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Discovering the Past | Ancient India | (HISTORY OF INDIA)

Discovering the Past Ancient India (HISTORY OF INDIA)


The four main cradles of civilisation, from which elements of culture have spread to other parts of the world, are China, the ‘Fertile Crescent’, the Mediterrancan, especially Greece and Italy, and India, which has contributed important elements to the culture of SouthEast Asia, as well as extended its influence, directly and indirectly, to other parts of the world.

Discovering the Past Ancient India (HISTORY OF INDIA)

The ancient Indians knew their country as Bharatavarsha (the land of Bharata). It was said to form part of a larger unit called Jambu-dvipa (the continent of the Jambu tree), the innermost of seven concentric island continents into which the earth, as conceived by Hindu cosmographers, was divided. Early Buddhist evidence suggests that Jambu-dvipa was a territorial designation actually in use from the third century B.C. at the latest, and was applied to that part of Asia, outside China, throughout, which the Mauryan Empire had its influence.

However, the names ‘Hindustan’ or ‘India’ are of foreign origin. The ancient Persians (Iranians), while coming to India, had to cross the river Sindhu (Indus) which they began to pronounce as ‘Hind’. With the Muslim invasion the Persian name returned in the form of ‘Hindustan’, and those of its inhabitants who followed the old religion became known as Hindus. The form ‘Hindustan’. popular in modern India, is thus an IndoIranian hybrid with no linguistic justification. Also, the Persians passed the name ‘Hindu’ (i.e. Sindhu) on to the Greeks who began to pronounce it the ‘Indus’. From the term ‘Indus’ was derived the name ‘India’.

Ancient literature refers to a five-fold division of India. In the mid-Indo-Gangetic plain was the Madhyadesa stretching from the river Sarasvati to the Rajmahal Hills. The western part of this area was known as the Brahmarshi-desa, and the entire region was roughly equivalent to Aryavarta as described in the Mahabhashya by Patanjali. To the north of the Madhya-desa lay Uttarapatha of Udichya (North-West India); to its west

paranta or Pratichya (Western India): to its south Dakshinapatha or the Deccan, and to its east Purva-desa or Prachya (the Prasii of Alexander’s historians). The term Uttaraputha was at times applied to the whole of Northern India, and Dakshinapatha was in some ancient works restricted to the upper Deccan north of the Krishna, the far south being termed as ‘Tamilakam’ or the Tamil country.

Like any other country of the world, the course of Indian history has largely been shaped by the geographical features of India. For example, most of the foreign invaders came to India through the openings in the western mountain ranges. India always depended on the import of horses of the good breed as the Indian climate was not very congenial for such horses.

At most periods of its history, India, though a cultural unit, was torn by internecine war. Famine, flood, and plague killed millions of people. Inequality of birth was given religious sanction, and a lot of the humble was generally hard. Yet, in no other part of the ancient world of the time were the relations of man and man, and of man and the state, so fair and humane.

Unlike Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece, traditions of India have been preserved without a breakdown to the present day. To this day, legends are known to the humblest Indian recall the names of shadowy chieftains who lived nearly a thousand years before Christ, and the orthodox Hindus in their daily worship repeat hymns composed even earlier. India and China have, in fact, the oldest continuous cultural traditions in the world.

However, ancient Indians are charged with having had no sense of history as they did not write history in the way it is done today or it was done by the ancient Greeks. But with the advent of Europeans, the situation began to change. A few Jesuits succeeded in mastering Sanskrit. One of them, Father Hanxleden, who worked in Kerala during 1699-1732, compiled the first Sanskrit grammar in a European tongue. Another. Father Coeurdoux, in 1767, was probably the first student to recognize the kinship of Sanskrit and the languages of Europe and suggested that the Brahmins of India were descended from one of the sons of Japhet.


With the arrival of Sir William Jones in Calcutta (1783) as a judge of the Supreme Court. the pace of the search into India’s past increased. Before coming to India he had suggested that Persian and the European languages were derived from a common ancestor which was not Hebrew. With the aid of Charles Wilkins (1749-1836), an official of the British East India Company, and friendly Bengali pandits, Jones began to learn Sanskrit and founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal on January 1. 1784 with himself as the President. In the journal of this society, Asiatic Researches, the first real steps towards revealing India’s past were taken.

In November 1784 the first direct translation of a Sanskrit work into English, Wilkin’s Bhagwad Gita, was completed. Wilkins followed this with a translation of the Hitopadesa in 1787. In 1789 Jones translated Kalidasa’s Shakuntala; he also translated Gita Govinda (1792) and the law-book of Manu (published posthumously in 1794 under the title Institutes of Hindoo Law). Jones and Wilkins could be called the fathers of Indology,

Interest in Sanskrit literature began to grow in Europe as a result of these translations. In 1795. the Ecole des Langues Orientales Vivantes was founded in France, and in Paris Alexander Hamilton (1762-1824) became the first person to teach Sanskrit in Europe. It was from Hamilton that Friedrich Schlegel, the first German Sanskritist, learnt the language. The first university chair of Sanskrit was founded at the College de France in 1814, and held by Leonard de Chezy, while from 1818 onwards the larger German universities set up professorships. Sanskrit was first taught in England in 1805 at the training college of the East India Company at Hertford. The earliest English chair was the Boden Professorship at Oxford. first filled in 1832 by H.II. Wilson. Chairs were afterward founded at London. Cambridge and Edinburgh, and at several other universities of Europe and America.

In 1816. Fraz. Bopp (1791-1867), a Bavarian, succeeded in very tentatively reconstructing the common ancestor of Sanskrit and the classical languages of Europe, and comparative philology became an independent science. The enormous Sanskrit-German dictionary (St. Petersburg Lexicon) was produced by the German scholars Otto Bohtlingk and Rudolf Roth and published in parts by the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences from 1852 to 1875.

The early work of the Asiatic Society of Bengal had been almost entirely literary and linguistic, and most of the 19th century Indologists mainly concentrated on written records. Early in the 19th century, however, the Bengal Society began to turn towards the material remains of India’s past, e.g. temples, caves, and shrines, together with early coins and copies of inscriptions and old scripts.

By working backward from the current scripts the older ones were gradually deciphered. In 1937, James Prinsep. an official of the Calcutta Mint and Secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal interpreted for the first time the earliest Brahmi script and was able to read the Asokan edicts. Alexander Cunningham (the father of Indian archaeology), who came to India in 183! and retired in 1885, was appointed (1862) the first Archaeological Surveyor by the Government. After William Jones. Indology owes more to Cunningham than to any other worker in the area. He was assisted by several other pioneers, and though at the end of the 19th century the activities of the Archaeological Survey almost ceased, owing to the meagreness of government grants, by 1900 many ancient buildings had been surveyed, and many inscriptions read and translated.

In the 20th century, archaeological excavations on a large scale began in India. (The science which enables us to dig the old mounds in a systematic manner, in successive layers, and to form an idea of the material life of the people is ‘archaeology’.) On Lord Curzon’s initiatives the Archaeological Survey was re-formed and enlarged, and John Marshall was appointed its Director-General Under Marshall’s directorship the Archaeological Survey of India discovered the Indus Valley Civilisation. The firs! relics of the Indus cities were noticed by Cunningham, who found strange unidentified seals in the neighborhood of Harappa (now in Pakistan). In 1922 an Indian officer of the Archaeological Survey, R. D. Bannerjee, found further seals at Mohenjo-Daro in Sind and took them to be the remains of a pre-Aryan civilization. Under Marshall’s guidance, the sites were systematically excavated from 1924 to 1931. Further important discoveries were made at Harappa during the brief directorship of R.E.M. Wheeler just after the second world war.

In the 19th century, Indians too began to participate in the efforts of revealing India’s past. Sanskritists and epigraphists like Bhau Daji. Bhagwanlal Indraji. Rajendralal Mitra and R.G. Bhandarkar are illustrious examples.


On the basis of the finds of the foreign and Indian scholars, sources were identified which helped to construct the history of India in the proper way. Such sources can be classified into the following categories: material remains, coins, inscriptions, literary sources, and foreign accounts.


Though ancient Indians left innumerable material remains on the earth’s surface, like the stone temples in south India and the brick monasteries in eastern India, the major part of these remains lies buried in mounds. Excavations of some mounds have revealed the cities established around 2500 B.C. in northwestern India. Also revealed is the layout of the settlements. the types of pottery used by the people, the form of their houses, the kind of cereals consumed, the type of their tools, implements or weapons, etc. Material remains excavated and explored are subjected to various kinds of scientific examination. Their dates are fixed according to the radio-carbon method; computers are also used now for the process. Through an examination of plant residues, especially through pollen analysis, the climate and vegetation of a period of the past can be known. Such examination has established that agriculture was practiced in Rajasthan and Kashmir around 7000-6000 B.C. The metal artifacts obtained help us to know the stages of development of metal technology. Animal bones show whether the animals were domesticated or not and the uses they were put to.


Though numerous coins have been found on the surface, many of them have been found while digging the mounds. The study of coins is called ‘numismatics! Numismatics was used for historiography as far back as the 12th century by Kalhana, the author of Rajatarangini. Archaeologically, the antiquity of Indian coinage can be dated to the 5th century B.C. The earliest coins discovered are of copper and silver. However. ancient coins of gold, lead, etc. have also been found. The earliest coins of India contain a few symbols, but the later coins mention the names of kings and gods or dates.

Ancient people would store money in earthenware or brass vessels. Many such hoards, containing both Indian coins and those minted abroad such as in the Roman empire, have been discovered in different parts of the country. The areas where they are found indicate the region of their circulation. These coins have enabled us to reconstruct the history and extent of several ruling dynasties, especially of the Indo-Greeks. About 31 of the Indo-Greek kings and queens have been known from mainly coins alone. Much of the history of the Kushanas has been mainly revealed to us through their coins. Much of the political life of the Sakas of Ujjain comes to us only through coins.

Coins are a good source of administrative as well as constitutional history.. The ancient coins celebrate the victory of republics in some cases. They thus confirm the prevalence of a republican constitution in ancient India. The administration under the Sakas and the Pahlavas has been reconstructed largely on the basis of coins. The purity of the coins also reveal the economic conditions of a period. Coins also portray kings and gods and contain religious symbols and legends. by which one can get an idea of the art and literature of the time. Portraits on some of the Indo-Greek coins are considered the best examples of ancient portraiture art.


Inscriptions are more important than coins in historical reconstruction. The study of inscriptions is called ‘epigraphy. and the study of the old writing is called ‘paleography’. Inscriptions are writings carved on seals, stone pillars, rocks, copper plates, temple walls and bricks or images.

The vast epigraphic material available in India provide the most reliable data for studying history. Like coins. inscriptions are preserved in various museums, but the largest number is under the Chief Epigraphist at Mysore. The earliest inscriptions found were written in Prakrit in the 3rd century B.C. Sanskrit became an epigraphic medium in the 2nd century A.D. Regional languages also came to be employed in inscriptions from the 9th-10th centuries onwards. Many inscriptions bearing the history of Maurya to Gupta times have been published in a series of collections called ‘Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum’. In south India, topographical lists of inscriptions have been published. However, around 50,000 inscriptions, mostly in south India, await publication. The earliest inscriptions are found on the seals of Harappa, which, however, remain undeciphered. The oldest inscriptions deciphered so far are Prakrit inscriptions, in Brahmi and in Kharosthi. of Asoka (273-232 B.C.).


The ancient Indians knew writing as early as 2500 B.C., but no manuscripts older than the 4th century are available. They were written on birch bark and palm leaves, but in central Asia, where Prakrit had come from India. manuscripts were also written on sheep leather and wooden tables. The Vedas and related books were put into writing quite later. The Rig Veda describes the period 1500-1000 B.C. and the later Vedic literature give the history of about 1000-600 B.C. Buddhist literature, the two epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata) and other books help us to know about the subsequent periods. We mainly rely on literary sources for the history of India before the Mauryas. Later, literary sources begin to supplement other sources. The Puranas are regarded by some as having been written historically. However, generally, the first ‘historical writing by an Indian is attributed to Kalhana who wrote the Rajatarangini in the twelfth century, giving a dynastic chronicle of the kings of Kashmir. Some important ancient works that are important source materials include Asvaghosa’s Buddhacarita (A.D. 100) in Pali, the Gaudavaho in Prakrit by Bappaira which talks of King Yasovarman (A.D. 725), and the Harshacharita by Bana which is an account on the life of king Harsha (A.D.606-47). The Sangam literature gives an insight into the social, economic and political life of the people of deltaic Tamil Nadu in the early Christian centuries. Its information regarding trade and commerce of the time is attested to by foreign accounts and archaeological finds.


The foreign accounts supplement the indigenous literature. There is no mention of Alexander’s invasion in Indian sources, and we come to know about his exploits from the Greek sources. The Greek writers mention Sandrokottas (identified with Chandragupta Maurya). a contemporary of Alexander. This has served as the sheet-anchor in ancient Indian chronology, as we place the accession of Chandragupta around 322 B.C.

A precise account of interior India is first obtained from an account by Megasthenes, Seleucus’ envoy to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, which has been preserved only in fragments quoted by subsequent classical writers like Arrian. Starbo and Justin. These fragments when reading together, furnish valuable information not only about the administration but also about social classes and economic activities in the Mauryan period.

Greek and Roman accounts of the first and second centuries A.D. mention many Indian ports and enumerate items of trade between India and the Roman empire. The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (by an unknown author. A.D. 80-115) and Ptolemy’s Geography (A.D. 150)—both written in Greek-provide valuable data for the study of ancient geography and commerce. Pliny’s Naturalis Historia (first century A.D.) in Latin describes trade between India and Italy.

Chinese accounts have proved a valuable source for information on the Gupta period and the years immediately following the end of Gupta rule. The Chinese travelers. Fa-hsien (Record of the Buddhist Countries) and Hiuen Tsang (Buddhist Records of the Western World) who came to India to visit Buddhist shrines and study Buddhism. describe the social. economic and religious conditions of the country in the fourth-fifth and seventh centuries respectively. Hwuili’s Life of Niuen Tsang, and Itsing’s A Record of the Buddhistic Religion as Pructised in India and Malay Archipelago which refers to Sri Gupta, are valuable for studying north India in the 7th century AD. The accounts of Arabs such as Merchant Sulaiman who visited india during the time of Bhoja 1 (AD 851). Abu Zaid. Abul Qasim (died AD 1070) who authored Tuut ul-Umam. a book on ancient Indian culture and science, Shahriyar, Ibn Rusia, Ibn Nazim are valuable material for studying ancient Indian history

In constructing the history of medieval and British periods. we are amply helped by the various extant architectural remains historical books. letters. diaries. etc.


There is more information readily available about this period compared to ancient India.


State papers and official or private documents written in Persian provide much information in reconstructing the history of the period. Though most of it has been lost, still the ones found in the houses of private prsons throw much light on the administration, economy, and society of the time.


These have provided ample information with regard to the history of medieval India. Minhaj-us-Siraj’s Tabaqat-i-Nasiri gives useful information regarding the slave’ dynasty of Delhi up to the year 1267 A.D. Zia-ud-din Barani’s Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi gives the history of the first six years of Firuz Shah Tughlaq’s reign. Firuz Shah’s own composition, Futuhat-i-Firuz Shahi gives a record of his administrative achievements. Isami’s Futahus Salatin deals with the period extending from the rise of Ghaznavids to the reign of Muhammad-bin-Tughlag. Babur’s famous Memoirs originally written in Turki gives important information about the natural surroundings of the country. The Memoirs of Jahangir is an excellent source of history. Gulbadan Begam’s Humayun-nama gives insight into the affairs of the royal harem. Abul Fazal’s Ain-i-Akbari and Akbar-nama are the two most important works dealing with the reign of Akbar. Another important contemporary work is Badauni’s Muntakhab-ulTawarikh. Two official chronicles i.e., Padishah-nama and Alamgir-nama cover the riegn of Shah Jahan and the early years of Aurangzeb’s reign. For the latter part of Aurangzeb’s reign there is the Masir-i-Alamgiri, Khafi Khan’s Muntakhab-ul-Lubab supplies us with many facts which were earlier suppressed by Aurangzeb.

The defects of the Persian chronicles are: (i) lack of objectivity, being biased towards royalty; (ii) lack of interest in common people.

Foreign travelers

They give us interesting information regarding the political, social and economic conditions in medieval India. Al-Beruni’s account of India during Sultan Mahmud Ghazni’s conquest in his Kitabul-Hind is considered as the finest foreign account of medieval India. Marco Polo who visited South India in the latter part of the thirteenth century has given useful information. The best known foreigners who visited India during the pre-Mughal period were the Moroccan Ibn Batutah, an Italian, Nicolo Conti who visited Vijayanagar around A.D. 1294, a Persian, Abdur Razzaq who was the ambassador of Shah Rukh of Samarqand at the court of the Zamorin of Calicut and visited Vijayanagar kingdom (around A.D. 1442), and a Russian, Athanasius Nikitin who in A.D. 1470 visited South India. From the sixteenth century onwards the European travellers who came to India have left a mine of information for us. The works of Jesuit missionaries and European travellers like Barbosa, Ralph Fitch. Roe. Taverneir, Berneir, Manucci have described the conditions of the people, the state of trade and commerce and the magnificence of the court and the camp.


Coins have given useful information regarding the state of polity and economy during the Sultanate and Mughal periods. The coins of Muhammad bin Tughlaq have revealed much about his reign and his kingdom. The coins of provincial rulers such as those of Bengal, for instance, with their dates and mint-marks, are specially valuable for divulging information that is not fully dealt with in the general chronicles.


Inscriptions are of greater use for the pre-Mughal rather than the Mughal period. The reigns of the Bengal Sultans, Shamsuddin Firuz, Alauddin Firuz, Nizam Shahi king Burhan III have been established by studying inscriptions alone. The Bengal Sultanate, especially of the 14th to 16th centuries, has been explained solely on the basis of epigraphic sources. In many an instance, the full titles of kings and queens and history of minor dynasties have been revealed by studying inscriptions. The inscriptions that reveal India’s medieval history throw light on political aspects as well as social life.


Monuments testify to the growth of material prosperity and the development of culture. They do not help us much in constructing political history.


To construct the history of modern India there is no shortage of source-material. There is plenty of information available on the political, socio-econmic and cultural developments in the country.


Top priority in this context should be given to official records, i.e. the papers of Government agencies at different levels. The records put down by the East India Company give a detailed account of trading conditions during this period. The official records cover all levels of administration, from the district to the Supreme Government, apart from those relating to the Court of Directors and the Board of Control. The British Crown, when it took over the reins of administration, also kept a large variety and volume of official records. By reading these materials one can trace every important development stage-by-stage and follow the processes of decision-making.

Records of European Companies

The records of Portuguese, Dutch and French companies are useful for constructing the history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They are important primarily from the point of view of economic history, but much can also be gathered of the political set-up.

Indigenous Literary Sources

Persian chronicles continue to prove useful for this period. Special mention may be made of Siyar-ul-mutakherin by Ghulam Hussain Tabatabai. Marathi news-letters are also important in this regard. The most important source-book written in the Tamil language is the diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai, who records the vicissitudes of south Indian politics during a crucial period relating to Dupleix.

Miscellaneous Works

There are many contemporary or semi-contemporary works such as memoirs, biographies, travel accounts which give us interesting and useful glimpses into the history of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, newspapers had made their appearance and these provide valuable information.


Ancient Indians are charged with lack of historical sense. Of course, they did not write history’ in the manner it is done today, or in the way the Greeks did. But on closer examination, we do find some sort of historical sense amongst the ancient Indians. Though encyclopedic in content, the Puranas provide dynastic history up to the beginning of the Gupta rule. They mention the places where events took place and sometimes discuss their causes and effects. The authors of the Puranas were not unaware of the idea of change. which is the essence of history. The Puranas speak of four ages called krita, treta, dvapara and kali. The importance of time, a vital element in history, is indicated. Several eras, according to which events were recorded, were started in ancient India. The Vikram Samvat began in 58 B.C.. the Shaka Samvat in A.D. 78. and the Gupta era in A.D. 319.

Inscriptions record events in the context of time and place. During the third century B.C. Asokan inscriptions record events of his reign. Similarly, in the first century B.C. Kharavela of Kalinga records a good many events of his life year-wise in the Hathigumpha inscription.

Indians display considerable historical sense in biographical writings, though fraught with eulogies and exaggerations. Banabhatta’s Harshacharita is a typical example. Sandyakara Nandi’s Ramcharita (twelfth century A.D.) narrates the story of the conflict between the Kaivarta peasants and the Pala prince Ramapala, resulting in the latter’s victory. The Mushika Vamsa, written by Atula in the eleventh century, gives an account of the dynasty of the Mushikas, which ruled in northern Kerala.

Although educated Indians retained their traditional history in the form of handwritten epics. Puranas and semi-biographical works, modern research in the history of ancient India started in the second half of the eighteenth century partially because of the natural interest of the British and other western scholars and partially because of the needs of the colonial administration.

In the wake of the 1857 Revolt, it was strongly realized in Britain that it needed a deep knowledge of the manners and social systems of an alien people over whom it had to rule. Similarly, the Christian missionaries wanted to find out the vulnerable points in the Hindu religion to win converts and strengthen the British empire. To meet these needs ancient scriptures were translated on a massive scale under the editorship of Max Mueller. Altogether fifty volumes, some in seven parts, were published under the Sacred Books of the East series. Although a few Chinese and Iranian texts were included. the ancient Indian texts predominated in the series.

In the introductions to these volumes and the books based on them, Max Mueller and other western scholars made certain generalizations about the nature of ancient Indian history and society. They stated that the ancient Indians lacked a sense of history, especially the factor of time and chronology, and were accustomed to despotic rule. The ‘natives’ were engrossed in the problems of spiritualism or of the next world and were least bothered about the problems of this world. The caste system was considered to be the most vicious form of social discrimination. The western scholars stressed that the Indians had neither experienced feelings of nationhood nor of any kind of self-government.

Many of these generalizations appeared in the Early History of India by V.A. Smith (1843-1920), who prepared the first systematic history of ancient India in 1904. Smith’s approach to history was pro-imperialist: he emphasized the role of foreigners in ancient India. Alexander’s invasion accounted for almost one-third of his book. India was presented as a land of despotism which did not experience political unity until the establishment of British rule.

In sum, British interpretations of Indian history served to denigrate Indian characters and achievements. and to justify the colonial rule.

Indian scholars who received western education were irked by colonialist distortions of their past even as they were distressed by the contrast between the decaying feudal society of India and the progressive capitalist society of England. They, therefore, started writing ancient Indian history in a nationalist tone, advocating social reform and self-government. But there were others who adopted a rationalist and objective approach.

To the rationalist category belongs Rajendra Lal Mitra (1822-1891), who published some Vedic texts and wrote the Indo-Aryans. He produced a forceful tract to show that in ancient times people took beef. In Maharashtra. R.G. Bhandarkar reconstructed the political history of the Deccan of the Satavahanas and the history of Vaishnavism and other sects. A great social reformer. through his researches, he advocated widow marriage and castigated the evils of the caste system and child marriage. V.K. Rajwade went from village to village in Maharashtra in search of Sanskrit manuscripts and sources of Maratha history; the sources came to be published in twenty-two volumes. The history of the institution of marriage that he wrote in Marathi in 1926 will continue to be a classic because of its solid base in Vedic and other texts, and also because of the author’s insight into the stages in the evolution of marriage in India. P.V. Kane (1880-1972), a great Sanskritist wedded to social reform, wrote the History of the Dharmashastras published in five volumes, which is an encyclopedia of ancient social laws and customs. It enables us to make a study of social processes in ancient India.

The Indian scholars keenly studied the past to demonstrate that India did have its political history and that the Indians possessed expertise in administration. D.R. Bhandarkar (1875-1950), an epigraphist. published books on Asoka and on ancient Indian political institutions. H.C. Raychoudhury (1892-1957) reconstructed the history of ancient India from the time of the Mahabharata war (tenth century B.C.) to the end of the Gupta empire (6th century A.D.) However, his writings show a streak of militant Brahminism when he criticizes Asoka’s policy of peace. A strong element of Hindu revivalism appears in the writings of R.C. Mazumdar (1888-1980).

Most writers on early Indian history did not give adequate attention to south India. K.A. Nilkanta Shastri (1892-1975) took the initiative when he wrote History of South India. Under his leadership, several research monographs were produced on the dynastic history of south India.

Until 1960 political history attracted the largest number of Indian scholars, who also glorified the histories of their respective regions on dynastic lines. Those who wrote history on a pan-India level were inspired by the idea of nationalism. The nationalist historians gave much less importance to Alexander’s invasion and stressed the importance of the dialogue of Porus with Alexander and Chandragupta Maurya’s liberation of north-western India from Seleucus. Some scholars such as K.P. Jayaswal (1881-1937) and A.S. Altekar (1898-1959) overplayed the role of the Shakas and the Kushanas. However, K.P. Jayaswal exploded the myth of Indian despotism and showed that republics existed in ancient times and enjoyed a measure of self-government

A Sanskritist by training. A.L. Basham (1914-86) questioned the wisdom of looking at ancient India from the modern point of view. He believed that the past should be read out of curiosity and pleasure. His book The Wonder That Was India (1951) is a sympathetic survey of the various facets of ancient Indian culture and civilisation free from the prejudices that prevail in V.A. Smith or other British writers. It is a shift from political to non-political history. The same shift is evident in D.D. Kosambi’s books. His treatment follows the materialist interpretation of history. Kosambi presents the history of ancient Indian society, economy and culture as an integral part of the development of the forces and relations of production.

During the last twenty-five years there has been a sea-change in the methods and orientation of those working on ancient India. They lay great stress on social, economic and cultural processes and try to relate them to political developments.


In a strictly logical view, the history of any country is an indivisible unity in which ideas, events, and personalities act and react on one another often in an obscure and intangible manner. But such complex wholes do not lend themselves to clear exposition or convenient study until they are broken up into manageable units. and this process is bound to be somewhat arbitrary and conventional. Indian history is broadly divided into ancient, medieval and modern periods. However, there are further divisions of these periods.

The man lived through scores of centuries in India as elsewhere before recorded history begins. And though the Indus Valley Civilisation has yielded some hundreds of pictographs. particularly on seals, they have not yet been deciphered. and therefore generally historians include that civilization also in pre-history or, better, protohistory. Though that civilization may be shown to have contributed some notable elements to the historical civilization of India, the continuous history of the country starts mainly after the settlement of the Aryans around 1500 B.C. The Aryanisation of the Deccan and the Far South must be put much later. However, the third or fourth century B.C. recently suggested by archaeologists for the coming in of Megalithic culture, which seems to be closely associated with rice cultivation and Dravidian speech, may be too recent.

The period 1500-1000 B.C. is called the early Vedic period, the details of which we get from the Rigveda. Then starts the later Vedic period (Circa 1000-600 B.C.) in which the rest of the three Vedas (Sama, Yajur, and Atharva), Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, etc. were composed. Around 600 B.C. starts the Buddha period or the period of Mahajanapadas when small kingdoms appeared and this continued till the establishment of the Mauryan empire (322 B.C.). The Mauryan period (322 B.C.-185 B.C.) was followed by the period of foreign invasions (Greeks, Shakas, Pahlavas. Kushanas, etc.). This period is mainly known for the Shaka, Kushana, and Satavahana (an indigenous dynasty in the Deccan) rules. The following period is known as the Gupta period (320 A.D.-600 A.D.). In the post-Gupta period (600-1206 A.D.) there appeared and disappeared numerous dynasties including those of the Rajputs, Palas, Pratiharas, Rashtrakutas, Senas, etc.

It is disputed whether the medieval period began with the establishment of Muslim rule in India. Many scholars believe that certain characteristics of the medieval period, e.g. feudalism, appeared towards the end of the Gupta period.

The period in which India had Muslim rulers can be broadly divided into the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526) and the Mughal period (1526-1857). But there is overlapping between the medieval period and the modern period. By the time of the Battle of Plassey (1757). Mughal rule had almost decayed, and towards the end of the 18th-century modern education, modern political and socio-economic ideas had begun to penetrate the country. The period 1857-61 is significant in that the British paramountcy came to be clearly established. British rule in India has become a closed chapter since August 15, 1947, and with that ends our concern for periodization

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