12 Best Books on the History of Ancient India You Must Read

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“It was always the journey that mattered, and what these travels could tell me about the country and its history – a history so alluring, so epic as to keep drawing me back.” – Excerpt from ‘Coromandel: A Personal History of South India’ authored by Charles Allen

That the history of India is, indeed, alluring is no secret, and through the course of time, there have been many epics, narratives, and essays that are a testament to the nation’s rich heritage. 

These legacies are untouched by time and remain so for those who wish to get an understanding of our past. 

Here are 12 books that map India’s glorious past within different facets: 

  1. Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From by Tony Joseph 
Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From by Tony Joseph
Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From by Tony Joseph, Picture credits: Amazon

Who are we Indians?

Where did we come from?

These are the questions that have plagued millions of Indians’ minds and at some point in time, even you perhaps. Tony Joseph, has coupled the old and the new and written an account of how our ancestors had a lot to do with who we are today in more ways than we can imagine. 

He has also used a tool that many historical accounts often do not see — DNA data. On the foundation of genetics lies this fascinating account of our evolution. 

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  1. Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas by Romila Thapar
Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas by Romila Thapar
Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas by Romila Thapar, Picture credits: Amazon

During the Mauryan empire rule, there was an emergence of sculpture, art, architecture and even scripture, all of which are considered testaments of Indian history even today. 

According to some Buddhist accounts, the name of the dynasty came to be as the ancestors of the Mauryan kings settled in places where there was an abundance of peacocks. This is why they came to be called ‘Moriyas’. 

While it isn’t clear if this legend holds true, the Mauryas were an important dynasty in Indian history and Romila Thapar does justice to the legacy they left behind. 

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  1. The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History by Sanjeev Sanyal 
The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History by Sanjeev Sanyal
The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History by Sanjeev Sanyal, Picture credits: Amazon

The Indian Ocean has always been a focal point of those who attempt to understand civilisation and societies. This is because it extends across a chunk of a world that has seen some of the richest cultural histories. 

While historical books usually tend to focus upon the culture they are speaking of, this one focuses on the instrument that has been responsible for shaping the cultures — the Indian Ocean. 

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  1. In Search of the Cradle of Civilization by Georg Feuerstein, Subhash Kak, David Frawley 

There has been much debate about what really was the ‘cradle of civilisation’, from where the concept of society and culture evolved. This book is a breakthrough in this regard as it busts myths about the topic, as well as makes some startling revelations about the theory of Aryan invasion. 

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  1. Time Pieces: A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India by Nayanjot Lahiri

The book perfectly depicts the evolution of Indian culture in relation to the people that populated its land. It does so by detailing the Stone Age, where spears and arrows were the tools of life, and how Sanskrit and education eventually replaced them. 

The book also sheds light on how ancient society was different from the present day, in that our ancestors spent a great deal of time focusing on personal growth. 

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  1. The Penguin History of Early India by Romila Thapar

Said to be a work of art, the chapters in this book explore the archaeology of the country. 

One can find accounts of how the subcontinent has been transformed by invasions, different dynasties, and how every ruling power has left a legacy behind. 

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  1. The Wonder That Was India by A L Basham
The Wonder That Was India by A L Basham
The Wonder That Was India by A L Basham, Picture credits: Amazon

“Every Indian student should read this book as a primer to Indian history. Once you have background knowledge as per this book, then when you read other Indian history books, it will broaden your horizon of understanding the ancient Indian culture,” reads one review on Amazon. 

Rightly so. Author Arthur Llewellyn Basham’s accounts in the book have not only been influenced by his own understanding and study of Indian culture and society, but also by the first-hand accounts of his father, who served in the Indian Army. 

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  1. A History of South India by  Sastri K.A.Nilakanta
A History of South India by  Sastri K.A.Nilakanta
A History of South India by  Sastri K.A.Nilakanta, Picture credits: Amazon

For anyone wishing to gain an in-depth insight into the dynasties, kingdoms and rulers of South India, this book is a treasure trove of information. 

What sets this book apart is that it caters to even those who are looking to know of interesting legends associated with southern India, such as the Agastya and Parasurama. 

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  1. Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization by Jonathan Mark Kenoyer
Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization by Jonathan Mark Kenoyer
Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization by Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, Picture credits: Amazon

The Harappan Civilisation is arguably the most talked about, and one that archaeologists keep going back to in order to draw similarities between present-day society and the one that existed then. 

What makes this book a fascinating read is that Kenoyer himself has led excavations at Harappa in Punjab, Pakistan for over a decade. Thus, the learnings from the book are not merely theoretical, but rooted in evidence found on site. 

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  1. Coromandel: A Personal History of South India by Charles Allen 
Coromandel: A Personal History of South India by Charles Allen
Coromandel: A Personal History of South India by Charles Allen, Picture credits: Amazon

The book is a deep dive into the coast of Coromandel, a Southeastern coastal region of India called Cholamandalam, meaning the land of the Chola Dynasty. 

“The role played by women in history is as underwritten in India as anywhere, so it is only right to end with a mention of another woman of Kerala whose part in its history has only recently been publicly recognised,” writes Charles Allen in the book as he goes on to tell the story of Velathu Lakshmikutty, a woman who fought against caste discrimination. 

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  1. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India by Upinder Singh 
A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India by Upinder Singh
A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India by Upinder Singh, Picture credits: Amazon

Readers can really immerse themselves in the contents of the book as there are pictures corresponding to the events mentioned in the chapters. 

Along with this, the book also sheds light on the evolution of language, laying focus on the writings of the European scholars who were known as the Orientalists and how translation, textual study, epigraphy, etc, became common. 

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  1. Prehistoric India: Its Place in the World’s Cultures by Panchanan Mitra

The book tells a story of India of the past, with history etched onto every page and line. While a tale of an interesting cave painting might have you hooked, in other places, you will find information about intriguing excavations and their findings. 

Fasten your seat belts as you go down annals of the past to explore the mysteries of India. 

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Author: Aaron Ryan