Literary Sources of the Ancient Indian History

Literary sources of Ancient India

History throws light on the past and this is its sole purpose. By discovering and studying the historical sources of Ancient India, we will come to know about the past life of Ancient India. The historical sources include the literary sources as well as the archaeological sources. If we want to know about the history of the recent past like the history of modern society and state, there is plenty of printed and hand-written material.  In respect of the medieval times, there is also adequate amount of material. Literary sources provide us highly accurate information about the Ancient Indian History. So, the literary sources topic is emphasized in this particular article.

Literary Sources

If we want to write about the ancient history, we will then face extreme difficulty. In the Mahabharata which was an Indian epic, it was mentioned that “History is an ancient description that consists of the instructions of salvation, desire, wealth and virtue.” A greater emphasis was laid by the ancient seers of India on those events. Rather than the actual happenings, those events carried higher ideals.

Historians wrote the accounts of their times in ancient Rome and Greece. The ancient Indians rarely wrote history but wrote on various subjects. Moreover, the ancient material written by Indians was lost eventually. Rediscovering the ancient past of India is a challenging task. Yet, there are few sources that are available today that depict the past of ancient India. Literary sources and the archaeological sources provide this information.

Archaeological sources are divided into 3 groups. They are

  • Archaeological Monuments and Remains
  • Coins
  • Inscriptions

Literary sources are also divided into 3 groups. They are

  • Secular Literature
  • Religious Literature
  • Accounts of Foreigners

Let us take a look at the Archaeological Sources

1. Archaeological Sources

Archaeological Monuments and Remains

  • As a result of the exploration and excavation, the ancient monuments, remains and ruins, are recovered and these are the archaeological sources of history.
  • These archaeological remains are subjected to the scientific examination of the radio-carbon method for the purpose of its dates.
  • The life of the ancient people will be known to us by these archaeological sources. India is very rich with the ancient monuments, remains and ruins.
  • Even today, many historical places lay buried in the earth. To bring these places to light, many excavations are being carried out.
  • From these ruins and excavations, the material remains that are found tell us a lot about the Ancient Indian history.
  • The Indus Valley Civilization’s existence was known to the world because of the excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.
Indian harappan civilization

  • The excavations were also conducted at Mathura, Sarnath, Barhut, Sanchi, Nalanda, Rajgir, Pataliputra and Taxila.
  • Not only at these places, there are many other places where the excavations and explorations are being carried out today.


Inscriptions Literary

Inscriptions also provide us the valuable historical facts. Inscriptions are seen on body of temples, walls of buildings, slabs, stones, pillars and rocks. They let us know about the followers of important religions and monarchical orders pertaining to religious, administrative and other important decisions.


  • Numismatics is termed as the study of coins. Coins also let us know significant information about the Ancient Indian history.
  • The ancient coins were made mostly of lead, copper, silver and gold.
Indian Numismatics
  • Few coins consist of the legendary and religious symbols that tell us about that time’s culture.
  • The figures of the Kings and Gods were also contained in the coins. Some coins contains dates and names of the rulers. They indicate the commerce and trade and help us in reconstructing the history of various ruling dynasties.

Let us take a dig into the Literary sources

2.Literary Sources

Religious Literature

  • The history not only depicts the record of rulers but also the lifestyle of the people. Actually, history accounts more to the people’s living and their life.
  • The literary sources depict the social and mental conditions of the people. India’s religious literature is very extensive. It incorporates the Hindu Puranas, great epics such as Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the Upanishads and the Vedas.
Mahakavya Epic
  • These can be stated as the mines of information about the conditions of culture, political institutions, the customs and manners of the people, social systems and the religious beliefs.
  • The religious writings of the Buddhists and the Jainas are also extensive. They include the Angas and the Jatakas and so on.
  • While writing about the religious subjects, they also deal with the political events and the historical persons. From these sources, the contemporary social and economic conditions are known clearly.

Secular Literature

  • There are various types of non-religious or secular literature.
  • The Smritis and the Dharmasutras which are known as the ancient Indian law books belong to this group.
Veda Literary Sources India
  • The code of duties for the people, the administrators and the kings were contained in them. They also consist of the rules pertaining to property and prescribe the punishments for theft, murder and various other crimes.
  • The Arthasastra by Kautilya is a well-known work. It speaks about the socio-economic system, polity and the state. Authors like Panini and Patanjali wrote about the Sanskrit grammar.
  • The dramas of Bhasa, Vishakhadatta and Kalidasa provide us useful information about the society and the people.
  • There were few historical writings as well. Bana had written Harshacharita or the life of Harsha.
  • The life story of Vikramaditya was written by Bilhana.
  • Rajatarangini depicts the history of Kashmir.
  • Prithviraj Charita was written by Chand Bardai.
  • Many other Chronicles and the biographical works also contain information about the history.

Accounts of Foreigners

  • Foreigners had visited India from the very ancient times.
  • The valuable accounts of their visits or travels were left by them. From their information and knowledge, the ancient Roman and Greek historians wrote about India. For writing the history, all these foreign accounts prove useful.
  • From the Greek accounts, we know about the victory of Chandragupta Maurya over the Greeks. In their writings, they mentioned him as Sandrokottas.
  • Indika was a famous work of the Megasthenes, a Greek ambassador who stayed in the court of Chandragupta Maurya. This work was lost unfortunately. In the quotations by various other Greek writers, the fragments of Indika were preserved. To know about the Mauryan society and polity, these brief accounts were regarded highly precious.
  • From Ptolemy’s Geography, we come to know of the harbors and ports of India.
  • We came to know about the trade relations between India and Rome from the work of Pliny.
  • We knew a lot about the imperial Guptas from the chinese traveler Fa-Hien.
  • During the age of Harsha, Hieuen Tsang wrote about India and he was also regarded as the ‘prince of Pilgrims.’ in the 7th Century A.D, Itsing, another chinese traveler visited India. He described about the socio-religious conditions of these days.

Hiuen Tsang : Xuanzang

  • From the Islamic world, various travellers visited India. Al Beruni was the traveller who visited during the time of Mahmud of Ghazni and had written on ‘Hind.’
Hiuen Tsang

These literary sources provide highly useful information about the history of Ancient India. The devotion of truth is demanded by History. To present the truth about the past to the people of today, the historians constructed history from various sources.

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