CHAPTER-3 : Nature of Sources and Historical Construction

Ancient History of India
Short Notes or Revision Notes 


Studying the Past: Material Remains

Types of Archaeological Sites

  • Mounds: elevated areas with remains of past settlements.
    • Single-culture: dominated by one culture (e.g., Painted Grey Ware)
    • Major-culture: one dominant culture with minor others.
    • Multi-culture: multiple significant cultures present.

Excavation Techniques

  • Vertical: digging down at a specific point.
  • Horizontal: uncovering a large area of the site.

Preservation Challenges

  • Dry climates (West UP, Rajasthan) preserve artifacts better.
  • Moist climates (Gangetic plains) degrade organic materials like mud structures and iron.
  • Only brick or stone structures remain well-preserved in the Gangetic plains.

Evidence of Early Settlements

  • Villages established in Baluchistan around 6000 BC.
  • Megaliths (stone circles) with burials and artifacts found in South India.

Dating Techniques

  • Radiocarbon dating: uses Carbon-14 isotope to estimate age (half-life 5568 years).

Environmental Reconstruction

  • Pollen analysis helps understand past climate and vegetation (e.g., agriculture practiced in Rajasthan/Kashmir around 7000-6000 BC).

Ancient Indian Coins

  • Material: copper, silver, gold, lead
  • Location: Museums in Kolkata, Patna, Lucknow etc. (India), Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan
  • Notable Periods:
    • Indo-Greeks (North Afghanistan)
    • Post-Maurya period (lead, potin, copper, bronze, silver, gold)
    • Gupta Empire (most gold coins)


Inscriptions: A Window to the Past

Epigraphy and Paleography

  • Epigraphy: study of inscriptions
  • Paleography: study of ancient writing systems

Materials and Locations

  • Inscribed on seals, pillars, rocks, copper plates, temple walls, etc.
  • Largest collection at the Chief Epigraphist’s office, Mysore.

Languages and Scripts

  • Early inscriptions (3rd century BCE): Prakrit language
  • From 2nd century CE: Sanskrit became common
  • Ashoka’s edicts: Brahmi (left to right) and Kharoshthi (right to left) scripts

Dating and Content

  • Indus Valley Seals (2500 BCE) have earliest inscriptions.
  • Mauryan, Gupta, and post-Maurya inscriptions published in Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum.
  • Content: history, achievements of rulers (e.g., Ashoka’s edicts, Allahabad Pillar inscription of Samudragupta).


  • James Prinsep (1837) deciphered early Brahmi script.

Literary Sources of Ancient India

Materials and Locations

  • Birch bark and palm leaves in India
  • Sheep leather and wooden tablets in Central Asia
  • Old manuscripts preserved in South India, Kashmir, and Nepal

Vedic Literature (1500-500 BCE)

  • Rig Veda (1500-1000 BCE): mostly prayers
  • Later Vedic texts: prayers, rituals, magic, myths
  • Upanishads: philosophical ideas

Supplementary Vedic Texts

  • Grammar (Panini – 450 BCE)
  • Rituals, phonetics, etymology, astronomy

Epic Literature

  • Mahabharata: evolved from 8800 verses to 100,000
    • Composed over centuries (main story – Vedic period, others – later)
    • Contains narratives, descriptions, and teachings
  • Ramayana: originally 6000 verses, grew to 24,000
    • Composition began around 5th century BCE

Ritualistic Texts (600-300 BCE)

  • Shrautasutras: public sacrifices for upper varnas
  • Grihyasutras: domestic rituals for various occasions
  • Sulvasutras: measurements for building sacrificial altars

Religious Texts

  • Pali Canon (1st century BCE): early Buddhist texts
  • Jataka tales: stories of Buddha’s past lives
  • Jain texts (6th century CE): compiled in Prakrit

Legal Texts (500-200 BCE)

  • Dharmasutras and Smritis: law codes and commentaries

Other Important Texts

  • Arthashastra by Kautilya (political treatise)
  • Works of Kalidasa (plays)
  • Sangam literature (Tamil poetry, 300 BCE – 600 CE)
    • Secular poems praising heroes and heroines
    • Valuable source for Tamil Nadu’s social, economic, and political life

Foreign Accounts of Ancient India

  • Greek Writers (3rd century BCE):
    • Mention Chandragupta Maurya (identified as “Sandrokottas”)
  • Megasthenes:Author of Indica (description of Mauryan India)
  • Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (anonymous):Describes Roman trade
  • Kosmos Indikopleustes (7th century CE):Wrote Christian Topography
  • Chinese Travelers:
    • Fa-hsien (5th century CE): Describes Gupta era India
    • Hsuan Tsang (7th century CE): Describes Harsha era India

Understanding Chronology and Sources

Dating Systems

  • Vikrama Samvat (57-58 BCE)
  • Shaka Samvat (78 CE)
  • Gupta era (319 CE)

Historical Texts

  • Harshacharita (Banabhatta, 7th CE): Life of Harshavardhana
  • Ramacharita (Sandhyakara Nandi, 12th CE): Pala dynasty
  • Vikramankadevacharita (Bilhana): Chalukya king Vikramaditya VI


Constructing History-

  • Gandhara grave culture in which the horse was used and the dead were cremated in the second millennium BC.
  • Early Pali texts have to be related to the Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) archaeology.

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