The challenges faced in delivering lifesaving vaccines to the targeted beneficiaries need to be addressed from the existing knowledge and learning from the past. This review documents the history of vaccines and vaccination in India with an objective to derive lessons for policy direction to expand the benefits of vaccination in the country. A brief historical perspective on smallpox disease and preventive efforts since antiquity is followed by an overview of 19 th century efforts to replace variolation by vaccination, setting up of a few vaccine institutes, cholera vaccine trial and the discovery of plague vaccine. The early twentieth century witnessed the challenges in expansion of smallpox vaccination, typhoid vaccine trial in Indian army personnel, and setting up of vaccine institutes in almost each of the then Indian States. In the post-independence period, the BCG vaccine laboratory and other national institutes were established; a number of private vaccine manufacturers came up, besides the continuation of smallpox eradication effort till the country became smallpox free in 1977. The Expanded Programme of Immunization (EPI) (1978) and then Universal Immunization Programme (UIP) (1985) were launched in India. The intervening events since UIP till India being declared non-endemic for poliomyelitis in 2012 have been described. Though the preventive efforts from diseases were practiced in India, the reluctance, opposition and a slow acceptance of vaccination have been the characteristic of vaccination history in the country. The operational challenges keep the coverage inequitable in the country. The lessons from the past events have been analysed and interpreted to guide immunization efforts.