Archaeological Sources – Sources of Ancient Indian History

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Archaeological Sources – Sources of Ancient Indian History| Inscriptions, Coins and Monuments and Memmorial

For studying the Ancient Indian History, we are more focused on archaeological sources rather on literary sources due to the reasons listed below:

• We don’t know about the timing of written literature precisely therefore, we can’t conclude about the social, cultural and economic condition of certain period or region.

• The literary works of various authors have explained the condition as per their point of view. For example: Chinese travellers explained the condition of India from the Buddhist point of view.

• The copyists and later editors manipulated the literature according to their wish. They deleted or replace previous topics and also added new topics.

Therefore, the archaeological sources are more reliable sources to construct the ancient Indian History.


These are most important records which are most reliable evidence of what happened during various periods of Ancient Indian History. Most of these inscriptions are carved on stone pillars, iron, silver, bronze, gold or copper plates, currencies, sculptures and walls of caves or temples.

• The earliest inscriptions are those on the seals from the Indus Valley Cvilisation site, dating back to the 3rd millennium BC written in some form of pictographic script (in the form pictures) but could not be deciphered. The seals represent various animals, trees and deities.

• The earliest deciphered inscriptions dated back to the 4th – 3rd century BC, most of these are during the period Ashoka as edicts – inscription on pillars and rocks. These inscriptions were in the Brahmi script, while inscriptions found in the north-western corners of his empire, were in Karoshthi script.

• The inscriptions can be in various forms such as administrative inscriptions, eulogistic inscriptions, religious inscriptions, commemorative inscriptions, donative inscriptions.

• The Lumbini pillar inscription is a royal commemorative inscription recording Ashoka’s visit to Lumbini, the Buddha’s birth place.

Brahmi script is the mother script of all modern India scripts such as Devanagari, Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Telgu, Tamil, Kannada except Urdu. It was read from left to right.

• In all inscription of Ashoka, he was termed as ‘the Beloved of the Gods’ except in the inscriptions found in Maski (Hyderabad) and Gujarra (Madhya Pradesh) where his name ‘Ashoka’ was used.

• The Edicts of Ashoka are a collection of 33 inscriptions on the Pillars of Ashoka as well as boulders and cave walls. The thirteenth rock edict of Ashoka expresses his remorse after the Kalinga war.

Inscriptions after Ashoka

• The inscriptions after the Ashoka can be divided in two categories: – (i) Official and (ii) Private.


• Most of the official records are in the form of eulogies (prasastis) written by the court poets or land-grants.

• The eulogy of Samudragupta present in the Prayag (Allahabad) carved on the inscription of Ashoka is the best example in which the victories of Samudragupta mentioned.

• The other examples of these types of inscriptions are Gwalior eulogy of Raja Bhoja, the Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavela, the Junagadh rock inscription of Rudradaman I, the Nasik cave inscriptions of Gautami balasri, the Rabatak inscription of Kushan emperor Kanishka, the Allahabad Pillar inscription of Samudragupta.

• The land grants are mostly engraved on copper plates which records the sale or the gift of lands. These grants sometimes, also records the achievements of the kings.


• The private inscriptions are commonly engraved on religious buildings and statue.

→ The dates carved on these statues or buildings help in ascertaining the dates of their formation or establishment.

• These inscriptions also tell us about the development of art, language and religion in India at that time. For example, most of the inscriptions before the period of Guptas are in Prakrit language while the inscriptions of Guptas period and after that are in Sanskrit language and mostly about the Brahman religion.

• The private inscriptions also inform about the political condition of that time as they issued by the persons who held dignified posts in administrative affairs.

• Some inscriptions also provide the proof of literary works. For example, The ‘Mahābhāṣya’ written by Patanjali tell us that Pushyamitra Shunga performed Ashvamedha Yagna. The inscriptions of his descendant Dhandev provide proof of this happening.

• The inscriptions found in foreign countries put light on the Indian History. For example, the inscriptions found at Boghaz-Koi in Asia Minor mention about the Vedic gods therefore, we can conclude that descendants of Aryans are present in that part also.

• Now, we understood how important the study of inscriptions in shaping Ancient Indian History.


Apart from inscriptions, coin is also a source of important information. They provided unadulterated information. The purity of the coins show the economic condition of that time while origin of coins help in ascertaining the territorial limits of the kingdom.

The study of coins is known as numismatics.

• There were various symbols engraved on earliest coins. They are known as ‘punch marked’ coins.

→ Exact meanings of these symbols are not known.

→ These coins may be issued by the kings, city corporations, trade guilds and merchants.

→ These are not of any historical importance.

• The Indo-Greek rulers of Bacteria who conquered northwestern India issued a series of coins with the portraits of kings and heroes on them.

• The Indian rulers inspired by them also introduce coins with text and their portraits engraved on them.

→ These proved very beneficial in writing the history of Ancient India.

• The Indo-Greek rulers, the Sakas, Kushanas and Parthians issued a number of coins on the same pattern.

• The Sakas started an innovation of great importance by dating their coins in the Saka era.

• The history of the important dynasties of the Malavas, Yaudheyas and Mitra rulers of Panchala is known mostly from their coins.

• Along with epigraphic records, coins form an additional source of information for the history of the Guptas, who issued a large variety of fine coins.

• After the downfall of Guptas, study of history became less dependant on coins because coins of even great emperors like Harsha or ruling dynasties like the Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas, Pratiharas and Palas are not in sufficient amount.

How coins help in ascertaining information?

• When coins are found in mass number in a certain area then it is estimated that the area belongs to that king. The reign of king is known when a date is found on the coin.

• The portraits of deities help in knowing the religious nature of a specific king.

• When the proportions of the gold is low in the mixture then it is estimated that economic condition of that kingdom is not good.

Monuments and Memmorial

• The remains of sculptures, paintings, buildings and other objects of that time are important sources of information.

• They tell about the development of art and architecture, society and religious nature.

• The discovery of the remains of earliest urban civilisation of India -Harappa has told about the many developments done in the past.

• The temples of north have its own distinct features. Their art style are known as ‘Nagara architecture’ while art style of temples of south are known as ‘Dravidian architecture’.

• Shrines, dedicated to Siva, on the Dieng plateau (Java), and the vast panorama of bas-reliefs on the walls in the colossal temples at Boro-Bodur and Prambanam (Central Java), as also the remarkable ruins at Angkor Vat and Angkor Thom (Kambuja), indicates that there was trade relation between India and Far east and impact of Indian culture in the Hindu colonies.

Read about Literary Sources of Ancient India

Read about Foreign Records of Ancient India

Go to Index of Ancient History of India

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