The Mahajanapadas were a set of sixteen kingdoms that existed in ancient India. It all began when the tribes (janas) of the late Vedic period decided to form their own territorial communities, which eventually gave rise to new and permanent areas of settlements called ‘states’ or ‘Janapada.’
In the sixth century BC, present-day Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh became centers of political activities as the region was not only fertile but also closer to the iron production centers. Iron production played a crucial role in expanding the territorial states of the region. These expansions helped some of these ‘Janapada’ turn into large states or ‘Mahajanapadas.’
Most of these ‘Mahajanapadas’ were monarchical in nature, while some of them were democratic states. Many prominent ancient Buddhist texts make frequent references to the ‘16 great kingdoms’ (Mahajanapadas) that flourished between the sixth and the fourth centuries BCE. These 16 kingdoms included kingdoms like Anga, Gandhara, Kuru, and Panchala, which are mentioned in the great Indian epic ‘Mahabharata.’
In order to settle down permanently, simple land-grabbing process was started by the tribes, which eventually turned into well-planned communities. These communities gave rise to states or ‘Janapada’ and tribal identity became a major factor in defining the territory of a particular state. Gradually, some of these states began to expand and hence came to be known as the ‘Mahajanapadas.’ Since expansion involved annexing of neighboring states, certain ‘Mahajanapadas’ started conquering other ‘Janapada’ in order to extend their kingdoms as per the kingdom’s prosperity and wealth.
Early stages of settlement of the tribes happened before the time of the Buddha. Hence, historical references of these ‘Mahajanapadas’ can be found in ancient Buddhist texts. Many such texts talk about ‘16 great kingdoms’ that flourished between the sixth and the fourth centuries BCE. The period between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE is considered extremely important in early Indian history as it witnessed the emergence of massive Indian cities, which were built after the fall of the Indus Valley Civilization. These massive Indian cities were home to the 16 great kingdoms described in the ancient texts. In the modern era the term ‘Mahajanapadas’ is often used to refer the 16 great kingdoms, which are mentioned in next sections.