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The History of History of India

by Vikas Kamat
First Online: August 15, 1997
Last updated: May 09, 2017

Sources of Indian History

Professor R.C. Majumdar (portrait - interview), a noted Indian historian has said that "... although it is difficult to accept, the Indians totally lacked the historical sense". The ancient Indians made great inroads into astronomy, physics, mathematics, all kinds of literature and arts but never seriously took to documenting their history and their indifference has cost their posterity very dearly.

How we know what we know about this ancient land.

Jones and Wilkins are considered the fathers of Indology [Basham]. Sir William Jones (1746-94) came to India as a judge of the Supreme Court, under the governor-generalship of Warren Hastings. Jones was a linguistic genius (see: The Father of Indology) and with the help of Charles Wilkins, an officer with the East India Company who had learnt Sanskrit from elite Bengali Brahmins, in 1784 the Asiatic Society of Bengal was formed. The first real steps in revealing India's past were then taken through the publication of the journal Asiatic Researches.

Primary resources available to students of Indology and Indian history come from three sources: Literature, Archeology, and Foreigner's Accounts. Rudiments of ancient Indian history have indeed been available to Indians for thousands of years, but it is impossible to arrange them in a chronological order or to differentiate history from mythology and traditions from imaginations. The sculptures and the inscriptions that are passed on to us tend to glorify the kings or the donors and it is hard to cross check the validity of some of the claims found in them. Much of the foreign sources on India, namely the travelogues of explorers have been assembled through second hand information and it is difficult to differentiate realities from hearsay.

How we know what we know


References to historical events and traditions are scattered in many ancient Indian texts, even in the mythological Ramayan and Mahabharat, the Hindu epics believed to be of divine origin. We have to even consider unlikely resources of grammar books of Panini and Patanjali for hidden historical references and events. Some biographies are available. However glorifying is the language, they do provide deep insights into the great historical persons they illustrate. The following is a list of biographies available:

In Sanskrit

In Tamil

  • Nandik-Kalambakam by a court poet - Biography of Pallava King Nandivarman II
  • Kalingattupparani - semi-historical narration of life of Kulottunga I
  • Biographies of  Vikrama Chola, Kulottunga II, and Rajaraja  of by Ottakkuttan

The oldest Indian linguistic text, Yaska's Nirukta (apprx. 5th Century B.C.) while a valuable resource, does not contain historical information [Basham]. But Panini's masterpiece Ashtadhyayi (apprx. 4th century B.C) profusely illustrates the stability and maturity attained by Sanskrit among scholars of the time. It tells us when Sanskrit (meaning reformed) came in to vogue replacing Prakrit, the language of the Vedas, the holy texts of Hindus.

The Arthashastra of Chanakya (300 B.C.) gives a detailed account of  political system of administration during the Mauryan empire and is a valuable resource to the researchers.

See Also:  Genres of Indian Literature


The archaeological resources for study of Indian history consist of coins, inscriptions (pictures), sculptures (pictures) and other artifacts (pictures).  The inscriptions have helped the most; they have provided dates, names of kings, and have recorded important events.  The monuments spread all over India are undying witnesses of the artistic skill of ancient Indians and testify to their wealth and grandeur at various epochs of history. They also give us an illustrated view of the period cultures than it is possible to cull from works of text. (see Jain monuments, hero-stones, temples, and memorials)

Excavations at Takshashila, Hampi, Sindhu (Indus) Valley, Saraswati Valley have revealed extremely worthy information for Indologists.

See Also:  Topics on Indian Archaeology

Foreigner's Accounts

Some of the most stunning accounts of ancient India are provided by the visiting foreigners (see also: India though the eyes of foreign travelers):

Greek Accounts

The Greeks who accompanied Alexander the Great in his Indian campaign recorded their encounters of this mystical, magical land. Although much of these works are now lost, the details have percolated into subsequent Greek literature. Special reference is to be made of the Indica by Megasthenes who lived in the court of Chandragupta Maurya, of Periplus of the Erythrean Sea by an unknown businessman (second half of 1st century A.D) and  The Geography of India by Ptolemy (about 130 A.D.)

Chinese Accounts

After the spread of Buddhism, Chinese travelers came to India in big numbers to collect religious books and to visit the holy places of Buddhism. Works of  Fa-Hien (5th century A.D., see Crossing of Indus),  Huen-Tsang (7th century A.D.) and I-Tsing (7th century A.D.) are important historical accounts.

Islamic Accounts

Islamic traveler Alberuni who accompanied Sultan Mahmud (1017 A.D.), made a careful study of the social institutions of India and his memoirs (see: Alberuni's India) are a treasure of historical evidence. Marco-Polo passed through some parts of southern India on his way from China to Persia (1292 A.D.) and has left a very interesting narration of social manners and customs of South India.

See Also: Travelogues


By utilizing all these evidence, it has been possible to throw some light on the civilization and culture that flourished in India, and to construct a political history from 7th century B.C. onwards. Our knowledge about India's glorious past was very little till the 19th century, when the genius and patient industry of a number of scholars, mostly European, substantially enhanced it. Still many areas of Indian history, especially cultural history have enormous voids in them. As we make new discoveries, some established facts may need a second look as well.



See Also:

The History of India
History of India

Portrait of Dr. R.C. MajumdarSir William Jones (1748-1794)Emperor Ashoka (B.C. 304-239)Islamic Traveler Ibn Batuta (A.D. 1305 - 1369)Alfonso AlbuquerquePortrait of J.F. FleetEmperor Akbar
Begum Hazrat MahalWarren HastingsProf. SeshasastryRaja Ram Mohan Roy (1774-1833)Jaina Minister Chavundaraya with his Teacher NemichandraPortrait of Lokamanya Balgangadhar TilakPortrait of Sardar Bhagat Singh
Maratha King ShivajiQueen of Jhansi, LaxmibaiGeneral CariappaDinner at the Residence of Ruler of SaluvaPortrait of D.D. Kosambi, a great Sanskrit and Buddhist ScholarHistorian Suryanath U. KamathQueen Chennamma and Courtiers
Medieval Crime and PunishmentWall Painting in a Jain Monestary, ShravanabelagolaBegum Hazrat MahalLala Lajpat RaiNanasaheb -- A Leader of 1857 StrugglePietro Della Valle (c. 1586-1652 CE)Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar
Pakistani Stamp Honoring its Father of Nation, JinnahLalbahadur Shastri (1904-1966)Raja Bhamashah (1542-1598 apprx.)Maharaja Scindhia of Gwalior, 1877Tatya TopeTravelling MusiciansSources of History
Sculptures from Bhatkal Temple

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