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Sources of Study of Early Indian History

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

The sources to study early Indian history can be broadly classified into:

  1. Literary Sources

  2. Archaeological Sources

Literary Sources

Literary sources were in the form form of manuscripts written on copper plates, palm leaves, clothes, etc.


Palm leaf manuscript

Literary sources can be classified further into:

  1. Religious Literature (Eg: Vedas, Sutras, Dharmashastras, etc.)

  2. Secular Literature (Eg: Arthashastra of Chanakya, Mahabhashya of Patanjali, Nitisara of Kamandaka, etc.)

Significance of Literary Sources

  • We get knowledge of the script. Eg: Arthashastra is written in Brahmi Script. So we can understand that people of Mauryan age used Brahmi script.


  • We get knowledge of the language. Eg: Vedas were composed in Sanskrit language. So we can understand that Vedic people used Sanskrit language.


  • We get knowledge of the social life. Eg: From Vedic sources, we can under understand that four-fold varna division (Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras) started by the end of Early Vedic Period.


  • We get knowledge of the political life. Eg: 'Arthashastra' gives details about the politico-administrative System during the Mauryan Period. Similarly, 'Nitisara' gives details of the politico-administrative system during Gupta period.


  • We get knowledge of the economic life. eg: From Vedic sources, we can understand that domestication of animals was the main economic activity of the Early Vedic people and agriculture was that of Later Vedic people.

  • We get information about religion and philosophy. Eg: Upanishads were written in the Later Vedic Age. So, we can assume that people started believing in heaven, soul, etc. by Later Vedic Age.


  • We get knowledge of the progress in the field of Science and Technology. Eg: Charaka Samhita gives us information about the advancement in the field of medicine during Post- Mauryan Age.


  • We get knowledge about progress in the field of art and architecture. Eg: In Indica, Megasthenes says that Chandragupta Maurya had a wooden palace. From this, we can understand that wood was the main construction material at that time.


  • We get information about the foreign relations. From Indica, we can understand that Chandragupta Maurya had foreign relations with Greek ruler Seleucus Nicator.


  • We get information about wars and battles. Eg: Indica of Megasthenes refers about a war between Chandragupta Maurya and Seleucus Nicator.


  • We get information about dates, chronology and important developments. Eg: From Buddhist sources, we can understand that Pushyamitra Sunga killed the last Mauryan ruler and established Sunga dynasty.


Limitation of Literary Sources

  • Literary sources suffer from personal biases. Most authors were court poets. It was impossible for them to write about the drawbacks of their patron kings. Eg: In Harshacharita, Banabhatta does not mention about Harsha's defeat against Pulikeshin II of Chalukya dynasty.


  • Literary sources suffer from the problems of interpolation and extrapolation. Interpolation refers to the addition of information and extrapolation refers the removal of information in the later periods. Eg: Mahabharata and Ramayana were written over a period of many centuries; a lot of interpolations and extrapolations were done so that we can't use them as reliable historical sources.


  • No literary sources are available for Pre-Vedic times. The oldest literary source is Rig Veda, which belongs to early Vedic period. That means more than 99% of the human history can't be understood by using literary sources.

  • Most literary sources are religious in nature; there are only a few secular literary sources available.


  • Literary sources provide little information about the life of common people. most of these literary sources were written by court poets; royal court and the life of the ruling class were their focus.

  • The time period of many literary sources is a matter of debate. Eg: There are some historians who argue that Kalidasa lived during the Mauryan Age, while the majority of the historians believe that Kalidasa lived during the Gupta Age.


  • Sometimes, the language of literary sources is vague. Eg: Puranas are written in future tense.


  • Literary sources do not provide continuous information. Eg: Arthashastra provide information only about Mauryan Age; no information is available from Arthashastra about Pre- Mauryan age or Post- Mauryan age.


  • Sometimes, there is a time gap between the composition and the compilation of the literary works. Eg: Vedas were composed orally in the Early and Later Vedic periods but they were compiled at a much later time because Vedic Aryans had no knowledge about the script.


Archaeological Sources

Archaeological sources refers to the evidences discovered through excavations and explorations.

  • Excavation refers to finding historical evidences hidden beneath the ground. Eg: Excavation of Harappan Civilization Sites.

Archaeological Excavation

  • Exploration refers to finding historical evidences on the surfaces. Eg: Discovery of Bhimbetka Caves, Ajanta caves, etc.

Bhimbetka Caves

  • Archaeological sources includes monuments (palaces, forts, stupas, temples,..), coins, inscriptions, potteries, tools, skeletons, etc.

Significance of Archaeological Sources

  • More than 99% of the human history is known only from archaeological sources. There are no literary sources available for Pre- Vedic period. We get the information about that period only through archaeological sources. that is why it is often commented that, "Archaeology speaks where literature is silent.".

  • Archaeological sources provide detailed information about material culture of the age. Eg: From the archaeological excavations of Harappan sites, we can understand that Harappan people used bronze.

Bronze Sculptors from Harappan Sites

  • Life of common people can be comprehended with the help of archaeological sources. Literary sources are more focused on the life of the ruling class. But archeological sources have no such biases. Eg: From the excavations of Harappan sites, we can understand about the social, religious and economic life of the Harappan people.

Mohen Jo Daro: A Harappan Site

  • Archaeological sources are free from interpolations and extrapolations (no addition or removal of information in the future).


  • Archaeological sources provide information about the economic life. Eg: Large number of gold coins during the Gupta period suggests that trade and commerce was prosperous during that time period.

Kumaradevi Coin of Gupta Period

  • Archaeological sources provide information about the political life of the time period. Eg: Large number of Ashokan Edicts provide information about the politico-administrative life of the Mauryan period.

Ashokan Pillar Edict


  • Archaeological sources provide information about the religious life of the people. Eg: Discovery of large number of "Mother Goddess" images from Harappan sites suggest that Harappan people worshipped " Mother Goddess".

Mother Goddess

  • Archaeological sources provide information about the foreign relations of that time period. Eg: 13 th Major Rock Edict of Ashoka says that he sent ambassadors to the courts of 5 kings. We can understand that Ashoka had cordial relations with those kings.

  • Archaeological sources provide information about the progress in science and Technology. Eg: The durability of Mehrauli Iron Pillar suggests that metallurgy was well advanced during the Gupta period.

Mehrauli Iron Pillar


Limitations of Archaeological Sources

  • Excavations and explorations are time-consuming and costly processes.

  • Archaeological evidences can't be placed in their original form. Eg: An ancient city which was excavated is disturbed. If someone want to re-examine the evidence, it is difficult for him to examine it in the original form.

  • Archaeological evidences are massive in size. It is difficult to preserve them for the future generations.

  • Archaeological evidences need interpretations. Personal biases can affect these interpretations. Eg: The Great Bath in Mohenjo Daro is interpreted as for religious purposes by some scholars while some other scholars have interpreted them as for just bathing purpose.

The Great Bath

Critical and Comparative Analysis of Literary and Archaeological sources

  • Both literary and archaeological sources have their own strengths and limitations.

  • We get more detailed information of the socio- politico- economic life of the age from literary sources. But at the same time, they suffer from the problems of personal biases of the authors, problems of interpolation and extrapolation, etc. Moreover, no literary sources are available for pre- Vedic period.

  • Archaeological sources are free from the problems of interpolation, extrapolation, personal biases, etc. Moreover, we can understand about the pre-Vedic history only through archaeological sources. But excavating and exploring archaeological sources are time consuming and costly process and they are difficult to preserve.

  • Only by using the literary sources and archaeological sources together, we can reconstruct the early Indian history. Or we can say, literary sources and archaeological sources complement and supplement each other in reconstructing the early Indian history.

Primary Sources and Secondary Sources

On the basis of the originality of the material, sources of early Indian history can be classified into :

  1. Primary sources

  2. Secondary source


Primary sources

  • Primary sources refers to first hand accounts. ie, the author was present at the spot when an event described by him happened.

  • Eg: In Arthashastra, Kautilya gives the details of Mauryan administrative system. Kautilya was present in the Mauryan court. So, Arthashastra is an example for primary source of Mauryan history.

Secondary sources

  • Secondary source refers to the second hand account. ie, the author was not present at the spot when an event described by him happened.

  • Eg; In Mudrarakshasa, Visakhadatta describes how Chandragupta Maurya and Kautilya overthrew Nanda dynasty and established Maurya dynasty. But Visakhadatta did not live in the Mauryan age, he lived in the Gupta age. So, Mudrarakshasa is an example of secondary source of Mauryan history.


Critical and Comparative analysis of Primary and secondary sources

  • Primary sources cover a relatively short span of time (Eg: Arthashastra covers only Mauryan period.). Secondary sources cover a relatively longer span of time (Eg: In Rajatarangini of Kalhana, he covers the history of Kashmir from Mahabharata age to 12 th century AD).


  • Primary sources provide detailed and accurate information whereas secondary sources do not provide detailed information.

  • Primary sources suffer from the issue of the personal bias of the authors. Because these authors were patronized by their kings. It was difficult for them to write about the negatives of their patron kings. In secondary sources, generally, personal bias is absent.

  • Both literary and archaeological sources fall in the category of primary sources. Most of the archaeological sources are primary in nature. Eg: Ashokan inscriptions are examples of primary archaeological sources because the events described in these inscriptions occurred at the time period of Ashoka.


  • Both literary and archaeological sources fall in the category of secondary sources. But only a few archaeological sources are secondary in nature. Eg: Junagarh inscription of Shaka king Rudradaman is an example of secondary archaeological source. In this inscription, Rudradaman (lived in 2 nd century AD) says that Sudarshana lake was repaired on the order of Chandragupta Maurya (lived in 3 rd century BC).

Junagarh Inscription

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