The Lichchhavis (also Lichchavi, Licchavi) were an important member of the Vajjian confederacy. The early Indian traditions describe the Lichchhavis as Kshatriyas. Scholars reject the theory of foreign origin of the Lichchhavis on the strength of these traditions. But they were degraded to the status of fallen Kshatriyas due to their championship of non-Brahmanical creeds like Jainism and Buddhism.
Rise of the Licchavi Power
In the 6th century B.C. the Licchavi power was firmly established. Though the Lichchhavis belonged to the Vajji confederacy, they had autonomous status. Their capital was Vaisali.
Originally, they seem to have an independent status. The Buddhist records preserve the names of important Licchavi leaders among whom the name of Chetaka deserves special mention. Chetaka’s sister Trisala was the mother of Mahavira, the preacher of Jainism. Chetaka’s daughter Chellana was married to king Bimbisara of Magadha. The Lichchhavis thus appear to be highly connected.
The Magadha-Licchavi Struggle-fall of the Licchavis
The Licchavis turned to be great rivals of Magadhan monarchy. In the reign of Bimbisara of Magadha, they invaded the Magadhan kingdom. In the reign of Ajatasatru, a protracted war began between Magadha and the Lichchhavis. The latter were united with the Vajjis in a confederacy. In the struggle that followed the Lichchhavis and the Vajjis were destroyed.
The causes of the Magadha-Lichchavi war were many. Ajatasatru wanted to take revenge on the Lichchhavis, as their chief Chetaka had refused to extradite Ajatasatru’s step brothers. They had escaped to Vaisali (Licchavi capital) with the royal elephant and family jewels and were granted political asylum. The real cause of the Magadha-Licchavi war was the aggressive imperialism of Magadha against the neighboring republic. The war continued for sixteen years. The Lichchhavis built a mighty alliance with the Vajjis and the other thirty six Ganarajas and also with the kingdom of Kasi-Kosala against Magadha. But the ministers of Ajatasatru sowed seeds of discord among the members of the anti-Magadhan confederacy and destroyed their unity. Ultimately the Vajjian confederacy was destroyed by Ajatasatru. The Vajji territory was annexed to Magadha.
The Licchavi’s republican constitution
There were two Systems of government in the Eastern region. The states of Anga, Magadha, Vatsa etc. were monarchies. Those of Kasf, Kaulala, Videha etc. on the other band were republics. Two of these republics were quite well known, the Republics of the Vajjis or Licchavis and that of the Mallas. Republics were later developments of monarchies and the precursors of democracies. The Licchavis founded their Republic with a view to consolidating their political power. The credit for its foundation goes to Cetaka, who was a wise and valorous king of Videha. He was also the President of the whole Republic. This Republic was the union of eighteen political units, nine of which belonged to the Licchavis and the remaining nine to the Mallas.
The Kings of each unit comprising the Vajji Republic were called Gananayakas. The council of the Gananayakas was called Gana Sabha or Republican Council. It made the constitution and the laws. The individual units were governed in accordance with the constitution of the Gana or the Union. The Vajji Republic was rich and well developed in the fields of Politics, Economics, Society and Religion. The monarchists were highly jealous of this powerful Republic. They were bent upon destroying it. But they were helpless in the face of the powerful Vajjian army.
Videha with its capital at Vaisali was the biggest unit. Vaisali was divided into three zones. The first zone consisted of seven thousand residential houses with golden domes. The middle of the town consisted of fourteen thousand houses with silver domes. The third zone consisted of twenty-one thousand houses with copper domes.
These zones were inhabited by the high, middle and lower classes respectively. Vaisali was not only the capital of the Licchavis, it was the capital of the entire Vajji Republic. It was enclosed within four city walls, each at a distance of two miles from the others. It had several ramparts and entrance-gates. The Republic was a confederation of six clans viz. the Ugras, the Bhojas, the Rajanyas, ihe Iksvakus (the Licchavis), the Jnatasand the Kauravas.