India’s 2500 year-old coin history includes an amazing variety and volume of coins issued. They are a treasured source of information and marvellous work of art
A picture may be worth a thousand words, yet a coin may be worth a book! It may be small in size, its contours weathered, its inscriptions a bit worn, yet it has stories to tell.
Hundreds of these fascinating stories emerge in India as the country’s unique numismatic history goes back to 2500 years. Coins have been an important source of providing information of history specially when there are few or no other sources such as written records, paintings, oral history, seals and other objects of the time. “Coins are also the best example of continuity and change. Although the depictions on coins kept on changing over a long period, the ‘successor’ coin always retained some aspects of his ‘predecessor’. So the change seen on coins is a continuous one. And hence, coins become the best tools to understand changes in a society”, says Abhijit Dandekar, Assistant Professor, Department of Archaeology, Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute, Pune. Finds of Roman coins in South India tell of trade between the two regions in the early centuries of the Christian era. It has helped scholars reconstruct the rule of nearly 30 Bactrian rulers over the Punjab region during the second century BC. And a coin issued by the Emperor Akbar, which bears an image of Hindu deities Ram and Sita with the words Rama-Siya in Nagari lipi, reflects the Mughal emperor’s broadmindedness towards different religions.
GOING BACK MILLENNIA
The origins of Indian coinage are traced to the mention of the Nishka, surmised to be an ornament that was used to make payments or offered as a gift, in ancient literature. This concept of regarding a form of metal as wealth and offering it as a medium of exchange is regarded as the first step in introducing the concept of coinage in the country. The next step was using the metal itself as a medium of exchange; it is deduced that this step led small pieces of silver being used for exchange, thus easing the difficulties of barter exchange.
Research states that over time the first coins emerged. Silver was melted, purified, beaten into sheets and then small pieces of silver were clipped from these sheets. These pieces were weighed against a fixed amount of seeds and stamped with symbols to make them official and guarantee their weight, making for rudimentary coins! This initial period of coinage history goes back to the 6th century BC as evidenced in finds of small punch-marked coins and the silver ‘Taxila bent bar’ cut from silver oblong ingots (and got a slightly concave shape from the pressure during punching it with motifs).
PORTRAIT OF THE RULER
The arrival of Greeks from India’s northwestern region in the 4th century BC led the way for the appearance of round, die-struck coins that bore motifs and inscriptions struck by dyes. These coins bore different designs on both sides thus giving coins an obverse and reverse side, featuring images of Greek deities and inscriptions. This style of coins gradually appeared on coins issued by rulers of subsequent dynasties. “The Indo-Greek coins played a major role for almost two thousand years after they were issued! They proved helpful in the decipherment of ancient Indian scripts like Brahmi and Kharoshthi in the 19th century as legends and names inscribed on them were not only in Greek but also in Brahmi and Kharoshthi”, explains Prof Dandekar.
The Kushanas who arrived in India from Central Asia in the early centuries of the Christian Era, issued coins that indicated their victories and reign. Finds of their coins across the Gangetic plains tell about the extent of their presence, the large number of coins indicates the prosperity of their reign, images of Greek, Iranian, Buddhist and Hindu deities tells of universal outlook and portraits of their kings in regal attire or riding an elephant speak of their sovereignty. “Kanishka I, the greatest amongst the Kushana kings, replaced the Greek legend on his coins with the legend in his own Bactrian language. This was the end of any Greek legend on coins in India. He, thus, made a big statement by replacing a classical language by a local one”, says Prof Dandekar.
Striking coins were issued by the Gupta rulers in the early 4th century. These included gold coins, bearing motifs of a goddess on the reverse and the king on the obverse in a dynamic pose holding weapons, riding a horse, attacking an animal, holding a string instrument that speak of their religious beliefs, prosperous reign, patronage of art, royal and marital attributes, and interest in arts. Meanwhile, in the Deccan and South India, rulers issued a variety of coins featuring animals (elephant, fish, bull), hills and Hindu legends. The Cheras, Pandyas and Cholas ruled kingdoms in the South and each had distinct coinage featuring the bow and arrow, the fish, and tiger, respectively .
THE MEDIEVAL CENTURIES
The arrival of Islamic rulers brought in new influences. As Islam restricts the depiction of figures on objects, coins issued by Muslim rulers (predominantly from the early 11th century) in North India and gradually in different parts of the country typically only bore inscriptions on both sides unlike coins that feature figural motifs. These inscriptions featured the names of the Abbasid Khalifas, their own names and titles, the Kalima or the profession of faith, the regnal year, the year of issue in the Hijri year that began in 622, and the mint of issue.
The Mughal emperors – starting with Emperor Babur who won the decisive battle in 1526 – issued a wonderful variety of beautifully minted coins including issues with Persian months, pictorial motifs and zodiac signs – till their rule faded away in the 19th century as the British gained control of the sub-continent. The coins of the Mughals expressed their aesthetics, philosophy and beliefs as well as the prosperity of the times. These coins are regarded as one of India’s finest coinage, in their beauty of execution, variety, expansion of mints, influences on the coinage of different regions of India and in establishing a uniform currency standard.
Rulers in other parts of the country – such as the Marathas, the Sikhs, rulers of the hill States and the Rajput States continued issuing coins, which depicted pictorial motifs and Hindu legends. The coins of each of these states differed in their execution, fabric, weight, quality of metal and inscriptions. The Ahoms, originally from northern Myanmar, who ruled Assam issued coins from 1648 AD, which were octagonal in shape. All these coins are a wealth of information and offer details of names of rulers, the years they ruled, their beliefs and the economic situation of the times.
ARRIVAL OF EUROPEANS
The arrival of Europeans on India’s western and southern coasts brought more issues. The Portuguese (arrived in 1498 AD at the Malabar coast and captured Goa in 1510 AD); the Dutch (arrived in 1605 AD and had a presence till 1825); the Danes (had a presence for about two centuries starting about 1620); the French (established their base in Surat in 1668 and gradually spread their presence till the transfer of French enclaves to the Indian Union in 1954) issued coins adding to India’s already fascinating numismatic heritage.
The British who arrived in the early 17th century were most successful in their ambitions. They established trading posts in different parts; coins were issued by the East India Company styled on contemporary Mughal coins or the coins of Indian rulers. After the First War of Independence in 1857 when Queen Victoria assumed authority, coins were issued in different denominations with the image of the Queen. After her passing away, coins bore the heads of the successive British monarchs. Meanwhile, rulers of independent states continued to issue coins in their own names.
After independence in 1947, the Government of India has been issuing coins regularly. In 1957, the metric system was introduced and coins have been issued by different mints (with their individual distinguishing marks on the coins) with portraits of national leaders, important national figures, motifs conveying development and national integration, important events, monuments and organisations. The continuing issue of coins with interesting, informative and artistic motifs adds to the extraordinary numismatic heritage of India, delighting lovers of coins, historians and collectors.
Text: Brinda Gill