Ancient Indian History

History of India is divided into three parts - Ancient, Medieval and Modern. The study of Ancient India begins with the study of the Stone Age.

Stone Age

The Stone Age or the stages of early man can be classified into Paleolithic Age, Mesolithic Age and Neolithic Age.

Paleolithic Age

This period was essentially the stage of hunters and food gatherers. They used crude tools made of flakes. They had no knowledge of cultivation and house building. Goat, sheep & other cattle were used. They lived on roots & fruits. By the end of the Paleolithic Age, the flint industry came up. The important development of this age was the emergence of Homo-Sapiens.

Mesolithic Age

This age was the transition between the Paleolithic & the Neolithic Ages. Mesolithic people lived on hunting, fishing & food gathering. At a later stage, they domesticated animals. They used microlith, a small raw-stone tool.

Neolithic Age

These people used tools & implements of polished stone. They particularly used stone axes. Parashurama became an important axe-wielding hero. Dwelling pits, ceramics, a variety of stone & bone tools & a complete absence of microliths marked this age. Cattle, sheep & goat were domesticated.

Indus Valley Civilization

The most important event of ancient Indian history was the development of Indus Valley Civilization. This Civilization prospered on the Banks of river Indus. It extended from Jammu in the North to Ahmednagar in the South, and covered various regions of Gujarat. The main sites which have been found in the excavation are:

  • Kalibangan in Rajasthan
  • Lothal in Gujarat
  • Banwali in Haryana and
  • Ropar in Punjab.

The Indus Valley Civilization existed between 2350 BC and 1750 BC. The main cities associated with the civilization were Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and Lothal. The main feature of this civilization was Town Planning.

They had great buildings, well-planned roads, cities and drainage systems. Trade and agriculture were the main sources of livelihood for the people. People of the Indus Valley were the first to produce cotton. Mother Goddess was the most important deity of worship. No temples or religious places have been discovered from Harappan cities.

On the basis of the Indus seals, it can be said that a large number of animals including goats, buffaloes, oxen, elephants, dogs and camels were domesticated. But the Harappans seem not to have been familiar with the horse.

Vedic Period

This period is marked by the entry of the Aryans, who were originally inhabitants of Central Asia around the Caspian Sea and probably came through the Hindukush Mountains. The period in which they existed was between 1500-600 BC. The Main Features of the Aryans were:

  • They were admirers of nature and worshipped the Sun, Fire and Water.
  • Indra was an important deity for the Aryans.
  • Metal iron was used for the first time during this period in 1000 BC.

The following religious books (Vedas and Upanishads) were written during this period:

Vedas: These were their most sacred books. These are also the oldest known books of Indus Valley Civilization. They were four in number:

  • a) Rig Veda: The oldest, and it contained prayers of God, Vayu, Varun, Indra and Agni.
  • b) Sam Veda: It dealt with music.
  • c) Yajur Veda: It dealt with formulae, sacrifices and rituals.
  • d) Atharva Veda: It dealt with medicines.

The Upanishads are the foundation stones of Indian Philosophy and are 108 in number.

Rise of Religions

The two major religions that came into prominence after the vedic period were Buddhism and Jainism.


Initiated by a Kshatriya prince of the Shakya clan, Siddhartha, (who later came to be known as Buddha) around 6th century BC. Siddhartha was born in 567 BC at Lumbini in Kapilavastu (present day Nepal). He was the son of king Shuddhodhana. He went in search of truth and attained enlightenment under a pipal tree at Bodh Gaya, and delivered his first sermons at Sarnath in U.P. He died at Kushinagar in UP. The main Buddhist teachings of the eight-fold path of right faith, thought, action, livelihood, efforts, speech, remembrance and concentration, belief in nirvana (freedom from the cycle of birth and death), ahimsa and law of karma were recorded in Triptikas, the religious book of Buddhists.


Initiated by Rishabha (a Kshatriya prince), Jainism attained peak under Vardhamana Mahavira (the 24th Tirthankara). Mahavira was born at Kundagrama in 540 BC in Bihar, and attained perfect knowledge ‘Kaivalya’ after he became an ascetic at the age of 30. He became a ‘Jina’ (one who has conquered happiness and misery) and died at Pavapuri (present day Bihar). The major teachings of Jainism were based on the Tri-ratna concept that was based on:

  • a) Right knowledge
  • b) Right faith
  • c) Right conduct

Magadh Empire (6th Century BC - 4th Century BC)

Major dynasties of the Magadh Empire were:

  • Haryanka Dynasty: Bimbisara and Ajata Shatru laid the foundation of this dynasty in 684 BC.
  • Shishunaga Dynasty: This dynasty was founded by Shishunag in 413 BC after defeating the last king of the Haryanka dynasty.
  • Nanda Dynasty: This dynasty was founded in 382 BC by Mahapadma Nanda.

Alexander’s Invasion of India

Alexander, after establishing his Kingdom in present day Pakistan, crossed the river Indus and invaded India. He defeated Porus, the then ruler of Punjab in the Battle of Hydaspes in 326 BC and extended his kingdom till India. He founded the city of Alexandria in present day Afghanistan.

The Age of Mauryas (321 - 198 BC)

Chandragupta Maurya was the founder of Maurya Empire. Kautilyawas in the court of Chandragupta Maurya and he had written the book titled Arthashastra. Megasthenese was a Greek ambassador who came in the court of Chandragupta Maurya and wrote the book titled ‘Indica’.

Ashoka (273-232 BC) was the important king of this dynasty. He fought the Kalinga war (261 BC) and after that war he adopted Buddhism. He was the first Indian king to talk directly to the people throughout his empire.

The last king of Maurya empire, Brihadrathawas, was killed by his commander in chief Pushyamitrasingha.

Kushan Empire

The Kushan empire was started by the Kushan tribe of the Yuezi Confederation around 1st century BC. This empire introduced the largest number of gold coins in India. Kanishka was most the important king of the empire. He started the Saka Era in 78 AD. His capital was at Pursushpura (now Peshawar). He was responsible for organizing the 4th Buddhist council in Kashmir. Both Gandhar and Mathura art forms developed during Kanishka’s reign.

Gupta Empire

Gupta Empire was founded by Chandragupta I (320-325 AD). He started the Gupta Era in 320 AD. Other important kings of the Gupta empire were:

Samudra Gupta (335-380 AD): He was known as the Napoleon of India. He was a great exponent of Veena.

Chandragupta II (380-412 AD) also known as Vikramaditya. Chinese Pilgrim, Fa-hien came in his court. Aryabhatta and Kalidas were in the court of Chandragupta II. He was responsible for the start of the Vikram Era.

Kumaragupta I of this dynasty had constructed the Nalanda University (in present day Bihar).

Harshvardhana was the last important king of North India. His capital was at Kannauj. Hiuen-Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim came to his court. Harshcharita, a book on the life of Harshvardhana was written by Banabhata, who had also written Kadambari. He was defeated by Pulshekin II of the Chalukya dynasty.

South Indian Dynasties

The Sathavanas

This dynasty was founded by Simuka (65 BC). Satakarni was an important king. They constructed many buddhist worshipping sites, the important ones being at Amaravati and Nagarjuna Konda. They issued the maximum number of lead coins. Sangam Literature relates primarily to Pandyan kingdom but also contains information about Cholas and Cheras. Tolkkapiyam is the oldest book of Tamil grammar. Three Major Southern Kingdoms were Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas.

The Chalukyas (6th - 7th Century AD)

Pulkeshin I bounded the Chalukya dynasty and established its capital at Vatapi.

Pulkeshin II (609 AD - 642 AD) was the most important king. According to the Aihole inscriptions, he defeated Harshvardhana on the banks of river Narmada in 619 AD. Narasimharaman I defeated and killed Pulkeshin II and captured Vadani. Most of the Buddhist cover at Ajanta and Ellora was structured during the reign of the Chalukyas. Aihole was the temple town of this period.

The Pallavas (560 AD - 903 AD)

The Pallava dynasty was founded by Simhavishnu in 560 AD. Their Capital was at Kanch. Mahendranarman I was defeated by Pulkeshin II. Narasimhavarma I was the greatest king, and because he defeated Pulkeshin II and captured Badan, he was known as Vatapi-Konda. Narshimhavarma II constructed the shore temple of Mahabalipuram and the Kailashnath Temple of Kanchi. He was also a worshipper of Vishnu. He built the Vaikunthaperumal Temple at Kanchi. Aparajita Pallav was the last ruler and was defeated by Aditya Chola.

The Rashtrakutas

Founded by Dantedurga in Deccan, their capital was located at Manyakhet or Malkhed. Greatest kings of the Rashtrakuta dynasty were:

  • Govind III (796 AD - 814 AD)
  • Amoghavarha I (814 AD - 978 AD): He had written the first Kannada book - ‘Kabirajamarga’ and Ratnamalika in Kannada.
  • Kailash I built the Kailash Temple at Ellora (in 9th century).

The Cholas (850-1200 AD)

A minor chiefly family known as the Muttaraiyar held power in the Kaveri delta. They were subordinate to the Pallava kings of Kanchipuram. Vijayalaya, who belonged to the ancient chiefly family of the Cholas from Uraiyur, captured the delta from the Muttaraiyar in the middle of the ninth century. He built the town of Thanjavur and a temple for goddess Nishumbhasudini there.

The Chola dynasty was founded by Vijayalaya in 850 AD. Early capital was situated at Uraiyar. Later the capital was shifted to Tanjore. Raja Raja I (985 AD - 1014 AD) was an important king. He constructed the Siva Temple at Tanjore which is also famous as Raja Rajeshvar Temple. Rajendra I (1014 AD - 1044 AD) was called the Napolean of South India. The Cholas were famous for naxal power and for their village administration.

The successors of Vijayalaya conquered neighbouring regions and the kingdom grew in size and power. The Pandyan and the Pallava territories to the south and north were made part of this kingdom. 

The big temples of Thanjavur and Gangaikonda-cholapuram, built by Rajaraja and Rajendra, are architectural and sculptural marvels.