Sources of Ancient History of India

Sources of Ancient History of India

There is so much written material present on and about ancient history of India thus it is relatively simple to find sources for writing recent history. However, writing ancient Indian history presents a significant challenge as India's ancient seers emphasised events that expressed higher principles rather than real happenings.

Sources of Ancient History of India

Historians were present in ancient Greece and Rome to record historical events. However, ancient Indians, who wrote on a variety of topics, rarely wrote history. The majority of the ancient material has also been destroyed. Rediscovering India's ancient history is thus a difficult job. There are, however, materials from which history is recorded.

We must know about the geographical condition of Ancient India in order to know the history of that time.

Geographical Past of India

The ancient civilization of India developed in a clearly defined subcontinent bounded on the north by the world's biggest mountain range-the Himalayan chain, which, with its extensions to the east and west, separated India from the rest of Asia and the rest of the world.

Geographical Past of India Map

India's long sea coasts supported the development of maritime trade, and a large number of harbours were built, allowing trade ties with Rome, China, Malaya, and the South East Asian archipelago to be formed. India's concentrated location in the Indian Ocean is also strategically and economically significant.

Geology, climate, and other geographical variables influence the course of events. As a result, the study of Indian physiography can be divided into three territorial compartments: the northern lowlands of the Indus and Ganga basins, the Deccan region located south of the Narmada and north of the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers, and the far south Tamil states. Rivers facilitated agriculture by providing a steady flow of perennial water to this region, which includes the states of Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan.

In ancient literature, mention is found of five natural divisions of India:

  • Madhyadesa,i.e. Indo Gangetic plain stretcing from the valley of the river Saraswat to the Rajmahal Hill. This division has been known as Aryavarta from the ancient times.
  • Uttarapatha or Udichya i.e. North-West India
  • Pratichyaor Aparanta i.e. Western India
  • Dakshinapatha or Dakshinatya i.e. the area south of Madhyadesa
  • Prachya or Purvadesa, the region east of Madhyadesa

Sources of Ancient History of India

There are two main sources of Ancient history of India:

Literary Sources: The literary source includes literature of Vedic, Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, and other literature along with other foreign accounts.

Archaeological Sources: The archaeological source includes epigraphic, numismatic, and other architectural remains. The archaeological explorations and excavations have opened the great landscapes of new information.

Indian Literary Sources

The ancient Indian literature is mostly religious in nature.

The Puranic and Epic literature lacks precise times for events and kingdoms. The Puranas and Epics maintain historical ideas. The Puranas and epics recount monarchs' ancestors and accomplishments. However, they are not arranged in a chronological order.

The Vedic literature contains mainly the four Vedas i.e. Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and Atharvaveda. The Vedas give reliable information about the culture and civilization of the Vedic period, but do not reveal the political history.

Six Vedangas are the important limbs of Vedas. They were evolved for the proper understanding of the Vedas. The Vedangas are:

  • Siksha (Phonetics)
  • Kalpa (Rituals)
  • Vyakarna (Grammar)
  • Nirukta (Etymology)
  • Chhanda (Metrics)
  • Jyotisha (Astronomy)

Vedanga has been written in the precepts (sutra) form. This is a very precise and exact form of expression in prose, which was developed by the scholars of ancient India.

Ashtadhyayi (eight chapters), written by Panini, is a book on grammar that gives excellent information on the art of writing in sutra (precepts).

The later Vedic literature includes the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads.

Brahmanas gives a description of Vedic rituals. Aranyakas and Upanishads give speeches on different spiritual and philosophical problems.

Puranas, which are 18 in numbers give mainly historical accounts.

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are epics of great historical importance.

The Jain and the Buddhist literature had been written in Prakrit and Pali languages. Early Jain literature is mostly written in Prakrit language.

Pali language was a form of Prakrit language which was used in Magadha. Most of the early Buddhist literature is written in Pali language. Pali language reached to Sri Lanka through some of the Buddhist monks where it is a living language. Ashokan edicts had been written in Pali language.

Books of Ancient India

The Buddhist books are called as Jataka stories. They have been given some historical importance because they are related with the previous births of the Buddha. There are more than 550 such stories.

The Dharmasutras and the Smritis were the rules and regulations for the general public and the rulers. It can be equated with the constitution and the law books of the modern concept of polity and society. For example, Manusmriti.

Dharmashastras were compiled between 600 and 200 B.C.

Arthashastra is a book on statecraft written by Kautilya during the Maurya period. The book is divided into 15 parts dealing with different subject matters related to polity, economy, and society. The final version of Arthashastra was written in the 4th century B.C. Kautilya acknowledges his debt to his predecessors in his book, which shows that there was a tradition of writing on and teaching of statecrafts.

Mudrarakshasha is a play written by Visakha datta. It describes the society and culture of that period.

Malavikagnimitram written by Kalidasa gives information of the reign of Pusyamitra Sunga dynasty.

Harshacharita, written by Banabhatta is considered to be the first historical biography in Sanskrit

Vakpati wrote Gaudavaho, based on the exploits of Yasovarman of Kanauj.

Vikramankadevacharita, written by Bilhana, describes the victories of the later Chalukya king Vikramaditya.

Rajatarangini, written by Kalhana, is the best form of history writing valued by modern historians. His critical method of historical research and impartial treatment of the historical facts have earned him a great respect among the modern historians.

The Sangam literature is in the form of short and long poems consisting 30,000 lines of poetry, which arranged in two main groups i.e. Patinenkilkanakku and the Pattupattu. It describes many kings and dynasties of South India. The Sangam was the poetic compilation by a group of poets of different times mainly supported by chiefs and kings. The Sangam literature was composed by a large number of poets in praise of their kings. Some kings and events mentioned are also supported by the inscriptions. The Sangam literature generally describes events up to the 4th century A.D.

Foreign Accounts

Megasthenes came in the court of Chandragupta Maurya. He had written about the Indian society and culture in his book called as 'Indica. Though the original work has been lost, but it had been frequently quoted in the works of later writers.

A book 'Periplus of the Erythrean Sea' written by an anonymous Greek author who settled in Egypt on the basis of his personal voyage of Indian coast in about A. D. 80 gives valuable information about the Indian coasts.

In the second century A. D., Ptolemy had written a geographical treatise on India.

The Greek literature about India is dependent on secondary sources. They were unfamiliar with the language and traditions of the nation, so their information is riddled with mistakes and contradictions.

Many Chinese travellers visited India as Buddhist pilgrims from time to time; three important pilgrims were:

  • Fa-Hien (Faxian): visited India in 5th century A.D (at the time of Chandragupta II).
  • Hiuen-Tsang (Xuanzang) – visited India in 7th century (at the time of Harshavardhana).
  • I-Tsing (Yijing) – visited India in 7th century.

Hiuen-Tsang had given valuable account about Harshavardhana and some other contemporary kings of Northern India. Fa-Hien and Hiuen-Tsang traveled many parts of the country and they have given an exaggerated account of Buddhism during the period of their visit.

Al-Biruni gave important information about India. He was Arab scholar and contemporary of Mahmud of Ghazni. Al-Biruni studied Sanskrit and acquired knowledge of Indian society and culture through literature. Therefore, his observations are based on his knowledge about Indian society and culture, but he did not give any political information of his times.

Archaeological Sources

The archaeological sources played an important role in constructing or/and reconstructing the history of a region. The archaeological source of Indian history is only about two centuries old.

The archaeological source enhanced our knowledge about our past and also provided important materials, which we could not have been obtained otherwise.

Up to 1920, Indian civilization was considered to have begun about 6th century B.C. However, the excavations at Mohenjodaro, Kalibangan, and Harappa prove its antiquity to be of 5,000 B.C.

Prehistoric artifacts found in the excavations have shown that human activities had started here as early as about two million years ago.

Epigraphy and Numismatics are the important branches of the study of history, which has greatly enhanced the knowledge of India's past. Epigraphy is the study of inscriptions and Numismatic is the study of coins, medals, or paper money.

Coins are an important numismatic source that tells us about the Indo-Greek, Saka-Parthian, and Kushana Kings. Inscriptions of Ashoka and and Samudragupta provide valuable information about social and political status of the people of that period.

The study of these inscriptions reveals the world about Ashoka's views on dharma (religion) and conquests of Samudragupta.


The temples and sculptures display an architectural and artistic history of the Indians from the Gupta period up-to recent times.

During the Gupta period, the large caves i.e. Chaityas and Viharas were excavated in the hills of Western India. The Kailasa Temple of Ellora and Rathas at Mahabalipuram have been carved out of rocks from outside.