Sources of Ancient History of India

  • Material remains
  • Coins
  • Inscriptions
  • Literary Sources
  • Foreign Accounts
  • Village study
  • Natural sciences
  • Historical Sense
  • Constructing History

Material remains of ancient history

In India and many other countries, archaeology is used to study prehistory and ancient history. The remains of tools, plants, animals, and humans from the pre-ice age indicate the climatic conditions that prevailed at the time.

(Archaeology- The science that enables us to systematically dig the successive layers of old mounds, and so form an idea of the material life of the people is called archaeology. They are related to sources of ancient history)

  • The ancient Indians left numerous material remains. The stone temples in South India and the brick monasteries in Eastern India still stand to remind us of the great building activities of the past. The major part of these remains is buried in mounds scattered all over India.
  • Mound: A mound is an elevated portion of land covering the remains of old habitations. It may be of different types: single culture, major culture, and multi-culture.
    • Single culture mounds: They represent only one culture throughout
    • Major culture mounds: one culture is dominant and others are of secondary importance.
    • Multi-culture mounds: These represent several important cultures in succession which occasionally overlap with one another.
  • Excavations have brought to light the village that people established around 6000 BC in Baluchistan. They also tell us about the material culture that was developed in the Gangetic plains in the second millennium BC.
  • The dates are fixed by various methods. Radiocarbon dating is the most important method.
  • Through pollen analysis, the climate and vegetation are known. Based on this analysis, agriculture was practiced in Rajasthan and Kashmir around 7000-6000 BC.

Coins of ancient history

The study of coins is called numismatics.

Ancient coins were made of metals like copper, silver, gold, and lead. Burnt coin moulds made of clay have been discovered in large numbers. People stored money in earthenware and also in brass vessels and maintained it as precious hoards. Many hoards have been discovered in different parts of India. They are preserved mostly in museums in Kolkata, Patna, Lucknow, Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai, and Chennai.

The earliest coins contain few symbols, but later portray the figure of kings, and divinities, and also mention their names and dates.

Coins also portray kings and gods and contain religious symbols and legends that throw light on the art and religion of the time.

  • The coins throw light on economic history.
  • The largest number of Indian coins date to the Post–Mauryan period.
  • Guptas issued the largest number of gold coins.

Inscriptions; Sources of Ancient History of India

“The study of Inscription is called epigraphy, and the study of old writings used in inscriptions and other old records is called paleography”.

The inscriptions were carved on seals, stone pillars, rocks, copper plates, temple walls, wooden tablets, and bricks or images. The earliest inscription recorded in India was on the stone.

Inscriptions are preserved in various museums in the country; a large number of inscriptions are stored in the chief epigraphist’s office at Mysore.

  • Most inscriptions bearing the history of the Maurya, post-Maurya, and Gupta periods have been published in a series of collections called Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum.
  • The Harappan inscriptions are not yet deciphered and seem to be written in pictographic script.
  • In Indian History, the earliest deciphered inscriptions are Iranian. They belong to the 6th – 5th centuries BC and are found in Iran.
  • In India, the earliest deciphered inscriptions are Ashokan inscriptions. They are generally written in Brahmi and Prakrit languages in the 3rd century BC.
  • Firoz Shah Tughlaq found two Ashokan inscriptions in the 14th century AD, from Meerut and another from the Topra in Haryana. He brought them to Delhi but failed to decipher.
  • Ashokan inscriptions were first deciphered by James Prinsep in 1837. (James Prinsep was a civil servant employed by East India Company in Bengal.
  • Some inscription shows attributes and achievements of Kings and conquerors, like the Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudragupta.

Literary Sources of Ancient History of India

Manuscripts were written when printing was not available. These manuscripts were highly valued, and they are preserved in libraries.

Most ancient books contain religious themes. Hindu religious literature includes Vedas, the Ramayan, the Mahabharata, the Puranas, etc. They throw light on the social, and cultural conditions of ancient times.

  • The Rig Veda may be assigned to c. 1500 – 1000BC.
  • Atharva Veda, Yajur Veda, the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and the Upanishads date roughly to 1000-500 BC.
  • Astadhyayi the Grammar book of Panini written around 450 BC.
  • Mahabharata was attributed to Vyasa, originally it consisted of 8800 verses and was called Jaya, later increased to 24,000 and came to be known as Bharata. The Final compilation increased the verses to 100,000 and came to be known as the Mahabharata or Shatasahari Samhita.
  • Ramayana of Valmiki originally consisted of 6000 verses which were raised to 12,000, and eventually to 24,000.
  • Shrautasutras and Grihyasutras related to c. 600 – 300 BC. Grand public sacrifices to be made by princes and men of a substance belonging to the three higher varnas are set out in Shraustasutras. The domestic rituals connected with birth, naming, sacred thread, marriage, funerals, etc. are dictated in Grihyasutras.
  • Buddhist and Jain texts; the earliest Buddhist texts were written in Pali. The Jain texts were written in Prakrit. Buddhist books are called jataka stories.
  • The Arthashastra an important law book was written by Kautilya. The text is divided into fifteen books. The book reflects the state of society and economy in the Mauryas age.
  • Mudrarakshasa is a play written by Vishakha Datta.
  • The Sangam literature was produced over three to four centuries by poets who assembled in colleges patronized by chiefs and kings. Such colleges were called Sangam, and the literature produced by these assembles was called Sangam Literature. The Sangam literature comprises about 30,000 lines of poetry arranged in eight anthologies called Ettuttokai. The Sangam texts refer to many settlements including Kaveripattanam.

Some collections of ancient history (as Sources of the Ancient history of India) are listed in the table given below:

Name of collection About  Timeline
Vedas  These are Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the texts constitute the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. There are four Vedas, and these constitute the Hindu

Each Veda has four subdivisions – the Samhitas (mantras and benedictions), the Aranyakas (text on rituals, ceremonies, sacrifices, and symbolic sacrifices), the Brahmanas (commentaries on rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices), and the Upanishads (texts discussing meditation, philosophy and spiritual knowledge).

1500-800 BCE
Shakhas Vedic school. Each school taught a Veda in a specific way, over time evolving specific styles and emphasis, based on how / by whom / where it was taught
Brahmanas Commentary and elaboration on Vedas and description of religious procedures. 900-500 BCE
Upnishads Philosophy in response to Vedas and Brahmanas. There are 108 Upnishads, among which 13 are considered the principal ones. 800-400 BCE
Vedanta Later commentary on the Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads.
Itihasa Ramayana and Mahabharata c.500 CE for Mahabharata

c.400 CE for Ramayana

Pali Canon Collection of Teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, written by his followers. Also called Tripitaka.
Puranas Historic texts (usually about a royal lineage or local legends) – are written by court-appointed historians. Usually contrasted with historical descriptions in Vedas, Brahmanas, etc., that are written by priests. 200 CE to 1000 CE
Dharmasastras Collection and description of laws (man-made and natural). 300 BCE 300 CE
Sangam Literature Collection of texts on ethics, polity, love, and ancient Indian lifestyle, especially in the southern part of peninsular India. 300 BCE 300 CE

Foreign Accounts

Many travelers came to India from Greece, Rome, and China, as visitors or religious converts and they left behind accounts of things that they saw.

Megasthanese came to the court of Chandragupta Maurya. The “Indika” of Megasthanese furnish valuable information about the system of administration, social classes, and economic conditions of the Mauryan administration.

Greek books Periplus of the Erythream Sea and Ptolemy’s Geography, provide valuable data for the study of ancient geography and commerce.

Pliny’s Naturalis Historia relates to the first century written in Latin language and describes the trade between India and Italy.

Chinese travelers Fa-Hsien and Hsuan Tsang were Buddhist and came to India to visit the Buddhist shrines and study Buddhism.

  • Fa-Hsien describes the social, religious, and economic conditions of India in the age of the Guptas.
  • Hsuan Tsang describes the social, religious, and economic conditions of India in the age of Harsha.

Village study: By this method, the relics of communal sharing in feasts, festivals, and pujas throw light on the egalitarian character of ancient tribal society.

Natural Sciences

Recently the use of natural sciences has begun. Shreds of evidence from chemistry, geology, and biology, have become relevant to the study of ancient India.

Historical sense

Indians display a considerable historical sense in the biographical writings, for example, Harshacharita written by Banabhatta in the seventh century.

Bihana’s Vikramankdevavharita recounts the achievements of his patron Vikramaditya VI (1076 – 1127), the Chalukya king of Kalyan.

The best example of the earliest historical writing is Rajatarigini or Streams of Kings written by Kalhana in the twelfth century. It is written about the life of the kings of Kashmir.

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