Sources of Ancient Indian History

The two major limitations regarding the sources of ancient Indian History are “Availability and decipherment”.  The entire spectrum of available sources can be divided into two parts viz. Literary/written sources and Material-Archaeological sources.

Literary/written sources

The literary/written sources to reconstruct Ancient Indian history can be classified among three major categories, (i) Religious, (ii) Secular and (iii) Scientific. It also comprised of some different kinds of sources like (iv) Sangam literature and (v) travelogues of foreign travelers.

Religious sources

Religion was the backbone of society of Ancient World. India was not an exception. Hence, we find large amount of canonical/religious literature of various religions, prevalent in Ancient India. These throw light on the, along with religious, socio-economic aspects and political thought and ideology of the period under study.

However, such sources should be used with caution. Because, first of all, most of the religious sources are retained through oral traditions and put into writing, hundreds of years after their actual creation. Besides, ‘what-we-have-now’ are the editions of actual writings. Secondly, religious literatures were mainly written to provide guidance with an idealist approach. Hence, whatever written is there, is ‘dos and don’ts’ kind of nature and not ‘as-actual’. Sometimes, the body of works like Puranas, though written in 4th century AD onwards, written as if they were created 1000 years before and prophesying something about 1000 years after! Hence, with tools like internal and external criticism, a historian can make use of these sources and reconstruct the history of Ancient India.

Vedic/Hindu canonical literature

It comprised of sources like four Vedas, Brahmans, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Shad-darshanas, Shad-angas, Sutras, Smritis and Puranas.

Buddhist Canonical Literature

Buddhism was the religion of masses; hence, their literature and the language of them were maintained as of the followers. Hence, these are in various languages, like, Prakrit (Pali), Tibetan, Chinese, Sinhali etc. To challenge Vedic religion, these were also written in Sanskrit language. The vast body of Buddhist literature comprised of, mainly, the Pitakas, the Jatakas, etc.

Jain Canonical Literature

Ancient Jain literature is in various languages, like, Prakrit (Ardhamagadhi, Shaurseni), Tamil, Sanskrit etc. The literature can mainly be classified into two parts, viz. Anga (14) and Agamas (purva). Besides, Chedasutras (6) and Mulsutras (4) are alos important parts of it.

Scientific Treaties

Ancient India was not unaware of scientific attitude. Hence, considerable amount of scientific work were created during that period. The treaties mainly comprised of works on Political sciences and Grammar, however, after early centuries, many scientific works were started showing up on subjects like medical science, agro-irrigation science, mathematics, astrology-astronomy, art-architecture, iconography etc. Especially, Gupta period witnessed the emergence of various sciences. 1) Foreign Accounts

After the invasion of Persians and Greeks, India was re-exposed to ancient world. The wars were some incidents; however the process of mobility of people between two counties became a sustainable phenomenon of Ancient India. Such travelers were foreigners hence they had no obligation to any king of the region. Hence, their accounts are impartial and; being ‘eye-witness’ gives us first hand information on the subjects they touched upon. However, it should be kept in mind that, as they were foreigners and not-rooted in India, it is not possible to expect from them a perfect knowledge of the socio-economic and political thoughts and institutions in India Material/Archaeological sources

The Material/Archaeological sources comprised of (i) Inscriptions, (ii) Coins, (iii) Ancient Monuments, (iv) Sculptures & Paintings and (v) Archaeological Remains (i)


After contact between Persian and India, India came to know the importance of ‘art-in-stone. Being a stable material, stones were being used for engraving king’s orders, policies, outlooks to public them and kept them for time immemorial. These were also used for issuing land-grants to the grantee. With same notion, court-poets also engraved eulogies by using such material to make it immortal. These are generally called inscriptions and written, either on rock or pillar. These are called Epigraphs or edicts.


The earliest epigraphs in India are those of Ashoka, the Mauryan Empire. These were inscribed on rocks. Asoka also put up pillars in public places or places where people can gather easily; and, inscribed them. Other inscriptions of importance comprised of:

  • Naganika’s inscription at Naneghat which gives information of various sacrifices, performed by Satavahana King Satakarni I and his deeds
  • Gautami Balashri’s and Yadnya Satkarani’s inscription at Nasik caves which give information on the adventures of Gautamiputra Satkarni, the great Satavahana king.
  • Kharvela’s inscription at Hathigumpa tells his deeds.
  • Harisena’s inscription (eulogy) on the pillar of Allahabad (called as ‘Prayagprashasti), informing us about adventures and campaigns of Samudragupta, great Gupta emperor.
  • Ravikirti’s eulogy at Aihole informs us about adventures of Pulkeshi II, the Chalukya king of Badami.

So far the epigraphs for ‘land-grants’ are concerned; we find lots of information in there. Like, the king or issuing authority, his lineages, mythical origins of his dynasty, his kingdom and its extent, then; the origin/gotra of grantee; then; purpose of grant, the extents and limits of granted land, list of rights and privileges to the grantee, punishments to the trespassers or violators of the grant etc. Such epigraphs, along with the king’s biographical sketch, as immovable, also inform us about the extent of the kingdom of the issuer.


Generally for ‘land-grants’ the copper-plates were engraved and issued to the grantee. These are basically three plates of copper, tied with each other through copper knot. The upper and last portions are left un-engraved as these can be blurred with ravages of time. Such copper-plate reveals the same information that is in the land-grants, engraved as epigraphs. Such copper-plates give information on socio-economic condition of that period. For example the ‘Sauhagaura-copper plate’ informs us about severed draught and the measures undertaken by authorities to tackle the problem of food-shortage.


Since 6th century BC we receive information regarding coins in India. Basically the earliest were crude and of puch-marked silver coins; then, after the stability of foreigners in India like Greek, Kushanas, Parthian, round, cast-coins with bust of kings-Deities, their titles etc. With their influence, Indian dynasties also came up with developed coins. However, those were the Guptas who came up with fully developed coins.

Ancient Architecture/Monuments

Earlier, during Stone Age, people took shelters in caves. However, the invention of agriculture compelled them to reside on plains. Thus, the houses get started from Neolithic period. Initially, those were made from perishable materials like wood and grass, hence, except post-holes, we find nothing of that. The scenario changed when burnt-bricks were started utilizing for constructing houses or public architecture or so-called Ancient Monuments. This can be witnessed from Chalcolithic period. Since then, India witnessed developments and variations in material, as well as, types of construction, public/civic and individual. These, broadly, can be classified into Secular and Religious architecture.

Secular Architecture/monuments

So far the public and secular architecture is concerned; first instances were brought from western and north-western India that is of Harappan civilization of Chalcolithic period. During Harappan civilization, India went through its first urbanization. Hence, public/civic architecture of utmost importance was dotted these cities. These comprised of, long-wide roads, huge bathing places, tanks, religious places, granaries/warehouses, thrashing floors, dock-yards, man-made ports, sanitary arrangements like bathrooms and gutters, stadium, pavilion, palaces, fortification, bastion etc. The site of Inamgaon, during Chalcolithic period, also came up with a large bund and canal. Then, in Maurayan and post-Mauryan period, we find, large fortification (Pataliputra), palaces (Pataliputra), stadiums (Nagarjunkonda), flight of steps to the rivers (Nagarjunkonda) etc. The remains of houses also give information on the standard-of-life and livingcondition of that period. It also throws light on civic sense, personal hygiene of concerned people. Such sources give us information on socio-economic condition, the role of polity, defensive strategies, water-management, civic sense, life-style of the people of concern period.

Religious Monuments

The religious monuments started showing up from Mauryan period. It started with the caves of Ajivakas (at Barabar and Nagarujuni hills: Bihar), then, we find large number of Buddhist monuments in India. Then, since Gupta period, we find the beginning, growth and classicality in Hindu monuments in India.

 Buddhist Stupas, Chaityas, Viharas

Since Early Historic period, India was dotted with Buddhist Stupas, Chaityas and Viharas. At the outset, the construction began in Northern India; then through Gujarat, percolated to Maharashtra; and through Orissa, came to Andhra Pradesh. The Stupas were created on the physical remains or used-equipments of Buddha or noteworthy Buddhist monks. These stupas were surrounded by beautifully decorative Gate-ways (torana), e.g. stupas at Sanchi, Barhut (Madhya Pradesh); Amaravati (Andhra Pradesh); Pauni, Kolhapur (Maharashtra); Sannati (Karnataka).

Hindu Temples

Since Gupta period we witness beginning of separate temple architecture. Initially, drawing influence form Buddhist cave art, these were started in caves. However, to congregate large masses, these descended on plains. The first experiment in separate-temple architecture can be seen in modest temple No. 7, at Sanchi. It only comprises two parts, garbhagriha (sanctum) and mukhamandapa (frontal space). Then, through Tigava, Nachana and Devgadh (all in Madhya Pradesh), a complete temple with ‘garbhagriha-enclosed path of pradakshina-mukhmandapa at three sides and pier’ emerged; and that is with beautiful sculptures. The treatment to the Shikhara was to maintain it high, hence, it got narrower to the top. Hence, when a viewer looks at the temple his gaze goes straight, from base to top. Such style is called as ‘Nagara style’. However, in Deccan and South India, the progress was different. At the outset, Chalukyas experimented in Temple architecture, from rock-cut temples (Badami) to separate temples (Pattadakal and Aihole). Near about same time, Pallavas, created temples in rock-cut fashion (the ‘Ratha Temples at Mahabalipuram). Then, Cholas came up with huge temples. Drawing from these experiments, the Rashtrakutas 24 undertook an experiment of beautiful temple; however, in rock-cut fashion. That is Kailasa temple of Ellora. These temples in Deccan and South India generally use stone-slabs; placing upon each other for the Shikharas. Hence, the Shikhara looks steps-like, presenting squat impression. Such, architectural style is known as ‘Dravida style’.

Sculptures & Paintings Sculptures

Since Harappan period we find evidences of sculptures in India. These were made of various materials, like, stone, steatite, clay, terracotta, lime, bronze, ivory, wood etc. Some of them got place in shrine and became idol or icon. Some of them were made to beautify the walls of temples. Some of them were individual sculpture, made for various purposes, like as toys and for entertainments. The bronze statues of dancer (Harappan civilization) and toys (Diamabad) during Chalcolithic period show artistic merit, as well as expertise in metallurgy of India. Various other statues of the same periods indicate place of entertainment, hairstyles, ornaments and costume of Harappans. Same is true with terracotta toys, belonged to Shunga period. The Mauryan sculptures, like, the Yakshi of Didarganj indicate the contemporary affluence and aesthetic sense of people. The sculptural-reliefs on the gateways of stupas (Sanchi, Barhut), not only display growth of Buddhist ideology, but also of various other things like flora, fauna, civic architecture etc.The statue of Kanishka indicates the foreign origin of the king and costume of foreign style, like, high shoes, overcoats etc. Bronze statue of Poseidon and relieves on plates/mirror-handles (Kolhapur) indicate trade relationship between Kolhapur and Rome during Satavahana period. The same is true by finding of ivory figure of Laxmi of Ter in the site of Pompeii (in Rome). Gupta sculptures indicate high artistic merit India achieved during that period. At this time, the science of sculptures had attained perfection and classicality. Hence, after Gupta period, the sculptures were made on the same models, that were determined during Gupta period. Whereas, the development of icon/idols (individual sculptures for worship) regarding their poses and weapons they carry, indicate, development of religious ideology and influence they draw from various sources. These also indicate synchronization of various cults. A separate branch as ‘Iconography’ studies such developments.


Earliest instances of paintings can be found in the rock-shelters of Bhimbetaka (Madhya Pradesh). These were drawn by Mesolithic cave-dwellers by using colours and tools from his surrounding nature. Through these rock-paintings we can understand the life-style of Mesolithic people; like, his way of living, methods of hunting, the flora and fauna in his surrounding etc. Then, we find beautiful paintings, especially from Ajanta and then at Bagh. The world-famous paintings of Ajanta give us information about religious ideology, the spiritual serenity, the ornaments, the costumes, the foreign visitors etc. And of course, through these paintings, we can understand the artistic merit and great esthetic sense of concerned period. Whereas, the paintings of Chola king on the walls of temples at Tamil Nadu, display the concept of ‘divine kingship’ of Chola polity.

Archaeological Remains

People settles-people live-create institutions and physical structure and in some unfavorable condition leave the place. The place gets abandoned with material remains that people have left behind-unintentionally. Then, by the environmental 26 agents like wind, soil, rain, a heap of soil gets accumulated on that place. Then, again the next group of people settles over there. Then, the same cycle continues. Thus, after sequence of repeated settlements and abandoning, a heap of soil forms over that place. Such heaps are called as ‘archaeological mounds’, hiding in its belly the history of mankind. Then some certain kind of historians, called as archeologists unearthed these mounds, called as an excavation. Through excavation, archaeologists exposed the hidden history of that specific settlement. The archaeological material they unearthed can be used as sources for the reconstruction of history of that particular settlement. The material helps us to reconstruct history of: those common people who were disregarded by the written source; those periods before the discovery of writing; to supplement the history, reconstructed by written sources. Following is a brief list of archaeological material that can be used as source:


During Protohistory up to Early Medieval period, the base equipment of the common people was the pottery. The Pottery or ‘ceramic assemblage’ comprised of various items, like, bowls, plates, pots, etc. It should be noted the pottery gets differentiated according to respective culture that created them. The difference lies in shapes, fabrics, surface-treatment (fabric, colour, designs, painting), pottery-makingtechnique etc. Thus, specific pottery-type is assigned to particular culture/period. With such logic, archaeologist can date the site relatively on the basis of these differences. Hence, pottery is considered as alphabet of that site. Beads Since time-immemorial the bead-industry is one of the world-famous industries of India. These were made of various materials, like, stone, semi-precious stones (like Agate, Chalcedony, Crystal, Turquoise, Lapis-lazuli), glass, metals like gold, copper; terra cotta, ivory, shell etc. Besides, those were of different shapes like round, square, cylindrical, barrel-shaped etc. The technology was so higher that we have achieved the technique of making beads, inlaying other metal into them. These can be used as source to know the technological development & esthetic sense of specific period.

Faunal Remains/Bones

Excavations reveal large amount of bones or faunal remains. These shed light on the surrounding historical ecology or ecosystem of that particular site. Besides, we can also understand the dietary habits of concerned people.

Floral Remains

The floral remains are also give us information on the surrounding historical ecology and dietary habits of concerned people.

Foundations of architecture

During horizontal excavations, we come across foundation of architecture of related period. The architecture comprised of civic architecture like huts, houses, palaces, stadiums, assembly-halls, bath-rooms, ware-houses, activity areas like kitchen-bedrooms-hall-verandah-thrashing floors; roads, system of sanitation, watersource, etc. On these bases and the layout of sites we can know the standard-of-living of the people, besides, the spatial distribution in the area indicates the social division of particular period, if any. The structures like bunds/docks throw light on the economy and technological development, attained by these people. Whereas; defensive architectures, like fortification, bastion, moats indicate the affluence of that particular site and quantum of threat to that site.

Domestic Material

The excavations reveal a hoard of domestic items, like, kitchen equipment (pots, hearth, spatula, querns etc.), ornaments, items of entertainment like toys; etc. These were made of various materials, like, stone, clays, terra-cotta, metal, shell, ivory etc.

Occupational Material

The occupation material comprised of agricultural equipment (hoe, plough, fishing-equipments (hook, net), trade-equipments (weights & measures, seals and sealing, coins). These were also made of various material, like, stone, clay, terracotta, metal etc. The Charcoal Excavation unearths burnt-organic material of any kind. These are called as ‘Charcoal’. Such charcoal, in specific amount and through laboratory tastes, could be used for dating the period, called as ‘Carbon-14’. 28 Thus, we can see that archaeological materials are the major source for the reconstruction of history of common people.


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    May 18, 2010 at 4:54 am

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