Indian Archaeological Sources

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Reconstructing the Past - 02

Indian Historical Sources - I

The history of India is divided into four periods by current historians:

  1. Ancient India (earliest times - 6th century AD),
  2. Early Medieval India (6th century AD - 13th century AD),
  3. Medieval India (13th century AD - 18th century AD), and
  4. Modern India (18th century - present).

The chart (Fig. ) of the Indian dominions which rose and fell over the ages will serve as a reference for time lines of the various kingdoms mentioned in the following writeup.

Fig 1: The dominions over the ages.

Note: The abbreviation c. (which stands for circa in Latin and means "around") is sometimes applied before dates for those event dates in history which are approximate and not precisely known by scholars.

Archaeological Sources

Lord Curzon, British India's Viceroy, had remarked that ancient India had 'the greatest galaxy of monuments in the world.' The Archaeological Survey of India was established in 1861 by the British with Sir Alexander Cunningham as the first director-general. Known as the father of Indian archaeology, he set the ball rolling on archaeological studies in India. Sir John Marshall, appointed as director-general in 1902, was instrumental in identifying the ancient Indus Valley Civilization with the help of his deputies Daya Ram Sahni and R.D. Banerji.

What follow are just a few examples of archaeological sources, which are by no means exhaustive.

Archaeological sites & Archaeological digs

Fig 2: Excavated ruins of Mohenjodaro. (Source: Wikipedia 2010, Indus Valley Civilization)

Of all the archaeological sites and digs, none has been as amazing as the excavations at Harappa and Mohenjodaro. These brought to light the existence of an ancient urban civilisation – the Indus Valley Civilisation or Harappan Civilisation – that existed about 5000 years ago. Dubbed as the prehistoric discovery of the 20th century, the discovery pushed the history of the subcontinent back by a further 2500 years.

Kumrahar and Bulandibagh (in modern day Patna) are two of the archaeological sites linked to Pataliputra, the capital of the Mauryans (4th - 2nd century BC). While the former has remains of a pillared hall, the latter exhibits ruins of fortification. The majestic edict-bearing Ashokan pillars are testimony to the attempt to spread imperial ideologies of emperor Ashoka Maurya among the common people.

The archaeological site at Sanchi includes stupasA stupa is a dome shaped Buddhist monument housing the relics of the Buddha., pillars, shrines and sculptures, dating from 3rd century BC to 12th century AD, and gives extraordinary insight into the history of Buddhism. The site at Sarnath too provides knowledge on Buddhism as well as on Ashoka Maurya.

The Buddhist stupa-monastery sites all over India were built over many centuries. They uncover the trail of evolution of religious thoughts and practices over the period, and the development and changes in architectural and sculptural styles.

The Ajanta Caves (5th century AD) have rich sculptures and paintings, providing a glimpse into the societal life of those times.

The ruins of Basarh (ancient Vaishali) reveal it to be an important administrative headquarters during the period of the Guptas. The site gives information related to the economic and commercial aspect of the times.

The great Rajarajeshwara (Brihadishwara) temple in Tanjore, built during the 11th century AD, was the monument which helped historians piece together the history of the Cholas of Tamil Nadu.

The Vishnu temple at Ankor Vat, Combodia, and the Buddhist Stupa at Borobodur, Java, provide evidence of the spread of Buddhist influence to south-east Asia.


The study of inscriptions has been a very important source of Indian history from the time of Ashoka till the Delhi Sultanate period.

The earliest inscriptions are those on the seals from the Indus Valley Cvilisation site, dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. They are written in some form of pictographic script (as a collection of pictures), but have not yet been deciphered.

Brahmi Script:

It is the mother script of all modern India scripts (viz. Devanagari, Tamil, Bengali), except Urdu. It was read from left to right.

Karoshthi Script:

An early Indian script, read from right to left, and derived from Aramaic script, which was used in the middle-east as far back as 9th century BC. It was popular under the Indo-Greeks, the Indo-Parthians and the Kushanas. The script declined and vanished around 3rd century AD.

The earliest deciphered inscriptions have been traced back to the 4th - 3rd century BC. Most have been issued by Ashoka as edicts – inscription on pillars and rocks spreading his concept of dharma. These inscriptions were in the Brahmi script, except for those in the north-western corners of his empire, which were in Karoshthi script. The thirteenth rock edict of Ashoka expresses his remorse after the Kalinga war, and indicates his change of heart away from the warpath towards peaceful relations. The Lumbini pillar inscription is a commemorative inscription recording Ashoka's visit to Lumbini, which helped historians identify the birth place of the Buddha.

Apart from edicts, inscriptions may take the form of prashastisA prashasti is an inscription written in praise of something or someone, generally a king.. The Junagadh rock inscription of Rudradaman and the Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudragupta are examples. The prashastis give details about the dynasties and the kings, although they do tend to exaggerate.

Fig 3: Brahmi script from Kanheri Caves. (Source: Wikipedia 2010, Early Indian epigraphy)

From the Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudragupta (composed by his courtier Harisena), we get an idea of Samudragupta's conquests and the extent of his empire. It also conveys, for the first time, a new kind of political strategy employed by Samudragupta for the far reaches of his empire, in which the vanquished kings retained their kingdoms in return for services like tributes. Incidentally, the Allahabad pillar also contains an edict from Ashoka.

Examples of donative inscriptions are the copper plate inscriptions of land grants of the Cholas and Vijayanagara kingdom of the South, providing valuable information about those dynasties. But the initial knowledge about the existence of the Cholas themselves, as well as their rivals the Pandyas and the Cheras, had come from rock inscriptions of Ashoka.

Inscriptions have been useful in informing about the political, administrative and revenue systems, particularly for the medieval period (6th - 13th century AD). They have also helped identify and date historical structures like sculptures.


Fig 4: Punched-marked Mauryan coin. (Adapted from: Wikipedia 2010, Indian Coinage)

The earliest coins of India were punched-marked coins made from silver or copper with symbols punched on them. They seem to have originated as far back as 6th century BC. During the Mauryan period, they had become the established currency of the subcontinent. According to some historians, punched-marked coinage was developed indigenously without any foreign influence.

The cast copper coins started around 5th century BC, and were issued by local kingdoms till the 3rd century BC. They have been found all over the subcontinent except for the South, and overlapped the period of the punched-marked coins.

The superior die-struck coins made their appearance in 4th century BC. The die-struck coins of the Indo-Greeks (2nd - 1st century BC) were generally in silver and very well-made, bearing the name and portrait of the issuing ruler, with the reverse usually having religious symbols. It was the Indo-Greeks who introduced the practice of inscribing portrait heads into the Indian coinage system. The Greek influence was heavy in these coins.

With the passage of time, particularly during the period of the Kushans (1st - 4th century AD), strong Indian influence could be seen in the coins, merging with the Greek form. The Kushans were the first to issue large quantities of gold coins. They also issued copper coins of low values.

The Golden Age of the Guptas brought coinage up to an entirely new level. Made of gold, these die-struck coins were of many varieties and had classical Sanskrit inscriptions. Known as dinaras, and have been mostly found in the north

With the firm establishment of the Delhi Sultanate (13th - 16th AD) pictorial motifs began to disappear from the coins, as image engraving was forbidden by Islamic faith. The coins henceforth had only inscriptions, with the king's name, title and the date according to the Hijri calendarThe Hijri calendar, or the Islamic or Muslim calendar, begins from 622AD, marking the flight of the Islamic prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina..

Fig 5: The rupiya, released by Sher Shah Suri, was the first rupee. (Adapted from: Wikipedia 2010, History of the rupee)

Sher Shah Suri introduced important innovations into the coinage system. He started new standard weights for silver and copper coins, which were known as the rupiya (later rupee) and daam respectively, and also substantially increased the number of mints. These innovations finally reached perfection under Akbar of the Mughal dynasty, who also used the coinage to propagate his new faith. The Mughals maintained high standards of purity of its gold and silver coins and artistry in their design.

Coins are important indicators of economic prosperity of the ancient states. Wide distribution of coins reflect flourishing trade and commerce, as was the case during the Kushan period. Ships on Satavahana coins are pointers to maritime trade during the period. The discovery of a large number of Roman coins in the maritime trade centers like Arikamedu of South India gives evidence of flourishing trade and commerce with the Roman Empire during the 1st century AD.

Changes in coinage patterns are a reflection of political changes. Coins are very important sources of political history particularly from 200 BC to 300 AD. They are almost the only source of information for the Bactrian, Indo-Greek and the Indo-Parthian dynasties.

Religious symbolism on coins provide evidence of the religious inclination of the state. During the Kushan period, the cult of Shiva was evident in the coins of Kadphises, while those minted during the reign of Kanishka depicted Buddha.

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List of References

Wikipedia contributors, 'Early Indian epigraphy,' Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, viewed 27 September, 2010 <>, 2010.
Wikipedia contributors, 'History of the rupee,' Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, viewed 28 September, 2010 <>, 2010.
Wikipedia contributors, 'Indian Coinage,' Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, viewed 28 September, 2010 <>, 2010.
Wikipedia contributors, 'Indus Valley Civilization,' Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, viewed 27 September, 2010 <>, 2010..


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