The sources of ancient Indian history depend on various sources. These sources can be viewed from many perspectives. All historical explanations are ultimately based on pieces of evidence derived from various sources of history.

Thus, the main sources of ancient Indian History are

1. Indigenous sources-the sacred religious literature, mythological literature

2. Archaeological Antiquities-ancient building, monuments, coins, inscription, work of art sculpture numismatics,

3. Accounts of Foreign Travellers and

4. Historical Accounts.



Literary sources provide a lot of information on the sources of ancient Indian history. It includes all texts, written or oral. It can be divided into different categories. The divisions are based on language, genre, content, age and the tradition to which they belonged. However, it is difficult to make a clear-cut division of the literary sources as there is an interweaving of themes and contents.

Various literary sources are:

The Vedas

Vedas is the oldest surviving text in India. The word Veda comes from the root vid. It literally means to know. It is divided into four Vedas – Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda. Each Veda is again sub-divided into four parts – The Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka, and the Samhita.

Besides, the Vedas reflects the religious beliefs, practices, and points of view of the Brahmanical tradition. These texts gather the information of the 2nd and 1st Millenia BCE about the life of North-Western and Northern India. A number of supplementary texts known as the Vedangas were written. The texts include phonetic (Shiksha), meter (Chhanda), grammar (Vyakarana), etymology (Nirukta), ritual (Kalpa), and astronomy (Jyotisha).

Brahmanas and Upanishads

As connected with the Vedas, there is another class of literature known as Brahmanas and Upanishads. The Brahmanas consists of Vedic Hymns. On the other hand, the Upanishads philosophical and religious believes of the Aryans.

Vedangas or Upvedas

TheVedangas or Upvedas are treatises on science and art. These are means to the understanding of the Vedas. There are six Vedangas famous as (i) Phonetics, (ii) Astronomy, (iii) Ritual, (iv) Grammar, (v) Etymology, (vi) Metrics.


The last of the Vedic literature is the Sutras. The Sutras are text that helps us to understand various branches of the Vedas. There are three important Sutras they are: (i) Kalpa Sutras, (ii) Grihya Sutras, and (iii) Dharma Sutras. The Sutras provides a piece of important information on the social and religious life of the ancient Indian society.

Ramayana and the Mahabharata

The two great Epics in ancient Indian history were the “Ramayana” and the “Mahabharata”.These two epics seem to have been finally compiled by 400 AD.

These epics were studied with as much devotion in the courts of the Tamil and Kanarese countries as in the intellectual circles of Taxila in the Western Punjab and Naimisharanya in the upper Ganges valley. This created the old religion of the Vedas and the Puranas. This gives the solace to the vast majority of the people of this country. Temples were raised in honor of Siva and Vishnu. These two epics created oneness among the Hindus. The Hindus at that time led a simple life. There were many persons with high education. This created a sense of unity among the Hindus at that time. Social development was brought in among the Hindus; these epics took a great part in uniting among the Hindus.

Besides, it is important to note that the Mahabharata which survives today is among the longest single poems. The poem consists of 18 parvas (Book).

In addition, the ‘Ramayana’ and the ‘Mahabharata’ are two great epics that present a clear picture of the people of those times. Though these epics have been regarded as legendary tales, they give us abundant information about the economic, religious, social and political conditions of the later Aryans.

The Mahabharata was the story narrated by the singers and minstrels of the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The Ramayana was the story of Rama. The Ramayana was the work of Valmiki and the Mahabharata was the work of Vedavyasa.

The culture as depicted in the two epics was not the same. The growth of the epics in their present form took many years. Both the epics were originally Kshetriya literature. Their main purpose was to recount the deeds of the warriors. The Vaishyas and the Sudras play an insignificant part in the epics.

In both the epics, we find glimpses of real history. To the students of history, the two epics have great value. The epic Stories indirectly throw interesting light on the political, social, and religious condition of ancients India.

The Puranas

The Puranas were not the work of one person nor of one age. It mainly discusses five topics that include the creation of the world, destruction, and re-creation of the universe, the periods of the various manus, the genealogies of god and rishis, and the history of royal dynasties

The Puranas are the ancient volumes of the Hindus written in Sanskrit. They are more or less histories of ancient India, as they contain the most systematic record of the Indian historical tradition. They are eighteen in number and each of them is divided into five parts. Among eighteen Puranas, Vishnu Purana, Vayu Puranas, Brahma Purana, Bhagavata Purana, and Matsya Purana have great significance from the historical point of view.

.Besides, the Puranas give important data on ancient political history. They have accounts of mountains, rivers, and places that are useful for the study of historical geography. They also reflect the interaction of Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical culture, traditions and the emergence and development of Hindu religious practices.


A genuine chronology in the true sense of the word was written in the 12th century AD. by Kalhana in ‘Rajatarangini’. It presents an authentic history of Kashmir. Moreover, the other chronicles of Gujarat like ‘Ras-Mela’ and ‘Kirti-Kumudini’ of Nepal also help us to go through the history of India.

Shastras on Politics and grammar

On politics, we have Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’ which is regarded as the greatest work of this period. It helps greatly in the reconstruction of the history of the Mauryas from the 4th to the 3rd century BC. It also deals with the principles of administration and explains the duties and rights of a king and his relations with his council of ministers. Moreover, this book throws light on social and economic institutions governed by law and order. A clear picture of a successful government has been drawn in it by Kautilya.


Secular literature is one of the most important sources of ancient Indian history. The literature includes various religious texts and Sangam literature.

Religious Literature

The religious books of the Jainas and Buddhists discuss historical persons and events. Early Buddhist text was written in Pali, divides into canonical and non-canonical texts. The canonical portions reflect the state and affairs in India during the time of Buddha. The non-canonical literature deals with the stories of the previous births of Buddha, called Jatakas. Besides, the Jatakas throw the light on the social and economic conditions of the period between the 5th and 2nd century BCE.

Besides, non-canonical is the most significant and interesting portion of Buddhist literature because it throws light on the Birth of Buddha.

Jainas Literature

The Jainas text was written in Prakrit. The Jainas offer information regarding the history and doctrine of Jainism, the life stories of the saints called Tirthankaras, the monks, and nuns in the Sangha. Besides, it helps seek information on other aspects of the cultural history of their times.

The literature of Arthasastra 

There is also a large body of secular works of literature. An important law book is the Arthasastra of Kautilya. This book gives rich material for the study of ancient Indian polity and economy especially during the age of the Mauryan.

The Sanskrit grammatical works begin with Astadhyayi of Panini. This works gives much information about the Janapadas. Besides, it includes the work of Bhasa, Sudraka, Kalidasa, and Banabhatta.

Apart from literary importance, the work also reflects the condition of the times to which they belonged. The work of Kalidasa comprises Kavyas and dramas. The most famous astronomical work of Kalidasa is Abhijinanashakuntalam, Aryabhata’s Aryabhatiya, and Varahamihira’s Brihatsamhita.

Sangam Literature

The earliest literature of South India represents by a group of texts in old Tamil. It is collectively known as Sangam’s literature. Besides, it is work for over three to four centuries.

Besides, poets in colleges patronize by the chiefs and kings compile the literature. Also, it comprises about 30,000 lines of poetry arranged in eight anthologies called Ettuttokai.

Thus, the Sangam literature is a major source of data for the social, economic, and political life of the people living in the deltaic Tamil Nadu in the early Christian centuries.


Foreign sources are the accounts or records of foreign writers. Particularly, the Roman and the Greek writers have written much about India and her people.

Foreign travelers such as the Greek, Roman, and Chinese visitors have left behind data on how they saw India. The Indika of Megasthenes, who came to the court of Chandragupta Maurya has been preserved only in fragments but these fragments furnish valuable information on the administration, social classes, and economic activities in the Maurya period. The periplus of the Erytherean Sea written by anonymous Greek and Ptolemy’s Geography provides valuable data for the study of ancient geography and commerce. Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, which relates to the first century was written in Latin. It says about the trade between India and Italy.


Fa-Hsien was the first Chinese pilgrim, who visits India in 399 A.D. and remain in India up to 413 AD. He describes the social, religious, and economic conditions in India during the age of the Guptas. In his accounts, he also mentioned the administrative functions of the Gupta’s period.


On the other hand, Hiuen-Tsang who came in the second quarter of the seventh century presents similar data of India in the age of Harsha.


Yuan-Chang is another famous Chinese pilgrims travelers, he travels almost all parts of India for 18 years i.e., from 626 to 644 AD. He is famous as the ‘Prince of Pilgrims’.

In his famous book, ‘Si-Yu-Ki’, he provides a lot of details on the living standard of ancient India. Besides, this book had also helped us to determine the extent of Harsha’s empire.


Archaeological sources include all tangible, material remains. However, these distinctions are not absolute. All remains of the past that include literary manuscripts are material in nature. Certain kinds of archaeological sources are base on inscriptions, coins, and inscribe images that can be considered both material objects and texts.

Archaeological sources are the study of the human past through material remains that connect with history. Material remains range from vestiges of grand palaces and temples to the small, discarded products of everyday human activities such as pieces of broken pottery. They include different things such as structures, artifacts, bones, seeds, pollen, seals, coins, sculptures, and inscriptions.

Field archaeology deals with the exploration and excavation of sites. The major part of these remains lies buried in the mounds. Excavations can be horizontal (it exposes a large surface area) or vertical (where the digging involves a small surface). The excavation is accompanied by careful recording, mapping, photographing, labeling, and preserving of the artifacts. To unearth the remains, they apply various scientific techniques.

Thus the archaeological sources help us to obtain precise data about the lives of past communities. Besides, the unearths materials became useful data in dating archaeological materials. Carbon-14 or radiocarbon dating is the best know dating method.

Various archaeological sources of ancient Indian history are:


Monuments are important sources of ancient Indian history that helps us to establish to study the ancient history of India. These monuments are in various forms that represent the ancient culture of India.

We can describe the contribution of monuments as the reconstruction of Ancient India History through various reliable sources.  The remains/remaining monuments of Ancient India are important historical materials to reconstruct Ancient Indian history.

Monuments are not directly concerned with political history but these Temples (shrines), Stupas, and Monasteries (Viharas) vividly depict the artistic achievements and religious devotion of people and princes alike.

Shrines, dedicated to Siva (Shiva), on the Deiring plateau (Java), and the vast panorama of bas-reliefs on the walls in the colossal temples at Boro-Bodur, Prambanan (Central Java) and also the remarkable rivers at Angkor Vat and Angkor Thom (Kambuja) reveal the hands of Indians and show that they had migrated to the Far-East and spread the power and culture there.

The antiquities or remains of the ancient buildings, its drains, and small size statues show the high value of architecture.

Besides, we came to know the glory of the Gupta Period from the excavations of the Temples of “Deograh”. However, the ancient monuments like buildings, statues of stones, terracotta ornaments, and decorative fragments and pottery give us a lot of useful and reliable information.

The excavation of the sites of Indus Valley Civilization like Harappa, Mohenjadaro, and Taxila has given us a lot of information hitherto unknown and also changed our conception of the sources of Ancient Indian History.

After the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization, we began to talk of civilization in India just prior to that of the Aryans.

A study of the scriptures found from the excavations of Taxila gives us an idea of the Gandhara School of Art.

Besides, the excavations of the old sites of Pataliputra gives some information regarding the old capital of the Mauryas.

Also, the paintings found in the caves of Ajanta, Ellora, and Bagh highlight craftsmanship and artistic tenant of the ancient Indian people.

The development of the Gandhara School of Art and Mathura School of Art shows the progress of culture-making in early India.

The excavation of Sarnath provides a good source of information about Buddhism and Ashoka the Great.  In fact, the excavations in Chinese Turkestan and Baluchistan by Stein prove the intimate contacts of India with those territories.

Thus, the monuments are vital sources of Ancient Indian History and provide a good contribution for the re-construction of Ancient Indian History.


Architecture is the best source of understanding the thought and mental processes of the people of bygone days. The dominating feature of Indian architecture was spiritualism.

In fact, in the beginning, Buddhism has influenced many extend the India architecture. The Buddhist Stupas, the Chaityas, and the Viharas show it clearly. Persian influence too can be seen in the Mauryan peace, excavated at Pataliputra. With Gupta period started the temple architectural. With the help of these architectural monuments, we have come to know a lot about the economic, social, and religious conditions of the country at that time.


The earliest representation of Indian sculpture is found in the Indus Valley culture. It has proved the existence of civilization prior to that of the Aryans


Another significant source is the painting which tells us much about the cultural and religious attitudes of the people of ancient India. The painting during the ancient India period was highly influenced by religious symbols. We can witness the beautiful paintings of the ancient India period at Ajanta.

Many other minor objects, like beads and pots, have also provided a definite outline for the reconstruction of the ancient history of India.


Paleontology is the study of the remains of dead organisms over a huge period. In this study, molecular biology and DNA studies were factors to understand hominid evolution. The remains of bones provide a great deal of information. The faunal analysis gives information about the animal’s people hunted and domesticated. The faunal remains give data about the aspects of the environment such as climate, vegetation, and the season during which a site was occupied. At times, bones reveal the links between communities. analysis of tooth enamel helps to identify the kind of food people ate.

Palaeo-pathology is the study of diseases of ancient people they suffer from. Palaeo-botanical is the study that analysis the pollen and other minute plant remains, seeds, charcoal, sediments, and geographical strata.

Therefore, archaeological sources reveal the aspects of everyday life. It provides data on the history of human settlements and can give specific detail about the modes of subsistence, the crops they plant, the implements they used, and the animals they domesticated.


Inscriptions and coins come under the general umbrella of archaeological sources. They are the subjects of specialized study in their own right.


Epigraphy is the study of inscription. An inscription is any writing that is engraved on stone, wood, metal, ivory plaques, bronze statues, bricks, clay, shells, pottery, etc. It includes translating the text of inscriptions and analyzing the data they contain.


Under inscriptions, it also includes paleography. It is the study of ancient writing. The undeciphered Harappa script is the oldest inscriptions in the Indian subcontinent. The oldest deciphered inscriptions belong to the late 4th century BCE.  These include the inscriptions of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka.

Additionally, inscriptions are further classified in different ways according to the surface they are engraved, language, age, and geographical region. Sometimes they are also classified according to their content and purpose. In fact, they are an important source of data on political history. They also provide data on the history of settlement patterns, agrarian relations, forms of labor, class, and caste structure.


Numismatic is the study of coins. These coins give data on several important historical processes. Thus, they throw significant light on the history of exchange and trade. Besides, coins also give information on the history of languages and scripts. Also, it indicates the levels of economic prosperity or the financial condition of ancient states.

Thus, the coins have proved as a great source of authentic information of ancient Indian history. Thousands of these coins fall under two categories, Cast coins, and punch-marked coins. There were many writers who say that the ancient Indians do not have any knowledge of coinage.

However, Vincent Smith and Rapson are of the opinion that these were private coins. But according to the later researches, they say that these coins were regular coins, and are issued by the respective sovereigns. The coins give information to the names of the kings who rules during the ancient India period.

From the coins, we also come to know about art and its development. The figures of kings, gods, and goddesses, along with a lion, tiger, axe, bow, and many other articles, engraved on the coins, clearly point to the development of art during that time.

Thus, it becomes clear that coins have helped us a good deal, in studying the history of ancient India.

Kushana coins

Kushana coins indicate that trade flourishes during the ancient period. On the other hand, Satavahana coins indicate the importance of maritime trades in the Deccan during this period.

Besides, the Roman coin was also there in many places in India. It helps to provides the data on Indo-Roman trade.

Dinara’s Coins

The Guptas issue the largest number of gold coins which indicate that the economy was flourishing during this period. According to the Chinese traveler Fa Hein (who visits different parts of the Gupta empire), the gold coins are famous as Dinaras. The Guptas issue these gold coins.

Besides, on these coins, the Gupta kings would have their faces and names inscribed. In fact, they use the gold coin for many transactions. Especially as payment to the officers in the administration and the army and also during the buying and selling of land.  However, fewer coins in the later period of Guptas show a decline in trade and commerce. This was due to the Chinese art of growing silk, adopted by European countries. This badly affected India’s export trade. Even the weavers left these professions because they were facing heavy losses.

Coins discovered during the unearthing helps to reveal the date of the ancient age. Besides, the depiction of deities on coins also provides data about the personal choice of the kings, royal religious policy, and the history of religious cults.

Difficulties in the Study of Ancient Indian History

In the past, there was no system of recording the events. So, only important events were recorded with great difficulty on copper plates and rock pillars. But some of the records get destroy while others have not come to light as yet. Therefore, there are really many difficulties in the study of ancient Indian history.

Besides, lack of historical material, ancient records, definite chronology, difficulty in deciphering old scripts, etc. are other reasons that make difficulties in the study of Ancient Indian History. Further, some historians ignore important events and give prominence to unimportant events.

No system of writing History

In the ancient past, there was no system of writing the main events by historians. As a result, there are no historical and authentic or first-hand sources that are available.

No printing presses

In ancient Indian, there were no printing presses. As a result, there are only a few records available to us. To study past events.

Destruction by Invaders

Many invaders invade India. Some of the invaders destroy many sources of information. So there are few invaders who destroy intentionally while others destroy the source of information unintentionally.

Difficulty of Language

Prakrit and Pali was the main language of the Indus people.  But now, the languages are now no longer in vogue. Thus, there were many difficulties in deciphering the available material.

Difficulty about names

As per the available sources, the same name of a ruler occurs more than once rather many a time. In such cases, it becomes difficult to attribute a particular event to a particular ruler.

Chronological Difficulties

There is also a chronological difficulty. It has become difficult to reconcile the conflicting dates. This difficulty has particularly arisen because each ruler started their own era and recording of events starts according to his own eras

Problem of self-praise

In the past, there were very few historians in the true sense of the term. Each ruler, however, had his own singers in his darbar (court) who sang in his praise. Thus, they never brought out his defects to light. As a result, it has rather become difficult to distinguish between facts or truly and false i.e. self-undeserved praise.

Self-Contradicting Records

We have been left with very few records but even available records pose a serious difficulty. Since no one recorded true events. In fact, they record the events as per the guidelines of the ruler. Therefore many contradictions have crept in. So far there is no way out to adjust these contradicting records.

Lack of Political unity

In ancient India, there was a lack of political unity. The whole country was divided into small states and each state had it’s our history. Thus if the history of ancient India is to be studied in its true perspective, it is essential that the history of all these states should be studied. It is an uphill task because sufficient material is not available and most of the materials are buried deep into the earth.

How do we know the past Ancient Indian History?

We can know about the past History by studying the following main sources.


The printing press was not known in earlier times. Paper too was not available. Records were written on plates of copper, the bark of some trees, and dried palm leaves. Some events were inscribed on brick tablets, walls, and pillars of stone or on large rocks.


An inscription is writing engrave on the surface of some metal, brick, or stone. The archaeologists have unearthed thousands of inscriptions. They are busy unearthing still more. The inscriptions convey royal orders, shower praise on the rulers’ conquests, and impart religious teachings. They are found engraved on statues, cave and temple walls, metal plates, stone tablets, rocks, and pillars.


Manuscripts are handwritten books. Many manuscripts written in Sanskrit, Arabic, Pali, Prakrit, and Tamil have been found. These manuscripts are writing on paper, on thick bark of the birch trees, or on dry palm leaves.


We can easily reconstruct the history of many ruling dynasties with the help of coins. The coins contain either simple marks or legends. The coins help us in fixing the lengths of different kingdoms. The purity of the metal sheds light on the economic conditions of the period. The coins are of various metals such as copper, silver, or gold or even of their alloy.

Archaeological Evidence

The history of ancient times can also be studied through stone and metal tools, pottery, images, monuments, and figures.

The important of Foreign Accounts in the study of Ancient History of India

Many Foreign travelers who visited India from time to time have provided us with much useful information about contemporary Indian History. Their accounts have proved much useful because they give us information about some period for which we have no other Indian sources. Being foreigners, their accounts are unbiased (fair). They support Indian sources. They help in constructing a proper chronology of Indian History. Also, they help in constructing proper chronology and they help in deciphering scripts.

Amongst many foreign travelers, it is worth mentioning the Chinese travelers who visit India in the past were Fa-Hien, Hiuen-Tsang, and I-Tsing.  Fa-Hien’s account tells us about the political, social, and religious conditions of the Gupta period. Hiuen Tsang visited India during the reign of Harsha Vardhan and wrote about Harsha, his capital, his administration, and social and religious conditions. These accounts give a lot of information about Buddhism and Jainism.

The importance to study Ancient Indian History

The study of ancient Indian history is important because of the fact that the knowledge of ancient Indian history is the pre-requisite to understand the language, religion, culture, and civilization of India. It is also important in understanding the origins of different races such as Dravidians, Aryans, Greeks, Sakas, Kushanas, Huns, Turks, etc.


Thus, much of the ancient Indian history is well-known from various sources. These sources include texts, inscriptions, coins, literature, foreign travelers, etc. They play an important place, particularly because in the past there was no printing press and there was no system of recording events with the viewpoint of any historian.

The sources of ancient Indian history are the pre-requisite to understand languages, religion, culture, and civilization of India. Due to different sources available, it helps us in understanding the origins of different races such as Dravidians, Aryans, Greeks, Sakas, Kushanas, Huns, Turks, etc.

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Major Languages in India

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