Sources of Ancient Indian History (Part-1) for Andhra Pradesh PSC 2020

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Sources of Ancient Indian History (Part -I):History Important for GS (Indian History)

  • Sources are conventionally divided into two categories – literary and archaeological.

  • Literary: all texts; long or short; written or oral

  • Archaeological: all tangible, material remains (coins, pottery, monuments, etc.)

  • Sources of History

    • Literary Sources

    • Archaeological Sources

  • Note: Certain kind of archaeological sources which have writing on them – inscriptions, coins, and inscribed images - can be considered both material objects and texts.

Archaeological Sources

  • Archaeology is defined as the scientific study of past human lives and activities with the help of material objects which includes artefacts, architecture, biofacts and cultural landscapes.

  • Archaeology helps in learning about prehistoric societies when there are no written records for historians to study, and which makes up over 99% of total human history.

  • The discipline involves surveyance, excavation and eventually, analysis of data collected, which helps to learn more about the past.

  • Mainly, archaeology relies on cross-disciplinary research.

  • It draws upon anthropology, history, art history, classics, ethnology, geography, geology, linguistics, physics, information sciences, chemistry, statistics, paleoecology, paleontology, and paleobotany.

  • The study of antiquities was initiated by William Jones, who founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1774.

  • A large number of ancient inscriptions were collected, but those could not be deciphered on account of the ignorance of the script.

  • The greatest contribution was made by Governor- Cunningham who was appointed in 1862 as the Archaeological surveyor to the government.

  • He collected a large number of India coins.

  • Digging was also started at places like Bodh Gaya, Bharut, Sanchi, Sarnath and Taxila.

  • Lord Curzon set up a separate department of archaeology and appointed Dr Marshall as the Director-General Archaeology.

  • The ancient site of Taxila, covering an area about 25sq miles was excavated under the supervision of Dr Marhshall, and a lot of information was collected from the site.

  • Dr Spooner excavated the ancient city of Pataliputra, but much information could not be found on account of waterlogging.

  • He also started the excavation of the Buddhist sites of the Nalanda University and secured a lot of material within the next two decades.

  • In 1922-23 R.D. Banerjee started the work of excavation at Mohenjodaro in Sindh.

  • Sir John Marshall worked at Harappa, and the information got from Harappa and Mohenjodaro was collected together and was noted down in his monumental work on the Indus valley civilization.

  • A lot of work was done by Aurel Stein in Baluchistan, Kashmir and Chinese Turkistan.

  • N.G. Majumdar and Dr Mackay also made their contribution to our knowledge of the Indus Valley Civilization.


  • Epigraphy is defined as the study of inscriptions on pillars, rocks, temple walls, copper plates and other writing material.

  • It serves as primary documentary evidence to establish legal, socio-cultural, literary, archaeological, and historical antiquity on the basis of engravings.

  • An inscription is any writing that is engraved on something—stone, wood, metal, ivory plaques, bronze statues, bricks, clay, shells, pottery etc.

  • Epigraphy includes deciphering the text of inscriptions and analyzing the information they contain. It also includes paleography, the study of ancient writing.


Image of Epigraphy

Image of Epigraphy

  • Tamil inscription from Mangulam, dated to 2nd century BCE by Iravatham Mahadevan

  • The oldest inscriptions in the Indian subcontinent are in the yet undeciphered Harappan script.

  • The oldest deciphered inscriptions belong to the late 4th century BCE and are in Brahmi and Kharoshthi.

  • These include those of the Maurya emperor Ashoka, which are in a number of different languages and scripts, but mostly in the Prakrit language and Brahmi script.

On the Basis of the Contents of Inscriptions, They Can be Grouped under the Following Heads

Image of basis of the contents of inscriptions

Image of Basis of the Contents of Inscriptions

Commercial Inscriptions

  • The specimens of commercial inscriptions can be found on the seals of the Indus Valley Civilization.

  • Some of these seals may have been used for the stamping of bills of merchandise. The possibility is that the shorter inscriptions (on the seals) were simply the owner’s name and longer inscriptions included the titles of the owner of the seal.

  • These seals may have been used by seafaring traders engaged in foreign trade. It seems that Nigamas and Srenis, which were commercial organizations, had the power of minting their coins must have possessed seals to be used for commercial purposes.

  • There are references to the use of seals for commercial purposes in other inscriptions, e.g. the Mandasor stone inscription of the time of Kumara Gupta and Bandhuvarman.

Image of Commercial Inscriptions

Image of Commercial Inscriptions

Magical Inscription

  • Some specimens of magical inscriptions can be found in the Indus or Harappan seals. These seals were used as amulets and contained magical formulae on them.

  • These amulets contained the names of the deities which were represented by the animals.

  • The animals represented on the amulets were the antelope, buffalo, Brahmi bull, composite animal, tiger, goat, hare, monkey, short-horned bull and elephant.

  • Some of the deities represented on these seals were the Moon, Yama, Siva, Indra, Brahma and Durga.

Unicorn Amulets

Image of Unicorn Amulets

Image of Unicorn Amulets

Religious Inscription

  • Religious and didactic inscriptions deal with moral and religious matters.

  • Possibly some of the seals and tablets of the Indus Valley were objects of worship and were not used as amulets.

  • The inscriptions of Ashoka are the best specimen of the religious and didactic inscriptions.

Administrative Inscription

  • Ashoka’s edicts are the specimens of the administrative inscription.

  • The Sohgaura copper plate inscription of the third century BC is an example of pure administrative inscription.

  • The Junagarh Rock inscription of Rudradaman I also contains administrative material.

  • Another example of the administrative inscription is Banskhera copper plate.

Junagarh Rock Inscription of Rudradaman I

Image of Junagarh Rock Inscription of Rudradaman I

Image of Junagarh Rock Inscription of Rudradaman I

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