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Describe the main sources of knowing the history of ancient India


Describe the main sources of knowing the history of ancient India.

 Sources of information about ancient Indian history are the sources from which information about the ancient history of India is obtained, on the basis of which history is constructed, and on the basis of which the chronology of historical events is determined. These are also called historical sources, historical materials, or historical data and generally, historical sources are classified into three types: primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

By historian V. D. Mahajan, the sources of ancient Indian history are classified into four types – literary sources, archaeological sources, foreign accounts, and tribal legends. These sources have been classified by Ramsharan Sharma as – material remains, inscriptions, seals, literary sources, foreign descriptions, village studies, and information obtained from the study of natural sciences. 

There are many reliable sources available to know the history of India, some sources are very reliable and scientific, while others are based on some beliefs. We can divide the main sources of information about the history of ancient India into 3 parts, these 3 sources are as follows:

  •       Archaeological sources
  •       Literary source
  •       Foreign travelers accounts


(i) Archaeological sources

In archaeological sources, we mainly include ancient inscriptions, coins, monuments, buildings, sculptures, and paintings, which provide reliable information. With the help of these sources, concrete information is obtained about various human activities of ancient times. These sources provide knowledge about the social and economic as well as political activities of man, such as living, art, lifestyle, economy, etc. Most of these sources can be scientifically verified. Investigators who study such ancient sources are called archaeologists.


The place of records is very important to know Indian history, valuable information about Indian history is obtained from the records of many rulers of ancient times. These inscriptions have been found inscribed on stones, pillars, metal plates, and clay objects. The study of ancient records is called epigraphy, while the study of the script of these records is called epigraphy. While the study of inscriptions is called epigraphy. Inscriptions were generally used by rulers to disseminate their orders to the masses.

These inscriptions are usually found on places or objects with a solid surface, to make them indelible for a long time, they are written on solid surfaces. Such inscriptions are found on temple walls, pillars, stupas, seals and copper plates, etc. These inscriptions are written in different languages, the main languages are Sanskrit, Pali, and Sanskrit, many inscriptions have also been found in many languages of South India. 

The oldest records regarding the history of India have been obtained from the Indus Valley Civilization, these records date back to 2500 BC on average. The essence of these inscriptions has not yet been known because the script of the Indus Valley Civilization has not yet been decided. Symbols have been used in the script of the Indus Valley Civilization and so far this script has not been decoded.

Very ancient records have also been received from a place called Bongazkoi in West Asia or Asia Minor, although these records are not as old as the Indus Valley Civilization. Inscriptions from Bongazkoi date back to around 1400 BC. The special thing about these inscriptions is that the Vedic deities Indra, Mitra, Varuna, and Nastya are mentioned in these inscriptions. Ancient inscriptions of Naqsh-e-Rustam have also been received from Iran, in these inscriptions description is found in relation to India and West Asia in ancient times. These inscriptions are of great importance in the study of the ancient history of India, they reveal the economy, trade, etc. of ancient India.

Kassite inscriptions have been found in Iran, while Mitanni inscriptions from Syria describe Aryan names. Maurya Emperor Ashoka established many records during his reign. The British archaeologist James Prinsep was the first to decode Ashoka’s edicts in 1837. These inscriptions were engraved by Emperor Ashoka in Brahmi script. The main purpose of getting the inscriptions engraved was to convey the orders of the rulers to the general public.

Apart from Emperor Ashoka, other rulers also got the inscriptions engraved, these inscriptions were engraved by the emperor on the conquest of an area or on other important occasions. Some of the important inscriptions related to ancient India are the Hathigumpha inscription at Kharavela in Orissa, the Junagarh inscription engraved by Rudradaman, the Cave inscription of Satavahana ruler Gautamiputra Satakarni at Nasik, Prayagastambha inscription of Samudragupta, Junagarh inscription of Skandagupta, Mandsaur inscription of Yashovarman. , the Aihole inscription of Pulakeshin II, the Gwalior inscription of the Pratihara emperor Bhoja, and the Devapada inscription of Vijayasena.

Prakrit language has been used in most of the ancient records, the records were generally written in the prevalent language of that time. Many inscriptions also have messages in the Sanskrit language engraved on them. The use of Sanskrit appears in inscriptions from the 2nd century AD, the first evidence of Sanskrit inscriptions comes from the Junagarh inscription, which was written in the Sanskrit language. The Junagarh inscription was inscribed in 150 AD by the Saka emperor Rudradaman. Rudradaman’s reign was between 135 AD and 150 AD.


Coins came into circulation after the barter system was used for transactions in ancient times. These coins were made of different metals like gold, copper, silver, etc. One characteristic of ancient Indian coins is that inscriptions have not been found in them. The symbol is commonly found on ancient coins. Such coins are called worn coins. If we talk about the antiquity of these coins, then these coins belong to the 5th century BC. After that, there was a slight change in coins, dates, and pictures of kings and deities started being inscribed on these coins. The earliest hoards of coins have been found in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Magadha.

Gold coins were first issued in India by the Indo-Greek rulers, and these rulers used the “die method” in the manufacture of coins. The gold coins issued by the Kushan rulers were the purest. While the maximum number of gold coins were issued by the Gupta rulers. The Satavahana rulers issued lead coins.


Other useful archaeological sources for information on ancient Indian history

Inscriptions and coins provide very accurate information regarding ancient times. But apart from inscriptions and coins, there are other important sources from which useful information regarding ancient times is obtained, buildings, temples, monuments, statues, pottery, and paintings are prominent in these sources.

Buildings such as temples and buildings are very useful sources of information about ancient architecture. These buildings provide information about the architecture as well as the social, economic, and religious systems of the time.

Monuments are very important in relation to the knowledge of ancient India, these monuments can be divided into two parts- native and foreign monuments. Harappa, Mohenjodaro, Nalanda, and Hastinapur are prominent among the indigenous monuments. While the Angkor Wat Temple of Cambodia, the Borobudur Temple of Java in Indonesia, and the sculptures of Bali are prominent in foreign monuments. Sculptures from Makran in Borneo bear some dates, these dates are very useful in clarifying chronology. Important information regarding the architectural style of ancient times is obtained from these sources.

Due to the origin and development of many religions in India, religious idols have been very popular. Statues are an important means of getting information about the religious systems, culture, and art of ancient times. Sarnath, Bharhut, Bodhgaya, and Amaravati were the major centers of sculpture in ancient India. Gandhara art and Mathura art styles are prominent in the sculpture style.

The types of pottery changed over time, with red pottery in the Indus Valley Civilization, brown pottery in the later Vedic period, and black polished pottery prevailing in the Mauryan period. Different periods saw innovation and progress in the types and forms of pottery.

Paintings provide various information about the society and systems of ancient times. Through paintings, information about the life, culture, and art of the people of ancient times is known. The paintings of the Bhimbetka caves located in Madhya Pradesh give an idea of the cultural diversity of ancient times.

(ii) Literary sources

In the context of the history of India, most of the sources are literary sources. In ancient times books were written by hand, these handwritten books are called manuscripts. Manuscripts were written on palm leaves and Bhojpatra. This ancient literature can be divided into two parts:-

1- Religious literature

The three main religions Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism emerged in India in ancient times. Along with the expansion of these religions, many religious texts were composed by various philosophers, scholars, and religious leaders. In these works, important information is found regarding the society, culture, architecture, living conditions, and economy of the people of ancient India. The following are the major works of religious literature:

Literature related to Hinduism

If we talk about the oldest religion in the world, then Hinduism comes first in the world. Due to its rise in ancient India, detailed information about ancient Indian society is obtained from the texts related to the Hindu religion. In Hinduism, many books, texts, epics, etc. have been composed, in which the main compositions are as follows – Vedas, Vedangas, Upanishads, Smritis, Puranas, Ramayana, and Mahabharata. Rigveda is the oldest among them. Through these religious texts, we get detailed information about the political system, religion, culture, and social system of ancient India.


Vedas are very important literature in Hinduism, the total number of Vedas is four. Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda are the 4 Vedas. Rigveda is one of the oldest books in the world, it was composed around 1500-1000 BC. While Yajurveda, Samaveda, and Atharvaveda were composed in the time period of about 1000-500 BC. There are praises of the gods in Rigveda. Yajurveda is related to the rules of Yagya and other religious rituals. Samveda is related to the mantras of Yagya. Whereas in Atharvaveda, religion, medicine and disease prevention, etc. have been written.


The Brahmins are intertwined with the Vedas, the Brahmins are part of the Vedas. The Brahmins of each Veda are different. These Brahmin texts are in prose style, in which there is a detailed description of various rules and regulations, and rituals. The essence of the Vedas is given in simple words by the Brahmins, these Brahmin texts were composed by various sages. Aitareya and Shatapatha are examples of Brahmin texts.


The word Aranyaka is derived from ‘Aranya’, which literally means “forest”. Aranyakas are the religious texts which were written by sages in the forest. Spirituality and philosophy are described in Aranyaka texts, their subject matter is quite mysterious. The Aranyakas were composed after the texts and are associated with different Vedas, but the Atharvaveda is not associated with any Aranyaka.


Vedangas, as the name suggests, are the parts of the Vedas. In Vedangas, the esoteric knowledge of Vedas has been written in simple language. Shiksha, Kalpa, Vyakaran, Nirukta, Chhanda and Astrology are the total 6 Vedangas.


The subject matter of the Upanishads is philosophical, these are the final parts of the texts. That’s why they are also called Vedanta. In the Upanishads, the subject of spirituality and philosophy has been discussed through Prashnotari. Upanishads are Shruti scriptures. The nature and relation of God and the soul have been described in detail in the Upanishads. It is one of the oldest books of Indian philosophy. The total number of Upanishads is 108. Brihadaranyaka, Kath, Ken Aitareya, Isha, Mundaka and Chhandogya are some of the major Upanishads.

Sutras (Aphorisms)

The Sutras are related to the behavior of human beings, in this, there is a description of human duties, the Varnashram system, and social rules. Source Sutra, Griha Sutra and Dharma Sutra are 3 sutras.


All the works of human life have been discussed in the Smritis, they are also called Dharmashastras. They are less complicated than the Vedas. There is a compilation of stories and teachings in these. They were composed after the sutras. Manusmriti and Yajnavalkya Smriti are the oldest Smritis. Meghathithi, Govindraj, and Kullukbhatta have commented on Manusmriti. While Vishwaroop, Vigyaneshwar, and Aparark have commented on Yajnavalkya Smriti. During British rule, Warren Hastings, the Governor General of Bengal, got Manusmriti translated into English, in English it was named “The Gentoo Code”. In the beginning, memories were passed on only orally, the word smriti meaning “the power to remember”.


Maharishi Valmiki composed the Ramayana. The Ramayana had 6,000 verses at the time of its composition, but it kept on increasing over time. The number of shlokas first increased to 12,000 and after that, the number reached 24,000. Due to having 24,000 shlokas, Ramayana is also known as Chaturvishti Sahasri Samhita. Ramayana is divided into a total of 7 sections – Balakand, Ayodhyakand, Aranyakand, Kishkindhakand, Sunderkand, Yudhkand and Uttarkand.


Mahabharata is one of the biggest epics in the world, it was composed by Maharishi Ved Vyas. This is a poetry book. It is also called the fifth Veda. It is much larger than the famous Greek texts Iliad and Odyssey.

At the time of composition, it had 8,800 verses, due to which it was called Jayasamhita. Over time, the number of verses increased to 24,000, due to which it was called Bharat. In the Gupta period, when the number of verses was 1 lakh, it was called Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is divided into 18 parts – Adi, Sabha, Vana, Virata, Udyoga, Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Shalya, Souptika, Stree, Shanti, Discipline, Ashwamedha, Ashramavasi, Mausal, Mahaprasthanika and Swargarohan. Justice, education, medicine, astrology, policy, yoga, craft, astronomy, etc. have been described in detail in the Mahabharata.


The Puranas describe the creation, of ancient sages, and kings. The total number of Puranas is 18, they are called Puranas because of the description of ancient stories. They were probably composed before the fifth century BC. Vishnu Purana, Matsya Purana, Vayu Purana, Brahmanda Purana, and Bhagavata Purana are very important Puranas, these Puranas describe the genealogies of various kings. That’s why these Puranas are very important from a historical point of view.

In Puranas, sin-virtue, religion-karma, etc. have been described considering various gods and goddesses as centers. The Matsya Purana describes the Satavahana dynasty while the Vayu Purana describes the Gupta dynasty. There is a description of Goddess Durga in Markandeya Purana, Durga Saptati is also mentioned in it. Ganesh’s worship has been told in Agni Purana. The names of 18 Puranas are as follows- Brahma, Markandeya, Skanda, Padma, Agni, Vamana, Vishnu, Bhavishya, Kurma, Shiva, Brahmavarta, Matsya, Bhagavata, Linga, Garuda, Narada, Varaha and Brahmanda Purana.

The Vishnu, Vayu, Matsya, and Bhagavata Puranas contain genealogies of kings, these brief genealogies give information about the various rulers of ancient India and their tenures.

Buddhist literature

Along with the spread of Buddhism, its literature also increased, the major parts of Buddhist literature are Jataka and Pitaka. Jataka describes the previous births of Mahatma Buddha. These are such stories, in which information about the society of ancient India is found. Tripitaka is the oldest book of Buddhist literature, Tripitaka was composed after Mahatma Buddha’s nirvana. It was composed in the Pali language. Tripitaka has three parts – Suttapitaka, Vinayapitaka, and Abhidhamma Pitaka.

Tripitaka presents a depiction of the social and religious system of ancient India. The Suttapitaka has 5 nikayas – the Dighanikaya, the Majhimnikaya, the Sanyukta Nikaya, the Anguttar Nikaya and the Khuddaka Nikaya. Vinaya Pitaka describes the rules of the Buddhist Sangha, it has four parts – Suttavibhangu, Khandaka, Patimokkha, and Parivar Path. The subject matter of Abhidhammapitaka is philosophical, it describes the philosophical teachings of Mahatma Buddha. There are 7 narrative texts associated with the Abhidhammapitaka.

Literature related to Jainism

The ancient Jain texts are called Agamas. It describes the principles propounded by Mahavira. It is written in the Prakrit language. Agamas are of great importance in Jain literature, there are 12 Angas, 12 Upangas, 10 Prakirnas, and 6 Chheda Sutras.

These were composed by the Acharyas of the Svetambara sect of Jainism. They have been composed in Prakrit, Sanskrit, and Apabhramsha. The texts of Jainism were compiled by Vallabhi Nagar in Gujarat in the 6th century. Other important Jain texts are Acharangasutra, Bhagavati Sutra, Parishishta Parva, and Bhadrabahucharita.

2. Non-religious literature

Literature other than religion is called irreligious literature. This includes historical books, biographies, accounts, etc. The works of scholars and diplomats predominate in non-religious literature. This literature is relatively accurate. It gives useful information about the existing polity, economy, lifestyle of the people, and contemporary society in the ancient kingdoms.

Panini was a famous Sanskrit scholar in the sixth century. “Ashtadhyayi” is a Sanskrit grammar composed by Panini, it throws light on the society of the 5th century BC. Important information about the governance system is found in Kautilya’s book “Arthashastra” during the Maurya period. Mudrarakshasa composed by Visakhadatta, Kathasaritsagara composed by Somdev, and Brihatkathamanjari composed by Kshemedra give a lot of information about the Maurya period. In these texts, there is knowledge of all aspects of the then religious, economic, and social system.

The history of the Sunga dynasty is known from “Mahabhashya” composed by Patanjali and “Malavikagnimitra” composed by Kalidas. “Mrichchakatikam” composed by Shudraka and “Dashkumarcharita” composed by Dandi throw light on the social system of the Gupta period. Emperor Harshavardhana has been praised in “Harshacharita”, the biography of Harshavardhana written by Banabhatta. While the achievements of Vikramaditya VI, the Chalukya ruler of Kalyani, are praised in the “Godavho” composed by Vakpati, the ruler of Kannauj, Yashovarman, and Vikramankadevacharita of Vilhana.

Sandhyakaranandi’s Ramcharitmanas describes the achievements of Pal Raja Rampal. The achievements of Gujarat’s ruler Kumarapala have been praised in “Dwayashraya Kavya” composed by Hemchandra. Padmagupta’s “Navasahsanchirat” describes the Paramara dynasty and Prithviraj Chauhan in Jayanak’s “Prithviraj Vijay”. “Rajatarangini” written by Kalhana is a very important book for the chronology of Indian history. In this, the genealogies of different states have been described in detail. This book was composed by Kalhana in the 12th century. There is the total of 8 chapters in it.

Information about the history of South India is obtained from the Sangam literature. This literature is mostly in Tamil and Sanskrit. A detailed description of the social system, economy, culture, etc. of the Chola, Chera, and Pandya regimes is found in the Sangam literature. Information about later history is obtained from Nandikkalambakam, Kalingatuparni, Cholacharit, etc.

(iii) Foreign sources

Foreign literature also gives a lot of information about the ancient history of India. These foreign writers came to India with foreign kings or visited India, after which they described the social, economic, and geographical system of India. Foreign literary sources can be divided into 3 parts – Greek and Roman writers, Chinese writers, and Arabic writers.

Roman and Greek writers

The description of Herodotus and Tisius is the oldest among the Greek writers. Herodotus wrote a book called “Historica”, in this book the relationship between India and Persia was highlighted, Herodotus is also called the father of history. Along with the Greek ruler Alexander, many Greek writers came to India, among them Nearchus, Anasikratus, and Aristobulus The accounts are important. Aristobulus wrote a book called “History of the War”, while Anasikrates wrote a biography of Alexander. After Alexander, the contribution of Megasthenes, Dimachus, and Dionysius is also important. 

The famous book Indica of Megasthenes describes the Mauryan society, administration, and culture. In Pliny’s book “Natural Historica”, along with India’s vegetation, animals, and minerals, there is mention of trade relations between India and Italy. Various aspects of India have also been described in “Geography” composed by Ptolemy and in the books of Plutarch and Strabo.

Chinese writer

The Chinese came to India mainly for the purpose of religious pilgrimage. He came to India mainly for the purpose of studying Buddhism. Fa Hien, Hiuen Tsang, and Etsing are prominent among travelers coming to India from China. Fahyan came to India during the reign of Chandragupta II, he described Indian society, politics, and culture in his book “Fo-Kyon-Ki”. Hwentsang came to India during the reign of Harshvardhan, he threw light on the economic and social condition of India in his travelogue. Tibetan writer Taranath has thrown light on Indian history in his book “Kangyur” “Tangyur”.

Arabic writer

Arabic writers came to India with the Muslim invaders. In the eighth century, the Arab rulers started invading India, and along with the Arab rulers, their writers and poets also came to India. Sulaiman came to India in the 9th century, he wrote about the Pala and Pratihara kings. Alamsudi has written an account of the Rashtrakuta kings. While Alberuni in his book “Tahqiq-e-Hind” wrote about the post-Gupta society

Some important books of ancient times and their authors

Book name – Author

  • Buddhacharit – Ashvaghosh
  • Mahavidishastra- Vasumitra
  • Kamasutra – Vatsyayana
  • Meghdoot – Kalidas
  • Natyashastra – Bharatmuni
  • Surya Siddhanta – Aryabhata
  • Brihatsamhita – Varahmihir
  • Panchatantra – Vishnu Sharma
  • Ratnavali – Harshvardhan
  • Prithvirajraso – Chandbardai
  • Malti Madhav – Bhavabhuti
  • Geet Govind – Jaidev
  • Kadambari – Banabhatta

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