History is agreed upon as an uninterrupted process in time and space.
Yet knowledge of the period is essential to understand and appreciate the nature of the historical changes that take place in time and space.
Periodization of Indian history is a tricky and controversial concept. There is no unanimity among the historians about the periodization of Indian history.
Broadly, there are two types of periodization in vogue, one on the religious and ethnic nature of rulers which divides it as Hindu, Muslim and the British periods and the other, borrowed from European historiography – Ancient, Medieval and Modern.
Initially, the British historian, James Mill proposed the tripartite division of Indian history on religious and ethnic nature of rulers as Hindu, Muslim and British. Even this division is not precise as all the rulers in the Hindu period were not Hindus and we have a number of rulers who migrated to India from other countries and ruled side by side with the Hindu rulers and the Hindus were not culturally a homogenous entity either.
Further, this division is not acceptable to modem historians as it has communal tinge which is not desirable for a pluralistic country like India. But there are still some historians who believe in that division. The second type of division – Ancient, Medieval and Modern – is also regarded as inadequate as the terms are imprecise and vague and fail to explain the nature of changes that took place from time to time.
In the last few decades, there is a revisiting of periodization by the historians because new questions are asked and new sources are consulted and collated to arrive at conclusions regarding the factors of change that necessitated new socio-economic formations that led to new cultural and political patterns that shaped the course of our historical process.
Keeping the latest trends in periodization in mind an attempt ismade to give primacy to the nature of change propelled by factors of change – technology, material milieu and ideology – in the creation of new socio-economic formation linking it to political and cultural formation in time and space. As there is so far no new nomenclature acceptable to all, I followed the broad periodization of ancient, medieval and modem as that format is still popular.
The ancient period begins with prehistory and ends with the Gupta age. The medieval period begins with the post-Gupta age and ends with the advent of Europeans. The medieval period witnessed the emergence and assertion of regional polities and cultures and the arrival of two separate nationalities, the Muslims with belief in Islam and the westerners believing in Christianity who played a crucial role in integrating politically and creating a crucible of culturally diverse India.
The modern period begins with colonialism introduced by the new political masters, the British. The modern period witnessed the growth and spread of new ideas and ideals of democracy, equality, social justice, consequent to the introduction of western model of educational system.
The introduction of colonial power structure which led to ruination of Indian populace led to non-violent and sometimes to violent mass upsurge that resulted in the declaration of Indian independence and division of India on the principle of separate nationalities in 1947.
Generally, the historian with the help of available primary and secondary sources reconstructs the history of any country. As history is not a simple narration of events in a chronological and spatial order, the historian has to choose the sources that are authentic and can be corroborated by other sources before arriving at a historical generalization.
As the contemporary approach to history is to understand the historical process and attempt to explain it in the present times, a historian should be knowledgeable about theories of historical method as well as of other social sciences. It is essential to develop the needed analytical skills of source materials objectively before the historical process is constructed.
Primary sources are those, which are contemporaneous with an event or happening, and secondary sources are those, which belong to a later time. For instance, the Asokan edicts are the primary sources to understand Asoka’s Dhamma.
The Allahabad Pillar Prasasthi and the Aihole epigraph of Samudragupta and Pulakesin II are respectively the primary sources for understanding the conquests of Samudragupta and Pulakesin II. Romila Thapar’s Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas belongs to the category of secondary sources as she wrote that book after a thorough examination of the entire published and original sources.