10 must-read books on Indian History

In our quest to know what books to read to get a better understanding of India’s history, we turned to you, our readers. A few days ago we asked everyone on our Facebook and Twitter pages to recommend a book on Indian history. Many of you responded with some wonderful suggestions. We also received many e-mails suggesting books we had never heard of. Here then, is the list of 10 books (in no particular order) on Indian history that we have compiled based on your responses.

1. Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru

Written by India’s first prime minister when he was in prison (1942-1946), this book traces India’s history starting from the Indus Valley Civilization. It gives a detailed account of the period ranging from the coming of the Aryans to the establishment of the British Empire. A recommended read to get a snapshot of India’s incredibly long past. This book was also produced as an award-winning television series by Shyam Benegal.

2. Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins

This book primarily focuses on India’s independence movement during 1946 and 1948. The series of events that unfold during this period are worthy of this book being classified as a historical one. It is extensively researched, gives incredible details that you never knew (for instance, do you know who actually drew the dividing line between the two nations and on what basis?) and is a highly recommended book on India’s independence and partition. The book also includes interviews with Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of British India.

3. The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

Written by the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, this book is essentially a series of poignant essays narrating India’s history and how that history has influenced and shaped its cultural identity. Sen talks about how India has had a long history of public debate (in all spheres of life) and how heterodoxy was prevalent in Indian society centuries ago.  This vibrant past is something that Sen believes we all should know about – considering that it can have a deep impact on the way we embrace our future.

4. India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha is perhaps one of India’s best historians currently. This book of his talks about India’s history after it gained independence from the British. This is the perfect book for you to understand the evolution of Modern India. Guha, a former professor and now historian, does an awe-inspiring job of making sense of India’s chaotic and eventful history since independence – the partition, Nehru’s socialist policies, Rajiv Gandhi’s brief but impactful career, the rise of religion and caste-based politics – almost everything you want to know is there in this 900-page book.

5. The Wonder That Was India by A L Basham

This book is considered a useful source of history for aspirants to the Indian civil services. Basham’s popular work covers the period between ancient India and the arrival of the Muslims. It covers details of the Harappan and Mohenjodaro findings and then dwells on the now-controversial Aryan invasion theory. Basham also studies the interpretations of the Rig Veda and other Sanskrit texts to give a better understanding of the country’s past.

6. The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor

The Great Indian Novel is a satirical novel by Shashi Tharoor. It is a fictional work that takes the story of the Mahabharata, the epic of Hindu mythology, and recasts and resets it in the context of the Indian Independence Movement and the first three decades post-independence. Figures from Indian history are transformed into characters from mythology, and the mythical story of India is retold as a history of Indian independence and subsequent history, up through the 1980s. (From  Wikipedia)

7. A Corner Of A Foreign Field by Ramachandra Guha

This one is for the cricket lovers. And for those who love to know more about the game’s origin in India. Ramchandra Guha provides a fascinating peek into the way this British sport made its foray into India and how it is now a national obsession. Starting off with the Parsis and their matches in Bombay’s maidans, this book goes into various details on the way cricket influenced India’s society.

8. The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 by William Dalrymple

William is an award winning historian and travel writer. The Last Mughal talks about a culturally diverse and rich soceity during the rule of Bahadur shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor. In 1857, the first war against the British (known popularly as the Sepoy Mutinee) marked the end of the Mughal rule. William lists the manner in which these events unfolded and the impact it had on the country – both politically and culturally. His writing style and flair for capturing insights makes this book a must-read.

9. India: A history by John Keay

John Keay is an English journalist and author specialising in writing popular histories about India, often with a particular focus on their colonisation and exploration by Europeans. In “India: A history”, John provides a panaromic view starting from the cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro of the Indus Valley civilizations all the way to the current modern India. This book is considered by many as a perfect textbook for any student of India.

10. Alberuni’s India by Alberuni (Translated by Edward C. Sachau)

Alberuni is considered as one of the greatest historians of the medieval Islamic era. In 1017 AD, at the behest of Sultan Muhmud of Persia, Alberuni travelled to India to learn about the Hindus, and to discuss with them questions of religion, science, and literature, and the very basis of their civilisation. He remained in India for 13 years, studying and exploring. This book is an outcome of his rigorous study of India.

If you know of any books on Indian history that have not been listed here, please write about them in the comments section below.

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  • sujith

    Is there any reason that you
    did not mention “History of Early India- From the Origins to 1300AD” by Romila
    Thapar?
    (Earlier edition known as “A
    History of India – Volume 1″ )

  • Uday Arya

    Excellent idea to compile this kind of list! 
    I’d like to recommend a book which stands, in my opinion, a class apart from all these – 
    This is
    The Foundations Of Indian Culture by Sri Aurobindo.
    It is available at http://www.flipkart.com/books/8170586852 & sold under the title:
    The Renaissance In India And Other Essays On Indian Culture
    The pdf version of this work is here: 
    http://www.aurobindo.ru/workings/sa/14/the_renaissance_in_india_20_e.pdf

    But why is this book So good?
    In the words of an eminent scholar, Sisirkumar Maitra, who himself alluded to this Classic in his 1968 work ‘Evolution of India.. Its Meaning’ :

    “Matter-of-fact narrations of unending political events  may tell us much but not everything about a people because outward events cannot get at the real intention of Nature in them. And without an understanding of that, we know next to nothing of the true history of a country, far less the sources that have shaped its destiny.
    :
    His was indeed an entirely original approach..His Seer-eye piercing deep into the secret of India’s soul and finding out the essential aim and intention of her historic development …
    In this luminous exposition the graph of the cultural evolution of India shines forth in its true perspective, opens up an integral vision, a coherent structure covering all the manifold aspects of the creative life of the people,..”
    Personally, this book has opened up vistas to me that have been completely unavailable in other works, perspectives that are so multi-faceted and secular, far-seeing and memorable. 

    Historical works tend to be dry, academic and almost obviously opinionated. Given a limited set of ‘facts’, and the appropriate command over the language, multiple inferences can easily be drawn, leaving the human mind to struggle with determining the ‘one’ right inference. Scholars and historians are endlessly engaged in these battles of inference. To me, this original work stands as a Rock above the plains and valleys below, owing solely to the Rishi who penned it. 
    A Rishi, who to two known giants of our 20th century – Tagore & Rolland – represented a Colossus.

    This book envelopes Oceanic pages that would inspire our brief, fleeting lives. 
    It is substantially a real ‘Discovery’ of India.

  • Raja Ganapathy

    Excellent list.

  • http://profiles.google.com/priyank.modi Priyank Modi

    Guha is over-rated. Read India After Independence by Bipan Chandra

  • chhavi

    Bipan chandra’s is a nice detailed book but it lacks the story telling art which guha possesses! Chandra’s book is a bit tedious while guha’s work just flows and its hard to keep down the book!

  • Sas

    Sarnath – Romila Thapar

  • ravinmpt

    “The Peacock Throne” by Abhraham Eraly-(Mughals)

  • Sumit singh

    one which is a must read is Indian Science and Technology in Eighteenth century by “Dharampal”

  • Mona

    Am surprise that yu do not mention the greatest Writor about Indian Knowledge: Sri Aurobindo.
    The ones yu mentioned have the outside knowledge, whereas Sri A. has the Inside knowldege. Here are some titles, yu can also mention from Sri Aurobindo
    “The Brain of India” and
    The Foundations of Indian Culture and the Renaissance in IndiaIs India Civilised?; A Rationalistic Critic on Indian Culture; A Defence of Indian Culture (Religion and Spirituality, Indian Art, Indian Literature, Indian Polity); Indian Culture and External Influence; The Renaissance in India.

  • Ashwin

    Thanks so much for the tip!

  • Ashwin

    Books on Indian history but no Romila Thapar? Wow..

  • Vamanan81

    Abhraham Eraly’s book on the Moghul Kings is eminently readable…Unputdownable, as blurbs would say.

  • Deivijay2

    India after Gandhi- by Ram Guha. Fantastic read.

  • priya

    freedom and after is also a gr8 book……bt i dn remember the author………………

  • Sap

    Upinder Singh’s ‘History of Ancient and Early Medieval India’  is very good too. Includes a lot of archaeological data and new research that isn’t there in Romila Thapar’s more popular book, which was written much earlier. 

  • http://inktales.me/ Soo

    The Makers of Modern India, edited by Ram Guha is a great collection of essays by the thinkers and doers. but I would suggest that one new to Indian history should begin with Romila Thapar’s A History of India vol1.

  • Shiveshsir

    India Wins Freedom by Maulana Azad

  • RPod

    India Unbound – Gurcharan Das.

  • VK

    good list

  • Ethicalmaan

    Upinder Singh is PM’s daughter..I have read one book on Delhi by her..not so grt..

  • Shikhar

    I have read most of them and I must say “The Wonder That Was India by A L Basham” is the best..Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan by Capt James Todd is also very good..India Unbound by Gurcharan Das is also good..Romila Thapar is a leftist author and Guha is just an overrated writer..

  • Ravi

    In addition, Bipan Chandra is frequently factually inaccurate. He has a very nationalistic tone, which is OK I guess, but then he is inaccurate on the facts to support nationalism, which is not OK.

  • Ravi

    Second this – excellent book, accurate, detailed and thoughtful.

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  • Ranchoodh

    I completely agree with chavvi. Guha’s narrative style is excellent…

  • Himanshu

    Romila Thapar is a Marxist. So were the historians she studied under. All of JNU has been pushing a Marxist agenda, greatly distorting and falsifying Indian history. Her ‘excellent book’ is just excellent propaganda, and omits everything but the most tepid bits of Indian history.

  • Aswin P kumar

    Bipin Chandras views are not un biased..his view are pro congress..!!dont read the book if u want an unbiased view of the history of india..!!

  • Vishal Kale

    Have read Freedom At Midnight, as well as some 10+ books on Indian Independence. Not impressed with FAM – it has no place in this list – as do many others; The true story of India has been told in the following books, which also provide documentary evidence – irrefutable documentary evidence:

    1) Jinnah – India – Partition : Jaswant Singh
    2) The Shadow Of The Great Game – The True Story of India’s Partition – By Narendra Singh Sarila (ADC to Mountbatten in 1947-48 – which makes this the most authentic and authoritative work)
    3) India’s Independence Struggle – Bipin Chandra Pal et al
    4) Operation Red Lotus – Parag Tope
    5) Tinderbox – MJ Akbar
    6) Bengal Divided – The Unmaking Of A Nation By Nitish Sengupta
    7) Early India – Romila Thapar – yes, despite its shortcomings, it is worth a read
    8) The Discovery Of India – Jawaharlal Nehru
    9) Ashok The Great – Monika Khanna
    10) Pax Indica – Shashi Tharoor (gives an understanding of Indian Foreign Policy through the years
    11) India – From Midnight To The Millenium And Beyond – Shashi Tharoor
    12) From The Ruins Of Empire – Pankaj Mishra (concerns all Asia, but you cannot understand India fully without understanding Asia. Read the book to understand)
    13) The Case For India – Will Durant ed 1930
    14) An Economic History Of India – RC Dutt ed 1906
    15) What India Should Know – Lakshmikanthan & Devi
    16) Imagining India – Nandan Nilekani
    17) The Argumentative Indian – Amartya Sen
    18) Becoming Indian – Pawan K Verma – for the section on the cultural rape of India, and the section on McCaulay
    19) India Unbound – Gurcharan Das
    20) The Real Story Of The Great Uprising – Vishnu Bhatt Versaikar Godse (Mazaa Pravaas in Marathi) written in 1886; ed, 1906; translation to English 2010 – an eyewitness account – MUST read

    There are others; but these are the best from those I have read, which include Freedom At Midnight. FAM does not find a mention in my list; it is one of the very, very worst books I have read on Indian Independence, in my considered opinion – and I have read some 30+ books on India and Indian History. Especially read the bold book at No 20 – it is an eyewitness account, engagingly narrated. Also, read all the old books; that is ed 1885 – 1930 – mentioned above. Alberuni’s India was a close second choice, but missed out over What India Should Know and Ashok The Great.

    As a general rule, avoid western authors on India; they are simply not upto the mark

    You can find reviews of most of these books on my blog http://reflectionsvvk.blogspot.in/

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  • P K Sengupta

    V P Menon on Integration of Indian States is a vital book. It tells us why we must acknowledge Patel’s contribution to uniting India and why we could have done better for Kashmirnhe book on cricket by Dr. Guha, is well written but can we consider it as significant Indian History?nWhat about a pukka British viewpoint – ‘the men who ruled India” on the administrators of the Raj – men of the ICS and earlier?