It is mentioned in several ancient texts, and is said to have been ruled by the legendary Haihaya ruler Kartavirya Arjuna. Mahishmati was the most important city in the southern part of the Avanti kingdom, and later served as the capital of the Anupa Kingdom. The city may have flourished as late as until 13th century, as indicated by a Paramara inscription.
Although there are several references to Mahishmati in ancient Indian literature, its exact location is uncertain. The following things are known about Mahishmati's location:
- It was located on the banks of the Narmada river.
- It was located to the south of Ujjayini, and north of Pratishthana, on the route connecting the two cities (according to Sutta Nipata). Patanjali mentions that a traveler starting out from Ujjayini saw the sunrise at Mahishmati.
- It was located in the Avanti kingdom, and at times was a part of a separate kingdom near Avanti. It replaced Ujjayani as the kingdom's capital for a brief period. It also served as the capital of the other kingdoms that separated from Avanti, such as Anupa.
- Avanti was divided into two parts by the Vindhyas. Ujjayini was located in the northern part, while Mahishmati was located in the southern part.
Several cities in Madhya Pradesh, located along the Narmada river, are claimed to be the ancient Mahishmati. These include:
- Mandhata or Omkareshwar
- F. E. Pargiter, and G. C. Mendis, among others, identify Mahishmati with the Mandhata island (Omkareshwar).
- According to Pargiter, the description of Mahishmati in Raghuvamsa makes it clear that it was located on an island. Moreover, Harivamsa states that the founder of Mahishmati was muchukunda, the son of King Mandhata.
- A 1225 CE inscription of the Paramara king Devapala has been found at Mandhata. It records the grant of a village to Brahmins, and states that the grant was made while the king was staying at Mahishmati.
- HD Sankalia, PN Bose and Francis Wilford, among others, identify Mahishmati with present-day Maheshwar.
- Pargiter criticises this identification, stating that the Bramin priests of Maheshwar claimed their town as the ancient Mahishmati on basis of similar-sounding names, in order to glorify their town.
- Other obsolete identifications
- Writers such as Alexander Cunningham, John Faithfull Fleet and Girija Shankar Agrawal identified Mandla as the location of ancient Mahishmati. However, this view is no longer considered as accurate by the modern scholars.
- B. Lewis Rice identified Mahishmati as a location in the former Mysore State (present-day Karnataka). His argument was based on Mahabharata, which states that Sahadeva crossed the Kaveri River on his way to Mahishmati. However, Kaveri is also the name of a different, smaller river, which is a tributary of Narmada.
Mentions in ancient literature
The Sanskrit epic Ramayana mentions the attack of Rakshasa king Ravana on Mahishmati. The Anushasana Parva states that Ikshvaku's son Dashashva was a king of Mahishmati. It goes on to mention that the Haihaya king Kartavirya Arjuna ruled the entire earth from his capital Mahishmati (13:52). He was killed by Bhargava Rama.
Mahabharata mentions Mahishmati as part of a kingdom distinct from the Avanti kingdom. The Sabha Parva (2:30) states that the Pandava general Sahadeva attacked Mahishmati, and defeated its ruler Nila. King Nila of Mahishmati is mentioned as a leader in the Kurukshetra War, rated by Bhishma as a Rathi. His coat of mail had blue colour (Mbh 5:19,167).
Harivamsha (33.1847) names the founder of Mahishmati as Mahishmant, a king who was the son of Sahanja and a descendant of Yadu through Haihaya. At another place, it names the city's founder as Muchukunda, an ancestor of Rama. It states that he built the cities of Mahishmati and Purika in the Rksha mountains.
The Buddhist text Digha Nikaya mentions Mahishmati as the capital of Avanti, while Anguttara Nikaya states that Ujjaini was Avanti's capital. The Maha-Govinda Suttanta also states that Mahishmati as the capital of Avanti, whose king was one Vessabhu. It is possible that the capital of Avanti was transferred from Ujjayani to Mahishmati temporarily.
The Dipavamsa mentions a territory called Mahisa, describing it as Mahisa-ratta ("Mahisa country"). The Mahavamsa describes this region as a mandala, calling it Mahisha-mandala. The 5th century Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa terms this territory variously as Rattham-Mahisham, Mahishaka-mandala and Mahishmaka. John Faithfull Fleet theorized that Mahishmati was the capital of this region, which was named after a tribe called "Mahisha". This appears to be same as "Mahishaka", which is described as a southern kingdom (that is, south of the Vindhyas and the Narmada) in the Bhishma Parva of the Mahabharata.
The Sutta Nipata states that when Bavari's disciples traveled from Pratishthana to Ujjayani, Mahishmati was one of the cities on the route. The inscriptions at Sanchi mention that pilgrims from Mahishmati visited the stupa at Sanchi.
In Mahabharata, there is description  of an unusual tradition where in marriage as a civil institution was not universal in Mahishmati unlike in rest of Aryavarta, which is also narrated in the Telugu-language Andhra Mahabharata in ‘Sabha parva’.
As per the legend, there was a nishada king named Nila who ruled over Mahishmati. King Nila had a daughter who was exceedingly beautiful. So much so that Agni (lord of fire) fell in love with her which was reciprocated. The princess always used to stay near the sacred fire of her father, causing it to blaze up with vigour. And king Nila's sacred fire, even if fanned, would not blaze until agitated by the gentle breath of her lips. Agni, assuming the form of a Brahman starts courting with the princess for long. But, one day the couple was discovered by the king, who became furious. Nila thereupon ordered the Brahman to be punished according to law. At this the illustrious deity flamed up in wrath and beholding the terrible flame, the king felt terrified and bent his head low on the ground. King hails Lord Agni and says he cannot punish a god who is responsible for the origin of Vedas, source of all Knowledge and Dharma. Pacified Agni then grants a boon to Nishada, and the King requests for the protection of his kingdom from any invasions. Agni swears to protect his kingdom on the condition that the king should sanctify pleasure out of pure love a legitimate action in his kingdom.
Years later, after the epic war the victorious Yudhishthira plans on conducting an Yagna by winning over everyone else on Earth. Sahadeva, the youngest of Pandavas knowing that Lord Agni was protecting the Nishada kingdom, prays to Lord Agni successfully and there upon moves to Saurashtra Kingdom.[page needed]
Rulers of some 11th and 12th century kingdoms in present-day South India claimed Haihaya ancestry. They indicated their claimed place of origin with the title "Lord of Mahishmati, the best of the towns".
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