Coins tell stories
The earliest currency in India was the punch-marked coin. These were made since the Mahajanapadas which were the first 16 kingdoms established in northern India during the 6th century BCE. The coins had their own nomenclature and were based on units called ratti which was a fraction of a gram. The Arthashastra says that there were four types of coins in fractions of the pana ranging through full, half, quarter and one-eighth. However, the Karshapana, which weighed 32 rattis, is the only pana denomination found in excavations. There was also the Satamana, equal to 100 manas.
Punch-marked coins have been recovered from many archaeological sites all over India and are distinguished by the use of silver alloys. It is believed that the silver for these coins made during the time of the Mahajanapadhas came from trade with Afghanisthan. From records in the Jatakas, Manu-smriti and by Panini, of how these coins were made we know that they were cut out of silver bars to measure a certain size. Next, the excess metal would be clipped off, to arrive at the correct weight designated for the coin. Naturally, coin-makers wanted the coins to be easily distinguished for different monetary amounts and the idea of the coin carrying symbols and images took shape. Many of the early kingdoms had only single symbols, like Saurashtra’s coins, which were impressed with the humped bull. The principal Mahajanapadas had up to four types of coins. With the rise of the Magadhan Empire as the most prominent, coins became streamlined into five distinct recognizable symbols.
After the Magadhan period, between 400 BCE and 200 BCE the Greeks introduced a portrait type of emblem on coins, so that the image related to an authority of the state. Once kings and rulers started to appear on the coins, the history of coinage becomes exciting as we can now recognize personalities as well as eras. Numismatists have termed these as the Imperial series of punch-marked coins. During the Mauryan period, the punch-mark symbols increased in number to many kinds, the more popular ones being chakras, bow-and-arrow, the sun, a six-armed wheel and other geometrical patterns impressed on one side of the silver bit with a punch. On the reverse side, we often find the Ujjain symbol with two crossed lines and circles at the ends of the lines. The use of these coins spread across the country with Ashoka’s empire expanding across the sub-continent from Afghanisthan and Baluchistan all the way south till Orissa.
In the wake of the Shunga dynasty were the Kushanas, coming from as far as Afghanisthan, ruling Magadha in the period before the Guptas. Kushana art put its own stamp as vivid designs on coins. A portrait of the reigning king on one side was accompanied by a Kharoshti or Greek script, while a deity adorned the other side. A range of deities are depicted, from Greek, Iranian, Brahmanical and Buddhist sources, indicating a multi-religious society. Kushana coins can also be distinguished by a ‘tamga’ the unique identity mark of each reigning monarch.
The Allahabad pillar has inscriptions by three rulers and thus represents three eras: Ashoka Maurya from the 3rd century BCE, Samudragupta from the 4th century CE and finally the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 17th century CE.
Samudragupta’s parents were depicted on a coin and these pictorials were corroborated by evidence on the Allahabad pillar. Samudraupta’s father, Chandragupta I had made his alliance with princess Kumaradevi of the neighbouring Vaishali kingdom, which helped him further secure his stronghold and the text refers to this lineage. “Samudragupta the Mahārājādhirāja, son of the prosperous Chandragupta I, the Mahārājādhirāja, born of the Mahādēvī Kumāradēvī, daughter’s son of the Lichchhavi ….”
Where many other inscriptions and records may have been erased over time, coins still hold their stories. Samudragupta was the ruler of the Gupta Empire from 335 to 375 CE. He was known to be a great and fearless warrior who carried out many conquests. From the depictions of the king, even on small-sized coins, we can see his muscular arms and a broad chest. Historians conclude that he appears to be a man of good physique and of tall stature. While Samudragupta had expansive imperial ambitions, he was also a ruler who was cultured and had a love for the arts. These two faces of Samudragupta are in fact shown on the coins from the Gupta regime. One side of the coin shows Samudragupta with a bow and arrow and the other side shows him playing a veena. Quite rightly, Samudragupta was honoured as a kaviraja, which literally means poet-king.
Several types of coins are attributed to Samudragupta. The garud-dhvaja shows the King making offerings to the fire with a garud-dhvaja in his left hand. On the reverse side, we see Goddess Lakshmi seated on the lion. Then there is the Battle Axe Type, the Archer type, the Lyre Player type, the Tiger-Slayer, the King and Queen Type and Ashvamedha. It is evident from the warrior-style attire in the Archer Type, Battle Axe Type and Tiger-Slayer, that Samudragupta celebrated his attributes as a skilful warrior. The Ashvamedha Type further confirms his propriety gestures on annexing kingdoms and establishing his supremacy.
Samudragupta cultivated an atmosphere that was conducive to the appreciation of the arts and his son Chandragupta II took this forward to a much greater extent. Under the Guptas, literature, arts and architecture of ancient India flourished, reaching great heights under Chandragupta’s Golden Age. Large numbers of gold coins were issued and this signifies the grandeur of that age. Chandragupta II continued issuing gold coins that his father Samudragupta had instituted, namely the Sceptre, Archer and Tiger-Slayer. He also brought in new types as the Horseman and Lion-Slayer and silver coins in the Saka tradition.
Chandragupta II defeated the Kshatrapas, whose dynastic symbol was a three-arched hill. Coins were like the trademark of a ruler, so Chandragupta replaced this symbol with the dynastic symbol of the Guptas – the mythic eagle Garuda. The inscription on one such coin with the Garuda reads “Chandragupta Vikramaditya, King of Kings, devotee of Vishnu.”
The Nandas were the first to attempt a formal unification of the Indian Empire. They made Pataliputra the centre of activity. Rendering an effective administration and revenue system based on taxation, allowed the Nanda regime to become wealthy. Agriculture was the staple of this revenue and punch-marked coins produced by the Nandas on a large scale are indication of their well-established reign.
The Bihar Museum’s coins make up 58% of its collection and number 30,000. It is a voluminous collection and the Museum’s Coin Gallery is devoted to the study of coins. You can find how wonderfully history was unravelled through the impressions on coins: by relating categories to timelines, deciphering visual symbols and inscriptions and corroborating evidence from other sources.