The Rise of the Magadhan Empire

Among all the kingdoms of North India, Magadha emerged powerful and prosperous. In the aspects of political activity in north India, it became the nerve center.

The political history of India from the sixth century B.C onwards is the history of the struggle between the states Magadha, Koshala, Vatsa, and Avanti for supremacy, and ultimately the kingdom of Magadha emerged to be the most powerful and succeeded in founding an empire.

During the reign of Bimbisara and Ajatasatru, the prosperity of Magadha reached its zenith. Magadha came into prominence under the leadership of Bimbisara, who belonged to the Haryanka dynasty. Bimbisara was a contemporary of the Buddha.

Table of Contents

Bimbisara (546-494 B.C)

Bimbisara started the policy of conquest and aggression which ended with the Kalinga War of Ashoka. Bimbisara acquired Anga and placed it under the viceroyalty of his son Ajatashatru at Champa. He paved the way for the rise of the Magadhan Empire.

Marriage alliances of Bimbisara:
  • He strengthened his position through marriage alliances. He married three women, the first wife was the daughter of the king of Koshala and the sister of Parsenjit. The Koshalan bride brought him a dowry of Kashi village yielding a revenue of 100,000 which suggests that the revenues were taken in terms of coins.
  • The marriage with Koshalan princes brought off the hostility of Kooshala and gave Bimbisara a free hand in dealing with the other states.
  • The second wife of Bimbisara was Chellana, a Lichchhavi princess from Vaishali who gave birth to Ajatshatru.
  • The third wife of Bimbisara was the daughter of the chief of the Madra clan of Punjab.
  • Marriage relations with the different princely families lent enormous diplomatic prestige and paved the way for the expansion of Magadha westward and northward.

Magadha’s most serious rival was Avanti. Chanda Pradyota the king of Avanti with capital Ujjain fought Bimbisara, but eventually, the two thought it wise to make up. later, Bimbisara sent the royal physician Jivaka to Ujjain when Pradyota was afflicted by jaundice.

Bimbisara made Magadha the dominant state in the sixth century B.C. through his conquests and diplomacy.

His Kingdom is said to have consisted of 80,000 villages, which is a conventional number. According to the Buddhist chronicles, Bimbisara ruled for 52 years, roughly from 544 to 492 BC.

Ajatashatru (492-460 B.C)

Bimbisara was succeeded by his son Ajatashatru (492-60 BC). Ajatashatru killed his father and seized the throne for himself. The reign of Ajatshatru was remarkable for his military conquests. He fought against Koshala and Vaishali.

  • The reign of Ajatashatru saw the high watermark of the Bimbisara dynasty.
  • Ajatashatru pursued an aggressive policy of expansion. He fought two wars and made preparations for a third.
  • His policy provoked the combination of Kashi and Koshala against him and began a prolonged conflict between Magadha and Koshala.
  • At the cost of peace, the Koshalan king was compelled to give his daughter in marriage to Ajatshatru and leave him in sole possession of Kashi.
  • Despite his mother being a Lichchhavi princess, he had a war against Vaishali, as he saw Lichchhavis were the allies of Koshala. Ajatshatru ended the independence of Lichachhavis by invading their territories and by defeating them in battle. He was eventually successful in doing so because of a war engine like a catapult which was used to hurl stones. This war lasted for about sixteen years.
  • Ajatshatru also possessed a chariot to which a mace was attached and this facilitated mass killings.
  • Thus the addition of Kashi and Vaishali enlarged the Magadhan empire.
  • Ajatshatru was succeeded by Udayin.
Udayin (460-44 B.C.)

Udayin succeeded Ajatshatru.

  • He built a fort at the confluence of the Ganges and Son at Patna because Patna lay at the center of the Magadhan kingdom, which now extended from the Himalayan in the north to the hills of Chhotanagpur in the South.
  • Udayin’s successors were weak rulers and hence Magadha was captured by Shishunagas.

Shishunaga dynasty

Udayin was succeeded by the dynasty of Shishunagas who temporarily moved the capital to Vaishali. Their greatest achievement was the destruction of the power of Avanti with its capital at Ujjain, and Avanti became a part of the Magadhan empire and continued to be so till the end of Maurya rule.

The successor of Shishunaga was Kakavarman or Kalasoka. During the reign of Kalasoka, the second Buddhist council was held at Vaishali.

Kalasoka was killed by the founder of the Nanda dynasty.


Shishunagas was succeeded by Nandas, who proved to be the most powerful ruler of Magadha. Alexander invaded Punjab at that time but dared not move towards the east just because of the power of Nandas.

  • During the reign of Mahapadma Nanda, the Nandas extended the Magadhan power by conquering Kalinga. They brought the image of Jina from Kalinga as a victory trophy.
  • Mahapadma Nanda claimed to be ‘ekarat’, the sole sovereign who had destroyed all the other ruling princes.
  • Nandas were fabulously rich and enormously powerful.
  • It is said that they maintained 200,000 infantry, 60,000 cavalries, and 3000 to 6000 war elephants.
  • They possessed an effective taxation system.
  • Mahapadma Nanda was succeeded by his eight sons. The last ruler was Dhana Nanda.

Later Nandas turned out to be weak and unpopular. The rule in Magadha was supplanted by that of the Mauryan dynasty under which the Magadhan empire reached the apex of glory.

(Go through the post: Chronology of Ancient History of India)

Causes of Magadha’s Success

There were many causes for the success and the rise of the Magadhan Empire such as geographical advantages, soil fertility, iron ores, etc.

The geographical and other advantages which triggered imperial greatness:

  • Magadha was endowed by nature with certain geographical and strategic advantages. These situations triggered the imperial greatness and made her rise.
  • The strategic position of Magadha between the upper and lower part of the Gangetic valley was a great advantage.
  • It has fertile soil. The iron ores in the hills near Rajgir and copper and iron deposits near Gaya added to its natural assets.
  • The location of Magadha at the center of the highway of trade of those days contributed to her wealth.
  • Rajagriha was first and Pataliputra was the second capital of Magadha, situated at very strategic points.
  • Rajgir was surrounded by a group of five hills, so it was impregnable in those days as there were no easy means of storming citadels such as cannons.
  • Magadhan princes shifted their capital from Rajgir to Pataliputra in the fifth century which occupied a pivotal position commanding communication on all sides.
  • Patliputra had a strategic location as it was situated at the confluence of the Ganga, the Gandak, and the Son, and a fourth river called the Ghaghra joined the Ganga near Pataliputra. Through that location, the army could move north, west, south, and east by following the courses of the rivers. So, Pataliputra was a real true water fort (jaladurga), and it was not easy to capture this town in those days.


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