During the Vedic period, sixteen Mahajanapadas ruled northern India, of whom the Kurus are credited with establishing the Vedic heritage.


The decline of the Indus Valley Civilisation began in 1700 BC, coming to an end 400 years later. Meanwhile, the Vedic age emerged, thriving from 1500 to 600 BC. The janapadas, meaning foothold of tribes, emerged during this period and marked the second urbanisation, after the Indus Valley Civilisation.
Until about 1100 BC, tribal and pastoral cultures existed and were largely based in Punjab. The thick forest cover deterred them from migrating eastward, but by 1300 BC, the Iron Age had begun. The emergence of axes and ploughs made of iron helped them clear the forest cover.
Gradually, these tribes moved eastward towards the Gangetic Plain, and settled down to agriculture. They formed clans that evolved into the janapadas, which were republics or kingdoms.

Headed by a king, the tribes also had an assembly, that is, samiti, which elected or dethroned the king. Elders formed the sabha, which advised the king. Clans, or kulas developed, each with its own chief. The military emerged, with kshatriya warriors and eventually the janapadas evolved.


The smaller janapadas merged into 16 mahajanapadas, and extended across the northern part of India until 500 BC, coming to an end with the rise of empires like the Magadha Empire or due to the Persian and Greek invasions.
Accounts differ, but the 16 mahajanapadas are said to be Anga, Assaka, Avanti, Chedi, Gandhara, Kashi, Kamboja, Kosala, Kuru, Magadha, Malla, Matsya, Panchala, Surasena, Vajji and Vatsa.
ANGA had as its capital Champa, which was on the banks of the River Champa and was a centre of trade and commerce. Angad, son of Vali, is said to have established the kingdom. Duryodhana is said to have made Karna the king of Anga. King Bimbisara of Magadha annexed Anga into the Magadha kingdom, making Brahmadatta the last of the Anga kings.
ASSAKA or Asmaka was established near the river Godavari with Potali, or Podana as its capital. Its rulers were contemporaries to the Shishunagas of Magadha.
AVANTI was ruled by the Haihayas with Mahishmati as its capital initially. Later, it was divided by the Vindhyas into the northern region, with Ujjayini as its capital, and the southern region with Mahishmati as its capital. Later, it was ruled by the Pradyota dynasty. After Pradyota, his son Palaka ascended the throne. He was overthrown for his tyrannical rule. Later, Avanti came under the rule of the Shishunagas of Magadha.
CHEDI, to the south of the Yamuna, was ruled by Shishupala, and was known in the Mahabharata as Duryodhana’s ally. Its capital was Suktimati.
GANDHARA was a kingdom in the Peshawar valley, extending from what is today Pakistan to north-east Afghanistan. Its main cities were Purushapura (Peshawar), Takshasila and Pushkalavati, on the banks of the Swat and Kabul rivers. Pushkalavati was its capital until the 2nd century AD.
KASHI had as its capital, Varanasi or Kashi, which was on the banks of the Ganga. The city received its name from the rivers Varuna and Assi. It emerged as one of Hinduism’s cultural and religious centres.
KAMBOJA was situated beyond Gandhara with Rajapura (Rajauri) as its capital. Its inhabitants are believed to be of Indo-Iranian or Indo-Aryan origin. Since they were great horsemen, they often took part in battles among other nations.
KOSALA (present-day Awadh) was ruled from its capital Ayodhya. The Ikshvakus ruled Kosala and were later defeated by Ajatashatru of Magadha.
MALLA was situated north of Magadha and was divided probably by river Kakuttha (Kuku) into two parts, with Kusavati and Pava as the two capitals. During the post-Vedic period, both Gautama Buddha and Mahavira chose this republic as their place of death.
MATSYA was to the west of river Yamuna with its capital as Viratanagari. It was probably part of Chedi at some point in time.

Gandhara was a kingdom in the Peshawar valley, extending from Pakistan to north-east Afghanistan. Its main cities were Purushapura (Peshawar), Takshasila and Pushkalavati, on the banks of the SWAT and Kabul rivers. Pushkalavati was its capital until the 2nd century AD.

Kuru was formed by the Bharata and Puru tribes, becoming a key political and cultural centre during the reigns of King Parikshit and King Janamejaya. The vedas are said to have been arranged into collections during this period and Hindu rituals were crystallised. Asandivat was the first Kuru capital with Indraprastha and Hastinapura emerging later as the main cities. The capital shifted to Kausambi when floods destroyed Hastinapura. The Kurus eventually fell to the Salvas.
Magadha originated in Bihar to the south of the Ganga. Its capital was initially known as Girivrijja, and was later changed to Rajagriha during the time of Ajatashatru. Much later, its capital shifted to Pataliputra. The Haryanka dynasty ruled from 600 to 413 BC, with Bimbisara ascending the throne as the second king of the dynasty. His son, Ajatashatru imprisoned him and caused his death. Ajatashatru conquered Vaishali, Kashi and Kosala, in addition to many other republics, establishing Magadha’s power.
Magadha expanded to cover Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal, parts of Uttar Pradesh as well as Bangladesh and Nepal. After the Shishunaga dynasty ruled from 413 to 345 BC, the Nanda dynasty ruled up to 321 BC. Chandragupta Maurya overthrew Dhana Nanda, the last of the Nanda rulers, to establish the Maurya dynasty.

PANCHALA was in the region where the Ganga and Yamuna converge. It was a powerful kingdom with close alliance with the Kurus. It later turned into a republic and was annexed into the Magadha Empire by Mahapadma Nanda. Panchala later regained its independence, but was annexed by the Gupta Empire.
SURASENA, which is mentioned in the Ramayana, has Mathura as its capital. It is said to be the land of Lord Krishna and its inhabitants were called Yadavas.

VAJJI, ruled from Vaishali, was a confederacy of eight clans, including the Licchavis, Jnatrikas and Videhas. The Licchavi king Manudeva is said to have had a desire for Amrapali, the legendary dancer.
VATSA, situated at the Ganga-Yamuna confluence, had as its capital Kausambi. It was a branch of the Kuru dynasty, the other being the Vatsas.
These 16 Mahajanapadas are important not only for being the starting point for many of India’s later dynasties, but more so for bringing Vedic culture into the mainstream.