How to prepare History Optional for UPSC | Syllabus, Booklist & Strategy for History Optional UPSC

History is a popular choice of optional subject among the UPSC aspirants because of its importance in the General Studies paper of both Prelims and UPSC CS(Main) exam. Not only does it have good scoring potential, but it is also a consistent choice among the toppers of UPSC CSE which enhances the success rate of this optional subject. 

Further, for aspirants who are good with remembering states, history can be remembered as a story of events in a sequential manner. Since it is a static subject, you do not have to worry about studying the current affairs for this particular paper. Moreover, there are ample of resource material that is available in the form of books.

The only con while opting for the History optional is that it has a huge syllabus that needs to be covered holistically. However, if you’ve read it during your graduation or post-graduation, or you’re extremely passionate and interested in this subject, that should not be a matter of concern for you.

Syllabus of UPSC History Optional

Paper 1:


Archaeological sources: Exploration, excavation, epigraphy, numismatics, monuments Literary sources: Indigenous: Primary and secondary; poetry, scientific literature, literature, literature in regional languages, religious literature. Foreign accounts: Greek, Chinese and Arab writers.

Pre-history and Proto-history

Geographical factors; hunting and gathering (paleolithic and mesolithic); Beginning of agriculture (neolithic and chalcolithic).

Indus Valley Civilization

Origin, date, extent, characteristics, decline, survival and significance, art, and architecture.

Megalithic Cultures

Distribution of pastoral and farming cultures outside the Indus, Development of community life, Settlements, Development of agriculture, Crafts, Pottery, and Iron industry

Aryans and Vedic Period

Expansions of Aryans in India. Vedic Period: Religious and philosophic literature; Transformation from Rig Vedic  period to the later Vedic period; Political, social and economical life; Significance of the Vedic Age; Evolution of Monarchy and Varna system

Period of Mahajanapadas

Formation of States (Mahajanapada): Republics and monarchies; Rise of urban centers; Trade routes; Economic growth; Introduction of coinage; Spread of Jainism and Buddhism; Rise of Magadha and Nandas. Iranian and Macedonian invasions and their impact

Mauryan Empire

Foundation of the Mauryan Empire, Chandragupta, Kautilya, and Arthashastra; Ashoka; Concept of Dharma; Edicts; Polity, Administration; Economy; Art, architecture, and sculpture; External contacts; Religion; Spread of religion; Literature; the disintegration of the empire; Sungas and Kanvas

Post - Mauryan Period (Indo-Greeks, Sakas, Kushanas, Western Kshatrapas)

Contact with the outside world; growth of urban centers, economy, coinage, development of religions, Mahayana, social conditions, art, architecture, culture, literature, and science

Early State and Society in Eastern India, Deccan, and South India

Kharavela, The Satavahanas, the Tamil States of the Sangam Age; Administration, economy, land grants, coinage, trade guilds, and urban centers; Buddhist centers; Sangam literature and culture; Art and architecture

Guptas, Vakatakas and Vardhanas

Polity and administration, Economic conditions, Coinage of the Guptas, Land grants, Decline of urban centers, Indian feudalism, Caste system, Position of women, Education and educational institutions; Nalanda, Vikramshila and Vallabhi, Literature, scientific literature, art, and architecture

The regional States during the Gupta Era

The Kadambas, Pallavas, Chalukyas of Badami; Polity and Administration, Trade guilds, Literature; growth of Vaishnava and Saiva religions. Tamil Bhakti movement, Shankaracharya; Vedanta; Institutions of temple and temple architecture; Palas, Senas, Rashtrakutas, Paramaras, Polity, and administration; Cultural aspects. Arab conquest of Sind; Alberuni, The Chalukyas of Kalyana, Cholas, Hoysalas, Pandyas; Polity and Administration; local Government; Growth of art and architecture, religious sects, Institution of temple and Mathas, Agraharas, education and literature, economy and society

Themes in Early Indian Cultural History

Languages and texts, major stages in the evolution of art and architecture, major philosophical thinkers and schools,  ideas in Science and Mathematics

Early Medieval India, 750-1200

Polity: Major political developments in Northern India and the Peninsula, origin and the rise of Rajputs; The Cholas: administration, village economy and society; “Indian Feudalism”; Agrarian economy and urban settlements; Trade and commerce; Society: the status of the Brahman and the new social order; Condition of women; Indian science and technology

Cultural Traditions in India, 750-1200

Philosophy: Skankaracharya and Vedanta, Ramanuja and Vishishtadvaita, Madhva and Brahma-Mimansa; Religion: Forms and features of religion, Tamil devotional cult, growth of Bhakti, Islam and its arrival in India, Sufism; Literature: Literature in Sanskrit, growth of Tamil literature, literature in the newly developing languages, Kalhan’s Rajtarangini, Alberuni’s India; Art and Architecture: Temple architecture, sculpture, painting

The Thirteenth Century

Establishment of the Delhi Sultanate: The Ghurian invasions – factors behind Ghurian success; Economic, social and cultural consequences; Foundation of Delhi Sultanate and early Turkish Sultans; Consolidation: The rule of Iltutmish and Balban

The Fourteenth Century

“The Khalji Revolution”; Alauddin Khalji: Conquests and territorial expansion, agrarian and economic measures; Muhammad Tughluq: Major projects, agrarian measures, the bureaucracy of Muhammad Tughluq; Firuz Tughluq: Agrarian measures, achievements in civil engineering and public works, the decline of the Sultanate, foreign contacts and Ibn Battuta’s account

Society, Culture, and Economy in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries

Society: composition of rural society, ruling classes, town dwellers, women, religious classes, caste and slavery under the Sultanate, Bhakti movement, Sufi movement; Culture: Persian literature, literature in the regional languages of North India, literature in the languages of South India, Sultanate architecture and new structural forms, painting, the evolution of a composite culture; Economy: Agricultural production, the rise of urban economy and non-agricultural production, trade, and commerce

The Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Century

Political Developments and Economy: Rise of Provincial Dynasties: Bengal, Kashmir (Zainul Abedin), Gujarat, Malwa, Bahmanids; The Vijayanagara Empire; Lodis; Mughal Empire, First phase: Babur and  Humayun; The Sur Empire: Sher Shah’s administration; Portuguese Colonial enterprise; Bhakti and Sufi Movements

The Fifteenth and early Sixteenth Century - Society and Culture

Regional cultural specificities; Literary traditions; Provincial architecture; Society, culture, literature, and the arts in Vijayanagara Empire.


Conquests and consolidation of the Empire; Establishment of Jagir and Mansab systems; Rajput policy; Evolution of religious and social outlook, the theory of Sulh-i-kul and religious policy; Court patronage of art and technology

Mughal Empire in the Seventeenth Century

Major administrative policies of Jahangir, Shahjahan, and Aurangzeb; The Empire and the Zamindars; Religious policies of Jahangir, Shahjahan, and Aurangzeb; Nature of the Mughal State; Late Seventeenth century crisis and the revolts; The Ahom Kingdom; Shivaji and the early Maratha Kingdom

Economy and Society in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Population, agricultural production, craft production; Towns, commerce with Europe through Dutch, English and French companies: a trade revolution; Indian mercantile classes, banking, insurance, and credit systems; Condition of peasants, condition of women; Evolution of the Sikh community and the Khalsa Panth

Culture in the Mughal Empire

Persian histories and other literature; Hindi and other religious literature; Mughal architecture; Mughal painting; Provincial architecture and painting; Classical music; Science and technology

The Eighteenth Century

Factors for the decline of the Mughal Empire; The regional principalities: Nizam’s Deccan, Bengal, Awadh; Maratha ascendancy under the Peshwas; The Maratha fiscal and financial system; Emergence of Afghan Power, Battle of Panipat: 1761; State of politics, culture, and economy on the eve of the British conquest

Paper 2:

European Penetration into India

The Early European Settlements; The Portuguese and the Dutch; The English and the French East India Companies; Their struggle for supremacy; Carnatic Wars; Bengal -The conflict between the English and the Nawabs of Bengal; Siraj and the English; The Battle of Plassey; Significance of  Plassey.

British Expansion in India

Bengal – Mir Jafar and Mir Kasim; The Battle of Buxar; Mysore; The Marathas; The three Anglo-Maratha Wars; Punjab

Early Structure of the British Raj

The early administrative structure; From diarchy to direct control; The Regulating Act (1773); The Pitt’s India Act (1784); The Charter Act (1833); The voice of free trade and the changing character of British colonial rule; The English utilitarian and India

Economic Impact of British Colonial Rule

Land revenue settlements in British India; The Permanent Settlement; Ryotwari Settlement; Mahalwari Settlement; Economic impact of the revenue; arrangements; Commercialization of agriculture; Rise of landless agrarian laborers; Impoverishment of the rural society; Dislocation of traditional trade and commerce; De-industrialisation; Decline of traditional crafts; Drain of wealth; Economic transformation of India; Railroad and communication network including telegraph and postal services; Famine and poverty in the rural interior; European business enterprise and its limitations.

Social and Cultural Developments

The state of indigenous education, its dislocation; Orientalist - Anglicist controversy, The introduction of western education in India; The rise of press, literature and public opinion; The rise of modern vernacular literature; Progress of science; Christian missionary activities in India

Social and Religious Reform movements in Bengal and Other Areas

Ram Mohan Roy, The Brahmo Movement; Devendranath Tagore; Iswarchandra Vidyasagar; The Young Bengal Movement; Dayananda Saraswati; The social reform movements in India including Sati, widow remarriage, chil marriage, etc.; The contribution of Indian renaissance to the growth of modern India; Islamic revivalism – the Feraizi and Wahabi Movements.

Indian Response to British Rule

Peasant movements and tribal uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries including the Rangpur Dhing (1783), the Kol Rebellion (1832), the Mopla Rebellion in Malabar (1841-1920), the Santal Hul (1855), Indigo Rebellion (1859-60), Deccan Uprising (1875) and the Munda Ulgulan (1899- 1900); The Great Revolt of 1857 - Origin, character, causes of failure, the consequences; The shift in the character of peasant uprisings in the post-1857 period; the peasant movements of the 1920s and 1930s

Factors leading to the birth of Indian Nationalism

Politics of Association; The Foundation of the Indian National Congress; The Safety-valve thesis relating to the birth of the Congress; Programme and objectives of Early Congress; the social composition of early Congress leadership; the Moderates and Extremists; The Partition of Bengal (1905); The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal; the economic and political aspects of Swadeshi Movement; The beginning of revolutionary extremism in India.

Rise of Gandhi

The character of Gandhian nationalism; Gandhi’s popular appeal; Rowlatt Satyagraha; the Khilafat Movement; the Non-cooperation Movement; National politics from the end of the Non-cooperation movement to the beginning of the Civil Disobedience movement; the two phases of the Civil Disobedience Movement; Simon Commission; The Nehru Report; the Round Table Conferences; Nationalism and the Peasant Movements; Nationalism and Working-class movements; Women and Indian youth and students in Indian politics (1885-1947); the election of 1937 and the formation of ministries; Cripps Mission; the Quit India Movement; the Wavell Plan; The Cabinet Mission

Constitutional Developments in Colonial India between 1858 and 1935

Other strands in the National Movement

The Revolutionaries: Bengal, the Punjab, Maharashtra, U.P, the Madras Presidency, Outside India. The Left; The Left within the Congress: Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, the Congress Socialist Party; the Communist Party of India, other left parties

Politics of Separatism

the Muslim League; the Hindu Mahasabha; Communalism and the politics of partition; Transfer of power; Independence

Consolidation as a Nation

Nehru’s Foreign Policy; India and her neighbors (1947-1964); The linguistic reorganization of States (1935-1947); Regionalism and regional inequality; Integration of Princely States; Princes in electoral politics; the Question of National Language

Caste and Ethnicity after 1947

Backward castes and tribes in postcolonial electoral politics; Dalit movements.

Economic development and political change

Land reforms; the politics of planning and rural reconstruction; Ecology and environmental policy in post-colonial India; Progress of science

Enlightenment and Modern ideas

Major ideas of Enlightenment: Kant, Rousseau; Spread of Enlightenment in the colonies; Rise of socialist ideas (up to Marx); spread of Marxian Socialism

Origins of Modern Politics

European States System; American Revolution and the Constitution; French revolution and aftermath, 1789- 1815; American Civil War with reference to Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery; British Democratic Politics, 1815- 1850; Parliamentary Reformers, Free Traders, Chartists


English Industrial Revolution: Causes and Impact on Society; Industrialization in other countries: USA, Germany, Russia, Japan; Industrialization and Globalization.

Nation-State System

Rise of Nationalism in 19th century; Nationalism: state-building in Germany and Italy; Disintegration of Empires in the face of the emergence of nationalities across the world

Imperialism and Colonialism

South and South-East Asia; Latin America and South Africa; Australia; Imperialism and free trade: Rise of neo-imperialism

Revolution and Counter-Revolution

19th Century European revolutions, The Russian Revolution of 1917- 1921, Fascist Counter-Revolution, Italy and Germany; The Chinese Revolution of 1949

World Wars

1st and 2nd World Wars as Total Wars: Societal implications; World War I: Causes and consequences; World War II: Causes and consequence

The World after World War II

The emergence of two power blocs; Emergence of Third World and non-alignment; UNO and the global disputes

Liberation from Colonial Rule

Latin America-Bolivar; Arab World-Egypt; Africa-Apartheid to Democracy; South-East Asia-Vietnam

Decolonization and Underdevelopment

Factors constraining development: Latin America, Africa

Unification of Europe

Post War Foundations: NATO and European Community; Consolidation and Expansion of European Community; European Union.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Rise of the Unipolar World

Factors leading to the collapse of Soviet communism and the Soviet Union, 1985-1991; Political Changes in Eastern Europe 1989-2001; End of the cold war and US ascendancy in the World as the lone superpower

Booklist for UPSC History Optional 

  1. NCERT (Class IX to XII)

  2. NIOS/IGNOU Notes

  3. India's Ancient Past by R. S. Sharma.

  4. History of Medieval India: From 647 A.D. to the Mughal Conquest by Satish Chandra.

  5. History of Modern India by Bipan Chandra.

  6. India's Struggle For Independence by Bipan Chandra.

  7. Indian Art and Culture by Nitin Singhania.

  8. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century by Upinder Singh

  9. From Plassey to Partition and After A History of Modern India by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay

  10. A Comprehensive History of Medieval India: From Twelfth to the Mid-Eighteenth Century by Farooqui Salma Ahmed

  11. Contemporary India: Economy, Society, Politics by Neera Chandhoke

  12. A History of Modern World by Jain and Mathur

  13. Mastering Modern World History by Norman Lowe

Previous Year History Questions From Optional Subject Paper

To give you a glimpse into the types of questions that are asked from the history optional, we have listed some of the previous year history questions below:

  1. Do you agree that archaeological evidence often helps in a better understanding of literary sources? Comment. [ History- Paper 1 UPSC CS(Main) 2019]

  2. The development of art and architecture during the Sunga period belies the belief that they were anti-Buddist. Discuss. [ History- Paper 1 UPSC CS(Main) 2019]

  3. Examine how the transformation of the Varna System from the Rigvedic to the later Vedic period affected the position of women. [ History- Paper 1 UPSC CS(Main) 2019]

  4. How was the drain theory a focal point of nationalist critique of colonialism? [ History- Paper 2 UPSC CS(Main) 2019]

  5. How would you explain the major trends of the Swadeshi movement in Bengal? [ History- Paper 2 UPSC CS(Main) 2019]

This was a brief overview of History Optional. You can check out the other optional subjects for UPSC CS(Main) here. 

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