Ancient Indian History by R.S Sharma Chapter 2 The Construction of Ancient Indian History

Ancient Indian History by R.S Sharma Chapter 2 The Construction of Ancient Indian History

Material Remains

The ancient Indians left innumerable material remains The stone temples in south India and the brick monasteries in eastern India still stand to remind us ‘of the great building activi­ties of the past But the major part of these remains lies buried in the mounds scattered all over the country. Only a few have been exposed to give us some knowledge of the life of the ancient people.

Since most sites have been dug vertically they provide a good chronological sequence of material culture. Horizontal diggings, being very expensive, are very few in number, with the result that excavations do not give us a full and complete picture of material life in many phases of ancient Indian history

Even in those mounds which have been excavated the ancient remains have been preser­ved in varying proportions. In the dry climate of western Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and north­-western India antiquities are found in a better state of preservation, but in the moist and humid climate of the middle Gangetic basin and in the deltaic regions even iron implements suffer corrosion and mud structures become difficult to detect. It is only in the phase of burnt brick structures or stone structures that impressive and large-scale, remains are found in moist and alluvial areas Excavations have brought to light the cities which the people established around 2500 B.C. in north-western India,

Similarly they tell us about the material cul­ture which was developed in the Gangetic basin. They show the layout of the settlements in which people lived, the type of pottery they used, the form of house in which they dwelt, the kind of cereals they used as food, and the type of tools and implements they handled. Some people in south India buried along with the dead, their tools, weapons, pottery and other belong­ings in the graves, which were encircled by big pieces of stone. These structures are called megaliths, although all megaliths do not fall in this category By digging them we have come to learn of the life which people lived in the Deccan from the iron age onwards. The science which enables us to dig the old mounds in a systematic manner, in successive layers, and to form an idea of the material life of the people is called archaeology.

Material remains recovered as a result of excavation and exploration are subjected to various kinds of scientific examination. Their dates are fixed according to the radio-carbon method, for which facilities exist in India. The history of climate and vegetation is known through an examination of plant residues, and especially through pollen-analysis. Thus on this basis it is suggested that agriculture was practised in Rajasthan and Kashmir as far back as 6000 B.C. The nature and components of metal arti­facts are analysed scientifically, and as a result the sources from where metals were obtained are located and the stages in the development of metal technology are identified. An examination of animal bones enables us to find out whether the animals were domesticated, and also to point out the uses to which they were put.


Although a good number of coins and inscrip­tions have been found on the surface, many of them have been unearthed by digging. The study of coins is called numismatics. Ancient Indian currency was not issued in the form of paper, as is the practice these days, but as coins because paper came to be used in India much later, in the fourteenth century. Ancient coins were made of metal-copper, silver, gold, or lead. Coin moulds made of burnt clay have been discovered in large numbers. Most of them belong to the Kushan period, i.e„ the first three Christian centuries. The use of such moulds in the post-Gupta period almost disappeared,

Since there was nothing like the modern banking system in ancient times, people deposited money in earthenware and also m brass vessels, and maintained them as precious hoards on which they could fall back in time of need. Many of these hoards, containing not only Indian coins but also those minted abroad such as in the Roman empire, have been discovered in different parts of the country. They are preserved mostly in museums at Calcutta, Patna, Lucknow, Delhi, Jaipur, Bombay and Madras. Many Indian coins are found in the museums of Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since Britain ruled over India for a long time, British officials succeeded m transferring many of the Indian coins to private and public collections in that country. Coins of the major dynasties have been catalogued and published. We have catalo­gues of coins in the Indian Museum at Calcutta, of Indian coins in the British Museum in London, and so on. But there is a large number of coins which have yet to be catalogued and published.

Our earliest coins contain a few symbols, but the later coins mention the names of kings, gods or dates, The areas where they are found indicate the region of their circulation. This has enabled us to reconstruct the history of several ruling dynasties, especially of the Indo-Greeks who came to India from north Afghanistan and ruled here in the second and first centuries B.C.

Coins also throw significant light on econo­mic history. Some coins were issued by the guilds of merchants and goldsmiths with the permis­sion of the rulers. This shows that crafts and commerce had become important Coins helped transactions on a large scale and contributed to trade. We get the largest number of coins in post- Maurya times These were made of lead, potin, copper, bronze, silver and gold. The Guptas issued the largest number of gold coins. All this indicates that trade and commerce flourished, especially in post-Maurya and Gupta times. But the fact that only a few coins belonging to the post-Gupta period have been found indicates the decline of trade and commerce at that time.

Coins also contain religious symbols and legends which throw light on the art and religion of the time,


Far more important than coins are inscrip­tions. Their study is called epigraphy, and the study of the old writing used in inscriptions and other old records is called paleography. Inscriptions were carved on seals, stone pillars, rocks, copper plates, temple walls and bricks or images.

In the country as a whole the earliest inscrip­tions were recorded on stone. But in the early centuries of the Christian era copper plates began to be used for this purpose. Even then the practice of engraving inscriptions on stone continued in south India on a large scale. We have also in that region a large number of inscriptions recorded on the walls of the temples to serve as permanent records.

Like coins, inscriptions are preserved in the various museums of the country, but the largest number may be found in the office of the Chief Epigraplust at Mysore. The earliest inscriptions were written in the Prakrit language in the thud century B.C. Sanskrit was adopted as an epi- graphic medium in the second century A.D and its use became widespread in the fourth and fifth centuries. Even then Prakrit continued to be employed. Inscriptions began to be composed in regional languages m the ninth and tenth centuries Most inscriptions bearing on the history of Maurya, post-Maurya and Gupta times have been published in a series ol collections called Corpus Inset iptioNum Imhcarum. But not too many inscriptions of post-Gupta times have appeared in such systematic compilations. In the case of south India topographical lists of inscriptions have been brought out Still there are more than 50,000 inscriptions, mostly of south India, which await publication.

The Harappan inscriptions, which await de­cipherment, seem to have been written in a pictographic script in which ideas and objects were expressed in the form of pictures Asokan inscriptions were engraved in the Brahmi script, which was written from left to right. But some were also incised in the Kharosthi script, which was written from right to left However, the Brahmi script prevailed in the whole country, except for the north-western part Greek and Aramaic scripts were employed in writing Aso­kan inscriptions in Afghanistan Brahmi con­tinued to be the mam script till the end of Gupta times. An epigraphist can decipher most inscriptions of the country up to about the eighth century, if he has carefully learnt Brahmi and its variations. But afterwards we notice strong regional variations in this script, which is called by different names.

The earliest inscriptions are found on the seals of Harappa belonging to about 2500 B.C. They have not been deciphered so far. The oldest ins­criptions deciphered so far were issued by Asoka in the third century B.C, An Asokan’ pillar inscription was found by Firoz Shah Tughlaq in Meerut. He brought it to Delhi and asked the pandits of his empire to decipher it, but they failed to do so. The same difficulty was faced by the British when in the last quarter of the eigh­teenth century they discovered Asokan inscriptions. These epigraphs were first deciphered in 1837 by James Prmsep, a civil servant in the em¬ploy of the East India Company in Bengal.

We have various types of inscriptions. Some convey royal ordeis and decisions regarding social, religious and administrative matters to officials and people in general. Asokan inscriptions belong to this category Others are votive records of the followers of Buddhism, Jainism, Vaishnavism, Saivism, etc., who put up pillars, tablets, temples or images as marks of devotion. Still other types eulogise the attributes and achievements of kings and conquerors, and never speak of their defeats or weaknesses. To this category belongs the Allahabad inscription of Samudragupta. Finally, we have many donative records which refer specially to gifts of money, cattle, land, etc., mainly for religious purposes, made no L only by kings and princes but also by artisans and merchants.
Inscriptions recording land grants, made mainly by chiefs and princes, are very important for the study of the land system and administration in ancient India. These were mostly engraved on copper plates They record the grants of lands, revenues and villages made to monks, priests, temples, monasteries, vassals and officials. They were written in all languages, such as Prakrit, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu.

Literary Sources

Although the ancient Indians knew writing, as early as 2500 B.C,, our most ancient manuscripts are not older than the fourth century A.D., and have been found in Central Asia. In India they were written on birch bark and palm leaves, but in Central Asia, where the Prakrit language had spread from India, manuscripts were also written on sheep leather and wooden tablets.

These writings are called inscriptions, but they arc as good as manuscripts. When punting was not known, manuscripts were valued immensely. Although old Sanskrit manuscripts arc found all over the country, they mostly belong to south India, Kashmir and Nepal. At present inscriptions are mostly preserved m museums, and manuscripts in libraries. Most ancient books contain religious themes. The suspicious literature of the Hindus includes the Vedas, the epics, Ramaycma and Mahabharata, the Puranas, etc. They throw welcome light on the social and cultural conditions of ancient times but it is difficult to make use of tlicm in the context of time and place The Rig Veda may be assigned to circa 1500-1000 B.C , but the collections of the Athaiva Veda, Yajut Veda, the Biahmanas and the Upamshads belong loughly to 1000¬500 B.C. Almost cvciy Vedie text contains mteipolations, which generally appear at its beginning oi end but are not rare in its middle The Rig Veda mainly contains prayets, while the later Vedlc texts mainly comprise not only prayeisbut also rituals, magic and mythological stories. However, the Upanishads contain philosophical speculations.

Ancient Indian History by R.S Sharma Chapter 2 EXERCISES

1. Indicate the sources of ancient Indian history
2. What is meant by archaeology?
3. Why are the foreign accounts of India useful?
4. Mention the languages which were in use in ancient India.
5. “Early Indians lacked historical sense.” Discuss

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