Majjhimadesa was the birthplace of the Buddhist faith, the region where the teachings of Gautama Buddha were propagated for the first time. It included fourteen out of the sixteen Mahajanapadas – Anga, Magadha, Vajji, Malla, Kosala, Kasi, Vamsa, Chetiya, Surasena, Panchala, Kuru, Maccha, Avanti and Assaka. Given below is a brief description of the tribes, kingdoms and republics of Majjhimadesa around the time of the Buddha:
Anga: It was to the east of Magadha, from which it was separated by the River Champa, and had as its capital city Champa, near the modern Bhagalpur. Other cities mentioned are Bhaddiya and Assapura.
The country is generally referred to by the name of its people, the Anga, though occasionally the name Angarattha is used. In the Buddha’s time it was subject to Magadha, whose king Bimbisara was held in esteem also by the people of Anga, and the people of the two countries evidently used to pay frequent visits to each other. In the Buddha’s time the Angaraja was just a wealthy nobleman. The people of Anga and Magadha are generally mentioned together. It was their custom to offer an annual sacrifice to Maha Brahma in the hope of gaining rewards.
Magadha: Magadha had its capital at Rajagaha or Giribbaja where Bimbisara, and after him Ajatasattu, reigned. Later, Pataliputta became the capital. By the time of Bimbisara, Anga, too, formed a part of Magadha. But prior to that, these were two separate kingdoms, often at war with each other. Ajatasattu succeeded in annexing Kosala with the help of the Licchavis, and he succeeded also in bringing the confederation of the latter under his sway. Magadha rose to such political eminence that for several centuries, right down to the time of Asoka, the history of Northern India was practically the history of Magadha. The kingdom was bound on the east by the river Champa, on the south by the Vindhya Mountains, on the west by the river Sona, and on the north by the Ganges. The latter formed the boundary between Magadha and the republican Licchavis, and both the Magadhas and the Licchavis had equal rights over the river. When the Buddha visited Vesali, Bimbisara made a road five leagues long, from Rajagaha to the river, and decorated it, and the Licchavis did the same on the other side. Monks going from Savatthi to Rajagaha could cross the Ganges in boats kept either by Ajatasattu or by the Licchavis of Vesali. Magadha was an important political and commercial centre, and was visited by people from all parts of Northern India in search of commerce and of learning. The kings of Magadha maintained friendly relations with their neighbours, Bimbisara and Pasenadi marrying each other’s sisters. Magadha was the real birth place of Buddhism, and it was from Magadha that it spread after the Third Council. The Buddha’s chief disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, came from Magadha. There are many fanciful explanations of the word Magadha. The most probable one seems to have been that the country was the residence of a tribe of khattiyas called Magadha. Magadhabhasa was regarded as the speech of the Aryans. The people of Anga and Magadha were in the habit of holding a great annual sacrifice to Maha Brahma in which a fire was kindled with sixty cartloads of firewood. They held the view that anything cast into the sacrificial fire would bring a thousand fold reward. In the Vedic, Brahmana and Sutra periods, Magadha was considered as outside the pale of Aryan and Brahmanical culture, and was therefore looked down upon by Brahmanical writers. But it was the holy land of the Buddhists.
Vajji: The name of a country and of its people. The inhabitants appear to have consisted of several confederate clans of whom the Licchavi and the Videha were the chief. As time went on the Licchavi became the most powerful of these clans, and the names Vajji and Licchavi were often synonymous. Vesali was the capital of the Licchavis and Mithila of the Videhas. In the time of the Buddha, both Vesali and Mithila were republics, though Mithila had earlier been a kingdom. In the time of the Buddha, and even up to his death, the Vajjians were a very prosperous and happy community. The Buddha attributed this to the fact that they practiced the seven conditions of welfare taught to them by himself in the Sarandada Cetiya. But soon after the Buddha’s death, Ajatasattu, with the help of his minister Vassakara, sowed dissension among the Vajjians and conquered their territory. The Buddha travelled several times through the Vajjian country, the usual route being through Kosala, Malla, Vajji, Kasi, Magadha, and back, and he preached to the people, mostly in the Kutagarasala in Vesali. It is significant that the first great schism in the Buddhist Order arose in Vajji, when the Vajjiputtaka brought forward their Ten Points. Even during the Buddha’s lifetime some monks of Vajji joined Devadatta. According to Hiouen Thsang, who visited it, the Vajji country was broad from east to west and narrow from north to south. The people of the neighbouring countries were called Samvajji, or united Vajjis.
Malla: The name of a people and their country in the Buddha’s time. The kingdom, at that time, was divided into two parts, having their respective capitals in Pava and Kusinara. The Mallas of Pava were called Paveyyaka Malla, those of Kusinara, Kosinaraka. It was at Pava that the Buddha took his last meal, of Sukaramaddava, at the house of Cunda. From there he went to Kusinara, and there, as he lay dying, he sent Ananda to the Mallas of Kusinara to announce his approaching death. After the Buddha’s death, they cremated the Buddha’s body at the Makutabandhana Cetiya, and collected the relics till they were distributed among the various claimants by Dona. The Mallas in the sixth century BCE were regarded, together with the Vajjis, as a typical example of a republic. Both the Buddha and Nigantha Nataputta appear to have had followers among the Mallas. There was apparently some trouble between them and the Licchavis. Both were khattiyas, belonging to the Vasittha gotta. Manu says that both Licchavis and Mallas were Vratyas – i.e., they had not gone through the ceremony of Vedic initiation at the proper time. There is reason to believe that the Malla republic fell into the hands of Ajatasattu.
Koliyas: One of the republican clans in the time of the Buddha. The Koliyas owned two chief settlements – Ramagama and Devadaha. The accounts of the origin of the Koliyas mention a king of Benares, named Rama (or Kola, from which comes their name). He suffered from leprosy, and being detested by the women of the court, left the kingdom to his eldest son and retired into the forest. There, living on woodland leaves and fruits, he soon recovered, and, while wandering about, came across Piya, the eldest of the five daughters of Okkaka, she herself being afflicted with leprosy. Rama, having cured her, married her, and they begot thirty-two sons. With the help of the king of Benares, they built a town in the forest, removing a big kola-tree in doing so. The city thereupon came to be called Kolanagara, and because the site was discovered on a tiger-track it was also called Vyagghapajja.
Shakyas: A tribe in North India, to which the Buddha belonged. Within the tribe were several clans. They had a republican form of government, with a leader who was elected from time to time. The administration and judicial affairs of the clans were discussed in the Santhagara at Kapilavastu. The Shakyas were very jealous of the purity of their race; they belonged to the Adicca-gotta, and claimed descent from Okkaka. Their ancestors were the nine children of Okkaka, whom he banished in order to give the kingdom to Jantukumara, his son by another queen. These nine children went towards the Himalayas, and, having founded Kapilavastu, lived there. To the eldest sister they gave the rank of mother, and the others married among themselves. Near the city was the Lumbinivana where the Buddha was born, and which became one of the four places of pilgrimage for the Buddhists. Close to Kapilavastu flowed the river Rohini, which formed the boundary between the kingdoms of the Shakyas and the Koliyas. The city was sixty leagues from Rajagaha. From Kapilavastu lay a direct road to Vesali. From Mahavana, outside Kapilavastu, the forest extended up to the Himalayas, and on the other side of the city it reached as far as the sea.
Kosala: A country inhabited by the Kosala, to the north-west of Magadha and next to Kasi. In the Buddha’s time it was a powerful kingdom ruled over by Pasenadi, who was succeeded by his son Vidudabha. By this time Kasi was under the subjection of Kosala, for we find that when Bimbisara, king of Magadha, married Kosaladevi, daughter of Mahakosala and sister of Pasenadi, a village in Kasi was given as part of the dowry.In the sixth century BCE, the Shakyan territory of Kapilavatthu was subject to Kosala. At the time of the Buddha, Savatthi was the capital. Next in importance was Saketa, which, in ancient days, had sometimes been the capital. There was also Ayojjha, on the banks of the Sarayu, which in the sixth century BCE was quite unimportant. The river Sarayu divided Kosala into two parts – Uttara Kosala and Dakkhina Kosala. Other Kosala rivers mentioned in the books are the Aciravati and the Sundarika. With the capture of Kasi the power of Kosala increased rapidly, until a struggle between this country and Magadha became inevitable. Bimbisara’s marriage was probably a political alliance, but it only served to postpone the evil day. Quite soon after his death there were many fierce fights between Ajatasattu, his successor, and Pasenadi. Once Ajatasattu was captured alive, but Pasenadi spared his life and gave him his daughter, Vajira, in marriage and for a time all went well. Later, however, after his conquest of the Licchavis, Ajatasattu seems to have succeeded in establishing his sway in Kosala. The Buddha spent the greater part of his time in Kosala, either in Savatthi or in touring in the various parts of the country, and many of the Vinaya rules were formulated in Kosala.
Kasi: One of the sixteen Mahajanapadas, its capital being Varanasi. At the time of the Buddha, it had been absorbed into the kingdom of Kosala, and Pasenadi was king of both countries. Pasenadi’s father, Mahakosala, on giving his daughter in marriage to Bimbisara of Magadha, allotted her a village of Kasi as bath money. Kasi was evidently a great centre of trade and a most populous and prosperous country. Frequent mention is made of caravans leaving Kasi to travel for trade. One highway went through Kasi to Rajagaha and another to Savatthi. Kasi was famed for her silks, and Kasi-robes were most highly esteemed as gifts. Mention is also made of the perfumes of Kasi. Varanasi derived its name from its location between the rivers Barna and Asi. It was one of the four places of pilgrimage for the Buddhists – the others being Kapilavatthu, Buddhagaya and Kusinara – because it was at the Deer Park in Isipatana near Varanasi that the Buddha preached his first sermon to the Five Disciples and set in motion the Wheel of the Law. He stayed in Benares, preaching sermons and converting people. Isipatana became a monastic centre in the Buddha’s time and continued so for long after.
Vamsa: It lay to the south of Kosala, and its capital was Kosambi on the Yamuna. Udena, son of Parantapa, also called Vamsaraja, was its king in the time of the Buddha. Avanti lay to the south of the Vamsa country. The Vamsa were also called Vatsa. Kosambi was evidently a city of great importance, an important halt for traffic coming to Kosala and Magadha from the south and the west. Already in the Buddha’s time there were four establishments of the Order in Kosambi – the Kukkutarama, the Ghositarama, the Pavarika-ambavana, and the Badarikarama. The Buddha visited Kosambi on several occasions, stopping at one or other of these residences, and several discourses delivered during these visits are recorded in the books.
Chetiya: Identical with Chedi of the older documents. The people of Cheti seem to have had two distinct settlements: one, perhaps the older, was in the mountains, probably the present Nepal. It is evidently this older settlement which is mentioned in the Vessantara Jataka; it was passed by Vessantara on his way into exile in the Himalayas. The other, probably a later colony, lay near the Yamuna, to the east, in the neighbourhood of the Kurus. This part of the country corresponds roughly to the modern Bundelkhand. It was probably of the older Cheti that Sotthivati was the capital (the Suktimati of the Mahabharata). The journey from Benares to Cheti lay through a forest which was infested by robbers. The settlement of Cheti was an important centre of Buddhism, even in the time of the Buddha. The Anguttara Nikaya mentions several discourses preached to the Chetis, while the Buddha dwelt in their town of Sahajati. It is said that the country was called Cheti because it was ruled by kings bearing the name of Cheti or Chetiya.
Surasena: It is mentioned with Maccha, and was located in the south of the Kuru country. Its capital was Mathura, situated on the Yamuna. Its king, soon after the death of Bimbisara, was Avantiputta, who, judging by his name, was probably related to the royal family of Ujjeni. Mathura was visited by the Buddha, but there is no record of his having stayed there. When Fa Hsien and Hiouen Thsang visited it, Buddhism was flourishing there, and there were many sangharamas and stupas. It was also famous because of its connection with Krsna, and the Yadavas.
Panchala: It consisted of two divisions: Uttara Panchala and Dakkhina Panchala. The river Bhagirathi formed the boundary between the divisions. According to the Mahabharata, the capital of Uttara Panchala was Ahicchatra or Chatravati, while the capital of Daksina Panchala was Kampilya. Panchala was to the east of the Kuru country, and, in ancient times, there seems to have been a constant struggle between the Kurus and the Panchalas for the possession of Uttara Panchala. There seems to have been a chieftain of Panchala even in the Buddha’s day. Panchala is generally identified with the country to the north and west of Delhi, from the foot of the Himalaya to the river Chambal.
Kuru: Frequent references to it are found in the Pali Canon. It is said that Kuru was originally the name of the chieftains of the country and that their territory was later named after them. Buddhaghosa records a tradition which states that, when Mandhata returned to Jambudipa from his sojourn, there were in his retinue a large number of the people of Uttarakuru. They settled down in Jambudipa, and their settlement was known as Kururattha. The country seems to have had very little political influence in the Buddha’s time, though, in the past, Panchala, Kuru and Kekaya were evidently three of the most powerful kingdoms. The ruling dynasty at Indapatta belonged to the Yudhitthila-gotta. During the Buddha’s time, the chieftain of Kuru was called Koravya. The people of Kuru had a reputation for deep wisdom and good health, and this reputation is mentioned as the reason for the Buddha having delivered some of his most profound discourses to the Kurus. These were preached at Kammassadhamma, which is described as a nigama of the Kuras, where the Buddha resided from time to time. Udena’s queen, Magandiya, came from Kuru. The Kuru country is generally identified as the district around Thanesar, with its capital Indapatta, near the modern Delhi.
Maccha: The Maccha are generally mentioned with the Surasena. In the Vidhura Pandita Jataka, the Maccha are mentioned among those who witnessed the game of dice between the king of the Kurus and Punnaka. The Maccha country lay to the south west of Indraprastha. Its capital was Viratanagara or Vairat, so called because it was the city of King Virata.
Avanti: One of the four great monarchies in the time of the Buddha, the other three being Magadha, Kosala and Vamsa. Its capital was Ujjeni. But according to another account, Mahissati is mentioned as having been, at least for some time, the capital of Avanti. It is quite likely that ancient Avanti was divided into two parts, the northern part having its capital at Ujjeni and the southern part at Mahissati (Mahismati). This theory is supported by the fact that in the Mahabharata, Avanti and Mahismati are referred to as two different countries. In the Buddha’s time, the King of Avanti was Pajjota, a man of violent temper, known as Canda Pajjota. He wished to conquer the neighbouring kingdom of Kosambi, of which Udena was king, but his plans did not work out as he had anticipated. Instead, his daughter Vasuladatta became Udena’s wife and the two countries continued to be on friendly terms. The kingdom of Assaka is invariably mentioned in connection with Avanti. Even in the Buddha’s life-time, Avanti became a centre of Buddhism. By the time of Chandragupta, Avanti became incorporated with Magadha. Before Asoka became King, he was the Viceroy of Avanti and ruled in Ujjeni, and it was in Ujjeni that Mahinda and Sanghamitta were born and grew up. Avanti is now identified with the country north of the Vindhya Mountains and north-east of Bombay, roughly corresponding to modern Malwa, Nimar and adjoining parts of the Central Provinces.
Assaka: The Assakas are said to have had settlements on the Godavari, and Bavari’s hermitage was in their territory. The country is mentioned with Avanti in the same way as Anga with Magadha. According to the Culla Kalinga Jataka, at one time the King of Assaka accepted the challenge of King Kalinga of Dantapura to war, and defeated him. Later Assaka married Kalinga’s daughter and the relations between the two countries were amicable. The Assaka capital, Potana, it has been suggested, is the Paudanya of the Mahabharata. Soon after the Buddha’s death, a King Assaka was the ruler of Potali, and he and his son Sujata were converted by Maha Kacchana.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons shows a map of North India’s Mahajanapadas. Mahajanapadas or ‘great realms’ were territories held by different tribes that were transformed into the great monarchies and oligarchies of the region. They would form the nuclei for future empires. It was among one of these tribes (albeit a minor one, the Shakyas) that the Buddha was born. The Shakya formed a republican polity under the suzerainty of the Kosala kingdom. Soon after the Mahaparinirvana of the Master, Kosala fell to Ajatasatru of Magadha. By the time of the Mauryas, the kingdom of Magadha (and its capital, Pataliputra) had been transformed into the political and cultural centre of South Asia. Magadhan influence would manifest itself in the form of political institutions (the concept of the Chakravartin monarch), religious orders (Jain and Buddhist) and literature (Ardhamagadhi and Pali).