Mahishmati (IAST: Māhiṣmatī) was an ancient city in present-day central India. It was located in present-day Madhya Pradesh, on the banks of Narmada River, although its exact location is uncertain.
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.
Map showing Ujjayini and Pratishthana, with the two hypothesized locations (marked as star) of Mahishmati, which was located on the route connecting these two cities.
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:
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.
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.
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 Raghuvamsa states that Mahishmati was located on the Reva river (Narmada), and was the capital of the Anupa country.
According to the Padma Purana (VI.115), the city was actually founded by a certain Mahisha
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.
During the 6th and 7th centuries, Mahishmati may have served as the capital of the Kalachuri Kingdom.
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".
Mahishmati appears to have been a flourishing city in as late as the 13th century. A 1225 CE inscription of the Paramara king Devapala mentions that he stayed at Mahishmati.
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