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Sources of Ancient Indian History

The ancient period frequently begins with the Indus Valley Civilization and concludes with the Turkish raids in northern India in AD 1000.The archaeological evidence is largely obtained by the systematic skilled examination of buildings, monuments and work of art. The credit for excavating the pre-Aryan past goes to Sir William Jones of Asiatic Bengal Society. James Prinsep the secretary of the Asiatic Bengal Society succeeded for the first time in deciphering the Brahmi script and General Sir Alexander Cunningham dugged out the ruins of ancient site of Pre-Aryan culture. He devoted his time to the study of the material remains of ancient India until in 1862 the Indian government established the post of Archaeological Surveyor to which he was appointed.

Inscriptions are the most reliable evidence and its study is called epigraphy. These are mostly carved on gold, silver, iron, copper, bronzeplates or stone pillars, rocks, temple walls and are free from interpolations. Inscriptions in Prakrit, Pali, Sanskrit, Telugu, Tamil and other regional dialects have been discovered. But most of the inscriptions are in Brahmi and Kharosti scripts. Among the inscriptions of ancient past, the Ashokan inscriptions, rock cut edicts; pillar edicts are best source of information about the period. Inscriptions of Kharvela, king of Kalinga, Saka ruler Rudradaman, Allahabad prasasti by Harisena the court poet of Samudragupta, inscriptions found at Khalimpur and Bhagalpur of the Gupta Age are important evidences for the reconstruction of ancient Indian history. Asoka issued the oldest inscriptions in the third century BC.They give valuable information regarding the extent of the kingdom and administration etc.

The Junagadh Rock inscription of Rudradaman I also give administrative information. Religious and moral matters were dealt with in religious and didactic inscriptions. Bhabru edict expresses Asoka’s faith in the Buddhism. Rock edict X, XI and XII preached religious toleration, charity and dhamma. Eulogistic inscriptions contain the name and genealogy of the ruler, his military and political achievements, politicalideas, his patronage and personal accomplishments. These inscriptions eulogies the achievements of the kings. Asoka’s edicts, Hathigumpha inscriptions of Kharvela and Allahabad Pillar inscription of Samudragupta belong to this group. Donative inscriptions refer to the donations of caves or other buildings to monks or Brahmins.Commemorative inscriptions record events like birth, death or other important events. Some of them contain poetic compositions and dramatic work.

The study of coins is known as numismatics. Thousands of ancient Indian coins have been discovered giving a fair idea of contemporary socio-economic conditions, currency system, development of metallurgical art. The coins of Satvahanas supplement correct and corroborate the account of the Puranas.The Gupta rulers issued largest number of goldcoins. All these indicate that trade and commerce flourished and people were prosperous. Their early gold coins closely resembled the coins of the later Kushans. Coins were used for various purposes such as donations, mode of payment and medium of exchange. Some of these coins were also issued by guilds of merchants with the permission of the rulers. The earliest coins of India found are punch-marked silver and copper pieces usually square or rectangular in share.

The ancient Indian literature was mostly religious in nature. Vedic literature has no trace of political history but has reliable glimpses of culture and civilization of the age. The first written Vedic literature was based on Vedas and divided into four parts – Vedas, Brahmanas, Aryanakas and Upanishads. The Buddhist literature includes Tripitaka, Jatakas, Milinda-Panho, Dipavamsa Mahayamsa, Buddha Charita and Buddhavamsa etc. In the middle of the 5th century AD Jain canonical literature were finally arranged in a council at Valabhi. The texts were based on those compiled in the council at Pataliputra at the beginning of the third century BC.Those traceable are twelve Angas, the twelve Upangas, tenPrakiranas, sixChaedasutras, fourMulasutras and miscellaneous texts.

From the second half of the ancient period of Indian history there are political treatises dealing with the principles of administration. Kautilya’s Arthshastra and Manusmriti belong to Mauryan period. Vishakdatta’s Mudrarakshasa gives information about Mauryan society and culture. Kalidasa in Malvikagnimitram mentions the events of the Pushyamitra Sunga’s reign. Among the historical works of ancient period, Banabhatta’sHarsha Charita dealing with the character and achievements of Harshavardhana and his political history, Bakpatiraja’s Gaudabaho describes how Jasovarman conquered Gauda.Poet Bilhana described the history of the reign of Chalukya king Vikramaditya VI in his Vikramanka Charita.Kalhana’s Rajatarangini is valuable book on the history of Kashmir. Gujarat has its Kirti Kaumudi by Someshwar; Prabandhakos by Rajshekar contain chronological description of the royal dynasties of Gujarat.

A great deal of our knowledge of ancient Indian history is supplemented by the writings of the foreign travellers. The prominent among them wereGreek travellers Herodotus, Ptolemy, PlinyandMegasthenes who wrote Indica, Chinese travellers Fahien, Hieun Tsang etc.

Sangam literature was produced by poets assembled by chiefs and kings. The literature was written in Tamil and patronized by Pandya kings produced during the period from 500 BC to 500 AD.In total three Sangams were organized during this period. The literature of the first Sangam is totally lost while one text Tolakkappiyam written by Tolakkapiyar of the second Sangam has been recovered. The three great epics of Sangam literature are Silappadikaram, Manimekalai and Chintamani.Other important texts belonging to the Sangam literature are Ettuttokai, Patinenkil Kannakku, Pattu Pattu and Tirukural.The Sangam literature is a major source of information for the social, economic and political life of the people living in southern part of India.