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In the beginning of the 6th century B.C., northern India consisted of a large number of independent kingdoms. Some of them had monarchical forms of government, while some others were republics. While there was a concentration of monarchies on the Gangetic plain, the republics were scattered in the foothills of the Himalayas and in northwestern India. Some of the republics consisted of only one tribe like the Sakyas, Licchavis and Mallas. In the republics, the power of decision in all matters of state vested with the Public Assembly which was composed of the tribal representatives or heads of families. All decisions were by a majority vote.

The Buddhist literature Anguttara Nikaya gives a list of sixteen great kingdoms called ‘Sixteen Mahajanapadas’. They were Anga, Magadha, Kasi, Kosala, Vajji, Malla, Chedi, Vatsa, Kuru, Panchala, Matsya, Surasena, Asmaka, Avanti, Gandhara and Kambhoja. The Jain texts also contain references to the existence of sixteen kingdoms. In course of time, the small and weak kingdoms either submitted to the stronger rulers or gradually got eliminated. Finally, in the mid-6th century B.C., only four kingdoms – Vatsa, Avanti, Kosala and Magadha survived.

Vatsa

The Vatsa kingdom was situated on the banks of the river Yamuna. Its capital was Kausambi near modern Allahabad. Its most popular ruler was Udayana. He strengthened his position by entering into matrimonial alliances with Avanti, Anga and Magadha. After his death, Vatsa was annexed to the Avanti kingdom.

Avanti

The capital of Avanti was Ujjain. The most important ruler of this kingdom was Pradyota. He became powerful by marrying Vasavadatta, the daughter of Udayana. He patronized Buddhism. The successors of Pradyota were weak and later this kingdom was taken over by the rulers of Magadha.

Kosala

Ayodhya was the capital of Kosala. King Prasenajit was its famous ruler. He was highly educated. His position was further strengthened by the matrimonial alliance with Magadha. His sister was married to Bimbisara and Kasi was given to her as dowry. Subsequently there was a dispute with Ajatasatru. After the end of the conflict, Prasenajit married the daughter of Bimbisara. After the death of this powerful king, Kosala became part of the Magadha.

Magadha

Of all the kingdoms of north India, Magadha emerged powerful and prosperous. It became the nerve centre of political activity in north India. Magadha was endowed by nature with certain geographical and strategic advantages. These made her rise to imperial greatness. Her strategic position between the upper and lower part of the Gangetic valley was a great advantage. It had a fertile soil. The iron ores in the hills near Rajgir and copper and iron deposits near Gaya added to its natural assets.  Her location at the centre of the highways of trade of those days contributed to her wealth. Rajagriha was the capital of Magadha. During the reign of Bimbisara and Ajatasatru, the prosperity of Magadha reached its zenith.

Bimbisara (546 – 494 B.C.)

Bimbisara belonged to the Haryanka dynasty. He consolidated his position by matrimonial alliances. His first matrimonial alliance was with the ruling family of Kosala. He married Kosaladevi, sister of Prasenajit. He was given the Kasi region as dowry which yielded large revenue. Bimbisara married Chellana, a princess of the Licchavi family of Vaishali. This matrimonial alliance secured for him the safety of the northern frontier. Moreover, it facilitated the expansion of Magadha northwards to the borders of Nepal. He also married Khema of the royal house of Madra in central Punjab. Bimbisara also undertook many expeditions and added more territories to his empire. He defeated Brahmadatta of Anga and annexed that kingdom. He maintained friendly relations with Avanti. He had also efficiently reorganized the administration of his kingdom. Bimbisara was a contemporary of both Vardhamana Mahavira and Gautama Buddha. However, both religions claim him as their supporter and devotee. He seems to have made numerous gifts to the Buddhist Sangha.

Ajatasatru (494 – 462 B.C.)

The reign of Ajatasatru was remarkable for his military conquests. He fought against Kosala and Vaishali. He won a great success against a formidable confederacy led by the Licchavis of Vaishali. This had increased his power and prestige. This war lasted for about sixteen years. It was at this time that Ajatasatru realized the strategic importance of the small village, Pataligrama (future Pataliputra). He fortified it to serve as a convenient base of operations against Vaisali. Buddhists and Jains both claim that Ajatasatru was a follower of their religion. But it is generally believed that in the beginning he was a follower of Jainism and subsequently embraced Buddhism. He is said to have met Gautama Buddha. This scene is also depicted in the sculptures of Bharhut. According to the Mahavamsa, he constructed several chaityas and viharas. He was also instrumental in convening the First Buddhist Council at Rajagriha soon after the death of the Buddha. 

The immediate successor of Ajatasatru was Udayin. He laid the foundation of the new capital at Pataliputra situated at the confluence of the two rivers, the Ganges and the Son. Later it became famous as the imperial capital of the Mauryas. Udayin’s successors were weak rulers and hence Magadha was captured by Saisunaga. Thus, the Haryanka dynasty came to an end and the Saisunaga dynasty came to power.

Sisunaga dynasty

The genealogy and chronology of the Saisunagas are not clear. Saisunaga defeated the king of Avanti which was made part of the Magadha Empire. After Saisunaga, the mighty empire began to collapse. His successor was Kakavarman or Kalasoka. During his reign the second Buddhist Council was held at Vaisali. Kalasoka was killed by the founder of the Nanda dynasty.

Nandas

The fame of Magadha scaled new heights under the Nanda dynasty. Their conquests went beyond the boundaries of the Gangetic basin and in North India they carved a well-knit and vast empire. Mahapadma Nanda was a powerful ruler of the Nanda dynasty. He uprooted the kshatriya dynasties in north India and assumed the title ekarat. The Puranas speak of the extensive conquests made by Mahapadma. 

The Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavela of Kalinga refers to the conquest of Kalinga by the Nandas. Many historians believe that a considerable portion of the Deccan was also under the control of the Nandas. Therefore, Mahapadma Nanda may be regarded as a great empire builder. According to the Buddhist tradition, Mahapadma Nanda ruled about ten years. He was succeeded by his eight sons, who ruled successively. The last Nanda ruler was Dhana Nanda. He kept the Magadha empire intact and possessed a powerful army and enormous wealth. 

The fabulous wealth of the Nandas is also mentioned by several sources. The enormous wealth of the Nandas is also referred to in the Tamil Sangam work Ahananuru by the poet Mamulanar. The flourishing state of agriculture in the Nanda dominions and the general prosperity of the country must have brought to the royal treasury enormous revenue. 

The oppressive way of tax collection by Dhana Nanda was resented by the people. Taking advantage of this, Chandragupta Maurya and Kautilya initiated a popular movement against the Nanda rule. It was during this time that Alexander invaded India. 

Persian Invasions

Cyrus (558 – 530 B.C)

Cyrus the Great was the greatest conqueror of the Achaemenid Empire. He was the first conqueror who led an expedition and entered into India. He captured the Gandhara region. All Indian tribes to the west of the Indus river submitted to him and paid tribute. His son Cambyses had no time to pay attention towards India.

Darius I (522 – 486 B.C.)

Darius I, the grandson of Cyrus, conquered the Indus valley in 518 B.C. and annexed the Punjab and Sindh. This region became the 20th Satrapy of his empire. It was the most fertile and populous province of the Achaemenid Empire. Darius sent a naval expedition under Skylas to explore the Indus. 

Xerxes (465-456 B.C.)

Xerxes utilized his Indian province to strengthen his position. He deployed Indian infantry and cavalry to Greece to fight his opponents. But they retreated after Xerxes faced a defeat in Greece. After this failure, the Achaemenians could not follow a forward policy in India. However, the Indian province was still under their control. Darius III enlisted Indian soldiers to fight against Alexander in 330 B.C. It is evident that the control of Persians slackened on the eve of Alexander’s invasion of India.

Effects of the Persian Invasion

The Persian invasion provided an impetus to the growth of Indo-Iranian commerce. Also, it prepared the ground for Alexander’s invasion. The use of the Kharosthi script, a form of Iranian writing, became popular in northwestern India and some of Asoka’s edicts were written in that script. 

We are able to see the influence of Persian art on the art of the Mauryas, particularly the monolithic pillars of Asoka and the sculptures found on them. The very idea of issuing edicts by Asoka and the wording used in the edicts are traced to Iranian influence. In short, the Iranian connection with India proved more fruitful than the short-lived IndoMacedonian contact.

Alexander’s Invasion of India (327-325 B.C.)

Political Condition on the eve of Alexander’s Invasion After two centuries of the Persian invasion, Alexander from Macedonia invaded India. On the eve of his invasion, there were a number of small kingdoms in northwestern India. 

The leading kings were Ambhi of Taxila, the ruler of Abhisara and Porus who ruled the region between the rivers of Jhelum and Chenab. There were many republican states like Nysa. In short, northwestern India remained the most disunited part of India and the rulers were fighting with one another. They never come together against common enemies. Yet, it was not easy for Alexander to overcome so many sources of opposition. 

Causes of the Invasion

Alexander ascended the throne of Macedonia after the death of his father Philip in 334 B.C. He conquered the whole of Persia by defeating Darius III in the battle of Arbela in 330 B.C. He also aimed at further conquest eastwards and wanted to recover the lost Persian Satrapy of India. The writings of Greek authors like Herodotus about the fabulous wealth of India attracted Alexander. Moreover, his interest in geographical enquiry and love of natural history urged him to undertake an invasion of India. He believed that on the eastern side of India there was the continuation of the sea, according to the geographical knowledge of his period. So, he thought that by conquering India, he would also conquer the eastern boundary of the world.

Battle of Hydaspes

In 327 B.C. Alexander crossed the Hindukush Mountains and spent nearly ten months in fighting with the tribes. He crossed the Indus in February 326 B.C. with the help of the bridge of boats. He was warmly received by Ambhi, the ruler of Taxila. From there Alexander sent a message to Porus to submit. But Porus refused and decided to fight against Alexander. 

Then Alexander marched from Taxila to the banks of the river Hydaspes (Jhelum). On the other side of the river he saw the vast army of Porus. As there were heavy floods in the river, Alexander was not able to cross it. After a few days, he crossed the river and the famous battle of Hydaspes was fought on the plains of Karri. It was a well-contested battle. Although Porus had a strong army, he lost the battle. 

Alexander was impressed by the courage and heroism of this Indian prince, treated him generously and reinstated him on his throne. Alexander continued his march as far as the river Beas encountering opposition from the local tribes. He wanted to proceed still further eastwards towards the Gangetic valley. But he could not do so because his soldiers refused to fight. Hardships of prolonged warfare made them tired and they wanted to return home. Alexander could not persuade them and therefore decided to return. He made arrangements to look after his conquered territories in India. 

He divided the whole territory from the Indus to the Beas into three provinces and put them under his governors. His retreat began in October 326 B.C. and the return journey was not free from ordeals. Many republican tribes attacked his army. Anyhow he managed to reach beyond the Indus. On his way he reached Babylon where he fell seriously ill and died in 323 B.C.

Effects of Alexander’s invasion

The immediate effect of Alexander’s invasion was that it encouraged political unification of north India under the Mauryas. The system of small independent states came to an end. Alexander’s invasion had also paved the way for direct contact between India and Greece. 

The routes opened by him and his naval explorations increased the existing facilities for trade between India and West Asia. However, his aim of annexing northwestern India to his empire was not fulfilled due his premature death. His authority in the Indus valley was a short-lived one because of the expansion of the Mauryan Empire under Chandragupta Maurya. 


Sources

  1. Module-1 Ancient India by NIOS
  2. India’s Ancient Past by RS Sharma
  3. Class-11 Tamil Nadu State Board History Book

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