Ancient Indian History


India is home to one of the richest and the most ancient civilizations in the world, which existed over 5,000 years ago. This civilization originated in the Indus River Valley, hence the name given to it was Indus Valley civilization. It is the origin of many of the ideas, philosophies and movements which have shaped the destiny of mankind. The civilization with its main cities Mohenjadaro and Harappa flourished for over eight centuries. Its people thought to be Dravidians, whose descendants still inhabit the far south of India.

Aryan and Greek Invasions

The country was influenced by many invasions, the Arya or Aryans (1500BC) as they are known today, are the first invaders. Aryans were a group of nomadic tribes who had originally inhabited the steppes of Central Asia, in particular the region between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. Tall, fair haired, with clear cut features, they spoke a group of languages which have become known as Indo-European. They settled in the region to the north west of India, known as the Punjab. They brought with them new ideas, new technology and new gods, this is one of the most important epochs in Indian history. With time, the Aryans were engaged in struggle with the dark skinned people or Dasyus. The Dasyus were the Dravidians. The superiority of the Aryans resulted in the Dravidian submission.

The second great invasion into India occurred around 500 BC, when the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius, pushing their empire eastward, conquered the prized Indus Valley. After centuries of obscurity, doubt and conjecture, India came into the full light of recorded history with the invasion of Alexander the Great of Macedonia in 327 BC. Although Alexander crossed the Indus and defeated an Indian king, he turned back without extending his power into India.

Maurya and Gupta Periods

The receding tide of Greek power led to a period of confusion and uncertainty in northern India as various rulers tried to make capital of the vacuum that Alexander had left behind. These circumstances saw the rise of Mauryas, India’s first imperial dynasty, founded by Chandragupta Maurya. Maurya dynasty reached its peak around 260 BC under the Emperor Ashoka, the most famous figures in Indian History. He left a series of inscriptions on pillars and rocks across the sub-continent. But after his death, the Mauryan empire gradually fell apart because his descendants were not as strong rulers as he was.

At the beginning of the fourth century AD, India was fragmented into a lot of small kingdoms. They were often invaded by stronger neighbors like Greeks. They conquered Indus Valley again but they didn’t stay for long. Out of this seeming Chaos, King Chandragupta II united all of northern India into a great empire again.

The Gupta period has been described as the golden age of Indian history and under their rule of northern India, arts, including poetry and literature, flourished. The exquisite Ajanta and Ellora caves were excavated in this period. Gupta period extended from 320AD to 480AD. But in 455 AD the Huns invaded India from the north and destroyed the Guptan Empire. Again India was split into small kingdoms until the Muslim invasions around 1000 AD. 

In South India, great empires rose, entirely independently from those of the north. These included the Kalachuris, Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas, Yadhavas, Hoysalas, Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas, Cheras and the Vijayanagar kingdom.

Indus Valley Civilization

Human inhabitation in the Indian subcontinent is traced to the Paleolithic and Neolithic period. Dated from about 2500 to 1500 BC. This civilization is considered to be at par with the other civilizations of the world. Sir John Marshal, the director general of archaeology with his team excavated sites at Sind and Punjab. The ruins at Mohenjodaro in the Larkana district of Sind in the lower Indus and at Harappa on the banks of the Ravi has brought to light the existence of the Indus valley civilization. These excavations were further supported by the discovery in 1931 at Chanhudaro near Mohenjodaro. Traces of the Indus valley civilization was discovered at Rupar in Ambala district and Rangpur, and Lothal in Saurashtra, Bharatpur in Rajasthan, Kalibangan in the Burdwan district of West Bengal are a proof of the existence of the Indus valley civilization. Harappa being the main source of knowledge about the civilization historians also call this civilization as the Harappan culture.

Origin of the Aryans 

Opinions differ regarding the original home of the Aryans. The most accepted view is that the region between Poland to the Central Asia might have been of the Aryans. They were said to be semi- nomadic people, who started moving from their original home towards the west, south and east. The branch which went to Europe were the ancestors of the Greeks, Romans, Celts and Teutons. Another branch went to Anatolia. The great empire of the Hitties evolved from the mixture of these immigrants with the original people. The branch which remained were the ancestors of the Slavonic people. The group which moved south came to conflict with the west Asian civilization. In course of their journey towards the east or south a group of Aryans had settled in Iran. They crossed the Hindukush and entered India through Afghanistan and captured the greater part of the northern India. They came to be known as Indo-Aryans to distinguish them from the others who spoke a language different from those who settled in western Asia and Europe.

The Indo-Aryans entered Punjab and the other north-western part of India. They moved towards south-east and eastwards into the Ganga Valley. The Aryans were pastoral Nomads. They settled in villages. The region which the Aryans occupied was known as Sapta Sindhu. Moving further eastwards they settled along the Ganga and Jamuna. In due course of time the whole of northern India were under the Aryans and it was called Aryavarta or the land of the Aryans. The period of Aryan settlement was between 2500 and 1500BC. The early Aryans were divided into many tribes. A few among them are Anus, Druhyus, Yadus, Turvasas and Purus. They settled on either side of the river Saraswati. They were involved in fighting among themselves. Besides these tribal warfare the Aryans were engaged in struggles with the dark skinned people or Dasyus. The Dasyus were the Dravidians who occupied the regions of the Indus valley civilization. The superiority of the Aryans resulted in the Dravidian submission and retirement to the south.

Political Organization

Family served as the basis of the both social and political organization. Families together formed the grama. Villages together formed is and they turn formed the janas. The community was patriarchical and each tribe was under the chief whose position was hereditary. The rastra was ruled by the king which was normally hereditary. The king led the tribe in battle, and protected the people. The Purohita was one of the important signatory. He was the sole associate of the king his friend, philosopher and guide. The Senani the leader of the army, and Gramani the head of the village. The main duty of the king was the protection of his subjects, property, defence and maintenance of peace. The king was not an autocrat he was controlled by two popular assemblies Sabha and Samiti. These assemblies brought forth the people’s view on various issues. The Sabhas also discharged legal duties like providing justice. Individual ownership of property was recognized. The land was a property owned by the family. The property passed on in a hereditary manner from father to son.

Economic Condition

The Aryans who were semi-nomadic people also domesticated animals which helped them in the activities of agriculture and other pastoral and hunting acts. Agriculture consisted the major share of their economy. Canals to provide irrigation was a significant feature of this occupation. Coins were unknown and trade was through the Barter system. Craft was not a popular profession. The lack of good roads might have hampered trade, but river navigation was existing. Specialization in areas such as carpentry, smithy, weaving, pottery, etc had been taking place..

Pre Mauryan Period
Indian history before the seventh century was not dated. The lack of written records and other material certainly breaks the continuity at several points yet the practices of the ancient and the Vedic periods exists till today as traditions. The first recorded date is considered as 326BC, the year of Alexander’s invasion. The Mauryan period dates slightly later and historical traditions recorded in literature gives us some information of the kingdoms of Northern India in the seventh century BC.

Vast territories in the northern part of India were covered by forest and inhabited by tribes. Civilized settlements existed in the plains of the Indus and the Ganga. Four important kingdoms of this period were the Magadha, the Avadh, the Vatsa and the Malwa. The other small kingdoms were Kasi, Matsya, Kuru and Panchala. Besides these kingdoms there were many non – monarchial clans. The most important was the Virji confederation of eight clans, of which the Licchavis, who ruled from Vaisali as their capital was prominent. The others were Sakyas of Kapilavastu and the Mallas. These clans had no hereditary rules. An assembly was in charge of administration helped by a council and an elected chief. The four kingdoms maintained matrimonial relation, though fighting among themselves for supremacy was common. Magadha emerged as the strongest power with an able line of rulers.

While Magadha was establishing their way over northern India, the regions of west, Punjab, Sind and Afganistan were divided into many states. Kamboja and Gandhara are two of the sixteen Mahajanapadas mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures.


The history of the Magadha kingdom was unleashed in south Bihar in the 4th century BC and the drama commenced in the Saisungha dynasty by a chieftain named Sisunga in about 642BC.

Bimbisara was the fifth king of this kingdom. He contributed extending his dominions by the conquest of Anga the modern Bhagalpur and Monghyr district. He is said to reigned for twenty eight years, according to the puranas. He is regarded as the person who laid the foundation of Magadhan greatness. His policy of diplomacy and war, and able administration made Magadha a great empire.

Mauryan Dynasty (322 BC to 188 BC)

The period of the Mauryan Empire marks a new epoch in the history of India. It is said to be a period when chronology becomes definite. It was a period when politics, art, trade and commerce elevated India to a glorious height. A period of unification of the territories, which
lay as fragmented kingdoms. Moreover, Indian contact with the outside world was established effectively rule during these period.

The source of our knowledge about the Mauryan empire is based on

  • Arthashastra of Kautiliya
  • Sanskrit play Mudrarakshasa
  • The Jatakas of the Buddhist
  • The accounts of Megasthenes
  • The Ceylonese Chronicles the Dipavamsa and The Mahavamsa
  • The accounts of the Greeks

Arthashastra by Chanakya or Kautilya is treatise on statecraft. It gives us a picture of administration, society and the economy of the country. Mudrarakshasa is a sanskrit play by Visakadatta. It is said to be a political literature revealing the struggle unleashed by Chandragupta Maurya with the help of Chanakya to overthrow the Nandas. It is also an insight into Chandragupta life.

The Jataka and Chronicles of Ceylon gives us an idea that period.

Indika written by Megasthenes gives an account of the Mauryan capital, administrative system and social life. The rock edicts of Ashoka also provides ideas about the Mauryan rule.

Indica written by Megasthenes which exists as writings by later writers throw light on the people, government and institutions of India under Chandragupta Maurya. His topographical account of the Mauryan capital Pataliputra when he visited it as an ambassador and description of the administrative system are reliable.

The Ceylonese Chronicles, the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa gives the accounts of the conversion of Ceylon. They also have helped in reconstructing the history of Ashoka.

Chanragupta Maurya

The Mudrarakshasha describes Chandragupta as Mauryaput. Another account by Somadeva represents him as the son of the last Nanda monarch from his Sudra concubine Maurya by name from which was derived the name Maurya. The Mahavamsatika connects the Mauryans with Sakyas who belong to the solar race of Kshatriyas. According to the Jains tradition Chandragupta was the son of the daughter of the chief of a village of peacock -tamers (Mayur Posakh). The peacock figures that appear in the emblem of the Mauryas in the some punch marked coins and sculptures testify this. Others are of the view that he was a commoner and not a prince.

Chandragupta was brought to the limelight of the Mauryan empire by Chanakya who had a grudge against Dhananda who insulted him in the court. The Nanda dynasty had lost all its capability owing to the extravagant life led by the rulers. The tyranny that was unleashed spread an air of discontent. The defeat of Punjab in the struggle with Alexander, set the conditions for having a change in the rule.

According to Mudrarakshasha, Buddhist and puranic accounts Chandragupta defeated the Nanda army after invoking a revolution against the Nanda rulers in Patliaputra. He acceded to the throne in 321BC. His empire included Magadha and Punjab. The Junagarh rock inscription of Rudradaman proves the inclusion of the Saurastra in his empire. The Jain tradition also establishes Chandraguta ‘s connection with north Mysore. It also said to include the Hindukush in the west. The four satrapies also became parts of the Mauryan empire during Chandragupta Maurya. In course of 18 year Chandragupta consolidated his empire. After which he is said to have abdicated the throne and became disciple of the Jain Saint Bhadrabahu, and settled in Shravanabelagola (Mysore). After a reign of 24 years he died in about 297 BC.


Bindusara, also called “Amitrachates” meaning slayer of enemies, by the Greeks, succeeded to the throne of the Mauryan empire after Chandragupta’s abdication. He also had the opportunity of having the guidance of Chanakya who continued as minister. The period of his accession to the Mauryan throne witnessed a series of revolt by the people of Taxila. The first revolt was effected owing to the improper administration of prince Susima. To the inherited Mauryan territory of Bindusara he added parts of south.

The Sungas 

After the Mauryan rule Pushyamitra, the founder of the Sunga dynasty established his rule. The Sungas ruled for over a hundred years. The extent of the Sunga kingdom under Pushyamitra extended from Punjab and extended to the southern regions of the Narmada. The Sunga dynasty had a line of ten rulers. The last of the Sunga king was Devabhuti.

The Sunga period though is less reflected as a great role in Indian history yet it significant in the matter of its administration, religion, art and literature.

The Sungas administrated the kingdom with the help of a mantriparishad. This council existed in the centre and the provinces. The provinces were governed by viceroys. During the Sunga rule Brahmanism revived its vigour. The Bhagavata form of religion was prevalent. The Bharbat stupa and the ivory works in its exquisite manner proves the promotion of art. Patanjali’s Mahabhashya is an example of the flourishing literature of the Sunga.

The Kanvas 

The Kanva dynasty was a Brahman dynasty founded by Vasudeva Kanva, the minister if Devabhuti, the last Sunga king. This period is said to have witnessed the rule of four kings extending to a period about 45 years. The extent of Kanva territory was confined to the areas of Sunga rule. Susarman was the last ruler of the Kanva dynasty. The Kanvas were over thrown by the Satavahanas.


The Satavahanas were also called Andhras. The Aitareya Brahmana claims the Andhras as, the exiled and degenerate sons of Viswamitra. Ashoka inscriptions mentions the Andhras as border people. They were Dravidian people who lived between the Godavari and the Krishna. Simuka was the founder of the Satavahana dynasty. He was succeeded by his brother Krishna.

Scholars are of the opinion that the original home of the Andhras – Andhra bhrityas was the Bellary district. Others claim their records to be found in the Northern Deccan and central India. Satakarni was the successor after Simuka, and is a considerable figure, known for his performance of two aswamedha sacrifices. His reign was followed by the rule of Gautamiputra satakarni. He is said to have defeated the Yavanas, Sakas and Phalanas and re-established the ancient glory of the Satavahanas. Gautamiputra satkarni was succeeded by his son Vasisthiputra Sri Pulamavi in about 130 AD. He extended his rule towards the Andhra country. Yajna Sri Satakarni was the last great ruler of the Satavahanas. After him the weak successors resulted in the contraction of the territory of the Satavahanas. Hostility with the Saka rulers also led to the ultimate parceling of its territories and decleration of independence.

The Satavahana society reflected the existence of four classes. The persons who controlled and administered the districts, followed by the officials. They were followed by the Vaidhya, cultivators. The fourth class were common citizen. The head of the family was the Grihapati.

Both Buddhism and Brahmanism was practiced during the Satavahana rule. A state of religions tolerance existed among of various sects of people following varied faiths.<br><br>

Trade flourished and there existed organisation of workers doing various trades. Broach, Sopara and Kalyan were important trade points. The Satavahana rulers patronised Prakrit which was the common language used on documents.

The Satavahana empire is said to be partitioned into five provinces. The western territory of Nasik was possessed by the Abhiras. The Ikshavakus dominated over the eastern part in the Krishna -Guntur region.

The Chutus possessed the southwestern parts extended their territory to the north and east. The south eastern parts were under the Pahalvas.

The Hathigumpha inscription at Udayagiri near Cuttack speaks of a remarkable rule of a contemporary of the Sungas known as Kharavela of Kalinga. He ruled from about 176Bc to 164 BC. He is said to be the third ruler of the Cheta dynasty.

In the first year of his rule he is said to be have furnished and improved his capital Kalinga. In the second year he subdued and destroyed the capital of the Mushikas disregarding the rule of Satakarni. 

In his eighth year he destroyed the fortification of Gordha and entered as far as Rajagriha in the Gaya district. He also conquered king Brihaspatimittra of the Magadha. He also built the Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves to provide shelter to the Jain monks.

It can be concluded that he was as accomplished ruler and a generous guardian of the people.