Dynasties of Magadha – I

While the Magadha kings aggressively expanded their territory, they also gave patronage to Buddhism and Jainism which originated in the empire.


Known history of the Magadha Empire goes back to the days of the Puranas, and Vedas, dating back to 1700 BC and earlier.
The Ramayana refers to Magadha only as a fertile and rich place, and it is the Mahabharata, the Vedas, Buddhist and Jain texts that bring to us the Magadha story of affluence and aggression.
Many dynasties ruled Magadha and the Magadha kings who stand out in Indian history – Bimbisara, Ajatashatru, Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka – owe part of their successful expansion to the kingdom’s location on the fertile Gangetic plain, on the southeast banks of the Ganga in present-day south Bihar, and to the copper and iron ore mines of Bihar and Jharkhand.
Moving alongside military expansion is the spread of Buddhism and Jainism from this region, finding patronage from the kings, Bimbisara, Ajatashatru, Kalasoka, Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka in particular. This is understandable, since the religions had emerged in the region, and Buddha and Mahavira were contemporaries of Bimbisara.

Brihadratha Dynasty
Known history of Magadha begins with Brihadratha who founded the dynasty in his name. His son, the powerful king Jarasandha attacked the Yadava kingdom Surasena seventeen times, forcing the Yadavas to move from its capital Mathura to Dwarka.
Later, Bheema, with guidance from Krishna, killed Jarasandha in a wrestling match and placed the latter’s son Sahadeva on the Magadha throne. Sahadeva fought alongside the Pandavas in Kurukshetra and was killed in the war.
Twenty four Brihadratha kings ruled Magadha for nine centuries, from 1700 to 800 BC, making it the longest ruling dynasty of the empire.
In 799 BC, the last Brihadratha king Ripunjaya was killed by his minister, who placed his son Pradyota on the throne, according to some sources. Now began dynasties known for their bloody feuds of succession.

Pradyota Dynasty
According to the Vayu Purana, the Pradyotas, who were already ruling Avanti in Madhya Pradesh, annexed Magadha. Their rule was short-lived with the five Pradyota kings ruling Magadha from 799 to 684 BC.
Crimes were commonplace, and according to Buddhist and Jain texts, a Pradyota tradition was that the king’s son kills his father to become the king. Eventually, the crimes and feuds for succession led to a people’s revolt, and Magadhis chose a Haryanka ruler. Meanwhile, the Pradyotas continued to rule Avanti.

Haryanka Dynasty
Bimbisara, who was anointed king when he was fifteen, by his father, Bhattiya was the first Haryanka ruler, although some sources refer to Bhattiya as the first king of the dynasty. Bimbisara built Girivraja (Rajagriha) as his capital and annexed Anga to the east, gaining access to the Ganges delta. He also formed marriage alliances with kingdoms to the north and west, laying the foundation for Magadha’s expansion.

Siddhartha Gautama met Bimbisara during his early wanderings and later, when he became the Buddha, Bimbisara became his disciple.
Bimbisara’s son Ajatashatru, continued the expansion, conquering Kashi and Kosala to the west, and after a sixteen-year battle with the Vrijji confederacy, he conquered this kingdom too. He is known for burning the Vrijji capital Vaishali. He also built a fort at the village, Pataligrama which would become Pataliputra.
Although Magadhis revolted against the Pradyotas for the latter’s succession feuds, the Haryankas continued the practice.


Succession was a bloody affair, with Ajatashatru imprisoning his father Bimbisara and becoming the cause of his death. Ajatashatru himself was murdered by his son, Udayabhadra, who in turn was assassinated by his son Anuruddha. Anuruddha was assassinated by his son Munda who was killed by his son Nagadasaka.
Yet another revolt rose within the kingdom, and Nagadasaka’s minister, Shishunaga came to power.

Shishunaga Dynasty
The Shishunagas ruled for a very short period, from 413 BC to 345 BC. Shishunaga, who was the son of a Lichchavi ruler, continued to expand Magadha, defeating Nandivardana of the Pradyota dynasty, and conquering Avanti.
Shishunaga ruled from Rajagriha (earlier called Girivraja), and it was during his son Kalasoka’s reign that Pataliputra became the Magadha capital and would remain so.
Mahanandin, the last Shishunaga ruler, was killed by his son Mahapadma Nanda who established the Nanda dynasty.

Magadha’s Might – The Basis
Magadha’s expansion during this period was based on its strategic location on the lower Ganges, receiving revenue both from the fertile plains and from maritime trade. It had access to timber and elephants from the neighbouring forests, which helped in construction and in strengthening the army.
Rich deposits of copper and iron ore, and the associated technological advances gave birth to Ajatashatru’s military innovations, like the maha sila kantaka (catapult that threw heavy stones to a great distance) and ratha musala (covered chariot with wheels that had rotating spears and blades).
Bimbisara built an efficient administration system, and ruled with the help of the executive, the judiciary and the military. He also introduced land revenue, strengthening the kingdom’s coffers.
For whom Ajatashatru Burnt Vaishali: Amrapali
Smitten with Amrapali’s beauty, Manudev, the king of Vaishali, killed her groom on the day of her marriage and declared her nagar vadhu (bride of the city). Amrapali became the royal courtesan of the Lichchavis, one of the eight tribes that formed the Vrijji confederacy with Vaishali as the capital. She also becamse the raja nartaki (court dancer).
King Bimbisara who had heard of Amrapali’s beauty, attacked Vaishali and took refuge in Amrapali’s house. Amrapali who had a son by Bimbisara, came to know his identity and asked the king to leave. She also asked him to put an end to his war against Vaishali, which Bimbisara did.
Later, his son Ajatashatru conquered Vaishali, which was being ruled by the Lichchavis at the time. He too had heard of Amrapali’s beauty and sought her. The people of Vaishali came to know of their relationship and imprisoned Amrapali.
In anger, Ajatashatru burned the city, nearly ruining Vaishali and causing the death of hundreds of people. Seeing the massacre, Amrapali turned away from the king and became a Buddhist nun.
Amrapali is known to have served food to Lord Buddha when he visited Vaishali before his death. She gave away her vast property to the Buddha, and many sermons were held in her mango grove.