Sources of Ancient Indian History: Archaeological and Literary Sources!

The purpose of history is to throw light on the past. This is done through discovery and study of historical sources.

It is rather easy to find sources for writing the history of the recent past, because there is plenty of hand written and printed material on and about modern State and Society. There is also enough material in respect of medieval times.

But the real difficulty arises for writing ancient history. It is mentioned in the great Indian epic Mahabharata that “History is that ancient description which contains instructions of virtue, wealth, desire and salvation”. In other words, India’s ancient seers laid greater emphasis on those events which carried higher ideals rather than actual happenings.

Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Bhubaneswar Circle, Bhubaneswar

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In ancient Greece and Rome, there were historians to write the accounts of their times. But ancient Indians who wrote on many subjects, rarely wrote history. Most of ancient material has also been lost. It is thus a challenging task to rediscover India’s ancient past. Yet there are sources from which history is written.

These sources are divided into two main groups. They are Archaeological and Literary. The Archaeological Source can again be divided into three groups, namely, Archaeological Remains and Monuments, Inscriptions and Coins. The Literary Source can also be divided into three groups, namely, Religious Literature, Secular Literature and Accounts of Foreigners. A brief account of these sources is given below.

Archaeological Sources:

1. Archaeological remains and Monuments:

Ancient ruins, remains and monuments recovered as a result of excavation and exploration are archaeological sources of history. The archaeological remains are subjected to scientific examination of radio-carbon method for its dates. Archaeological sources give us some knowledge of the life of the ancient people. India is rich with ancient ruins, remains, and monuments.


Many historical places are lying buried under the earth. But excavations are being carried out to bring some such places to light. The material remains discovered from excavations and ruins speak a good deal of the past. For example, the excavations at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa brought to the knowledge of the world the existence of the Indus Valley Civilization.

Excavations have been conducted at Taxila, Pataliputra, Rajgir, Nalanda, Sanchi, Barhut, Sarnath and Mathura. They are being done at many other places too. By digging the old sites and mounds, and discovering the material remains, historians try to understand the past. Archaeology is the science and method to explore and understand the ancient ruins and remains.

All over India there are countless historical monuments like, Temples, Stupas, Monasteries, Forts, Palaces, and the like, which speak of their time. Similarly, tools, implements, weapons and pottery etc. throw light on the living conditions of the people. For historians, these are sources of information. In the opinion of some eminent scholars, the history of India before the third century B.C. was mainly the result of archaeological research. Information gathered from literature and oral traditions can be taken as historical accounts only if archaeological evidences are available as supporting material.

2. Inscriptions:

Inscriptions supply valuable historical facts. The study of inscriptions is called epigraphy. The study of the writings on ancient inscriptions and records is called palaeography. Inscriptions are seen on rocks, pillars, stones, slabs, walls of buildings, and body of temples. They are also found on seals and copper plates. We have various types of inscriptions. Some convey monarchical orders regarding administrative, religious and major decisions to the public in general.


These are called royal proclamations and commandments. Others are records of the followers of major religions. These followers convey their devotion on temple walls, pillars, stupas and monastries. The achievements of kings and conquerors are recorded in prasastis, i.e. eulogies. These are written by their court poets, who never speak of their defects. Finally we have many donatives i.e. grants for religious purpose.

India’s earliest inscriptions are seen on the seals of Harappa, belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation. The most famous inscriptions of India are the huge inscriptions of Asoka. As that emperor himself proclaimed, he got his edicts engraved on stone so that they might last long. The Hatigumpha Inscription of Kharavela, the Allahabad Pillar Inscription of Samudragupta, and many other rock and pillar inscriptions contain most valuable historical accounts. Political, administrative and religious matters are gathered from such sources.

Earliest inscriptions, namely, the seals of Harappa, dated about 2500 BC, have not been deciphered so far by any epigraphist. The later inscriptions were engraved in the Prakrit Language in the third century B.C. Ashokan inscriptions were written in the Brahmi script from left to right. Some were also engraved in the Kharosthi script from right to left. Sanskrit was used as an epigraphic medium in the second century A.D. Inscriptions were also engraved in regional languages in the ninth and tenth centuries.

For a study of Indus valley civilisation or the Harappan culture, archaeology is regarded as the chief source of information. The same archaeological evidences, collected from other parts of India, give a picture of the most ancient civilisation of India. To understand the pre-historic India, the historians must have to depend primarily on archaeology. The archaeological evidences also provide the most authentic information for writing the history of other subsequent periods.

Copper plates were more widely used for writing inscriptions. They are called Tamrapata or Tamrapatra or Tamrasasana. They were used even in the days of Buddha. Many copper plates contained land-grants. They were also used to carry administrative orders. The inscriptions are of many types. They were used for several purposes. For historians they carry enough interest.


The study of coins is known as numismatics. Coins form another source of historical information. Ancient coins were mostly made of gold, silver, copper or lead. Coin moulds of Kushan period made of burnt clay have been also discovered. Some of the coins contain religious and legendary symbols which throw light on the culture of that time. Coins also contain the figures of kings and gods.

Some contain names and dates of the rulers. Coins also throw significant light on economic life of ancient people. They indicate regarding trade and commerce and help to reconstruct the history of several ruling dynasties. Coins have been the primary source of our information regarding the various Indian states during the same period.


The coins of the Kushana and the Gupta period give interesting accounts of those days. They throw light on religious, political, economic and commercial conditions. Every coin of the past has some story to convey.

Literary Sources:

1. Religious Literature:

History is not a record of only the rulers. It is mostly an account of the people’s life and living. The literature of every time is like a mirror of that time. Mental and social conditions of the people are known from literary sources.

The Religious Literature of India is too vast. It includes the Vedas, the Upanishads, the great epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the Puranas of the Hindus. These are like mines of information about religious beliefs, social systems, people’s manners and customs, political institutions, and conditions of culture.

The religious writings of the Jainas and the Buddhists are also enormous. They include the Jatakas and the Angas etc. While dealing with religious subjects, they also write about historical persons and political events. Contemporary economic and social conditions are vividly known from these sources.

2. Secular Literature:

There are many kinds of secular or non-religious literature. The law-books of ancient India known as Dharmasutras and Smritis belong to this group. They contain code of duties for kings, administrators, and people. They also contain rules regarding property, and prescribe punishments for murder, theft and other crimes.

Kautilya’s Arthasastra is a famous work. It not only speaks of the State and polity, but also of socio-economic system. Authors like Patanjali and Panini, though they wrote Sanskrit grammar, also described some political events. The dramas of Kalidasa, Vishakhadatta, and Bhasa give us useful information about the people and society.

There were some historical writings too. Bana wrote Harshacharita or the Life of Harsha. Bilhana wrote about Vikramaditya. Kalhana’s Rajatarangini was a historical text of great value. It is an account of the history of Kashmir. It presents the career of the Kings in chronological order. Chand Bardai wrote Prithviraj Charita. There are many other biographical works and chronicles which contain historical information.

Historians try to find correct material for history from all such literary sources.

3. Accounts of Foreigners:

From very ancient times, foreigners visited India. Some of them left valuable accounts of their travels or visits. Ancient Greek and Roman historians also wrote about India from their knowledge and information. All these foreign accounts prove useful for writing history.

We know of Chandragupta Maurya’s victory over the Greeks from the Greek accounts. They mentioned him as Sandrokottas in their writings. The Greek ambassador Megasthenes stayed in the court of Chandragupta Maurya and wrote his famous work Indika. Unfortunately this work was lost. But fragments from it were preserved in the quotations by other Greek writers. But even those brief accounts are regarded most precious to know Mauryan polity and society.

From works such as Ptolemy’s Geography, we know of India’s ports and harbours. From Pliny’s work we know of trade relations between Rome and India. These writers wrote in early centuries of the Christian era. The Chinese traveler Fa-Hien left valuable accounts on the time of the imperial Guptas. Hieuen Tsang, who is described as the ‘Prince of Pilgrims’ wrote details about the India of the age of Harsha. Another Chinese, Itsing, visited India in 7the century A.D. His accounts contain the socio-religious condition of those days.

Travellers from the Islamic world also visited India. Al Beruni who came at the time of Mahmud of Ghazani studied Sanskrit himself. His writings on ‘Hind’ give useful information.

History demands devotion to truth. Historians construct history from various sources to present the truth of the past to the men of today and the future.