Sunday, November 05, 2006

Magadha (Glossary)

Magadha, the ancient state or janapada, located in modern Bihar, East India, was an important location for the development of Indian religion and South Asian urbanization.

Jainism and Buddhism are closely linked with Magadha, and Upanishadic thought in Hinduism flourished in this region and neighboring Videha, the latter location found in modern southern Nepal.

Urbanization is a controversial subject in South Asian studies. The first urbanization phase in the region is found in Harappan civilization of northwestern India and Pakistan. While elements of Harappan culture certainly seemed to have survived into the historic period, the second phase of urbanization at Magadha seems to have evolved separately.

Austric influence on Indian cultural development including urbanization has been studied previously particularly with reference to the Austro-Asiatic peoples. A few scholars like S.K. Chatterji and Waruno Mahdi have also looked at Austronesian contributions.

Urbanization and Buddhism

The history of proto-urban culture in Magadha is found in the writings of the life of the Buddha and the early Sangha, the organized Buddhist community.

The kings of Magadha were able to establish supremacy over other local peoples known as Vajje (Vrjji) by the building of new fortresses and weapons.

In order to understand this we can look at the archaeological picture of the region at the time which consisted of agricultural villages and some modestly-fortified towns. At Rajgir, where Buddhist texts say the first Magadhan capital was erected we indeed find remains of a massive cyclopean wall dating back possibly to the sixth century BCE.

Cyclopean wall of Rajgir, Bihar

Earlier, I suggested that impulses for Magadhan urbanization came from the South rather than from the West as often asserted. This would also agree with Indian tradition.

The Puranas and other historical texts tell us that Manu Vaivasvata, the founder of the historical dynasties of Magadha and other Indian kingdoms came from South India -- from Dravida or the river Kritamala. This tradition of southern origins may even go back to Vedic times as both Yama and the Pitris (ancestors) are associated with the southern direction in Vedic literature.

According to the Mahabharata, one faces south while offering rice balls to the Pitris because that is where Visnu, in the form of a boar, created the ancestors.

South Indian Megalithic

Magadhan urbanization may owe its origin to impulses from the megalithic cultures of Sri Lanka and South India, and the cyclopean masonry of the former.

The cyclopean wall, megalithic burials and rock-cut caves are all represented in the southern megalithic cultures. The polished black ware of the South Indian megalithic may well be related to the Northern Polished Black Ware that characterizes Magadhan urban sites.

Urn burial, the chaitya design, even the brahmi script all have antecedents in the South.

The Sri Lankan site of Anuradhapura extended to 10 hectares by 800 BCE and 50 hectares by 600 BCE. It could very well have been a model for early Rajgir.

Sakadvipa and the South

Some connection of the South with the eastern island of Sakadvipa is also indicated by historical and other texts. Manu Vaivasvata is the son of Vivasvat, a form of the Sun God, often associated with Sakadvipa.

The Maga or priests of Sakadvipa are said to have been formed when the rays of the Sun were pared on Visvakarman's lathe in Sakadvipa. The paring of the Sun here appears as another form of the snaring or shooting of the Sun myth, in which the brightness or heat of the solar orb is reduced.

Maga is the name of the brahmin or priest of Sakadvipa. The Magas seem to have survived as the present-day Sakadwipi brahmins who live mostly around Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and eastern Uttar Pradesh.

The Skandapurana says that the Magas were first brought from Sakadvipa by Dasaratha, the father of the epic hero Rama. Sakadwipi tradition suggests they came indirectly through Sri Lanka. The Skandapurana also states a king named Gaya and his brahmins were afflicted with leprosy and were told by the Sun God to drink water in which Sakadvipa brahmins had washed their feet. They then went to the shores of the Milky Ocean and were cured.

Later the Skandapurana says Krishna brings the Magas of Sakadvipa to India to cure his son Samba of leprosy. The sun priests of Sakadvipa apparently had some talent in treating this disease. Afterward, Krisna persuades the Magas to settle at Sambakhyagram in Magadha.

It may be then this indicates a relationship between the name "Magadha" and "Maga," the name of the priests of Sakadvipa. Magadha is also the name for the kingly caste of Sakadvipa according to classical sources.

The earliest evidence of trade-like contact between South India and Insular Southeast Asia may go back to 1100 BCE-800 BCE when we see perforated ringfoot burial jars in South Indian megaliths. Perforated ringfoot jars are a feature of the Taiwanese Lungshanoid and they are also found in Novaliches, Philippines.

Around the same time we find evidence in Vietnam and the Philippines of agate and carnelian beads, and glass beads that resemble natural South Indian beryl crystals. Radiocarbon dates at the burial urn site of Phu Hoa produced wide-ranging figures of 1408 BCE-38 BCE and 814 BCE-164 BCE. Later around the middle of the sixth century BCE we see a proliferation of tripod vessels and the use of burial urns in Southeast Asia and South India.

Archaeologist Arun Malik and bioanthropologist Pathmanathan Raghavan have studied a massive clay urn burial ground at Adichanallur in South India with 167 urns dated to 2,800 years ago. They found that the osteological evidence suggests the presence of people who resembled Southeast Asian along with peoples resembling the present-day population pointing to an ancient trade or cultural relationship. Some of these jars have undeciphered inscriptions in a script identified as Tamil Brahmi.

Noting these relationships, it may also be that the highly-polished black ware of the South Indian megaliths found in conjunction with the characteristic polished black and red ware, was related to polished black ware further east.

Mainland Lungshanoid culture is characterized by polished black pottery. Musang Cave in northern Luzon (Cagayan Province) has black polished pottery at Layer II dated to 4340 BCE-2530 BCE, and highly-polished black ware is found in some quantites at the Lungshanoid Fengpitou site in Taiwan.

It is also worth noting that the dynasty of Ajatasatru, the king who built the fortress of Rajgir, was known as Saisu-Naga, with "Naga" also appearing as the name of one of the peoples associated with the megalithic/cyclopean works of Sri Lanka. "Naga" appears as a prefix as in Nagadasaka or a suffix as in Sisunaga in the names of Magadhan kings and it may be used as an ethnic indicator.

Saisunaga Dynasty

We can say that the indigenous peoples of Sri Lanka and South India had a black and red pottery tradition that may link either with the north possibly coming ultimately from Africa (Nubia and Upper Egypt), or may come directly from the latter region.

Iron-working traditions of the southern megalithic may have diffused from the Vindhyan region or the neighboring areas of the Ganges River valley. South India also developed a stone and glass bead-making industry.

Sometime before 1000 BCE the southern Dravidian and also possibly Austro-Asiatic peoples came into rather close contact with Nusantao maritime peoples from Insular Southeast Asia (Sakadvipa) carrying Lungshanoid-influenced cultural goods.

The Northern Black Polished Wares may signal the movement of a culturally-mixed group northward into East India including the Magadha region. The black pottery may relate directly to the polished black ware of the South Indian megalithic and even to the Lungshanoid polished black wares.

Puranic tradition vaguely describes these southern migrations in the legendary history of Manu Vaivasvata's journey from Dravida to the Himalayas, and the establishment of the first Magadha dynasty. The newcomers effected the political and cultural climate, but apparently adopted the local languages.

Some of these contacts appear to have persisted until the rise of the Saisunaga Dynasty and possibly some stone workers from the South helped build the fortifications at Rajgir. Thus, we can explain the cyclopean walls, megalithic burials, chaityas, rock-cut caves and urn burials.

Placement of the bones of the deceased in urns, sometimes in underground chambers as in Ajatasatru's tomb, is another point of comparision with the south were stone cist burials were the rule.

These cist burials have sometimes been compared to those of West Asia because a few have porthole openings, but they also show some interesting correspondence with stone cist graves to the East. At Peinan in southern Taiwan, we have the oldest scientifically datable megaliths in tropical eastern Asia dating to about 3000 BCE.

Here more than 1500 stone cist graves have been uncovered, most under the slate slab floors of houses. These houses were often built with corbeled slab walls and stone courtyards. Urn burials in stone cists are also found under house floors in the South Indian megalithic.

Kalamba urn in Sulawesi, source:

Plain of Jars, Laos, heavily-bombed during Vietnam War, source:

Urn field, Sulawesi, source:

Burial urns from Adichanallur, South India, source:

Burial urns from Univ. of San Carlos Museum, Philippines, click to enlarge, source:

The raising of the mound or stupa over the cist seems to blend an eastern with a southern practice. According to the Satapatha Brahmana, the Asuras and Easterners built round burial mounds, as compared to Vedic people who built four-cornered mounds.

Sangha and state

Magadha used its new-found power quickly. Rice agriculture, which dominated in this area, was effectively utilized to support the economy.

The Saisunaga rulers forged a close relationship with the new Buddhist religion and its governing councils. The development of the monastic system, first based in rock-cut cave monasteries, necessitated the need for a governmental support system. The kings gladly exchanged their patronage for the endorsement of the Buddhist religious leaders.

Because of the interdependence between sangha and state, the expansion of Buddhism naturally meant the expansion of the state. And with the growth of the state, new techniques of government and management were needed. The resulting requirements for centralization, transporation, irrigation, drainage, etc. lead to the development of urbanizaton.

Thus, the Magadhan urbanization developed independently based on local needs tied to the expansion of a history-making new religion.

Magas and Sakadwipis

Various explanations are given for the name "Maga" describing the caste of brahmins from Sakadvipa. Often it is explained as related to the "Magi" of Persia. It is said that the Maga may have practiced Mithraism since they emphasized worship of the Sun.

However, no formal Mithraic or Zoroastrian doctrine is evident in the historical accounts of the Magas, or the Sakadwipi brahmins. Other than a few modifications of what may have been existing practices in India, the Magas were totally Hinduized.

All their gods and doctrines appear basically as Indian. Their main religious thrust again was to stress Sun worship, but even here they used the Indian sun gods like Surya. Among the present-day Sakadwipi brahmins even Sun worship is no longer of prime importance and many have become Saktas, Tantrics, or worshippers of Rama, Krisna, Radha, etc.

The other castes of Sakadvipa are generally given as Magadha for the Kshatriya caste of India, Manasa for the Vaisya caste and Mandaga for the Sudra caste. Other sources give caste names like Marga, Masaka, Manga, Mansa, Mriga, etc.

It is evident that these caste names are based on the initial syllable "ma." There is something similar in the names of the four Kumaras, Sanaka, Sananda and Sanat and Sanatana where the "sa" syllable is found in the initial position.

Sometimes one hears that the "saka" in Sakadvipa is related to the ethnonym "Saka" meaning "Scythian" which is given as another argument for the Magas as Persian Magi. However, like the continents Jambu (Rose Apple), Kusa (a grass species), Plaksa (fig tree), Salmali (Silk Cotton tree) and Puskara (lotus), the name Saka refers to a plant, in this case the teak tree.

Sakadvipa was located to the East in the tropical Milky Ocean. Svetadvipa, placed on the northern shores of this ocean, appears as a sub-region of Sakadvipa. It may be that the Magas helped promote the importance of Svetadvipa among worshippers of Narayana, a form of Visnu, in early India.

The Kumaras are said to have visited Svetadvipa, which according to the epics was an important place of pilgrimage to meet Narayana himself.

In Kalacakra Buddhism, the extra-South Asian destination of pilgrims to the East is Suvarnadvipa (Shambhala), and this may simply be a continuation of the efforts of the earlier Magas to highlight the spiritual importance of the region. Like the Magas, the kings of Suvarnadvipa had special relations with East India. They were also strongly present in South India and Sri Lanka, and this may also be the case of the Magas given a southern route into East India as discussed above.

The Mahabharata comments that the people of Sakadvipa were known for their egalitarianism:

In these provinces [of Sakadvipa], O monarch, there is no king, no punishment, no person that deserves to be punished. Conversant with the dictates of duty they are all engaged in the practice of their respective duties and protect one another. This much is capable of being said of the island called Saka. This much also should be listened to about that island endued with great energy."

-- Mahabharata, Bhima Parva, 11

It may be of interest to study the relationship of the Vajje (Vrjji) confederacy in Magadha and Kosala during the Buddha's time to see if there could be some Maga influence on regional political relationships. On the whole, Maga influence on religious thinking appears to have been less than the East-West exchange that occured during the formation of Tantric doctrine in East and South India, and eastern and southeastern Asia.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Peregrine, Peter N. (EDT) and Melvin (EDT) Ember. Encyclopedia of Prehistory, Springer, 2001, p. 306.

Tarling, Nicholas. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia,Cambridge University Press, 1993.