC, after defeating the Achaemenid King Darius, the joint armies of Macedonia and Greece marched under Alexander the Great into the Indian subcontinent, acquiring one small kingdom after another. Alexander's most famous battle, at Hydapses against King Puru (Porus) of the Jhelum region, is vividly documented.

However, Alexander's victory march halted in Punjab, after which he had to turn back, following the reluctance of his army to march any further. It may also have been the case that he knew that beyond Punjab lay the realm of the mighty Magadhan army and Alexander's soldiers were too tired to take on such a powerful adversary. [1]

Following Alexander's return to Persia, his satraps were unable to retain control over their north-western territories in India.

An upstart called Chandragupta Maurya (according to some sources the son of Mahanandin of the Shishunaga dynasty) had succeeded in overthrowing Dhananada, the last Nanda king of Magadha. Chandragupta Maurya soon pushed back the Greeks into what are now Afghan territories.

Chandragupta Mauryan and his descendents were destined to become the rulers of a large empire whose borders began in Afghanistan and ended in Karnataka in southern India.

Despite occasional gaps and inconsistencies, India's recorded history had begun with the founding of an empire.

[1] The army of Alexander was referred to as the Yavanas, probably because of their homeland in the region of Ionia.


Main Sources

Majumdar, R C - Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Ltd, 1987

Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History, Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000

Thapar, Romila - Penguin History of India, Volume 1, Penguin Books, London, 1990



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.