The Licchavis were the most famous clan amongst the ruling confederate clans of the Vajji mahajanapada of ancient India. Vaishali, the capital of the Licchavis, was the capital of the Vajji mahajanapada also. It was later occupied by Ajatashatru, who annexed the Vajji territory into his kingdom.
Kautilya in his Arthaśāstra (ch. XI), describes the Licchavis as a tribal confederation (gaṇa sangha), whose leader uses the title of rājā (rājaśabdopajīvinah). A Buddhist text, the Mahāparinibbāna Suttanta refers them as Kshatriyas and one of the claimants of the relics of Buddha. They have claimed Kshatriya status themselves. According to the Dīgha Nikāya, the Licchavis were of the Vasiṣṭha gotra. In the Manusmriti (X.22), the Licchavis are placed in the category of the Vratya Kshatriyas.
Buddhaghośa in his Paramatthajotikā, traced the origin of the Licchavis to Benaras. The date of the establishment of the Licchavi domination over the area consisting of present day north Bihar and terai region of Nepal is not known. By the time of Mahavira and Gautama Buddha this clan was already well settled in the area around their capital Vaiśālī. Buddhist tradition has preserved the names of a number of eminent Licchavis, which include prince Abhyaya, Oṭṭhaddha (Mahāli), generals, Sīha and Ajita, Dummukha and Sunakkhata. The Kalpasūtra of Bhadravāhu refers to the nine Licchavi gaṇarājas (chieftains) who along with the nine Malla gaṇarājas and the eighteen Kāśī-Kośala gaṇarājas formed a league against Magadha. The leader of this alliance was Cheṭaka, whose sister Triśalā was the mother of Mahavira.
Only scattered reports of the Licchavi government system survive. The introductory portions of the Cullakalinga Jātaka and the Ekapaṇṇa Jātaka mention the Licchavi as having 7,707 Rājās. The number is one of convention, and unlikely to have been exact. It does demonstrate that Licchavi, unlike most of its neighbours, was not an absolute monarchy. Ultimate authority rested with the 7,707 raja who met each year to elect one of their member as ruler and a council of nine to assist him. It was far from a democracy as only a small portion of the Licchavi population qualified to vote. Those with raja status were only the male heads of households who belonged to the kshatriya varna.
The seat of the Licchavi administration was in Vaiśālī, the capital of the Vajjiian confederacy. The Rājā was the highest executive and judicial authority. The introductory portion of the Bhaddasāla Jātaka mentions about a tank, the water of which was used for the Abhiṣeka (the coronation) of the Gaṇarājas of Vaiśālī. The assembly hall where these Gaṇarājas met for discussion was known as the Santhāgāra.
The Aṭṭhakathā mentions about the three chief functionaries of the Licchavi administration, the Rājā (the ruling chief), the Uparājā (the deputy chief) and the Senāpati (the chief of the army). The introductory portion of the Ekapaṇṇa Jātaka adds one more with it, the Bhāṇḍāgārika (the chancellor of exchequer).
According to the Aṭṭhakathā, a criminal was first handed over to a Viniccaya Mahāmātta (the inquiring magistrate), who after the investigation and the interrogation of the accused if found guilty took him to the Vohārika (the jurist-judge). He could discharge him if he found him innocent, otherwise he handed over him to the Sūttadhāra (the master of the sacred code). The Sūttadhāra after confirming the guilt of the accused, handed him over to the Aṭṭhakūlakā (literally, the eight clans, probably a federal court). The Aṭṭhakūlakā if satisfied of the guilt of the accused made him over to the Senāpati, who after satisfying himself about the guilt of the accused made him over to the Uparājā. If the Uparājā also found him guilty, he handed him over to the Rājā. In case, the Rājā found him guilty, the convict received the punishment prescribed in the Paveṇipotthaka (the book of precedence) for the offence committed by him.
Licchavis and the Imperial Guptas
The Gupta emperor Chandragupta I married a Licchavi princess Kumaradevi and the legend Licchavayah is found along with a figure of goddess Lakshmi on the reverse of the Chandragupta I-Kumaradevi type gold coins of Samudragupta. In the Allahabad Pillar inscription of Samudragupta, he is described as the Licchavidauhitra (the grandson of the Licchavis from his mother's side). These probably suggest Licchavi occupation of Magadha immediately before the rise of the imperial Guptas, although there is no direct evidence to prove it.
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