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Mahajanapadas meaning "Great Kingdoms" (from Maha, "great," and Janapada "foothold of a tribe," "country") Before and during the emergence of Buddhism in India in the sixth century BCE, sixteen monarchies and'republics' spanned the Indo-Gangetic plains from modern-day Afghanistan to Bangladesh. They depict a shift from a semi-nomadic tribal civilization to an agrarian-based society with an extensive trading network and a highly organised polity.

Throughout the sixth century BCE, over a thousand years after the decline of the Harappan civilisation, new urban centres started to appear in the region. This is why the sixth century BCE is referred to as the second urbanisation period in the Indian subcontinent. Between 600 B.C. and 300 B.C., around sixty urban towns and cities were established, and they served as the primary hubs for the growth of crafts and commercial activity. Among these are the 16 Mahajanapadas referenced in early Buddhist and Jaina scriptures. Magadha, Koshala, Avanti, and Panchala were notable Mahajanapadas.

Form of Government

Monarchical Mahajanapadas

In Monarchical Mahajanapadas, the state was controlled by the monarch or chieftain of hereditary descent. Here, the monarchs accorded brahmanas and vedic sacrifices great prominence. In Mahajanapadas like as Kosala and Magadha, monarchy was the form of governance.

Republican Mahajanapadas

In Republican or oligarchic Mahajanapadas, the king was elected from the group of Rajas who were known for their fighting ability and he runs the administration with the help of an assembly called Sabha. Here, brahmanas and vedic offerings were accorded little importance. Few Buddhist writings indicate that the brahmanas were below the kshatriyas in the social system. In Vajji, an oligarchy was the form of governance. Such Mahajanapadas were called as gana sangha.

Economic life

During that time, agriculture was the backbone of the economy. Typically, the tax was set at one-sixth of what was generated. This was referred to as bhaga or a share.Craftspeople were subject to taxes as well. The agricultural land was subdivided into smallholdings, and a cooperative irrigation, agriculture, and water conservation system was implemented. Although famine was not unheard of, it was highly uncommon. In addition to agriculture, animal husbandry was a key source of economic survival.

Arts and industries such as ivory carving, mural painting, stone carving, etc. were highly developed during this time period. Business was conducted both within and beyond the country. Bharuch, Tamralipti, Sopara, and other major ports of the time engaged in maritime trade with Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, Babylonia, and other nations.

The main items were silk, gold, and embroidered fabric. There are examples of the cooperative system in the period's trade and commerce.

The Northern Black Polished Ware period represents the beginning of the second urbanisation in India.

In the sixth century BCE, with the rise of settlements in the middle Gangetic basin, India saw a second wave of urbanisation. The majority of the houses were made of mud brick and wood. In comparison to the Painted Grey Ware villages, the unearthed buildings are unremarkable; nonetheless, when coupled with other material relics, they indicate a significant population. Numerous towns served as administrative hubs and key commercial and economic hubs.

Craftsmen and traders established guilds (shrenis) with each guild having its own guildmaster. The "sethi" was a prominent merchant who engaged in trade and money lending, system of banking and lending, issuing script and minting coins, of which the earliest were silver-bent bars and silver and copper punch-marked coins.The medium of exchange in Karshapana was copper and silver. Another name for the silver Karshapana was Dharan.

A Karshapana of silver was equivalent to one-tenth of a Vedic Niska.

Taxes were collected in each village and town by officials chosen by the monarch in exchange for protection from attacks by other rulers and robber tribes, as well as invading foreign nomadic tribes. Moreover, the King maintained law and order in his realm by punishing the corrupt.

Magadha was a fertile agricultural region. In addition, iron mines in modern-day Jharkhand were conveniently accessible and provided raw materials for tools and weapons. In addition, the Ganga and its tributaries offered an inexpensive and convenient route of transportation.


In the Sixteen Mahajanapadas, the caste system was widespread and gradually solidified into severe conservatism, although caste distinction did not give rise to class animosity. Brahmanas grew in prominence owing to importance attached to rituals. During this period, the Brahmanas' influence over society shifted towards authoritarian rule. However eventually when dominance became suffocating, breath of fresh air came in with unorthodox ideas. With growing economy traders and merchants wanted to spread commerce far and wide whereas brahmanical conservative ideas acted as an impediment, people from lower strata were also discontent as they wished for social mobility which brhamanical conservatism didn't allow.

New schools of thought, like as Buddhism and Jainism, arose and expanded as a result of the republics' tolerance for non-orthodox beliefs. These opposed the traditional Vedic social order and the caste system, stressing equality and a logical approach to social interactions. This strategy was appealing to both the affluent and the poor because it enabled social mobility, and royal patronage funded missionaries who spread Buddhism across India and overseas. Primacy now was accorded to merit, shudras and women were given access to learning scriptures. Attempt was made to remove caste based impediments and inequalities.


There was social and economic progress during this time that led to economic and political organisation. It is well said that it was truly a second urbanisation. The growth of Jainism and Buddhism further propelled the social advancement.

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