Coins in Ancient India – UPSC Notes – Art and Culture

Numismatics, the study of coins, holds significant importance in reconstructing history, particularly in ancient times when only a few written records were available.

Indus Valley Civilization: The Harappan Seal, crafted from steatite, stands out as a distinctive artifact of the Indus Valley Civilization. Despite being made of stone, it is not considered a coin. Its primary uses included sealing trade packages and serving as amulets.

Janapadas/Mahajanapadas: The issuance of coins traces back to the 7th-6th Century BC, marked by the introduction of ‘punched-marksilver coins. Initially issued by merchant guilds and later by the state, these coins played a crucial role in the early economy.

Post-Mauryan Period: During this era, regular dynastic coins made their debut. The Greeks, influenced by their age-old tradition, were the pioneers in issuing gold coins, in addition to silver, marking a significant development in coinage history.

‘Punch-Marked’ Coins

The earliest forms of currency were known as ‘Punch Marked’ coins, cast and die-struck on one side only. On a single side, one to five marks or symbols were incised onto the metal, giving rise to these distinctive coins. According to Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, the process involved stamping metallic pieces with symbols, with each unit referred to as a ‘Ratti’ weighing 0.11 grams. These coins first emerged between the 6th and 2nd centuries BC. The following two classifications provide insights into their historical significance:

Punch-marked coins issued by various Mahajanapadas

The inaugural Indian punch marked coins, known as Puranas, Karshapanas, or Pana, were coined in the 6th century BC by diverse Janapadas and Mahajanapadas situated in the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Exhibiting irregular shapes, standard weight, and crafted from silver, these coins featured distinctive markings such as a humped bull for Saurashtra, a Swastika for Dakshin Panchala, and generally five symbols for Magadha. Magadhan punch-marked coins gained widespread circulation in South Asia, lasting three centuries longer in the South than in the North. References to these coins can be found in the Manusmriti and Buddhist Jataka stories.

Punch-marked coins during the Mauryan Period (322–185 BC)

Chanakya, the esteemed Prime Minister to the first Mauryan emperor Chandragupta Maurya, documented the minting of punch-marked coins, including rupyarupa (silver), suvarnarupa (gold), tamrarupa (copper), and sisarupa (lead) in his renowned treatise, the Arthashastra. These coins, featuring consistent symbols like the sun and a six-armed wheel, had an average weight of 50–54 grains of silver and 32 rattis, earning them the designation Karshapanas.

Punch-marked Coins
Punch-marked Coins

Indo-Greek Coins

The Indo-Greek era, spanning from 180 BC to around 10 AD, introduced a distinctive style to coinage by prominently featuring the bust or head of the ruler. These coins, a blend of cultural influences, bore legends in two languages—Greek on one side and Kharosthi on the other. Noteworthy Greek deities, including Zeus, Hercules, Apollo, and Pallas Athene, graced the surfaces of Indo-Greek coins. While the initial series showcased Greek divinities, later editions incorporated images of Indian deities.

These coins hold historical significance as they serve as informative artifacts, providing details about the issuing monarch, the year of minting, and occasionally featuring an image of the reigning king. Composed primarily of silver, copper, nickel, and lead, Indo-Greek coins were bilingual, featuring Greek on the obverse and the Pali language (in Kharosthi script) on the reverse.

Subsequently, the Indo-Greek Kushan kings embraced the Greek tradition of engraving portrait heads on coins. Kushan coinage featured a helmeted bust of the king on one side, complemented by the representation of the king’s favorite deity on the reverse. Notably, coins issued by Kanishka adopted Greek characters exclusively.

The extensive coinage of the Kushan Empire left an enduring impact, influencing diverse tribes, dynasties, and kingdoms to issue their unique coins. This widespread adoption contributed to the diverse and intricate tapestry of numismatic history.

Indo-Greek Coins
Indo-Greek Coins

Coins of the Satavahanas

The reign of the Satavahanas commenced after 232 BC and persisted until 227 AD. Notably, lead served as the primary material for their coins, with silver coins being a rarity. In addition to lead, they utilized an alloy of silver and copper known as ‘potin’, while copper coins were also prevalent.

While lacking in ornamental beauty or artistic flair, these coins held immense historical significance, providing valuable source material for understanding the dynastic history of the Satavahanas. On one side, the majority of Satavahana coins featured depictions of an elephant, horse, lion, or the Chaitya. The reverse side consistently displayed the distinctive Ujjain symbol—a cross with four circles positioned at the ends of the two intersecting lines.

The linguistic medium employed on these coins was Prakrit, reflecting the cultural and linguistic context of the era. Despite their apparent simplicity, Satavahana coins offer a unique glimpse into the economic and cultural facets of the dynasty’s rule.

Early coins of Satakarni I

Cowrie Shell

Apart from coins, another significant medium of exchange in the early Indian market was the Cowrie Shell. These shells were extensively used by the ordinary masses for small-scale economic transactions. Remarkably, cowrie shells held a definite value in the market, similar to that of coins.

Coins of the Western Satraps or the Indo-Scythians

The Western Satraps (35–405 AD) held sway in Western India, encompassing originally Malwa, Gujarat, and Kathiawar. Being of Saka origin, the coins of the Western Satraps are of paramount historical significance. These coins are dated according to the Saka era, commencing from 78 AD.

The coins of the Western Satraps typically feature the head of the king on one side, while the other side bears the distinctive image of the Buddhist chaitya or stupa, a motif evidently borrowed from the Satavahanas. This symbology reflects the cultural amalgamation and influences of the time.

The Prakrit language has been found inscribed on these coins, presented in various scripts, providing linguistic diversity in addition to the visual representation of the era’s cultural and historical dynamics.

Coins of the Western Satraps

Coins of the Gupta Era

The Gupta age (319 AD–550 AD) stands out as a pivotal period characterized by a profound Hindu revival. Gupta coins, primarily crafted from gold, also saw the issuance of silver and copper denominations. The introduction of silver coins occurred following the overthrow of the Western Satraps during Chandragupta II’s rule.

Gupta gold coins exhibited a rich array of types and varieties. One side of these coins showcased diverse depictions, including the king engaged in activities such as making oblations before an altar, playing the veena, performing ashvamedha, riding a horse or an elephant, and combatting lions, tigers, or rhinoceros with a sword or bow. Alternatively, the king could be seen in a more relaxed setting, seated on a couch.

On the flip side of Gupta coins, intricate depictions emerged, featuring the Goddess Lakshmi seated on a throne or a lotus seal, or even representations of the queen herself. A noteworthy aspect of Gupta coins was the inclusion of inscriptions in Sanskrit (Brahmi script), marking a historic first in the realm of coinage.

The Gupta rulers’ numismatic creations portrayed emperors not only engaged in martial activities like hunting lions/tigers and wielding weapons but also captured leisurely pursuits, such as playing the Veena. The reverse side of the coin featured images of revered deities like Lakshmi, Durga, Ganga, Garuda, and Kartikeya, reflecting the multifaceted cultural and religious ethos of the Gupta era.

Coins of Gupta Age
Coins of the Gupta Age
Transition from Gupta Rule to Regional Kingdoms

The conclusion of Gupta rule in the 6th century, triggered by a Hun invasion, marked an era of uncertainty. Subsequently, various local kingdoms emerged in different regions, issuing region-specific coins characterized by poor metallic content and artistic design. This period, extending until the 13th century, witnessed the adoption of a diverse array of designs. These designs not only drew inspiration from the Kushana–Gupta pattern but also incorporated elements from foreign designs. This eclectic mix was observed across Western, Eastern, Northern, and Central India.

Coinage in South India: A Unique Paradigm

South India, however, charted a distinct course in its coinage paradigm. Embracing a gold standard, South Indian dynasties drew inspiration from Roman gold coins that had arrived in the region during the first three centuries of the first millennium. This divergence in approach marked a unique trajectory in coinage history, showcasing the varied influences and regional dynamics that shaped the monetary landscape during this period of transition.

Coins of the Vardhanas

The Vardhanas, ruling from Taneshwar and Kannauj, played a crucial role in repelling the Hun invaders from India in the late 6th century. Among their prominent rulers, Harshavardhana stood out as the most powerful, overseeing an empire that spanned almost the entirety of Northern India. The silver coins issued by the Vardhanas featured the head of the king on one side and, on the reverse, the depiction of a peacock. Notably, the coins of Harshavardhana were dated in a new era, believed to have commenced in 606 AD, the year of his coronation.

Coins of the Vardhanas

Coins of Chalukyan Kings

The Chalukyan dynasty, founded by Pulakeshin I in the 6th century AD, had its capital at Badami in Karnataka. The coins from this era portrayed images of a temple or a lion, accompanied by legends, on one side, while the other side remained blank. In the case of the Eastern Chalukyan dynasty (7th–12th century AD), the coins featured a central symbol of a boar, with each letter of the king’s name inscribed by a separate punch. Similar to their Western counterparts, the reverse side of these coins was also left blank.

Coins of Chalukyan Kings

FAQs about Numismatics and Ancient Indian Coins

  1. What is numismatics, and why is it important in reconstructing history?
    • Numismatics is the study of coins. It is crucial in reconstructing history, especially in ancient times when written records were limited, as coins provide valuable insights into economic, cultural, and political aspects of different civilizations.
  2. Was the Harappan Seal considered a coin, and what were its primary uses?
    • The Harappan Seal, crafted from steatite, was not considered a coin. Its primary uses included sealing trade packages and serving as amulets.
  3. When did the issuance of coins in India begin, and what marked the early coins during the Janapadas/Mahajanapadas period?
    • The issuance of coins in India traces back to the 7th-6th Century BC, marked by the introduction of ‘punched-mark’ silver coins. Initially issued by merchant guilds, later by the state, these coins played a crucial role in the early economy.
  4. What are ‘Punch-Marked’ coins, and how were they created?
    • ‘Punch-Marked’ coins were the earliest forms of currency, featuring one to five marks or symbols incised on one side only. Created by stamping metallic pieces with symbols, these coins first emerged between the 6th and 2nd centuries BC.
  5. What are some examples of Mahajanapadas that issued punch-marked coins, and how are they classified?
    • The inaugural Indian punch-marked coins, known as Puranas, Karshapanas, or Pana, were coined by diverse Mahajanapadas. They featured distinctive markings such as a humped bull for Saurashtra, a Swastika for Dakshin Panchala, and generally five symbols for Magadha.
  6. How did the Indo-Greek era contribute to coinage history, and what were the characteristics of Indo-Greek coins?
    • The Indo-Greek era (180 BC to around 10 AD) introduced a distinctive style to coinage, featuring the bust of the ruler. These bilingual coins, primarily made of silver, copper, nickel, and lead, provided details about the issuing monarch, minting year, and occasionally depicted the reigning king.
  7. What materials were predominantly used for Satavahana coins, and what was the significance of their depictions?
    • Satavahana coins, primarily made of lead, featured depictions of an elephant, horse, lion, or the Chaitya. The reverse side consistently displayed the distinctive Ujjain symbol—a cross with four circles.
  8. Apart from coins, what was another significant medium of exchange in early Indian markets?
    • Apart from coins, the Cowrie Shell was another significant medium of exchange used for small-scale transactions in early Indian markets.
  9. What is unique about the coinage of the Gupta era, and what materials were used in crafting Gupta coins?
    • The Gupta age (319 AD–550 AD) marked a pivotal period characterized by a Hindu revival. Gupta coins, primarily crafted from gold, featured depictions of the king engaged in various activities. They also introduced inscriptions in Sanskrit (Brahmi script), a historic first in coinage.
  10. How did the transition from Gupta rule to regional kingdoms influence coinage, and what is unique about South Indian coinage during this period?
    • The transition from Gupta rule to regional kingdoms resulted in diverse coin designs inspired by Kushana–Gupta patterns and foreign influences. South India, however, embraced a gold standard, drawing inspiration from Roman gold coins, showcasing regional dynamics in coinage history.

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