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Introduction to India’s Ancient History

A monument from Sikar, Rajasthan

‘The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.’

George Orwell

A lot of literature exists on ancient history of India, and almost all of it is well researched. However, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that something is missing in all these narrations.

None of the modern narrations of India’s ancient past accommodate the cultural understanding of vast majority of Hindus. The Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other historic narrations (Puranas) are discarded as mythology even before considering the possibility finding their temporal location.

There is no dearth of great minds who have appreciated the rich knowledge base of ancient Indians. The knowledge of philosophy, astronomy, Ayurveda, mathematics, science etc. written for more than 2500 years ago is still relevant and astounds us. In the words of some of the recognised scholars:

We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.”

Albert Einstein

“After the conversations about Indian philosophy, some of the ideas of Quantum Physics that had seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense”

W. Heisenberg, German Physicist

“If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problem of life, and has found solution. I should point to India.”

Max Mueller

It is then, a natural question that how such a rich culture can be as poor and helpless as is presented. How, if ancient Indians were correct about so many things, could have been so wrong in terms of religion. How the clinical minds of ancient past, the philosophers, astrologers, politicians, mathematicians, the sages, saints and innumerable others were so gullible and wrong in the matter of religion and god.

Thus, for the sake of history itself, Indian history needs revision. It needs to be researched and looked upon with a different, objective mindset. With a fresh perspective, and employing methods that may not be traditional. There is a need for existence of at least an alternative theory explaining India’s ancient past.

Having said all of this, we don’t have much of a choice while preparing for exam. Thus, we are reproducing here the popular narration of ancient Indian history. We believe that the presentation of history can be much better that what is done in books and other resources. We’ll try our best to keep the reading interesting as well as informative and exam oriented. Primarily written for UPSC and other state PSC exams, these articles will be useful for anyone trying to understand ancient history of Indian subcontinent.

For convenience and understanding, the history is usually divided into various phases.

Phases of Indian History

1. Prehistory

It is the phase of human history before human developed a script and the information was recorded down. Since written records are not available, much of the history of this period is based on the excavations, the tools, paintings etc. available from the period. For India, this ranges from approx 10,000,000 BC to 1000 BC. It covers 3 stages of stone ages as we’ll discuss later.

The knowledge of prehistory bases itself on excavations, tools and cave paintings.

2. Protohistory

This is the last stage of prehistory. By definition, this is a phase of history just before the humans developed the script and started narrating their thoughts and environment. Harappan civilization, although had a script, it has not been deciphered yet, and thus is considered a part of protohistory.

Ruins of a Harappan city from Punjab province, Pakistan © Smn121, CC by SA-3.0

3. Ancient Indian History

According to western classification of history, the ancient history ends with the fall of western roman empire. In Indian context, however, it ends with the onset of Muslim invasions across Indus rivers. Thus ancient Indian history covers period from Vedic age till the First Battle of Tarain (1191), between Mohammad Ghori and Prithviraj Chauhan. i.e. 1500 BC to 1191 AD.

Vedic civilization marks the beginning of ancient Indian history

4. Medieval Indian History

From Mughal invasions till the rise of British in Indian subcontinent i.e. mid-eighteenth century i.e. From 1191 AD to 1757 AD (Battle of Plassey, fought between British East India Company and Nawab of Bengal)

The 2nd Battle of Tarain marks the end of ancient Indian history and beginning of Medieval history

5. Modern Indian History

Modern Indian History : From the beginning of British rule in India in 1757, till its demise in 1947, the period covering approximately 200 years.

With the Battle of Plassey, British began the conquest of India, ushering in the Modern Indian History

6. Post – Independence History

Post-Independence History : The history after 1947. The history of a new, independent India. Although recent, a very significant phase of Indian history.

Jawaharlal Nehru addressing a newly independent India on 15 August 1947

The initial discussion about ancient Indian history may sound a bit controversial. Please feel free to express yourselves. We encourage a healthy debate and discussions on this platform.

Approaching Ancient History for UPSC and Other Exams

Ancient history has an important role in UPSC exam. Going by the previous pattern, one may expect 5-6 questions in Prelims exam and 2-3 questions in CSE-Mains. The questions often centre around various aspects of ancient history i.e. the kings & dynasties, art, architecture, literature, culture & religion etc.

Further, Indian history is rich with examples of all types – kindness, cruelty, valour, cowardice, good leadership, bad leadership, renunciation, extreme greed and so many other faces of human nature. This can be very well quoted in essay and ethics answers. A good knowledge of ancient history will also help in interview.

All of this should be kept in mind while studying ancient history. Many students ignore ancient history considering its low weightage in Pre & Mains. It is not good. Ancient Indian History is a static subject & once prepared, it will only need revisions. You only have to devote the time in first preparation.

We’re giving below the approach and method one can adopt while studying Ancient Indian History

  1. To begin, you should have a good understanding of chronology of events from India’s Ancient Past i.e. timeline. This is basic, and preparation will be too difficult without it. One must memorise the timeline of ancient Indian history.
  2. Then, if you’re new to the subject, we recommend a fast 1st reading. To be completed within 3-4 days. This gives an overall understanding of history, helps us getting acquainted with the terms, the language of the subject. Those who’re students of humanities can directly go to the next step
  3. A week after the 1st fast reading, you can start the detailed reading. Referring UPSC Prelims PYQs & Mains PYQs, each topic should be studied in detail. The PYQs will give you a perspective and direction to the studies. This phase of detailed study should last around 15-20 days. After studying each topic, try to answer MCQs on it. We’ve also tried to give MCQs at the end of chapter for revision. You may also use other online resources to test your knowledge. If you’re studying for Mains as well (if the Pre is not nearby), you should also try to answer theoretical questions on the topic. At least 2-3 questions on each topic will give you a perspective on answer writing and enhance your understanding of ancient history. Try to highlight / write down important points / summary points during your preparation.
  4. After detailed study, you’ll have to revisit the subject after few days for revision. For first revision, you should be able to go through the subject in about 7 days. The highlights / notes made in the earlier stage should help at this stage. 2nd and 3rd revision onwards, the time taken for revision will reduce. It should come down to 2-4 days for the entire subject, where you’ll be able to recall everything studied earlier.
  5. Everytime you’ll come across a new point, new topic about the subject during your preparation (when you’re solving test series, or it comes up in current affairs etc.), do not change the original source of your preparation. Just incorporate the new information in your existing notes. This will give you stability and confidence.
  6. Based on time available till examination, you should revise the entire syllabus every few days. This will keep your knowledge fresh and you’ll be able to recall during exam.
  7. That’s it. This is a time tested and a simple method to approach ancient history (or any other subject for that matter) in exam preparation. Best wishes. Let us know your doubts and queries below.

Pre-requisites to Study Ancient Indian History

  1. A good knowledge of geography of Indian Subcontinent is must. This should include the information about major rivers, hills, plateaus etc. We’ve given a graph below for easy reference. Download PDF
  2. The timeline of ancient Indian history needs to be memorised.
  3. A general interest in the subject matter and inquisitiveness.
Physical Map of Indian Subcontinent By Vigneshdm1990 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons
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