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A powerful clan of India in the time of the Buddha. They were certainly warriors (khattiya), for on that ground they claimed a share of the Buddha’s relics.¹ Their capital was Vesāli, and they formed a part of the Vajjian confederacy, being often referred to as the Vajjī (q.v.) Their strength lay in their great unity; if one Licchavi fell ill, all the others would visit him. The whole clan would join in any ceremony performed in the house of Licchavi, and they would all unite in honouring any distinguished visitors to their city.² They were beautiful to look at and wore brilliantly coloured garments, riding in brightly painted carriagesThe Buddha once compared them to the gods of Tāvatiṃsa.⁴

Though this would seem to indicate that they were very prosperous and rich, they do not appear to have lived in luxury and idleness. They are, on the contrary, spoken of as sleeping on straw couches,⁵ being strenuous and diligent and zealous in their service.⁶ They also practised seven conditions of welfare (aparihānīyadhammā), which the Buddha claimed to have taught them at the Sārandada cetiya:

  1. They held frequent public meetings of their clan which they all attended;
  2. they met together to make their decisions and carried out their undertakings in concord;
  3. they upheld tradition and honoured their pledges;
  4. they respected and supported their elders;
  5. no women or girls were allowed to be taken by force or abduction;
  6. they maintained and paid due respect to their places of worship;
  7. they supported and fully protected the holy men (Arahants) among them.⁷

The young men among the Licchavī were evidently fond of archery, for mention is made ⁸ of large numbers of them roving about in the Mahāvana, with bows and arrows, the strings set, and surrounded by hounds. They were a martial people and fond of “sport,” but we find one of their Elders, Mahānāma complaining ⁹ of them to the Buddha: “The Licchavi youths are quick-tempered, rough, and greedy fellows; such presents as are sent by the members of their tribe — sugar cane, jujubes, sweet cakes, sweetmeats, etc. — they loot and eat; they slap the women and girls of their clan on the back.” Violation of chastity was considered a serious offence among the Licchavī, and the assembly would even give its consent to a husband’s request that his unfaithful wife should be murdered.¹⁰

According to the Buddhist books, the Licchavī were devout followers of the Buddha and held him in the highest esteem.¹¹ Even careless boys, referred to above as wandering about with hounds and bows and arrows, would lay aside their arms when they saw the Buddha seated under a tree and would surround him with clasped hands, eager to hear him.¹² There were numerous shrines in Vesāli itself, several of which are mentioned by name: Cāpāla, Sattambaka, Bahuputta, Gotama, Sārandada, and Udena. Buddhaghosa says ¹³ that these shrines were originally yakkha cetiyas, where various yakkhas were worshipped, but that they were later converted into monasteries for the Buddha and his Order. It is, however, apparent from the Buddhist books themselves,¹⁴ that Vesāli was also a stronghold of the Nigaṇṭhā. The Buddha visited Vesāli at least three times,¹⁵ and is frequently mentioned as staying in Kūṭāgārasālā (q.v.) in Mahāvana. There the Licchavī visited him in large numbers, sometimes ¹⁶ disturbing the calm of the spot and obliging resident monks to seek peace in Gosiṅgasālavanadāya nearby. Once, five hundred Licchavī invited the Buddha to a discussion held by them at the Sārandada-cetiya regarding the five kinds of treasures. The Buddha went and gave his opinion.¹⁷

However, not all the Licchavī were followers of the Buddha. When Saccaka the Nigaṇṭha visited the Buddha at Mahāvana, he was accompanied by five hundred Licchavī, who did not all salute the Buddha as their teacher, but showed him only such respect as was due to an honoured stranger.¹⁸ Several eminent Licchavī are specially mentioned by name as having visited and consulted the Buddha; among whom are Mahānāma, Sīha, Bhaddiya, Sāḷha, Abhaya, Paṇḍitakumāra, Nandaka, Mahāli, and Ugga. Several Licchavī, both men and women, joined the Order — e.g., the famous courtesan Ambapālī, Jentī, Sīhā and Vāsitthī, and, among monks, Añjanavaniya, Vajjiputta, and Sambhūta.

The Licchavī were greatly admired for their system of government. It was a republic (gaṇa, saṅgha), all the leading members of which were called rājā.¹⁹ They held full and frequent assemblies at which problems affecting either the whole republic or individual members were fully discussed. When the assembly drum was heard, all left other duties and assembled immediately in the mote-hall (santhāgārasālā).²⁰ Sometimes, as appears from the story of the conversion of Sīha, religion was also discussed at these meetings. The rules of procedure adopted ²¹ evidently resembled those followed in the ordination of a monk (upasampāda). Besides the rājās there were also numerous viceroys (uparājās), generals (senāpatis), and store-keepers (bhaṇḍāgārikas).²² There was an elaborate judicial procedure by which any person charged with an offence was handed over, in turn, to the inquirers (vinicchayamahāmattas), the experts in law (vohārikas), experts in tradition (suttadharas), the Atthakulakas (probably a judicial committee), the senāpati, the Uparājā, and finally to the Rājā, who would inflict the proper sentence according to the book of traditions (paveṇipotthaka).²³

In their political relationships with their neighbours, the Licchavī seem to have been on friendly terms with Bimbisāra (q.v.), king of Magadha, and with Pasenadi, king of Kosala.²⁴ Generally speaking, they were friendly also with the Mallā, though the story of Bandhula (q.v.) shows that a certain amount of rivalry existed between the two tribes.

After the death of Bimbisāra, Ajātasattu, in his desire for the expansion of Magadha, resolved to destroy the Licchavī. He was probably partly influenced by his fear of his foster brother Abhayarājakumāra (q.v.), who had in him Licchavi blood. Buddhaghosa gives another story.²⁵ There was a port on the Gaṅgā, extending over one league, half of which territory belonged to Ajātasattu, and the other half to the Licchavī. Nearby was a mountain, from which much fragrant material (? gandhabhaṇḍa) flowed into the river. While Ajātasattu was making preparations to claim his portion of this material, the Licchavī would go before him and remove it all. This happened on several occasions, and Ajātasattu vowed vengeance. In order to discover what the Buddha thought of his chances of success, he sent to him his minister Vassakāra. The Buddha predicted ²⁶ that as long as the Licchavī remained united they were proof against any foe. Ajātasattu then decided to bring about disunion among them. He was successful in this, with the aid of Vassakāra (q.v.) When Ajātasattu arrived at the gates of Vesāli, the Licchavī, owing to their disunion, were unable to put up any opposition, and Ajātasattu captured the city without further trouble.²⁷ The degeneration may have set in earlier among the Licchavī, for we find reference to their giving up their earlier austere habits and to their fondness for soft pillows, long sleep and other luxuries.²⁸ Their power and prosperity were probably also weakened by the plague and drought that had ravaged Vesāli.

The Commentaries contain a mythical account of the origin of the Licchavī.²⁹ The queen of Bārāṇasī gave birth to a lump of flesh, and, wishing to avoid disgrace, her ladies in waiting put it in a sealed casket and threw it into the Gaṅgā. A deva wrote the king’s name on the casket, which was picked up by an ascetic, who tended the embryo until two children, a boy and a girl, emerged from it. The ascetic fed them with milk. Whatever entered the stomachs of the children could be seen as though the stomach were transparent, so that they appeared skinless (nicchavi); some said the skin was so thin (līnachavī) that the stomach and whatever entered it appeared as though sewn together. From this the children came to be called Licchavi, and, as they grew, were brought up by the villagers living near the hermitage. The other children disliked them, saying they were to be avoided (vajjitabbā) because of their quarrelsome disposition. When they were sixteen years old the villagers obtained land for them from the king, founded a town, and married them together. Their country came to be called Vajjī. They had sixteen pairs of twins, and their city had to be greatly enlarged — hence its name, Visālā or Vesāli.


¹ D.ii.165; according to the Mtu.i.283, etc., they belonged to the Vāseṭṭha gotta; cp. the Mallā (q.v.), who are called Vāseṭṭhas.

² DA.ii.519. ³ D.ii.96; A.iii.219: cp. Mtu.i.259. D.ii.96; also DhA.iii.280.

S.ii.267 f. As skilful hardy archers, says the Commentary

D.ii.73 f; A.iv.15 f. A.iii.76.

A.iii.76, the Lalitavistara is even more condemnatory. ¹⁰ Vin.iv.225.

¹¹ Five hundred Licchavī once gave a garment each to Piṅgiyānī, because he recited a verse in praise of the Buddha (A.iii.239).

¹² A.iii.76. ¹³ E.g., UdA.322 f. ¹⁴ E.g., in the story of the general Sīha.

¹⁵ The first visit was in order to destroy the threefold panic of drought, sickness, and non-human foes. It was probably this act that earned for the Buddha the gratitude of the Licchavī.

¹⁶ E.g., A.v.133 f. ¹⁷ A.iii.167 f. ¹⁸ M.i.229; MA.i.454 gives their reasons.

¹⁹ According to Mtu.i.271, there were 68,000 rājās in Vesāli; the Jātaka stories (J.i.504; J.iii.1) speak of 7707; see also DhA.iii.436.

²⁰ DA.ii.517 f.

²¹ See D.ii.76 f., where the Buddha enjoins on the monks the observance of the same habits as practised by the Licchavī. These are given at Vin.i.56 (VT.i.169 f ).

²² J.iii.1. ²³ DA.ii.519. ²⁴ See, e.g., M.ii.101, where Pasenadi says this.

²⁵ DA.ii.516 f; AA.ii.703; was the port Pāṭaligāma? see UdA.408.

²⁶ D.ii.72 ff. ²⁷ DA.ii.524.

²⁸ S.ii.268; see also DhA.iii.280, where they quarrel over a woman; cp. Sp.i.284.

²⁹ MA.i.258; KhpA, etc., for a very comprehensive account of the Licchavī, see Law, Ksatriya Clans in Buddhist India, pp.1 ff.

Finding Footnote References

Aṅgulimāla Sutta: Majjhimanikāya, M.ii.101

References in the notes are to the Pāḷi texts of the PTS. In the translations, these are usually printed in the headers near the spine, or in square brackets in the body of the text, thus it would be ii 101 in the spine or [101] in the text. References to the Commentaries are usually suffixed with A for Aṭṭhakathā (DA, MA, SNA, etc.) but references to the Jātaka Commentary are given as J, not JA, which would normally be used, as that is reserved for the Journal Asiatic.