Historians collect information from various sources to reconstruct history. These sources can be written documents, recorded history, or archaeological evidence. The information obtained from these sources is collectively known as the source material of history. Source materials are an essential part of historical writing. However, it should be noted that neither literary texts nor archaeological evidence can be studied in isolation. Historical facts are revealed through the collaboration of these two sources. The reconstruction of past history depends on the sources of information, whether it is archaeology or written records. For prehistory, historians gather information solely from archaeological sources. However, for the historical period when people adopted the art of writing, written or literary sources become the most important.
Archaeological Sources: Lord Curzon, the British India’s Viceroy, 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 for archaeological studies in India. Sir John Marshall, who was appointed as director-general in 1902, played an instrumental role in identifying the ancient Indus Valley Civilization with the help of his deputies, Daya Ram Sahni and R.D Banerjee.
Archaeological Sites & Digs: Among all the archaeological sites and digs, none have been as amazing as the excavations at Harappa and Mohenjodaro. These excavations shed light on the existence of an ancient urban civilization known as the Indus Valley Civilization or the Harappan Civilization, which existed about 5000 years ago. This prehistoric discovery of the 20th century pushed the history of the subcontinent back by an additional 2500 years.
Kumrahar and Bulandibagh (in Patna) are two 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 Ashokan pillars, bearing edicts, are a testimony to the attempt to spread imperial ideologies of Emperor Ashoka Maurya among the common people. The archaeological site at Sanchi includes stupas, pillars, shrines, and sculptures dating from the 3rd century BC to the 12th century AD, providing extraordinary insights into the history of Buddhism. The site at Sarnath also provides knowledge about Buddhism as well as Ashoka Maurya.
The Buddhist stupa-monastery sites all over India were built over many centuries, uncovering the trail of the evolution of religious thoughts and practices, as well as the development and changes in architectural and sculptural styles.
The reign of Basarh (ancient Vaishali) reveals it to be an important administrative headquarters during the Gupta period. The site provides information related to the economic and commercial aspects of that time.
The Ajanta Caves (5th century AD) have rich sculptures and paintings that provide a glimpse into the social life of that era. Ajanta is a series of rock-cut caves in the Sahyadri ranges (Western Ghats) on the Waghora river near Aurangabad in Maharashtra. There are a total of 29 caves, all Buddhist, of which 25 were used as Viharas or residential caves, while 4 were used as Chaityas or prayer halls.
The caves were developed between 200 B.C. and 650 A.D. The Ajanta caves were inscribed by Buddhist monks under the patronage of the Vakataka kings, with Harishena being a prominent one. References to the Ajanta caves can be found in the travel accounts of Chinese Buddhist travelers Fa Hien (during the reign of Chandragupta II; 380-415 CE) and Hieun Tsang (during the reign of Emperor Harshavardhana; 606-647 CE). The figures in these caves were created using fresco painting. The outlines of the paintings were done in red color. One striking feature is the absence of blue color in the paintings. The paintings generally depict themes related to Buddhism, including the life of Buddha and Jataka stories.
The Vishnu temple at Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia and one of the largest religious monuments in the world. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire but was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Yasodharapura (present-day Angkor), the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum.
The great Rajarajeshwara (Brihadishman) temple in Tanjore, built during the 17th century AD, was the monument that helped historians piece together the history of the Cholas of Tamil Nadu.
Inscriptions: The study of inscriptions has been a very important source of history from the time of Indian Ashoka to the Delhi Sultanate period. Inscriptions are writings engraved on hard stones, pillars, metals like copper, silver, etc., or any other durable material. Coins are a medium of exchange or payment. Inscriptions and coins are considered archaeological sources. However, the text engraved in an inscription needs decipherment in order to use it as a historical source. Coins, apart from their value as metal, bear messages, names of the kings who issued them, dates, etc. Thus, in both inscriptions and coins, the written part is most important, and as such, they may be considered recorded documents. The earliest inscriptions are those on the seals from the Indus Valley civilization site, dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. They are written in some form of a pictographic script (or a collection of pictures that have not yet been deciphered).
The earliest deciphered inscriptions can be traced back to the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Most of them were issued by Ashoka as edicts, with inscriptions on pillars and rocks spreading his concept of dharma. These inscriptions were written in the Brahmi Script, except for those in the northwestern corners of his empire, which were in the Kharosthi script. The thirteenth rock edict of Ashoka expresses his remorse after the Kalinga war and indicates his change of heart, moving away from the path of war towards peaceful relations. The Lumbini pillar inscription commemorates Ashoka’s visit to Lumbini and helped historians identify the birthplace of the Buddha.
Apart from edicts, inscriptions can also take the form of prashastis. The Junagadh rock inscriptions of Rudradaman and the Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudragupta are examples. Prashastis provide details about dynasties and kings, although they tend to exaggerate.
From the Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudragupta, composed by the courtier Harisena, we gain an understanding of the Samudragupta empire. It also conveys, for the first time, a new kind of political strategy employed by Samudragupta to retain the conquered kings as tributaries while allowing them to govern their kingdoms. Interestingly, the Allahabad pillar also contains an edict from Ashoka. Examples of donation inscriptions are the copper plate inscriptions of land grants by the Cholas and Vijayanagara Kingdom of the South, which provide valuable information about those dynasties. However, the initial knowledge about the existence of the Cholas themselves, as well as their rivals, the Pandya and the Cheras, came from the rock inscriptions of Ashoka.
Inscriptions have been useful in providing information about political, administrative, and revenue systems, particularly for the medieval period (6th to 13th century AD). They have also helped identify dates and historical structures, such as sculptures.