Indian History: 3 Important Sources of Ancient Indian History



Some of the important sources of ancient Indian history are as follow!

1. Archaeological Sources:

The pioneer work on archaeology was done by Europeans but the same is being carried on now by the Indians. The study of Indian antiquities was initiated by scholars like Sir William Jones who founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1774.

A large number of ancient inscriptions were collected but those could not be deciphered on account of the ignorance of the script but that difficulty was solved by Jones Prinsep in 1838 by his discovery of the Brahmin script.

After that discovery, the task of deciphering the inscriptions became an easy one and a lot of work was done by scholars like Fergusson, Cunningham, Dr. Rajendra Lal Mitra, and Dr. Bhau Daji. The greatest contribution was made by Gen­eral Cunningham who was appointed in 1862 as the Archaeological Surveyor to the Government. He devoted about half a century to the study of ancient Indian history.

Lord Curzon set up a separate Department of Archaeology and appointed Dr. Marshall as the Director-General of Archaeology. With him were associated scholars like Dr. Vogel, Dr. Stein, Dr. Bloch and Dr. Spooner.

A. Explorations:

The process of searching and collecting objects, related to past, is known as exploration. Many sites which resemble with the events and sites known from the literary sources have been explored. The outcomes of these explorations such as inscriptions, monuments, coins and other things have great importance in the process of knowing the history of past. Therefore, exploration is an important historical source which makes us aware of our ancestors.

B. Excavation:

Under the direction and supervision of Dr. Marshall, the ancient sites of Taxila covering an area of about 25 sq. miles were excavated and a lot of useful information was collected. The ancient city of Pataliputra was excavated by Dr. Spooner but much information could not be found on account of water-logging.

Dr. Spooner also started the excavation of the Buddhist sites of the Nalanda University and a lot of material was secured within the next two decades. In 1922-23, R. D. Banerjee started the work of excavation at Mohenjo-Daro in Sind. Work was also done at Harappa and the information got from Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro was collected together and Sir John Marshall wrote his monumental work on the Indus Valley Civilization.

A lot of work-was done by Aurel Stein in Baluchistan, Kashmir and Chinese Turkestan. N.G. Mazumdar and Dr. Mackay also made their contribution to our knowl­edge of the Indus Valley Civilization. A lot of archaeological work is being carried on at present in various parts of India.

C. Epigraphy:

Inscriptions inscribed on pillars, rocks, copper plates and wooden or stone tablets are called epigraphy. These inscriptions tell us about such events that are not only quite significant but also near to reality. Ashoka's inscriptions are important in this respect.

D. Inscriptions:

As regards inscriptions, they are of very great value. As they are engraved on stones and metals, they cannot be tampered with without detection. Consequently, we can be sure while using the mate­rial from inscriptions that they contain what was originally written. While in the case of books, there is the possibility of interpolations by known and unknown authors, which is not the case with inscriptions.

Their genuineness cannot be doubted. The inscriptions also give us a correct idea of the method of writing followed at a time when they were actually inscribed. The character of their script also enables us to fix their approximate age. Location can also throw some valuable light.

The difficulty of decipher­ing inscriptions has been overcome in most of the cases although the script of the Indus Valley still remains a mystery.

Information about inscriptional sources whether obtained by exploration or by excavations are as follows:

1. Religious and didactic inscriptions deal with religious and moral matters. Possibly, some of the seals and tablets of the Indus Valley were objects of worship and were not used as amulets. The inscriptions of Asoka are the best specimen of the religious and didactic inscriptions. The edicts of Asoka are appropriately called Dhamma-Lipi.

2. Ashoka's edicts are also a specimen of the administrative inscriptions. An extract from one of his inscriptions reads thus: "Everywhere in my dominions, the Yuktas, the Rajjukas and the Pradesikas shall proceed on circuit every five years as well for this purpose (for the instruction of Dhamma) as for other business."

3. The Sohgaura copper plate inscription of the third century B.C. is an example of pure administra­tive inscription.

4. The Junagadh Rock Inscription of Rudradaman I also contains administrative material.

5. A large number of copper plate inscriptions have been found both in the north and south and they contain many useful administrative details. Reference may be made in this connection to the Banskhera copper plate inscription of Harsha.

6. As regards the eulogistic inscriptions (Prasastis), they are very important from the political point of view. Generally, they contain the name and genealogy of the ruler concerned, the earlier career of the King, his military, political and administrative achievements, the existence of contemporary States coming into conflict with him and the inter-state relations, the administrative system, the political ideals, the personal accomplishments of the King, his patronage, munificence and charity and mythological or Puranic allusions by way of comparison and similes. The one great difficulty in these inscriptions is that there is a tendency on the part of the authors to exaggerate the achievements of their patrons.

7. Eulogistic inscriptions can be sub-divided into two parts: pure eulogy and eulogy mixed with other types.

8. The edicts of Ashoka form a category by themselves.

9. The Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavela of Kalinga belongs to the category of pure eulogy. It describes in detail the achievements of Kharavela in a chronological order. To the same category belongs the Allahabad Pillar Inscription of Samudragupta.

10. The number of inscriptions which contain eulogy mixed with other matter is very large. In practi­cally every document of a permanent nature, reference is made to the glories of the ruling sover­eign and his ancestors.

11. Important specimens of the mixed type are to be found in the Nasik Cave Inscription of Usavadata, the Junagadh Rock Inscription of Rudradaman I, the Nasik Cave Inscription of Gautami Balasri, the Mehrauli Iron Pillar Inscription of Chandra, Junagadh Rock Inscription of Skandgupta, the Bhitari Stone Pillar Inscription of Skandgupta, the Mandasor Stone Pillar Inscription of Yasodharman, the Stone Inscription of Isanvarman, the Aihole Stone Inscription of the time of Pulakesin II, the Talagunda Stone Pillar Inscription of the time of Santivarman, the Nagarjunikonda Inscriptions of Virapurusdatta, Mandasor Stone Inscription of the time of Kumargupta and Bandhuvarman, etc.

12. We have a large number of votive or dedicative inscriptions. It is possible that some of the tablets found in the Indus Valley contain votive inscriptions.

13. The piprahwa Vase Inscription records the dedication of the relic casket of Lord Buddha. The Besnagar Garuda Pillar Inscription of Helidoros also belongs to this category.

14. Many of the dedicative inscriptions deal with the installation of images and the construction of temples. Reference may be made in this connection to the Mandasor Inscription of the time of Kumargupta II and Bandhuvarman and the Bhitari Pillar Inscription of Skandgupta and the Aihole Inscription of the time of Pulakesin II.

15. The number of donative inscriptions is very large as many occasions offered themselves for this purpose to the ruler and the subjects.

16. Some of the inscriptions refer to the donations of caves or other buildings for the residence of monks and ascetics. Some refer to the donation of money in the form of a permanent endowment. Out of these funds, the Brahmans and the needy were fed, lamps were lighted in the temples, etc.

17. In some inscriptions, there is a reference to the donation of lands and villages to the monasteries, educational institutions and the Brahmanas.

18. Commemorative inscriptions record such events as birth, death or other important events.

19. The Rummindei Inscription of Asoka reads thus: "King Priyadarsin, beloved of the gods, when he had been consecrated many years, came in person and did worship. Because here the Sakya sage, Buddha, was born, he caused a huge stone wall to be made and a stone pillar to be erected."

20. A large number of commemorative inscriptions refer to the Silaharas of Kohlapur, the Chalukyas of Kalyani, the Rashtrakutas, the Yadavas, etc.

21. Some inscriptions contain poetic compositions and dramatic works and their purpose is primarily literary. From the Mahanirvana Stupa at Kusinagara in Uttar Pradesh was discovered copper plate containing 13 lines and recording the Udana-Sutta of Buddha.

22. Inscriptions have been found on stone and copper plates and other materials. Ashoka tells us that he got his edicts engraved on stone so that they may last for a long time. Writings on stone were on rocks, pillars, slabs, pedestal or the back of images, rims and lids of vases, caskets, etc., prisms of crystal, walls of temples, pavements of pillars of colonnades, caves, etc.

23. Copper was the material which was commonly used for the writing of inscriptions.

24. An inscription copper-plated was called Tamrapata, Tamrapattra, Tamrasasana, Sasanapattra or Danapattra according to its contents.

25. It is remarkable to note that land-grants were invariably inscribed on copper plates and were handed over to the donee so that they may serve as title-deeds.

26. Fahien tells us that he found in many Buddhist monasteries copper plates which referred to the grants of land. Some of them were as old as the time of Buddha. The discovery of the Sohgaura copper plate of the Mauryan period confirms this statement of Fahien.

27. Hieun Tsang tells us that Kanishka summoned a Buddhist Council which prepared three commen­taries and those commentaries were engraved on copper plates and kept in stone caskets which were placed in the Stupas built over them.

28. It is also stated that the commentaries of Sayana on the Vedas were engraved on copper. Some specimens of books inscribed on copper plates are to be found in the British Museum.

29. The use of copper for writing purposes was not very common up to the sixth century A.D. but it was quite popular for the next six centuries.

30. Copper plates were of different sizes and thickness. Some of them were so thin that they could be bent easily and there were others which were very thick and heavy. The size of a copper plate depended upon the contents of the document and the size of the commonly used writing material in the district where the copper plate was issued.

31. Sometimes a document was inscribed not on one copper plate but on very many and in that case the copper plates were fastened together by means of copper rings. In this way, the copper plates looked like a book which could be opened easily. Sufficient margin was left on the copper plates.

E. Numismatics:

A study of the Indian coins enlightens us a great deal regarding the history of ancient India. The Numismatic Society of India is doing a lot of useful work in this connection. We have at present a large number of coins found from various parts of India and dealing with the different aspects of ancient Indian history. Coins are of various metals: gold, silver and copper.

Importance of Coins:

Coins help us to build up the history of the country in many ways. They give us the names of the kings who ruled at various times in different parts of the country. In many cases, the coins are the only information we have regarding the existence of certain kings. Without those coins, the very existence of those kings would have remained unknown.

Many a time, the information from the coins can be used to corroborate the evidence from other sources such as the Puranas, etc. The coins also help us to fix up the chronology. Coins mention the year in which they are issued.

The existence of a large number of coins issued during the different years of the reign of a king helps us to fix the exact dates for the accession and the death of the king. Coins have helped us to fix the dates of Samudragupta.

The location of coins helps us to determine the extent of the territory of a king. The discovery of a large number of Roman coins in India confirms the fact that there was a brisk trade between India and the Roman Empire.

That also refers to the economic prosperity of India and the sea-going activities of its people. The figures of the various kings appear on coins and from them we can have an idea regarding the head-dress of those kings. Sometimes, the hobbies or the amusements of the rulers can also be known from a study of their coins.

Coins give an indication of the prosperity or otherwise of the country. If people have gold or silver coins, they are likely to be prosperous. The case is otherwise if they have copper coins alone or more of them than those of gold or silver.

Sometimes, the depreciation of coinage gives an indication that the country was passing through abnormal times. During the Huna invasion of India, the Gupta currency depreciated. The symbols on the Gupta coinage refer to their zeal for Hinduism.

The coins give us genuine information regarding the history of ancient India as there is no possibility of their being tampered with. Coins were issued by the rulers and other authorities like Srenis, etc., and there is no possibility of their being issued merely to deceive people.

The Earliest Indian Coins:

The earliest coins of India have only figures, devices or symbols and no legends. Sometimes, the coins were cast in dies but very often symbols were punched on pieces of metals. The symbols varied from time to time and were punched with a view to guarantee their genuineness and value. On account of the absence of legends on them, much information is not available.

Indian Coins after the Greek Invasion:

After the Greek invasion of India, the practice of writing the names of the kings on the coins was started. A large number of coins were issued by the Indo-Bactrian rulers who had under their control the Punjab and the North-Western Frontier. These coins possess a high degree of artistic excellence and ultimately had a tremendous influence on Indian coinage.

The thing borrowed in the Indian coinage was the name and the portrait of the ruler. The Greek coins refer to about 30 Greek kings and queens who ruled in India. The classical writers refer to only four or five of them and in the absence of these coins, the names other rulers would have remained absolutely unknown.

The coins of the Scythians and Parthians are of inferior quality but they also give us a lot of historical information. Their coins have enabled us to have an outline of the history of their rulers and without them even the outlines would have been missing. A branch of the Scythians settled in Gujarat and Kathiawar and they issued coins in which the names of the ruling kings and their fathers were mentioned in the Saka era.

These coins have helped us to reconstruct the history of the Western Satraps for more than three centuries. The Kushans also issued a large number of coins. The existence of the Malavas, Yaudheyas and the Mitra rulers of Panchala is known only from the coins. The coins of the Satavahanas supplement, correct and corroborate the accounts of the Puranas.

The Gupta coins also give us a lot of useful information. The coins of Samudragupta are particularly remarkable and a detailed description of them will be given in their proper place. The Indian coins after the Gupta period do not give us much historical information.

Punch-Marked Coins:

According to V.A. Smith and Rapson, the punch-marked coins represent a private coinage. The view of Smith is that they were issued by guilds and goldsmiths with the permission of the ruling power. The numerous obverse punches were made by different moneyers through whose hands those coins passed. The reverse marks were the signs of approval by the controlling authority.

According to Rapson, the obverse marks were the private marks of the money-changers and the reverse marks denoted locality in which the coins were issued. However, recent researches have proved that the punch- marked coins were issued by a regular public authority. A few of them found at pataliputra have been ascribed by Dr. K.P Jayaswal to the age of Chandragupta Maurya.

A large number of coins are to be found in the Government museums and municipal museums and the private collectors. A critical study of all of them is bound to give a lot of additional evidence.

F. Monuments:

The ancient monuments like buildings, statues of stones or metals, terra-cotta, ornamental and decorative fragments, pottery, etc., give us a lot of useful and reliable information. The excavation of the sites of the old towns like, Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and Taxila has given us a lot of information hitherto unknown and changed our conception of the history of ancient India.

It is after the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization that we began to talk of a civilization in India prior to that of the Aryans. The excavations at Taxila throw welcome light on the Kushans. A study of the sculptures found from there gives us an idea of the Gandhara School of art.

The digging of the old sites of Pataliputra gives us some information regarding the old capital of the Mauryas. The Angkor-Vat in Cambodia and Borobodur in Java bear testimony to the colonial and cultural activities of the Indians in ancient times. The temples of Deogadh in Jhansi and Bhitargaon near Kanpur throw light on the artistic activities of the Guptas.

The excavations at Sarnath have added to our knowledge regarding Buddhism and Ashoka. The exca­vations in Chinese Turkestan and Baluchistan by Stein prove the intimate contacts of India with those territories. The progress of archaeological work in Indian in future is bound to enrich our knowledge of ancient Indian history.

2. Literary Sources:

Primary and Secondary:

Literary sources are of two kinds-primary and secondary. Primary sources are those literary works which provide direct evidence of the event. Primary sources are contemporary to the occurrence of the event. While, secondary sources had been written after the event occurred. They took the help of other sources in expressing any event.

Problems of Dating:

Sometimes difficulties occur during dating any past event.

Following are the reasons behind the rise of these difficulties:

1. Different literary works provide different chronological order for the same dynasty and its rulers.

2. Maximum literary works are fictitious stories and are aimed to provide rather entertainment than historical knowledge.

3. Many inscriptions and scripts were disturbed many times by various victorious rulers. This causes problems in identifying their names and chronology.

4. Myths and tale stories also provide some historical materials. But these myths and tale-telling are superficial, and hence are not reliable.


It includes the Puranas which are the most important source under this category. There are 18 Puranas, each divided into five sections. The fifth section deals with the genealogical charts of the various dynasties of the Aryan and non-Aryan rulers. The Puranic legends are interwoven with fancy and fiction. The Buddhist traditions are incorporated in the 'Dipvamsha' and the


Some information about ancient India can be derived from tribal legends as well. However, in estimating the value of tribal legends for purposes of history it is desirable to enquire whether the legends are uniform or multiform, whether any trace of modification is discernible since they were first reported, and whether they are generally accepted as true by the tribe.

It is also necessary to scruti­nise carefully the qualifications of those who reported them, to inquire how far they were competent to understand with precision the language of their informants, avoid the danger of voluntary suggestion and to receive the impression like a photographic plate without preconception or bias.

If the records of the tradition of a tribe can stand these tests, they obviously possess great value. If they fail, their value is diminished or entirely disappears. Tribal legends are of great value in constructing the history of Karkakhanda (Chotanagpur) although no separate literature on the tribal legends exists.

Religious Literature:

This includes religious texts of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains.

1. Hindu religious texts:

The first literary sources of Hindus are Samhitas which include four Vedas- The Rig-Veda, the Sam-Veda, the Yajur-veda and the Atharva-veda. Beside these are the Brahmans(the Satapatha, Panchavis, Aitreya etc.) the Upanishads (the Kathaka, the Isa, the Svetasvatra etc.) the Aranyakas, the Sutras (the Dharm-Sutra, the Graha-Sutra etc.) the Smiritis (the Manu, the Vishnu, the Narad, the Briahaspati etc.), the Puranas (the Vishnu, the Vayu etc. 18 in all) and the Epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) which throw light mostly on the history and culture of India from the Vedic up to Gupta age.

2. Buddhist religious texts:

The main body of the Buddhist religious literature is known as Tripitaka, consisting of Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhamma Pitakas. They deal with monastic discipline, doc­trines and philosophy of Buddhism respectively.

The Buddhist Jatakas or stories (over five hundred such stories are published) contain references to political, social, economic and religious condi­tions of early India.

The stone walls around the Stupas at Barhut and Sanchi carry reliefs to Jataka stories. The Milinda Panha, "Questions of King Milinda" to Buddhist priest, Nagasena and the commentaries of Buddhaghosha, Ananda and Dhammapala along with others, constitute the fundamental sources for the study of Buddhism and contemporary civilization.

3. Jaina religious texts:

The religious books of the Jainas also refer to historical persons and incidents. The Jaina texts were written in Prakrit and were finally complied in the sixth century A.D. in Valabhi in Gujarat.

They however contain many passages which help us to reconstruct the political history of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the age of Mahavira. The Jaina texts refer repeatedly to trade and traders.

Secular and Historical Literature:

Arthashastra of Kautilya gives us information about administration and diplomacy during Chandragupta Maurya's time. Vishakhadattes play "Mudrarakshas" gives us information about the usurpation of power by Chandragupta Maurya with the help of Chanakya. Kalidasa's plays give us information about Gupta period of Ancient Indian history.

This charge is brought on the Ancient Indians that they had no historical innovation. It is true that they did not write chronological history like ancient Greeks but still some historical works are available which contribute towards the reconstruction of Ancient Indian history.

In the 7th century A.D. Banabhatta wrote the Harshacharitam which gives us information about Harsha's court, his life and the contempo­rary social and religious life. From Kalhan's Rajtarangini we get information about the history of Kash­mir.

In reality this is the first work having many of the characteristics of a historical work. In the Ramacharita of Sandhyakar Nandi we find a description of the struggle between Pala ruler, Rampal and the peasants in which the king was victorious.

Similarly there are other works which reveal infor­mation about Ancient social, political and economic conditions. Sangam literature is also very impor­tant as a literary source of ancient Indian history. Sangam literature means those literary writings which were composed in the literary assemblies taking place in the courts of South Indian kings.

This oldest material is in Tamil language. The kings extended their patronage to various centres of learning and got this material written in about 300-400 years. It continued till the 4th-6th centuries of Christ. Sangam literature is a valuable source of information for the study of social, political and economic life of the people of South India. It also gives us information about Pandya, Pallava, Chalukya, Chola and Chera dynasties.

3. Foreign Accounts:

Indigenous literature can be supplemented by foreign accounts. To this class belong the works of the Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Muslims.

1. Description left by Greek and Roman Travellers:

Scholars have divided them into 3 categories

(i) Prior to Alexander,

(ii) Contemporary of Alexander and

(iii) Later than Alexander.

In the first category the name of Herodotus (424-431 B.C.) is more important. He has written much about India and the Indians. According to him "The Indians are by far the greatest multitude of all the people of men whom we know." Skylex was a navigator and Emperor Darius had sent him to explore the Indus.

The historians, who accompanied Alexander, were Nearchus, Aristobulus, Onesciritus, Clitarchus, etc. They have also left an account of the people of India of those days. The third category comprises the writings of the Ambassadors who came to the courts of Indian rulers, such as Megasthenes, Dyonisis and Deimachos.

Of them all Megasthenes is the most important writer. Unfortunately the original version of his work is not available, but it has played an important part in reconstructing Ancient Indian history through its references contained in other works.

This work tells us not only about the Mauryan administration but also about social classes and economic life during the Mauryan period. The Indika, as not free from credulity and exaggerations, but this is true of many other ancient accounts.

Last but not the least is the later Greek and Roman writers like Strabo, Diodoras, Arrian, Pliny, Ptolemy etc. These writers were more rational and highly critical and their accounts are of im­mense value for the early history of India.

Greek and Roman accounts of the first and second centuries A.D. mention many Indian ports and enumerate items of trade between India and the Roman Empire. The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea and Ptolemy's Geography, both written in Greek, provide valuable data for the study of ancient geography and commerce.

The data ascribed to the first ranges between A.D. 80 and 115, while the second is attributed to about A.D. 150. Pliny's Naturalis Historia, which belongs to the first century A.D. was written in Latin and tells us about trade between India and Italy.

2. Chinese Travellers:

The four notable Chinese travellers to India are Fa-Hien, Sungyun, Hiuen- Tsang and I-tsing. Fa-Hien started from China in 399 A.D. He entered India from the north-western side and left it in 413 A. D. at Tamralipti. From here he reached China via Ceylon, Java and Sumatra. He also stayed in the Capital of Chandragupta Vikramdhitya. His accounts throw a flood of light on the political, social, economic and religious conditions of India under Chandra Gupta II.

In his accounts Fa-Hien also praises the administrative machinery under the Guptas. As regards religion he says that the Guptas followed a policy of religious toleration and Buddhism was in a prospering state. Sungyun had come to India around 518 A.D. His accounts also throw light on contemporary Indian political, social and religious conditions. Hiuen-Tsang came to India in 629 A.D. in the time of Harsha Vardhan.

He enjoyed the patronage of King Harsha Vardhan. He wrote a book called 'Si-Yu-Ki.' This work contains a vivid description of the religious assemblies of Harsha, his liberality and contemporary Indian socio-religious and political situation. His account is worth mentioning also from the point of view of his reference to Ancient Indian educational system and ancient Indian customs and practices.

I-Tsung came to India towards the end of the 7th century. He stayed for a long time in the Universities of Vikrarmadhitya and Nalanda. His travel accounts throw light on the decline of Nalanda and Vikramadhitya universities and contemporary situation.

There are two major drawbacks in the Chinese Travellers accounts. They are written from a Buddhist point of view on account of their extreme faith in Buddhism and secondly non- religious aspects have been specially neglected by Fa-Hien and I-Tsung.

3. Tibetan Historian Taranath:

Tibetan scholar Taranath has written the work 'History of Bud­dhism'. This also throws light on ancient Indian history. Actually his account is specially useful for the history of post-mauryan period. Without it our information about the Shakas, Parthians and Kushanas would have been incomplete.

4. Muslim Sources.

The work of Alberuni, "Tehqiq-i-Hind"\s very valuable for giving us an account of Hindu manner, science and literature. He came in the time of Mahmud of Ghazni, rather accompa­nied him and gives political conditions of India in the 10th and 11th centuries A.D. Being himself well-versed in Sanskrit language, Hindu social and religious customs, his book is of special signifi­cance.

After Alberuni the other later Muslim writers which are worth mentioning, are Ibn-Batuta, Al-Masudi, Nizamudd in and Hasan-Nizami. The Venetian traveller, Macro Polo, passed through some parts of South India on his way from China to Persia between A.D. 1292 and 1294, and has left a very interesting account of the social manners and customs of South India.