Millions of people died due to famines in India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; however, the relationship of historical famines with drought is complicated and not well understood. Using station-based observations and simulations, we reconstruct soil moisture (agricultural) drought in India for the period 1870-2016. We show that over this century and a half period, India experienced seven major drought periods (1876-1882, 1895-1900, 1908-1924, 1937-1945, 1982-1990, 1997-2004, and 2011-2015) based on severity-area-duration analysis of reconstructed soil moisture. Out of six major famines (1873-74, 1876, 1877, 1896-97, 1899, and 1943) that occurred during 1870-2016, five are linked to soil moisture drought, and one (1943) was not. The three most deadly droughts (1877, 1896, and 1899) were linked with the positive phase of El Niño-Southern Oscillation. Five major droughts were not linked with famine, and three of those five nonfamine droughts occurred after Indian independence in 1947.