OPTIONAL STRATEGY: History – by Gazal Bharadwaj, Rank – 40, CSE – 2015

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History Optional Strategy

Gazal Bharadwaj

Rank – 40, CSE – 2015

In this post, I would like to outline my strategy for preparing history as my optional subject. Last year, my score was 245, and though break up differed it still remained the same this year, although I was expecting some rise:

2014: HISTORY1(125), HISTORY2(120)- TOTAL 245

2015: HISTORY1(114), HISTORY2(131)- TOTAL 245

Strategy: Most aspirants opt for history as an optional because its easy to start with and is one subject least dependent on coaching. Also, it has benefits in the general studies papers and in essay. However, approaching history as an optional requires a very technical and objective approach. All new ncerts and IGNOU BA and MA material is highly relevant.

My personal opinion is take history as an optional only if you are deeply interested in it and have zeal to go deeper. You’ll have to focus on understanding various perspectives on historiography, themes and archaeological and literary sources, rather than focussing on chronological details. You will be often told that it is not ‘scoring’, or it has ‘large syllabus’. So, take it based on interest.




  1. UPINDER SINGH- A history of ancient and early medieval India: http://www.amazon.in/History-Ancient-Early-Medieval-India/dp/8131716775 : The most important book, according to the current trend of questions being asked on socio-economic aspects of history
  2. IGNOU B.A notes- very crisply written
  3. IGNOU M.A NOTES – helpful in understanding various political, economic and socio- cultural aspects
  4. Romila thapar- Early India( only a very selective reading)
  5. NCERT Class 6, NCERT Class 11


  1. I solely relied on IGNOU MA and BA NOTES
  2. Satish Chandra is another important source to compliment IGNOU.



  1. SHEKHAR BANDOPADHYAY- From Plassey to partition( My favourite book): http://www.amazon.in/Plassey-Partition-History-Modern-India/dp/8125025960
  2. SUMIT SARKAR- Modern India: http://www.amazon.in/Modern-India-1885-1947-Sumit-Sarkar/dp/0333904257
  4. IGNOU B.A and M.A


  1. IGNOU BA and MA
  2. RANJAN CHAKRABARTY- A history of modern world : http://www.amazon.in/History-Modern-World-Outline/dp/9380607504
  3. NORMAN LOWE- http://www.amazon.in/gp/product/1137483644/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_dp_ss_1?pf_rd_p=733112647&pf_rd_s=lpo-top-stripe&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=0333932188&pf_rd_m=A1VBAL9TL5WCBF&pf_rd_r=1QXYDTYB9DG8C3REVANT
  4. DAVID THOMSON (Selective reading)- http://www.amazon.in/Europe-Since-Napoleon-David-Thomson/dp/0140135618
  5. NCERT CLASS 9 and 10.


This is the most important part that how we integrate these various sources with our syllabus, based on studying the past question papers.  I would like to cite an example.

PART A- Modern world: In paper 2, French revolution and Russian revolution, both are important parts of the syllabus. If one integrates IGNOU, David thomson and Ranjan Chakraborty and prepare a list of questions in one’s mind like:

1. Why was the french revolution revolutionary in the understanding of itself?

2. What is the concept of revolution?

3. Exploring the causes of the french revolution

  1. What led to the overthrow of the ancient regime?
  2. What were the diverse social interests that kept supporting or opposing the revolution?
  3. What were the immediate causes?- focussing the economic reasons
  4. How the popular intervention of the people of france at crucial moments not only saved the revolution but also influenced its course? (On the question once asked in mains, as to was it a bourgeoise revolution?)

4. GEORGE LEFEBVE’S classification of revolution in four stages- aristocratic revolution, bourgeois revolution,, popular revolution and peasant revolution-

Eg questions like“The multiple contradictions that quickly undermined the new edifice, had been expressed even before the meeting of the Estates General in France. The internal conflict among Estates had manifested itself.” upsc 2015

5. What were the principles of legitimacy laid down by the democratic action of the third estate?

6. How crowd’s direct action in 1792 pushed the revolution towards a democratic republic?

7. Role of revolutionary ideology and politics in the formation of a rudimentary form of political parties?

8. Role of philosophers and enlightenment in triggering the revolution? Eg. Questions like “The connection between the philosophers’ ideas and the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789) is somewhat remote and indirect.” UPSC 2012

9. Role of women?

10. Critical analysis of the constitution of 1791, declaration of rights of man and citizen etc? Eg questions like “The Declaration of Rights was the death-warrant of the system of privilege, and so of the ancient regime … Yet in the history of ideas it belonged rather to the past than to the future.” Examine. UPSC 2014

11. Role of Napoleon and his reforms, how he reversed the principles of the revolution

12. The legacy of the revolution?

  1. On modern politics
  2. Of ideological parties- the concept of left and right
  3. On totally mobilised citizen bodies
  4. On concept of total war
  5. On rise of nationalism- the idea of nation changed (Nation is not just a territory that people belonging to it inhabit or where a centralised power exercises sovereign control, but the people themselves)
  6. On origin of socialism

Eg. Questions like  “The impact of the French Revolution (1789) was initially confined the Europe, but, that of the Russian Revolution (1917) was global.” – Critically review. UPSC 2012

I am attaching a pdf, to cite how I jotted down these points roughly, integrating various sources.

Download pdf

Similarly, I’ll try to upload my strategy towards exploring and interlinking various themes like imperialism, colonialism, world wars and total war, socialism, enlightenment etc slowly on My blog.

PART B- Modern india: Similar strategy of integrating above mentioned books and consolidating themes must be adopted. Eg

  1. linking imperialism and colonialism (world history) with drain theory (Indian national movement)

Download link for example


1. If you analyse past four year papers, you will realise the shift away from political history towards social and economic history.(This is equally true for GS). Plus there is a trend of asking questions based on sources.

Following is an example of how I approached a source based question:

Download link

2. Interlinkages, continuities and change being explored. EG.

Q1. Review critically the evolution of different schools of art in the Indian subcontinent between the second century BCE and the third century CE, and evaluate the socio-religious factors responsible for it. (UPSC 2014).

Following is an example of how I approached continuity and interlinkages kind of questions:

download link

3. Historiography being asked almost directly. This includes debates among various schools of historians EG.

Q1.To what extent is “segmentary State’ model relevant for defining the Vijayanagar State? Critically examine.(UPSC 2014)

Q2. Evaluating various theories regarding the Chola State, throw light on its village assemblies. (UPSC 2014)

Q3.  What kind of changes were visualised by historians on Indian feudalism? Examine critically. (UPSC 2012)

Q4.  Discuss different interpretations of historians about the nature of Asoka’s ‘Dhamma’. Did his principle of `Dhamma-vijaya’ render the Mauryan Empire militaristically weak?(UPSC 2014)

Q5.  discuss and evaluate critically various times in the historiography of Bhakti (UPSC 2013)

I am attaching an example as to how I approached historiography kind of questions:

Download link

4. Every year one question purely on culture and religion . Eg

Q1. “The Upanishadic principles embody the epitome of the Vedic thought.” Discuss. (UPSC 2014)

Q2. Give a brief account of the early medieval temple architecture of Katnmir. (UPSC 2015)

Q3. Why is Mamallapuram famous? (UPSC 2015)

Here is a link as to how I prepared architecture kind of questions:

Download link

5. Every year something on gender. Eg

Q1.Social norms for women in the Dharmasastra and Arthasashtra tradition where framed in accordance with the Varnashrama tradition. Evaluate critically. (UPSC 2013)

Q2.“Tantrism, if not in practice, at least on conceptual level challenged patriarchy;’ Examine Tantrism specially keeping in mind the above context.(UPSC 2015)- juxtaposing religion and gender

Q3. analyze the steps taken Razia Sultan by to strengthen our position as an independent ruler despite various obstacles. (UPSC 2013)

Q4. Bhakti and Mysticism of Lal Ded emerged as a social force in Kashmir. Comment. (UPSC 2013)

Here’s a link on how I approached women related questions in ancient and medieval India:

Download link

All the very best.


  • Sam Sam

    Thank you so much for such a detailed strategy. …. all the best

    • You’re welcome.

      • Kishor Patil

        Ma’m some people are of the opinion that History is not ‘topper’s optional’ because though scores are above average but not exceedingly high like some optionals. You’ve obviously proved them wrong now, but Ma’m why do you think it’s difficult to get a score of say around 280-290 in History? Is is the subject itself, being variedly interpretative as it is, or the pattern of the question paper as some say? And Ma’m what efforts and additions should we make to reach that score range? I would like to see someone scoring in that range, it would inspire many of us, just as your AIR 40 has inspired us. Thank you Ma’m, and can you pls provide us your mail or a platform through which we can contact you?
        Congratulations Ma’m.

        • Thank you. I read on forumias that last year someone scored 280. Yes, i agree, its a little difficult to increase score in history after a point. My own score remained the same as last year, although my prep and practice this time were better. But, seeing the changing pattern of questions, i think, we can make additions like integrating different sources, presentation of answers, bringing more objectivity in analysis etc.

          You can contact me here, or on my blog gazalbharadwaj.blogspot.in or on my email [email protected].
          Best wishes.

          • Kishor Patil

            1.Ma’m what was the criteria behind you selecting History as optional?
            2. Ma’m if we refer Upinder Singh for ancient, is it okay to drop Ignou or is it indispensable? For all sections?
            3. Ma’m reading both B.A & M.A material, wouldn’t there be a lot of overlapping? Is it okay to prefer the higher one, I.e M.A material?

            • 1. deep interest for the subject, and that i could relate to it v much.
              2. yes u can study Upinder singh thoroughly, and supplement it my ignou m.a selectively.
              3. i found m.a ignou notes better as they were themewise, and help us analyse the economic and social forces better

              • Kishor Patil

                Thank you Ma’m.

  • Bikashfree

    thank you so much… i have been waiting for this…

    • You are welcome.

    • Kishor Patil

      Ma’m what was the criteria for you selecting History as optional?

  • Utkarsh

    Mam, I am a candidate of UPSC with History Option and Hails from Dehradun as well. First of all congratulations to you. Mam I wish to meet you to know more on the process of preparations especially Optional. Is is possible for you to lend some time.

    Thanks !

    • u can share your doubts here, I’ll reply.

      • Utkarsh

        As far the Transnational phase of Indian History i.e. the era after Gupta and before Mughal Invasion, it becomes confusing to learn the chronology of the empires. And when it comes to both Northern Dynasties and Southern Dynasties it become tough to form chronological order in between so that we can remember the contemporary issues, disputes, quests and trades. How you managed it.

        • Rather than focussing on just the chronology, try to understand the process of state formation, esp in the deccan and tamilkam. Upinder singh and ignou both have a good coverae on this aspect. then u can graphically sum in up on some sheets in a language u easily understand. eg- i hav attached 2 images

          • Utkarsh

            Thank you Mam.

            One more question, though not technical. I have very slow comprehension ability. So in order to comprehend something to fullest I take time. I sit long to understand an issue on internet and prepare notes charts on excel and words but at the same time I get some suggestion from my father that I am so much embroiled in computers rather than studies. This raise the wave of speculation in my mind and i fell pray to a state of confusion if I am going Right or Wrong.
            Is there any thumb rule that restricts us to the Wrong Path?

            I also wanted to know that, I tried my best to gather some students in my local coaching center for discussion but unfortunately no one turned up. Is it good for me to move to a place like Delhi where the circle and atmosphere can add value inside me?

            And last question, if you were not an IAS what life you have imagined to have lived? I am asking this question because I left corporate at a very healthy position in 2014 to fight for UPSC seeing my elder sister who qualified State PSC in 2014. That empowered my dream that yes, a common man can do a lot and raised confidence in me. But as I proceed in my studies and find halts many a times, I a wave of speculation is generated inside me that raise many question like “What if not CSE”. How you suppressed such question or managed to get rid of such speculation?


            • hi Utkarsh
              1. There is no thumb rule here. Studying from net can be and is beneficial in so many ways like easy notes compilation, and wide range of sources. but books and writing practice have their own relevance. Whatever suits you becomes your thumb rule.
              2. I have been in delhi for some time, and this attempt I was solely by myself away from delhi and any study group. Again internet was my only refuge. And a very good one. In delhi, at times u become a part of the crowd. That ‘you’ can get lost. when u r on your own, taking help from online sources, your real personality gets reflected in your answers rather than any imbibed personality of a coaching institute. I think sites like mrunal and insightsonindia are doin great work, helping students like us to add value to our efforts.
              3. Well, this time I had kept a backup plan unlike the previous times. I sat for xlri and tiss, and tiss hrm got converted. So, if i had not cleared, life would have been different for some time.
              4. As regards dreams an the halts you mention, I’d like to share a post i wrote three days after my result: http://gazalbharadwaj.blogspot.in/2016/05/yes-its-sinking-in-upsc-circle-close.html

              In the end, keep believing in yourself. Here you are your best judge. So compete with yourself and aim becoming better each day. If you are doing that, yes you are on the right path. Here’s something i’ll share

              Best wishes.

              • Utkarsh

                Deeply indebted with your Guidance. Thank you mam.

  • Dhruv

    Congratulations Gazal for your feat..:)

    I have history as my optional and wanted to ask something related to notes making…apart from the question based approach you have shared, how you used to manage to make notes out of books..for instance, Upinder Singh is a huge book and i think it is good to make short notes so that you may not have to read the whole stuff again…but the problem is even short notes making takes too much time..:(
    Can you please shed some light on this, especially considering you referred to multiple sources for all parts of history….thanks in advance..:)

    • Though it may differ from person to person, I prepared notes themewise rather than book wise. eg. I uploaded an answer on inscriptions shedding light on post mauryan history- here i made notes using three sources: upinder, ignou ba and ignou ma. best wishes.

      • Dhruv

        thank you..:)

  • swati singh

    Thank u so much 🙂 it is a much provided relief!

  • AKT

    Sir, What’s about map practice????

    • i didn’t share it because I feel it differs from person to person. i used to prepare maps themewise, integrating them with questions, rather than separately. Found Upinder Singh and ignou useful here. best wishes.

      • AKT

        Thanks a lot mam and happy journey to new phase of life!!!!

    • LBSNAA, coming in 2016

      SIr ni mam h…:P

      • AKT


  • LBSNAA, coming in 2016

    thanks a lot and will be waiting for your strategy on other topics as well…
    mam it will be very good if u can make videos as u had already taught history .plzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    • Will share soon.And I was not teaching history, took some classes of economics and geography though.:)
      best wishes.

      • LBSNAA, coming in 2016

        I m sorry newspaper walo ne galat print kia 😛
        And mam i have mailed u and also msg u on fb plz clarify my few doubts …thank you

  • Abhishek srivastava

    Mam,Your strategy really cleared some of my doubts about how to integrate other books to make useful notes.
    I ll be obliged if you share some tips regarding the structure of answers as well as how to set a link between it.
    Thankyou !!

    • ok. will share sumthing on answer writing soon.
      best wishes.

      • Abhishek srivastava

        Read your poetries mam,you have embraced it quiet nicely.Keep it up and all the best.!!

  • Bikashfree

    i just wanted to ask how important is joining a test series for history optional? Does it help? If it does, then where can i join? very few institutes offer test series for history optional.. Kindly reply…

    • I had joined Baliyan sir’s tests long back, but did not find them benefitial, although that may differ from person to person. There is one by Hemant jha sir. But when i and a friend approached him in 2014, he said he does not conduct them now.
      I personally benefitted from solving past papers and ignou last page questions more than any test series, again the experience may differ from person to person. Whats imp. is that you write history answers regularly,
      Best wishes.

  • Sumit Sharma

    Mam, preparing far away from Delhi without any teacher even for answer writing guidance sometimes leads to self doubt as to whether I am on the right track. How can we somehow write answers for History and get them evaluated? or self evaluated? Any advice on this?

    Where can we get IGNOU notes?

    And as some people have requested, videos by you will be the biggest gift for aspirants not in touch with Delhi. Please make time for video sessions on strategy. It will become so easy to move forward.

    • 1. you can compare your answers on various forums. eg insights, iasbaba etc.
      2. ignou notes are availible online. forumias has many links. chk them out.
      3. can’t promise on videos. but will upload whaever material i compiled soon.
      best wishes.

      • Sumit Sharma

        Thanks mam. Stay blessed.

  • FYI2016

    hi..congrats for cracking the paper !!
    i specifically wanted to ask about Upinder Singh book on Ancient India, is it worth/necessary reading for history optional.
    please advice me on this.


    • Thank you.
      Yes, its a very important book. must not be missed.
      questions like the following hav been directly picked up from it:
      1.Social norms for women in the Dharmasastra and Arthasashtra tradition where framed in accordance with the Varnashrama tradition. Evaluate critically
      2. explain as to how the early Buddhist stupa art, while using motifs and narratives and common cultural symbols, succeeded in transforming these themes for expounding Buddhist ideas
      3. The verna concept may always have been largely a theoretical model and never an actual description of society. Comment in context of ancient India
      4. Do you think the Harappan civilization had a diversity of subsistence base?

      • FYI2016

        ok thanks for making it clear..:)
        i have another question this time regarding world history for optional,i know Norman Lowe is nice book but it doesn’t cover the whole syllabus for optional…i know u have mention some book above but i found this , http://www.flipkart.com/history-modern-world-ad-1500-2013-english/p/itmdgt9j7xyaprrw,it covers the missing portion.
        What do you think??


        • well it shows me page not found.

          • FYI2016
            • I hav not read this one. so cannot comment.

              • FYI2016

                ok..thanks for your input !!
                i just noticed ki you didn’t mention about post independence..it is part of history optional right??

                • yeah. i forgot. Bipin chandra zindabaad! its one book from where you’ll find lots o lines directly picked up n quoted. and helpful for gs1 too.

                  • FYI2016

                    oh yes Bipin Chandra Zindabad !!

                • FYI2016

                  hey can you give a idea about qualifying papers and when these paper happen.? I know i am asking things apart from optional,but still can you shed some light.



    Congrats for cracking the exam.
    I have few doubts regarding history optional.
    1. how did you approach map work?
    2. do we have scope for drawing map in answers. I mean do time allow such thing and if so then what about the accuracy of map?
    3. to what extent we can use the views of the author? Also is it very necessary to identify who said the statement given in the question?
    please guide me on this…

    • 1. I would suggest it is better to prepare maps, alongside a theme u r preparing. eg. if u are covering IVC from upinder singh, make a list of all the sites and plot them. similarly post mauryan period, u can divide into n india, deccan and s. india. And plot imp. sites while covering urbanism, state formation and trade etc
      2. IN PAPER ONE, U CAN FIND TIME. THOUGH P2 me bilkul time nahi milta. mainly u can draw an outline to explain a perspective
      3. if u know who said the statement, well n good. else its not compulsory.

      best wishes


        Thank you very much, this was of great help.
        1. Also had to ask about answer writing. Suppose I prepare a topic say vedic literature i.e its social angle then while answer writing practice should I write like an summary or should I practice it like Q & A.
        2. For GS when did you started answer writing? currently i am doing 1 or 2 question daily in GS and minimum one question from optional, is it right to go with this pace or should I increase it? basically time crunch is also a problem.
        Hats off for your never die spirit and your poetic vision towards life.

        • 1. i find question answer form better as it is easier to revise n is exam specific.
          2. right now the pace is fine. u can increase it after pre.
          Thank you n best wishes.


            Thank you very much for the guidance. God bless you


        1. Actually, I also wanted to know how much accuracy is needed in the map i.e one draw along with the answer. can a rough map work or the borders should be well specified.?

        • you can check out the links i attached. such rough maps suffice i think.

  • Rajeev Bhatia

    Congratulations Mam. I am just starting with the History optional. Mam, Do I need to join coaching for History or not ? . I saw Your name in the ads of Baliyan Coaching. If you could please tell that does that coaching helps. Is there anything I will miss out if I do not join coaching. Thank you Mam. @soliloquies

    • Thank you Rajeev. I took coaching there jus after i finished engineering in 2011. But, it was only helpful wrt the fact that i came to know which books to study from etc. i found itvery very basic, although views may differ from person to person. I am glad that these days sites like insights, ias baba n mrunal etc already have ample guidance on which books and previous questions. so I think coaching is not some mandatory thing, specially for a subject like history. Make sure you start prep with new ncerts 6-12 and ignou ba material. Then, you can refer to other books. At best you can buy hemant jha sir and baliyan sir’s notes to get an idea if you are not missing on something. best wishes

  • prudhvi

    Contracts for your achievement …….. I am having some doubts regarding notes making
    1. Is it good if we make notes from the first reading itself….or we need to do 2 readings and then make notes
    2. How do you revise before exam
    3. Is ma material good or ba material from igonu
    4. Mam for world history I am fallowing jain&mathur …is this a good one…..

    • Thank you Prudhvi.
      1. i would underline in the book during first n second readings. Then wud make ques answer based notes on selected themes during a third reading.
      2. first revision from book (underlined parts), next from notes.
      3. ba is a must read, but lacks certain interliking aspects. so u can v selectively read ma. ma is a lil heavy. so u can stick more to ba.
      4. check out norman lowe and 9-10 ncerts for sure. rest u can follow any book
      best wishes

      • Firoz

        Mam 9-10 old or new NCERTs?? Overall is it better to follow old ones or the new ones..what was your preference??

        • I preferred the new ncerts. they are more updated and are in line with the recent trends of questions being asked in the papers. Although there is this one old ncert- the story of civilisation which i found relevant

          • Ayush

            Congratulations 🙂 Please do let me know if for the question and answer method of writing notes, where did you get your questions from? Did you work on previous year’s questions or did you preempt them? And if previous years then how far back did you go? Same strategy for all subjects?

  • adwaita

    hello mam,
    you said in one reply that you will provide some of your compiled notes.
    kindly upload if you have some time fr doing that, it will b really useful for us.
    thank you for your detailed articles on essay and history optional mam..