1. Sources of Ancient History
  2. #1: Literary Sources:
  3. Puranic Literature
  4. Vedic Literature
  5. Later Vedic Literature
  6. Jain and Buddhist Literature
  7. Kautilya’s Arthashastra
  9. Sangam Literature
  10. Foreign Accounts
  11. Greek Writers
  12. Chinese Travelers
  13. Arab Historian: Al-Beruni
  14. #2: Archaeological Sources
  15. Carbon-Dating principle
  16. Inscriptions
  17. Ashokan Inscription
  18. Coins/numismatics
  19. Excavations

This [Ancient India] article series is based on:

  1. Old NCERT Class 11: Ancient India by R.S.Sharma (1990)
  2. Old NCERT Class 11: Medieval India by Meenaxi Jain (2002)
Sources of Ancient History
  1. literary sources
Vedic, Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit and other literature and foreign accounts.
  1. archaeological
epigraphic, numismatic and architectural remains, archaeological explorations and excavations

  1. study of development of scripts: palaeography.
  2. study of inscriptions: epigraphy.
  3. study of coins: numismatics
  4. study of monuments, material remains: Archeology

Literary Sources:

Indian Tradition of History Writing

  • Many foreign scholars opined that Indians had no sense of history writing and whatever was written in the name of history is nothing more than a story without any sense.
  • But this appears to be a very harsh judgment.. Because the knowledge of history was given a very high place in ancient India. It was accorded sanctity equal to a Veda.
  • Atharvaveda, Brahmans and Upanishads include Itihas-Purana as one of the branches of knowledge.
  • Kautilya in his Arthashastra (fourth century B.C.) advises the king to devote a part of his time every day for hearing the narrations of history.

Puranic Literature

  • The Puranic literature is very vast
  • 18 main Puranas, 18 subsidiary Puranas and a large number of other books.
  • According to the Puranas, following are the subject matters of history:
SARGA evolution of universe)
PRATISARGA involution of universe
MANVANTANTAR recurring of time
VAMSA genealogical list of kings and sages
VAMSANUCHARITA life stories of some selected characters

Later on description of the tirthas (sacred places of pilgrimage) and their mahatmya (religious importance) was also included in it.

They speak of four ages

  1. Krita
  2. Treta
  3. Dvapara
  4. Kali

Each succeeding age is depicted worse than the preceding- show decline in the moral values and social institutions.

They speak about several eras:

era starts in
Vikrama Samvat 57BC
Shaka Samvat 78AD
Gupta era 319AD
  • Narration of Puranas were a part of the annual ritual in every village and town during the rainy season and at the time of festivals. It was treated as a powerful vehicle of awakening of cultural and social consciousness.
  • in all the Puranas royal genealogies are dealt with the reign of Parikshit, the grandson of Arjun, as a benchmark.
  • All the earlier dynasties and kings have been mentioned in past tense.
  • While the latter kings and dynasties have been narrated in future tense.
  • This may be because of the fact that the coronation of Parikshit marks the beginning of Kali Age.
  • Many scholars think that this also points to the fact that perhaps the Puranas were completed during the reign of Parikshit.
  • In the context of the Puranas it may be remembered that in ancient India, Itihas was looked upon as a means to illuminate the present and future in the light of the past.
  • The purpose of history was to understand and inculcate a sense of duty and sacrifice by individuals to their families, by the families to their clans, by the clans to their villages and by the villages to Janapada and Rashtra and ultimately to the whole humanity.
  • History was not meant to be an exhaustive compendium of the names of the kings and dynasties and their achievements etc.
  • The two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, may also be used as a source. It is generally held that there have been constant interpolations in these works.
  • The Puranas may not satisfy the modern definition of historiography or those who wrote it may not have been awe of the “historian’s crafts”, but they seem fully aware of the purpose of their work and the purpose of history itself.

Ramayana, Valmiki

  • composition started in 5BC. passed through five stage. fifth stage in 12AD
  • 6000 verses=>12000 verses and finally 24000 verses.
  • As a whole, this text seems to have been composed later than Mahabharata.

Mahabharata, Vyas

  • reflects the state of affairs between 70BC to 4AD
  • originally 8800 verses, collection dealing with victory.
  • Later raised to 24000 verses- came to be known as Bharata after Bharat tribe
  • final compilation: 1 lakh verses and came to be known as Mahabharata or Satasahasri Samhita.
  • didactic portion from Post Maurya, Gupta times.

Puranic Literature: Limitations

  1. Most of the ancient literature is religious in nature, and those which are claimed to be history by Indians, i.e., puranic and epic literature, contain no definite dates for events and kings.
  2. In the Puranas and epics, we find genealogies of kings and sometimes their achievements. But it is difficult to arrange them in chronological order.
  3. Puranic literature helps tracing Lord Ram of Ayodhya around 2000B.C. but the extensive exploration in Ayodhya donot show any settlement around that date. Similarly, Lord Krishna can be traced to 200 BC-300AD. But excavations in Mathura, donot attest his presence. Counter argument: The epics Ramayana and Mahabharata have undergone several editions through ages, hence difficult to tie up with specific era.

Vedic Literature

  • The Four Vedas: We cannot find much trace of political history in the Vedas, but can have reliable glimpses of the culture and civilization of the Vedic period.
  • Vedic literature are entirely in a different language, which can be called the Vedic language. Its vocabulary contains a wide range of meaning and at times different in grammatical usages.
  • It has a definite mode of pronunciation in which emphasis changes the meaning entirely. This is the reason why an elaborate means to protect and preserve the mode of pronunciation of the Vedas have been devised.
  • By the means of Ghana, Jata and other types of pathas we can not only determine the meaning of the mantras but also can hear the original tone on which these were sung thousands of years ago.
  • Because of these pathas, no interpolations in the Vedas are possible.


Six vedangas (limbs of Vedas) were evolved for the proper understanding of the Vedas.

  1. Siksha (phonetics)
  2. Kalpa (rituals)
  3. Vyakarna (grammar)
  4. Nirukta (etymology)
  5. Chhanda (metrics)
  6. Jyotisha (astronomy)


  • Each vedanga has developed a credible literature around it which are in the sutra form i.e., precepts.
  • This is a very precise and exact form of expression in prose which was developed by the ancient Indians.
  • Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, book on grammar in eight chapters is the final culmination of this excellent art of writing in sutra (precepts) in which every chapter is precisely interwoven.
Later Vedic Literature
Brahmanas elaborate on vedic rituals
Aranyakas give discourses on different spiritual and philosophical problems.
Sulvasutra prescribe measurements for sacrificial altars. Mark the beginning of study of geometry and maths.
Srautasutra account of royal coronation ceremonies
Grihyasutra domestic rituals with birth, naming, marriage, funeral etc.

Jain and Buddhist Literature

literature written in notes
Jain Prakrit was a form of Sanskrit language
Buddhist Pali
  • as the form of Prakrit language which was in vogue in Magadha/South Bihar.
  • Most of the early Buddhist literature is written in this language.
  • With the Buddhist monks it reached Sri Lanka, where it is a living language.
  • provides details of contempary kings in Magadha, N.Bihar and East UP.
  • Ashokan edicts are also in this language.

Since the modern historians have discarded most of the dynasties mentioned in the Puranas and Mahavira and Buddha are considered historical personalities, only those portions of the puranic dynastic lists have been accepted which are supplemented and supported by the Buddhist and Jaina literature.
Jataka Stories

  • These are Buddhist books
  • Before he was born as Gautama, the Buhddha passed through more than 550 births, in many cases in animal-form.
  • Each birth story is called Jataka. There are more than 550 such stories.
  • throw light on socio-economic conditions between 5BC to 2BC.

Dhamasutras and the Smritis

  • these are rules and regulations for the general public and the rulers
  • It can be termed in the modern concept as the constitution and the law books for the ancient Indian polity and society. These are also called Dharmashastras.
  • These were compiled between 600 and 200 B.C.
  • Manusmriti and Arthashastra are prominent among them.

Kautilya’s Arthashastra

  • a book on statecraft was written in the Maurya period.
  • The text is divided into 15 chapters known as books.
  • Different books deal with different subject matter concerning polity, economy and society.
  • even before the final version of Arthashastra was written in the fourth century B.C. by Kautilya, there appeared a tradition of writing on and teaching of statecrafts because Kautilya acknowledges his debt to his predecessors in the field. Mudrarakshusha, a play written by Vishakhadatta, also gives a glimpse of society and culture.
Notable writers
Kalidasa Malavikagnimitram is based on some events of the reign of Pusyamitra Sunga, dynasty which followed the Mauryas.Abhgyanshakuntalam: glimpse of Guptas.
Bhasa and Sudraka written plays based on historical events.
Banabhatta Harshacharita throws light on many historical facts
Vakpati wrote Gaudauaho, based on the exploits of Yasovarman of Kanauj
Bilhana Vikramankadevachnrita describes the victories of the later Chalukya king Vikramaditya.
Kalhana His book Rajatarangini.

Biographical Writings

Banabhatta’s Harshacharita
  • 7th AD
  • Describes the early career of Harshavardhana- courtlife and social life in his age.
Sandhyakara Nandi
  • Ramacharita. 12th AD
  • conflict between Kaivarta peasants and Pala prince Ramapala. Prince wins.
Bilhana’s Vikramanakadevacharita
  • Vikramadity, the sixth.
  • Mushika Vamsha- this dynasty ruled in Northern Kerala.
  • Kumarapalacharita of Jayasimha,
  • Kumarapatacharita or Duayashraya Mahakauya of Hemachandra,
  • Harnmirakavya of Nayachandra,
  • Navasahasankacharita of Padmagupta,
  • Bhojaprabandha of Billal,
  • Prithuirajacharit of Chandbardai.

Limitations: These writers made lot of exaggerations to please their patron kings.


  1. Printing was not known. Everything was written on soft materials like birch bark, palm leaf, paper etc.
  2. Since the old manuscripts become fragile in course of time, they had to be manually copied. But At the time of copying, some errors tend to creep in or sometimes even additions are made.
  3. Alexander’s Invasion finds no mention in Indian sources. We’ve to reconstruct his exploits entirely on basis of Greek sources.
  4. Many of them religious in nature- while they give some idea on prevailing social conditions but hard to put it in context of time and place.

Sangam Literature

  • earliest Tamil text
  • Kings and chiefs patronized poets.
  • These poets assembled in collages and compiled poems over a period of 3 to 4 centuries. This is  Sangam literature.
  • Describes many kings and dynasties of South India.
  • This literature generally describes events upto the fourth century A.D.
  • Total 30,000 lines of poetry
  • arranged in eight Anthologies called Ettuttokai
  • two main groups, Patinenkilkanakku (18 lower collections) and the Pattupattu (ten songs). The former is older than the latter.
  • Some kings and events are supported by inscriptions also.

How is Sangam literature different from Vedic Literature?

  1. Thus secular in nature. Poems written in praise of numerous heroes and heroines. They represent a heroic age of warriors and battles.
  2. Talk about military exploits in detail.
  3. Songs are not primitive, show high quality of grammar.
  4. They talk about how Yavans came in their own vessels, purchased pepper with gold, supplied wine and women to Indian rulers.

Thus, Sangam texts are not merely artistic poems, they also provide a source of social-economic-political life of people living in the Deltaic Tamilnadu in the early Christian centuries.

Foreign Accounts

Greek Ambassadors:

  • Ambassadors were sent to Pataliputra by Greek kings.
  • Notable: Megasthenese, Deimachus and Dionysios.
  • They mention Sandrokottas (Chandragupta Maurya)- help fixing his date of accession at 322BC. This helps as sheet-anchor in Ancient Indian Chronology.


  • Notable:  Herodotus, Megasthenese, Nearchus, Plutarch, Arrian, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and Ptolemy (Geography).
  • They were concerned mostly with the north western part of India and primarily the areas which were either part of the Persian and Greek Satrapies or Alexander’s campaign.


  • The Greek ambassador (in the court of Chandragupta Maurya c. 324-300 B.C.)
  • Megasthenese wrote extensively in a book called Indika which is no longer available to us.
  • We know about Megasthenese’s Writings through various extracts of the writings of Diodorous, Strabo and Arrian.
  • Good
    • These fragments of Indika, provide valuable information on Maurya Administration, social classes and economic activities.
    • The existence of a list of 153 kings whose reigns had covered a period of about 6053 years uptill then.
  • Bad
    • Indika is not free from credulity and exaggerations.
    • Megasthenese had little understanding of Indian society and social systems. For example, he mentions that Indian society comprised of seven castes (jatis).
    • Discrepancies because he did not know any Indian language, was not a part of Indian society and psyche.
Greek Writers
Darius India figures in his foreign inscriptions
Ctesian got Info of India from through the Persian sources.
Herodotus in his “Histories” gives us much information about Indo-Persian relations
Arrian detailed account of the invasion of India by Alexander on the basis of information from those who accompanied the campaign.
anonymous Book: “Periplus of the Erythrean Sea”by an anonymous author, who was a Greek, settled in Egypton the basis of his personal voyage of Indian coast in about A.D.80. He gives valuable information about the Indian coasts.
Ptolemy wrote a geographical treatise on India in the second century A.D.

Greek Limitations

  1. Most of the Greek writing about India are based on secondary sources resulting in numerous errors and, contradictions.
  2. Except for Megasthenese all others have touched Indian history in the true sense very marginally.
  3. They were ignorant of the language and the customs of the country and their information is full of unbelievable facts and fancies.
  4. The works of Megasthenese and other Greeks of those who accompanied Alexander, have been lost and are available only in fragments as quoted in later works.

Chinese Travelers

  • visited India from time to time- as Buddhist pilgrims and therefore their accounts are somewhat tilted towards Buddhism. Three important pilgrims were
Notable Chinese writers
Fa-Hien visited India in fifth century A.DDescribes social-religious and economic conditions of India- in the time of Guptas.
Hiuen-Tsang 7th Cent. In the age of Harshavardhana and some other contemporary kings of Northern India.
I-tsing 7th Cent.

Chinese Travelers: Limitations

  1. Fa-Hien and Hiuen-Tsang have given somewhat exaggerated account of Buddhism during the period of their visit.
  2. For example Hiuen-Tsang depicts Harsha as a follower of Buddhism but in his epigraphic records Harsha mentions himself as a devotee of Siva.
  3. Counterargument: Indian rulers always have, like their subjects, been multi-religious people, it is not difficult for a foreigner to be confused.

Arab Historian: Al-Beruni

  • Abu Rihan better known as Al-Beruni.
  • born in central Asia in A.D. 973 and died in Ghazni (present-day Afghanistan) in A.D.1048
  • Contemporary of Mahmud of Ghazni.
  • When Mahmud conquered part of central Asia, he took Al-Beruni with him.
  • Though Al-Beruni deplored his loss of freedom, he appreciated the favourable circumstances for his work.
  • Unlike Megasthenese, Al-Beruni studied Sanskrit language and tried to gain a precise knowledge of Indian sources. The list of works consulted by him is long and impressive. His observations range from philosophy, religion, culture, society to science, literature, art and medicine.
  • Al-Beruni’s work can be termed as fairly objective and wherever he has faltered- is not because of any other reason but his lack of proper understanding.
  • does not give any political information of his times.
  • comparatively free from religious or racial biases
  • While Al-Beruni also possess a well defined religious and hermeneutics awareness, he was essentially a scholar and not driven to preach his faith. He was essentially a scholar and not driven to preach his faith.
  • However, sometime Al-Beruni does show his annoyance when he says sarcastically, “… the Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs”.

#2: Archaeological Sources

  • Mound= elevated portion of land, covering remains of old habitations.
  • Mound can be excavated in two ways:
vertical excavation helps uncover periodwise sequence of cultures
horizontal digging the mound as a whole. helps getting complete data of a site.very expensive, done only at few places.

Impact of climate on Mounds

Dry-arid climate Western UP, Rajasthan.Better preserved
humid-moist climate Gangetic basin and deltas.Iron tools suffer corrosion and mud structure become difficult to detect.only burnt brick structure/stone structures can be detected.


  • Some people in South India, buried their dead with tools, weapons, potteries etc. Such  graves were encircled by a big piece of stone. These structures are called Megaliths.

Carbon-Dating principle

  • Half life=period during which, half of the material decays out.
  • Half-life of C14 is 5568 years.
  • Carbon is associated with all living beings.
  • When an object ceases to live, it stops receiving fresh supply of Carbon C14
  • And its existing undergoes decacy into an isotope C12.
  • We can measure the decaying of C14 to C12 and identify the number of years elapsed. The object with less C14=older than object with more C14.


  • One of the most important and reliable sources of history writing are inscriptions.
  • An inscription, being a contemporary document, is free from later interpolations.
  • It comes in the form it was composed in and engraved for the first time. It is almost impossible to add something to it at a later stage.
  • The earliest system of writings is found in the Harappan seals. (2500BC) However, there has been no success in deciphering it. They are pictographic script- ideas/objects expressed in form of picture.
  • Thus, the writing system of the Ashokan inscriptions (in Brahmi script) are considered to be the earliest (3rd AD).
  • Ashoka’s views on dhamma and conquests of Samudragupta, and several others would have remained unknown without their epigraphs.
  • Limitation of inscription: they never speak of defeats/ weaknesses

Ashokan Inscription

ancient-brahmi script

  • These were recorded in different years of his reign and are called edicts because they are in the form of the king’s order or desire.
  • They also give a glimpse of Ashoka’s image and personality as a benevolent king concerned with the welfare of not only his subjects but also of the whole humanity.
  • These are found written in four scripts.
Language used in Ashokan inscriptions
empire script used in Ashokan Edicts
  1. Aramaic
  2. Greek scripts
Pakistan 3) Kharoshthi. Kharoshthi evolved on the Varnantata system of the Indian languages is written from right to left.
Kalsi in the north in Uttaranchal upto Mysore in the south. 4) Brahmi.

  • written from left to right.
  • its individual letters were modified century after century and through this process all the scripts of India, including Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam in the south and Nagari, Gujarati, Bangla., etc. in the north have developed from it.
  • This modification in the form of individual letters gave another advantage. It has made it roughly possible to ascertain the time or the century in which the inscription was written

Firoz Shah Tughlaq

  • He found an Ashokan Pilar inscription from Topra, Haryana, brought it to Delhi and asked Pandits to decipher it. They failed.
  • Later, British started epigraphic studies in the late eighteenth century and deciphered it.

James Prinsep:

  • Made a complete chart of Ashokan Alphabets in 1837. After this the study of epigraphs became a subject in itself. India is particularly rich in epigraphic material.
  • Inscriptions of the Indo-Greeks, Saka-kshatrapas and Kushanas adopt Indian names within two or three generations. These inscriptions show them engaged in social and religious welfare activities like any other Indian.


  • Most of the Gupta epigraphs give genealogy. This became the practice of the subsequent dynasties. They took the opportunity to give an account of their conquests and achievements of their predecessor including mythology of their origins.
  • Sanskrit came to occupy a prune place since the Gupta period.
Junagarh Rock inscription
  • of Rudradaman is considered as an early example of chaste Sanskrit, written in mid second century A.D.
Allahabad Pillar enumerates the achievements of Samudragupta
Aihole inscription. Chalukya king Pulkeshin II gives a dynastic genealogy
Gwalior inscription of Bhoja gives full account of his predecessors and their achievements.

  • From the inscriptions we also came to know that Learned Brahmans (called Agraharas) were given grant of land, free from all taxes.


  • We could not have known about most of the Ind-Greek, Saka-Parthian and Kushana kings without numismatic sources.
  • This is considered as the second most important source for reconstructing the history of India, the first being inscriptions.
  • Ancient India did not have banking system. People kept money in earthen posts as precious hoards. Later they’re found while digging field or excavating foundation for the construction of a building, making road etc.
  • Some coins were issued by merchants and guilds with permission of rulers=prove that commerce had became important in later history of Ancient India.
  • Largest number of coins found in post-Maurya period=>trade had increased.
  • Few coins from Post-Gupta period=>trade had declined.
  • Coins found in systematic excavations are less in number but are very valuable because their chronology and cultural context can be fixed precisely.
Coin types
  • Earliest coins
  • coins are the earliest coins of India and they bear only symbols on them.
  • Each symbol is punched separately, which sometimes overlap the another.
  • They do not bear and inscription, or legend on them
  • These have been found throughout the country. from Taxila to Magadha to Mysore or even further south.
  • Made from silver and copper. Some gold punch-marked coins are also reported to have been found, but they are very rare and their authenticity is doubtful.
  • silver and copper and rarely in gold. The Indo-Greek coins show beautiful artistic features on them.
  • The portrait or bust of the king on the observe side appear to be real portraits.
  • On the reverse some deity is depicted.
  • From these coins we know that than forty indo-Greek rulers who ruled in a small north-western region of India.
  • We know about several Saka-Parthians kings about whom we would have no information from any other sources.
  • Kushanas issued mostly gold coins and numerous copper coins which are found in most parts of north India up to Bihar.
  • Indian influence can be seen on them from the very beginning.
  • The coins of Vima Kadphises bear the figure of Siva standing beside a bull.
  • In the legend on these coins the king calls himself Maheshwara, i.e. devotee of Siva.
  • Kanishka, Huvishka and Vasudeva etc. all have this depiction on their coins.
  • We find many Indian gods and goddesses depicted on Kushana coins besides many Persian and Greek deities.
  • issued largest number of Gold coins.
  • Guptas appear to have succeeded Kushanas in the tradition of minting coins. They completely Indianised their coinage
  • kings are depicted engaged in activities like hunting a lion or rhinoceros, holding a bow or battle-axes, playing musical instrument or performing Ashwamedh yajna.


In addition to epigraphic and numismatic sources there are many other antiquarian remains which speak much about our past.

Temples and sculptures are found all over the country right from the Gupta period upto recent times. These show architectural and artistic history of the Indians. They excavated large caves in the hills in Western India which are mostly Chaitya and viharas.

Temples carved out of rocks
Kailusa temple Ellora
Rathas Mamallapuram

Excavation: What did we find?

  1. up to the 1920s, it was believed that Indian civilization was considered to have begun about sixth century B.C.
  2. But with the excavations at Mohenjodaro, Kalibangan and Harappa the antiquity of Indian civilization has gone back to about 5000 B.C. The finds of prehistoric artifacts has shown that human activities had started here as early as about two million years ago.
  3. The subsequent discovery of sites of Kalibangan. Lothal, Dholavira, Rakhigarhi etc. show the extent of this civilization upto Gujarat, Maharashtra, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
  4. The period between 1500 and 600 B.C. was known as the dark period of Indian history because not much was known about this period.  But the archaeological discoveries of such cultures as Black-and-Red Ware, Painted Grey Ware, Malwa and Jorwe cultures since 1950s have filled these chronological gap
  5. It is through archaeological discoveries that we know now that Indians domesticated sheep and goat and started agriculture about 8000 years ago. Also iron came in regular use about 1600 B.C.
  6. Archaeological excavations also brought to light the townships of Taxila. Kausambi, Kasi (Rajghat), Ayodhya, Vaisali, Bodhigaya, etc. belonging to Buddha’s time. All of these places except Taxita are said to have been visited by Buddha in the 6th Cent.BC
  7. human activities started in the subcontinent as early as two million years ago. (from Kashmir and Narmada valleys)
  8. Rock painting was started more than twelve thousands years ago.