The Mahajanapadas of Jambudvipa

BY: SUN STAFF - 23.4 2017

Yantra of Jambudvipa, c. 1725

A serial exploration of the island of Jambudvipa and the sixteen Great States residing there.

The mahajanapadas, or sixteen Great States of Jambudvipa, are among the most important topics of study in ancient geography. The word mahajanapadas means 'great realm', from maha (great) and janapada (foothold of a tribe or country). as mentioned in ancient Buddhist texts, these states are the kingdoms that existed during the 6th to 3rd Centuries B.C. Other sastric references, however, indicate their greater antiquity.

The age of Jambudvipa itself cannot be constrained to a timeline of such relatively modern political divisions. As stated in Srimad Bhagavatam 5.16.5:

"The planetary system known as Bhu-mandala resembles a lotus flower, and its seven islands resemble the whorl of that flower. The length and breadth of the island known as Jambudvipa, which is situated in the middle of the whorl, are one million yojanas [eight million miles]. Jambudvipa is round like the leaf of a lotus flower."

Various accounts are given in sastra of the names and number of these great states, sometimes counted as 12, 14, 16, etc. For example, in the Markandeya Purana (Ch. 57, 32-35) the countries in Madhyadesa (a puranic name for Jambudvipa) are listed as being Matsya, Kusula, Kulya, Kuntala, Kasi, Kosala, Arvuda, Pulinda, Samaka, Vrka, Aparanta (Avanti), and Govardhana-pura.

In the Anguttara Nikaya of the Pali Sutta Pitaka there are 16 mahajanapadas listed in Jambudvipa: Anga, Magadha, Kasi, Kosala, Vajji, Malla, Cheti (Chedi), Vamsa (Vatsa), Kuru, Pancala, Maccha (Matsya), Surasena, Assaka (Ashmaka), Avanti, Gandhara and Kamboja. Each one of these great states is named after the people who settled or colonized the region. Gandhara and Kamboja are sometimes said to be located in Uttarapatha or Northern Division.

Similar lists are given in the Digha Nikaya (listing 12), the Oullaniddesa (17), and the Jain Bhagavati Sutra (Vyakhyaprajnapati), which gives a list of 14, with slightly different names.

The Indriya-Jataka mentions the following janapadas: Surattha (Surat), Lambaculaka, Avanti, Dakkhinapatha, Dandaka Forest (Dandakrianno), Kumbhavati-nagara and the hill tract of Aranjara (Aranjaragiri) in the Majjhima-padesa.

Left: Ancient Kingdoms; Right: Ancient Cities 

In the Mahavastu it states that Gautama distributed knowledge among the people of Anga, Magadha, Vajji, Malla, Kasi, Kosala, Cedi, Vatsa, Matsya, Surasena, Kuru, Pancala, Sivi, Dasarna, Assaka and Avanti. This list differs from the Pali list inasmuch as it excludes Gandhara and Kamboja, but includes Sivi and Dsasarna.

So we can see that both the names, numbers and the order of enumeration of the Great States is somewhat different from text to text. Over the course of this series, we will explore each one of the 16 mahajanapadas in some detail. We begin with the following recitation of verses from Srimad Bhagavatam 5th Canto, Chapter 16, entitled 'A Description of Jambudvipa':