Some of the largest empires of India were established in the ancient period. Find here the list of great emperors of ancient India who ruled different parts of India at various times between 600 BC to 650 AD (ancient period).
Ancient India had seen rise and fall of many empires since the shift of the center of the civilisation to the Gangetic plane. After post vedic period, around 600 BC, saw the rise of 16 Mahajanpadas (great kingdoms). Some of them increased their power and became mighty. They adopted the policies of expansion and forged early empires of Ancient India.
Ajatshatru (492 BC – 460 BC)
List of great emperors of India begins with emperor of Magadh, Ajatshatru. He was the son of king Bimbisar who founded the Haryank dynasty in Magadh. Bimbisar known as Seniya was the 1st Indian king who had a regular standing army. He conquered Anga and established marital relationships with other Mahajanpadas.
Ajatshatru imprisoned his father and seized the throne. He extended the empire through military expeditions and made Magadha most powerful territorial power.
Ajatshatru never lost on the battlefield to his enemies.
He attacked and annexed Kashi and Kausala. He invented rathmusla blade chariot and Mahashilkantaka engine for throwing big stones to defeated the invincible Vajji confederation. Ajatashatru ruled almost all of the central India.
He built a watch-fort on the banks of the river Ganges at Pātali Grama(village). Later his son Udayin developed it into a city called Pataliputra which remained the center of power in India for most of the ancient period.
Ajatshatru was contemporary of both Mahavira and Buddha. He patronised the 1st Buddhist Council in 483 BC.
Mahapadma Nanda (345 AD – 329 AD)
Mahapadma overthrew Shishunag dynasty and founded the Nanda dynasty in 344 BC. He had a huge standing army.
He was often described as 1st empire builder of Indian history. The Puranas cal him Ekrat (the sole monarch). He is also known as sarvakshatrantak (uprooters of Kshatriya) , ugrasena (owner of huge army).
He defeated many kingdoms, including the Kurus, Panchalas, Kasis, Haihayas, Maithilas, Kalingas, Asmakas, Surasenas and the Vitihotras in his expansionist endeavor.
Mahapadma was succeeded by his eight sons. Dhananand was last emperor of Nanda dynasty who commanded a huge army of 20,000 cavalry, 200,000 infantry, 2,000 chariots and 3,000 elephants.
Alexander invaded North-West India during his reign. The might of dhananand terrorised Alexander and he stopped his march to the Gangetic valley.
Chandragupta (322-298 BC)
Chandragupta ended Nada dynasty and founded the largest Indian empire of all time, the Maurya empire. For the first time whole north India is united.
Chandragupta was raised by a pastoral family born who found him orphaned and abandoned. Chanakya, the author of Arthashastra impressed by leadership qualities, taught and counseled him. Chandragupta and Chanakya built alliances and a formidable army of their own first. They eventually able to defeat Bhadrasala and Dhana Nanda in a series of battles, culminating in the siege of the capital city Pataliputra and the conquest of the Nanda Empire around 322 BCE.
Chandragupta defeated Alexander’s general Selucas Nicator who surrender vast territory Kandahar, Herat, kabul and Baluchistan in return for 500 elephants.
Later, he became Jain and went to Chandragiri Hill, Sravanbelgola where he died by slow starvation. (kaya-klesha).
Ashoka (273 BC – 232 BC)
Ashoka the great was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. Mauryan empire reached its climax under his rule. Whole of the subcontinent leaving out the extreme south was under Indian control.
He killed his 99 brothers to usurp the throne. He infamously called Chand Ashoka for his fierce attitude.
After seeing the massacre of Kalinga war in 261 BC, he declared renunciation of war. He became the greatest patron of Buddhism.
He had sent missionaries to kingdoms of Cholas and Pandyas, five states ruled by Greeks, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Suvarnabhumi (Burma) and parts of South Asia.
Buddhist Emperor Asoka built thousands of Stupas and Viharas for Buddhist followers.
UNESCO has declared one of his stupas, the Great Sanchi Stupa, as a World Heritage Site.
Modern Indian republic has adopted the four-lion capital of the Ashoka pillar at Sarnath as the national emblem.
Kanishka (78 AD – 101 AD)
Kanishka was the founder of second Kushan dynasty. Kushans belonged to one of the Yeuchi clans of Central Asia. They were the foreign successor of Mauryas. They established the 3rd largest empire of the ancient India.
Kanishka’s empire boundaried Northern western India, lower indus basin upper middle gangetic basin. His capital was at Peshawar and Mathura. He controlled the famous silk route starting from China to Iran and western asia
Kushan were the first rulers to issue gold coin on a wide scale.
Kanishka was a follower of Buddhism. He patronized the 4th Buddhist council held in Kundalvana, Kashmir where doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism were finalised.
Kanishka is known as second Ashoka.
He started Saka era in 78 AD which is used by government of India
Scholars who found patronage in the royal court of Kanishka – Parsava, Vasumitra, Asvaghosha, Nagarjuna, Charak, Mathara
GautMiputra Satakarni (106 AD -130 AD)
Gautamiputra Satkarni was 23rd king of Satvahanas dynasty. Satvahanas were native successor of Mauryas who ruled Deccan and central India. There capital was at Paithan Maharashtra.
Gautamiputra was the greatest among Satvahanas rulers who revived the their power after a decline caused by Shaka invasions. He defeated the Shaka ruler, Nahapana. His rule extended from Malwa and Saurashtra in the north to Krishna river in the south; and from Konkan in the west to Vidarbha (Berar) in the east.
The Nashik prashasti inscription mention him “ekabrahmana” which means “a proud champion of Brahmanism”. Nevertheless, he also patronized Buddhist monks. The monks were exempted from taxes and granted immunity from any interference by the royal officers. He took care of his citizens and shared their joys and sorrows.
Samudragupta (335 AD – 380 AD)
Samudragupta belonged to Gupta dynasty which established the second largest empire of ancient India in 319 AD – 540 Ad. Gupta period is known as golden age of India.
Guptas annexed the territories of monarchs in northern India and central India and turned their empire into a formidable power in gangetic valley. Patliputra was their capital.
Samudragupta is known as the Napoleon of India for his military expeditions.
He annexed the defeated states of north into his empire but in South he remained content with victories alone. His empire bordered Western province (Afghanistan & Pak) and vakatakas in Deccan (southern Maharashtra). He is believed to have a navy because of his dominion over Java Sumatra and Malaya islands.
Samudragupta hold several titles – Kaviraj, Param Bhagwat, ashvamedha-parakrama, Vikram, sarv-raj-occheta (uprooted of all kings)
Harsha Vardhan (606 AD – 647 AD)
Harsha (Siladitya) was last the great emperor in ancient India who ruled most of Northern India. He forged the 4th largest empire of the period. His empire was spread from eastern Rajasthan, the Ganges valley to as far as Assam.
Harsha belonged to Pushyabhuti dynasty which was founded by his grandfather Pushyabhuti. Thaneswar (in present Haryana) was their capital. Later, Harsha made Kannauj his capital.
Before Harsha his brother Rajyavardhana was the king of Thaneswar. Their sister, Rajyashree was married to the Maukhari ruler of Kannauj, Grahavarman.
Ruler of Malwa, Dev Gupta with the help of Goud ruler of the Magadha, Shashanka captured and killed Grahavarman and imprisoned Rajyashree. Rajyavardhana attacked Kannauj and killed Dev Gupta but got himself killed by the the Shashanka in 606 AD.
Harshavardhan after ascending to the throne drove Shashank out of Kannauj and rescued his sister. He did not find success in his first campaign against Shashanka. After death of Shashanka, Harsha defeated Magadh and annexed it in his empire.
In his expedition to the south, the lord of whole of Northern country suffered a defeat against Pulkesin II of Chalukyas at the bank of Narmada. This was the only defeat he tasted in his victorious life.
Hiuen Tsang, the celebrated Chinese pilgrim visited and spent 8 years in the dominion of Harsha. He mentions two most celebrated event of Harsha’s reign in his writings
- Kannauj assembly in 643 ad – This event was held in the honor of Hiuen Tsang and to popularise Mahayana sect of Buddhism.
- Prayaga assembly in Pragya – Harsha used to celebrate religious festivals at the end of every five years at the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Saraswati. This is supposed to be the origin of Kumbh Mela.
Harsha was a Buddhist. He granted the revenue earned from 200 village to the Nalanda University for its maintenance.
He was patron of learning and a accomplished author. Three sanskrit plays written by him were – Nagananda, Ratnavali and Priyadarsika.
He died in 647 AD with no heir. His minister Arunasva usurped the throne after his death.
Pulkesin 2 (609 AD – 642 AD)
Ereya (Pulkesin II) was a great ruler of Chalukyas dynasty of Vatapi. He was minor when he got the throne so his uncle Mangalesha was appointed the regent. He had to overthrow him to control to get the control of the throne.
During his reign he expanded the Chalukyas empire to cover central and southern India.
His most notable achievement was checking the expedition of Emperor Harsha’s in deccan. He blocked the passes of Narmada and forced Harsha to return after loosing most of his elephants.
After defeating Harsha, Pulakeshin acquired control of a large part of western Deccan to the south of the Narmada river.
After defeating the Vishnukundins (dynasty ruling Orissa, Deccan and part of South India), Pulakeshin acquired control of a large part of the eastern Deccan region, extending from Vishakhapatnam in north to Nellore and Guntur in the south.
Pallavas ruler Narsimhavarman invaded Chalukyas, occupied Vatapi and killed Pulkesin in 642 AD.
Narsimha Varman Mammala (630 AD – 668 AD)
Narsimha Varman was the most famous Pallava rulers of Kanchi. He defeated and killed Chalukyas king pulkesin in 642 AD. He captured his capital and assumed the title Vatapikonda, conqueror of Vatapikonda.
Narsimha Varman was a devotee of Shiva and also known as Mamallan (great wrestler). Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) was named after him.
Narasimhavarman is claimed to be one of the 12 Indian kings who never lost on the battlefield to their enemies.