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Sources of Ancient Indian History

Updated on July 25, 2016

The sources of ancient history of India can be grouped into two main categories namely - archaeological sources and literary sources. These sources helped the historian to reconstruct the events that took place in thousands of years ago.

Archaeological sources can again be divided in three groups - 1) remains of ancient architecture and monuments, 2) coins and 3) inscriptions. The literary sources can also be divided in three groups - 1) foreigner's accounts, 2) religious literature, and 3) secular literature.

Unfortunately, the concept of writing history was not in vogue among the ancient Indians. So, there is little direct historical accounts of events are available. Almost all part of the ancient Indian history is reconstructed using indirect evidences.

Archaeological Sources

1. Ancient Ruins and Monuments

Ancient ruins and monuments are one of the most important sources of ancient Indian history. Many ancient ruins of old palaces, houses, temples etc have been recovered so far by many historians and archaeologists.

The archaeologists have learned a great deal about the life style of the people, the financial condition of the civilization or state and its scientific and engineering skills by examining these remains. The entire Indus valley civilization is brought to the knowledge of the people by archaeologists like Dayaram Sahni, Rakhaldas Banarjee and Sir John Hubert Marshall.

The archaeological society of India is behind many such discoveries. That institution was created by Alexander Cunninghum in 1861 to find out the history of the Indian subcontinent. The government of Lord Canning funded ASI.

Countless ruins of forts, temples, ports, even entire cities are unearthed by ASI. Many old cities were rediscovered which helped a lot. Not only building constructions, earthen wares , tools, weapons and pottery recovered from these sites are helpful evidences of ancient social life.

Archaeology is also used as evidence for literary sources. If an ancient literature hints about a city in a certain geographical location, it requires discovery of archaeological evidence to be accepted as historical truth. There are no literary sources to know anything about the arrival of Aryans in India. Archaeology is the only way to know about civilizations older than that period.

Archaeological sources of ancient Indian history
Archaeological sources of ancient Indian history | Source

2. Study of Coins

Study of coins or Numismatics is another noteworthy archaeological sources of ancient Indian history. Every king issued his own coins and generally these coins were well decorated with some information regarding the ruler who issued these coins.

The ancient coins were made with copper, silver, alloys and gold. The coins are a valuable source of information about some obscure kings and their kingdoms. Especially, coins came handy to give us knowledge about the period between 200 to 300 BC.

The arrival of Greek and Parthian invaders in India has changed the style of Indian coin constructions. The Indo-Greeks were expert coin makers. We learnt a great deal about them like the names of the kings, their culture, economic condition and apparel etc.

Coins helped a great deal to gather knowledge about the Kushanas, Pahlavass, and Saka dynasties of ancient India. We knew a great deal about Saka and Pahlave administrative systems from their coins. Use of pure metals in coins also indicate the economic prosperity of these kingdoms.

The Moryan and Gupta era coins are also great works of art. We knew about Samudragupta's love of music from his coins. There were also small portraits of many kings upon their coins. This trend was most common among the Indo-Greek rulers. These coins also had miniature engravings of gods. It helped to know about the religion of that time period.

Coin of Chandragupta I depicting the king with his queen.
Coin of Chandragupta I depicting the king with his queen. | Source

3. Inscriptions

Inscriptions are written words engraved on stone to stand the long passage of time. These inscriptions were found on big rocks, temple walls, seals, stone pillars etc. The study of inscriptions is called epigraphy which helped a lot for writing the ancient Indian history.

The oldest inscriptions deciphered so far from 3rd century B.C. These were written in the Prakrit Brahmi and Kharaosthi language. These inscriptions were engraved on rocks by order of great Mourayn emperor Asoka. We knew about his philanthropic attitude and devotion for peace and dhamma from these inscriptions.

The use of Sanksrit became popular as a medium of writing inscriptions from 2nd century AD. There are some inscriptions written in regional languages which came into existence from 9th century AD.

The most ancient inscriptions found in India are from the Harappan civilization, as old as 2500 BC. But that language is yet to be deciphered. When it will be done, we will solve many unknown puzzles about the old, grand civilization.

The inscriptions recorded royal proclamations, orders, and instructions to general public or royal officers. Religious institutes often recorded the names of their followers. There were also various records of donations for religious or philanthropic purposes. The land grants, government orders etc were often written in copper plates known as "tamrapatra" or "tamrasasana".

The court poets wrote the accounts of the victory of kings on monuments to commemorate such events. These inscriptions were called as "Prasastis" or eulogies. Some of the famous examples are Hastigumpha inscription of Kharavela, the king of Kalinga, the Nasik inscription about Goutamiputra Satkarni, Ellahabad inscription of Samudragupta, Junagarh inscription of Rudradaman, the king of the Sakas, etc.

Hathigumpha inscription by king Kharvela of Kalinga in Udaygiri, Odisha.
Hathigumpha inscription by king Kharvela of Kalinga in Udaygiri, Odisha. | Source
Chinese pilgrim Faxien at the ruins of Asoka's palace
Chinese pilgrim Faxien at the ruins of Asoka's palace | Source

Literary Sources

1. Foreigners Accounts

Many foreigners had visited India for commercial,or religious purposes or only for adventure. Some of them had written about their experiences in India. Such travel monologues are valuable sources of ancient Indian history. These accounts contain valuable information about kings, dynasty, society, economy and military of the then India.

The accounts Greek travelers like Megasthenes is useful to know about mouryan rulers like Chandragupta (called "Sandokottas" by Greeks) and his kingdom. "Indika" was the famous book written about India by Megasthenes. Unfortunately, that book is lost now. We only could get fragments of that valuable book from the quotes used by other ancient writers.

The spread of Buddhism in China resulted in an influx of pilgrims from China to ancient India, the birthplace of Buddha. Fa-Hien or Faxian came to India during the time of Gupta ruler Chandragrupta II. His account is one of the major sources of the history of that period. Hiuen Tsang or Xuanzang is another important Chinese pilgrim who wrote extensively about India. He wrote about India during the time of king Harsavardhana in his famous book "Si-Yu-Ki". Another notable Chinese buddhist pilgrim was Yijink who traveled to India via ancient Srivijaya kingdom, a Hindu kingdom in Sumatra.

There were also some Arabians and other from the Islamic world too. Most notable among them was Alberuni who came to India with Sultan Mahmud of Gazni.

2. Religious Literature

Religious texts are the most easily available materials for writing ancient histories of India. One can get enough allusions and mentions of old kings, societies, beliefs and customs from these works. These texts can also be grouped in different categories.

Vedas are the most oldest among all the Hindu religious literature. There are four Vedas - Rigeda, Samaveda, Jojurveda and Atharvaveda. rigveda is oldest among the lot. The probable date of composition of that Veda is around 1500 - 1000 BC. There are also related vedic texts which are called Brahamanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. We can learn about the early vedic people and their culture from these texts.

Puranas were written in a later period after the Vedas. There are also other smriti literature texts like Vedangas and epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. These two great Indian epic is also a good source of ancient Indian history.

The Buddhist and Jain religious books are also important in this context. We should mention Buddhist works like Jataka tales, Tripitaks and other such books often comments about contemporary society, politics, economy etc. There are also numerous Jain texts too.

Rigveda manuscript
Rigveda manuscript | Source

3. Secular Literature

Among all the literary sources of ancient history, secular literature is the most reliable. There are some which can be called as history books too. Most of them are law books, guide books for princes and technical books like grammar, linguistic etc.

The literature of ancient poets like Kalidasa, Visakhadatta and Bhasa gives us realistic glimpses about that period. Grammar books of Panini and Patanjali also contain information about that era. Historians have greatly benefited by Kautilya's "Arthasastra", a book about statesmanship and polity.

There are some books of history too like "Rajtarangani" by Kalhana which is book of history of the Kashmir region. It describes many kings and dynasties that ruled in that area for thousands of years. Bilhana wrote about the deeds and achievements of his patron Western Chalukya king Vikramaditya in his "Vikramankadevacharita". Another important old historical book is "Prithviraj raso" by Chand Bardai. These books are important for writing the history of that time, but there is some inconsistencies in these "histories".

Some Ancient Indian Books and Authors

Buddha charita
Abhigyan Shakuntalam
Panch tantra
Vishnu Sharma
Harsh Vardhan

Watch the Video to Learn More

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Final Words

We have gained some idea about the sources of ancient Indian history. It is a difficult to task to gather all these information and find the original truth from it. It is a stupendous task to sort through all these materials. That is why there is always some debate regarding various theories about Indian history of that period. If you wish to know more than use the comment box.


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