The Magadhan Empire

Causes of rise of the Magadha Empire
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The Magadhan Empire is regarded as the first empire in India. It ruled from 544 B.C to 322 B.C. During the age of Buddha there were sixteen large states called Mahajanapadas. Janapadas means the land where a jana sets its foot and settles. They are the realms, republics and kingdoms of the Vedic period on the Indian subcontinent. Among the great Janapadas or the Mahajanapadas, names such as Vajji, Vatsa, Magadha, Koshala, Kuru, Panchala, Gandhara and Avanti occurs frequently in the pages of History.

These large states were mostly situated north of the Vindyas and extended from the north-west frontier to Bihar. While most of these mahajanapadas were ruled by kings, some known as ganas or sanghas, were oligarchies. In Oligarchies power was shared among a number of men, often collectively known as rajas.

Among the sixteen mahajanapadas, Magadha, Koshala, Vatsa and Avanti seemed to be most powerful. However in the fight of dominance and supremacy Magadha emerged as the most powerful kingdom. The area of Magadha empire embraces the former districts of Patna, Gaya and parts of Shahabad. Initially the capital of Magadhan empire was Rajgir and later it was shifted to Pataliputra.

The Dynasties of Magadha

The growth of the Magadhan Empire was seen through three dynasties. The first one was Haryanka dynasty (544 BC to 412 BC). They were succeeded by the Shishunaga dynasty(412 BC to 344 BC). And the third one was the Nanda dynasty(344 BC to 322 BC).

Haryanka Dynasty(544 BC to 412 BC)


There were three rulers in the Haryanka Dynasty. The founder of the Magadhan Empire Bimbisara was from the Haryanka dynasty. The other two rulers were Ajatashatru and Udayin.


According to the Buddhist chronicles, Bimbisara ruled roughly for fifty two years (544 BC to 492 BC). Magadha came into existence under the rule of Bimbisara. The first Magadhan king used to follow the policy of conquest and agression. He was a ruler who was not satisfied with what he had. To strengthen his position, he even used marriage as a policy. This helped him to gain enormous diplomatic prestige and paved the way for expanding Magadha westward and northward.

Bimbisara had three wifes. His first wife was Koshaladevi, the daughter of the Koshalan King. He received a Kashi village in dowry that used to yield a revenue of 100,000(in terms of coins). This marriage calmed down the hostilities between Bimbisara and the King of Koshala. His second wife Chellana was a Lichchhavi princess from Vaishali. She gave birth to his son Ajatashatru. With this relation he secured the northern frontier. The third marriage alliance was with the chief of Madra clan of Punjab. He married Khema, the daughter of the chief.

Bimbisara on his conquest of expanding his territory invaded the state of Anga. He defeated Brahmaddatta and acquired Anga. He placed Anga under the vice-royalty of his son Ajatashatru at Champa. After that he started eyeing on all other Mahajanapadas near him. The most serious rival was Avanti. Its king Chanda Pradyota Mahasena fought with Bimbisara once. But later on both of them found it wise to make up and became friends. Bimbisara received an embassy and a letter from the ruler of Gandhara. Thus following his agressive policies, Bimbisara founded a very large empire with 80,000 villages. Later on he was killed by his own son Ajatashatru.


Ajatashatru seized the throne of Bimbisara by killing his father. However some sources say that Bimbisara was not killed but captured by his son. He ruled Magadha from 492 BC to 460 BC. Ajatashatru followed the foot steps of his father. Throughout his reign he was an aggressive expansionist.

Ajatashatru looked towards conquering Koshala and Kashi. As a result, prolonged conflict started between Magadha and Koshala. Eventually a war was fought between Ajatashatru and the Koshala King. The Koshala King was compelled to give his daughter to Ajatashatru to purchase peace. Kashi was also offered to him to end the war.

After that Ajatashatru made war with Vaishali. He invaded the territory of Vaishali and defeated them. It is said that it took sixteen years to win Vaishali. He expanded the Magadha empire by adding Kashi and Vaishali to it. Ajatashatru was succeeded by Udayin.

 Ajatashatrus Kingdom
Ajatashatru’s Kingdom (Source Wikimedia)


Udayin was the son of Ajatashatru. He ruled Magadha from 460 BC to 444 BC. He was instrumental in building a fort at the confluence of the Ganges and Son at Patna. As Magadha by then was extended from the Himalayas in the north to the hills of Chhotanagpur in the south, Patna lay at the centre of the kingdom. Besides this Patna had a strategic importance at that time. The capital of Magadha was shifted to Pataliputra during his reign. Later on he was succeeded by his son Anuruddha by assasination. Anuruddha was succeeded by his son Munda and Munda by Nagdosoka. The people of Magadha started losing faith on Magadhan rulers due to the continuous dynastic feuding. So they imposed Shisunaga as their ruler. This was the foundation of the Shishunaga dynasty.

Shishunaga Dynasty(412 BC to 344 BC)

The Shishunaga Dynasty ruled Magadha from 412 BC to 344 BC. The two most popular rulers of Shishunaga dynasty are Shishunaga and Kalasoka.


Shishunaga was the viceroy of Kashi before becoming the king of Magadha. His greatest achievement was that he destroyed the power of Avanti and brought an end to the 100 year rivalry between Avanti and Magadha. Avanti was annexed and it remained part of Magadha through out the magadhan rule. Shisunaga shifted the capital of Magadha to Vaishali.


Sishunaga was succeeded by his son Kalasoka. During Kalasoka’s rule the capital of Magadha was shifted back to Pataliputra. Kalasoka was the last Shishunaga ruler. He was succeeded by Mahapadma Nanda.

Nanda Dynasty(344 BC to 322 BC)


The Nandas were the last rulers of Magadha. During their rule Magadha had reached new heights of power and supremacy. The Nandas were very rich. It is said that they possesed 200,000 infantry, 60,000 cavalry and around 6000 war elephants. They had an effective tax system that helped them to form such a huge army.

Mahapadma Nanda

Nanda Dynasty was the first non-Kshatriya dynasty of India. Mahapadma Nanda was the first ruler of the Nanda dynasty. He killed Kalasoka to become the king. Mahapadma proved to be the most powerful rulers of Magadha. He extended Magadhan empire by conquering Kalinga. It is said that he captured not only Kalinga but also Koshala. Koshala probably had rebelled against him. He was succeeded by his son Dhana Nanda.

Dhana Nanda

Dhana Nanda was the last Nanda ruler. He was so powerful that even Alexander dared not to move towards Magadha. At that time Alexander was invading North-Western India. But Dhana Nanda had an oppressive way of extorting taxes. His anti-kshatriya policy and shudra origin along with the oppression while collecting taxes made him unpopular. He proved to be weak and finally the rule of Magadha was supplanted by that of the Maurya dynasty. Dhana Nanda was overthrown by Changragupta Maurya. This led to the starting of Maurya rule and culmination of the Magadhan empire.

Causes of Magadha’s rise

  • Magadha enjoyed a very advantageous geographical position. The richest iron deposits were located near to their first capital Rajgir. They had enourmous scope to use iron ores to equip their army with effective weapons.
  • Both the capitals, Rajgir and Pataliputra were situated at very strategic points. Rajgir was impregnable as it was surrounded by a group of five hills. Pataliputra was situated at the confluence of the Ganges, the Gandak, and the Son. Their army could move easily towards all direction using the course of these rivers.
  • The Gangetic plain was very fertile. Immense agricultural activities could be done to become self sufficient. The environment was suitable for agriculture. Given the heavy rain, the areas could be made more productive even without irrigation.
  • The availability of timber in the Gangetic plain helped them to manufacture as much boat as required for river transportation.
  • The large army was another factor in the rise of Magadha. They were the first rulers to use war elephants. The elephants were made available to them from the eastern part of the country. Elephants could be used to storm fortresses and to march across marshy areas or the areas where there were no roads or other means of transportation.
  • The unorthodox character of the Magadhan society played a role in their rise. Magadha was inhabited by the Kiratas and Magadhas. They underwent a happy ethnic admixture with the Vedic people.

Related Post :

The Harappan Civilization

The Maurya Empire

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