An Introduction to Ancient Indian Coinage

Article by Gautam Jantakal published in Nanyadarshini(KNS) 2016

Why should we Study Ancient Indian Coinage ?
In an Indian perspective, No connected written History has come down to us prior to the Muhammadan conquests i.e. 12 Cen CE. So how do we build our Ancient History???
Sources of Ancient Indian History can be broadly classified into Archaeological and Literary (non Historical) sources. Under Archaeological sources, we have Inscriptions(Epigraphs), Coins and Monuments. Under the literary sources, we have Secular (Eg;- Samskrit Grammar works) and Non Secular(Eg:- Puranas) sources. A good example of how Ancient coins have helped to build our history are the coins of the Indo Greeks, the Indo Scythians and the Indo Parthians who ruled the North Western region of India between 3 Cen BCE to 2 Cen CE. Greek historians like Strabo and Justin have maintained records of about five Indo Greek rulers and spanning about half a century. However Coins have indicated more than thirty Indo Greek Kings. In the case of Indo Scythians, the scenario is much worse. Most of the ruler names like Vonones, Sparilisis, Sparahores, Azes, and Azilises are known only from their coins.

What information can we derive from an Ancient Coin ?
An ancient coin can give us information in various dimensions of our past society. The information derived from Coins are historical facts that is accurate and reliable . To illustrate, a Gupta gold coin is taken below.

Polity: On the coin obverse, part of the legend reads in Brahmi script as “RaJaDhiRaJa” indicating a Monarchical form of government
Religion : The coin shows a seated goddess Laxmi showing that the Gupta kings worshipped Hindu dieties and patronised the Hindu religion.
Script and Language : Deciphering of the legend on the coin shows that Brahmi script and Samskrit language was used during the Gupta period
Economic Condition: The fact that a Gold coin of high purity was issued by Guptas shows the strength of their economy.
Technology and Craftsmanship : The degree of quality and artistic fineness of the coin demonstrate their maturity in Metallurgy and Craftsmanship
Cultural traits: The head dress, ornaments, clothes used by the royals and dieties can be seen on the coin
Trade Relations : If a Gupta coin is found in a region not ruled by Guptas, it could mean that the region had trade relationship with the Gupta empire

When and why did coins originate in India ?
To understand this, we will have to go back to the Neolithic period in India . Neolithic period started in India around 7000 BCE and there was a growth of Agricultural communities from Baluchuistan in the West to Haryana in the East. People started to settle down in groups and communities. Agriculture started to gain prominence along with poultry farming and domestication of animals. There was a need to exchange surplus between groups and communities and this was done by the Barter system. Then came the Indus Valley (3300-1600 BCE) , also known as the first Urbanisation period because of the appearance of well developed towns for the first time. The Indus Valley civilisation had a mature economy with Agriculture and Trade being the important occupations. Commerce continued to be supported by the Barter system. Then came the Vedic period (1300 BCE – 600 BCE) where there was increase in commerce volumes and the Barter system could no longer support it. The requirements of commerce called for a more reliable system and this requirement gave rise to the birth of Money. Money can be defined as “Anything which can be used as a medium for exchange goods of different values on a daily basis and serve as a store of value for future”. A few items that were used as Money in ancient India was Cows, Curios like shells and beads, Semi Precious stones, Gold pieces etc.
Then came the Janapada period or the Second Urbanisation period(600 BCE onwards) where several new towns emerged in the fertile Indo Gangetic plains. There was an explosion of commerce and the traditional Money forms of the Vedic period could no longer support it. The obvious issues with traditional money forms were non divisibility (Eg;- Cows could not be divided for a lesser volume transaction), maintenance requirements (again Money forms like cows needed efforts to be maintained), question of purity of the metal piece being used as money etc.. . In this backdrop, Coins must have been introduced in commerce. A Coin can be defined as “ a piece of metal which has a distinct value conferred upon it by a stamp of official authority authorizing its use as money”

When did coins first start in India ?
As we saw previously, the explosion of commerce during the Second Urbanization period (600 BCE onwards) must have paved way for the introduction of Coins. But is it possible to pin point or substantiate the time period further? To answer this , we need to focus towards some archaeological evidences, an important one being the Jetavana roundel which is a medallion sculpture found in Bharhut.

Jetavana Roundel

It has a pictorial representation of a rich merchant by name Ananthapindaka who covered an entire garden with rectangular silver coin pieces in order to purchase the garden for Gautama Buddha’s monastery. So this sculpture is an evidence of coins being in circulation and commerce during the life time of Buddha. So dating Buddha’s death would help postulate the time of introduction of coins in India. However, the period of Buddha’s death is itself not accurately determined yet. Occidental scholars place it at 400 BCE where as Oriental scholars place it earlier at 486 BCE. Using this date as reference and assuming about a 100 years would have passed for coins to have come to the form as indicated in the Jetavana roundel, the introduction of the first coins in India can be postulated as 5 Cen BCE or 6 Cen BCE (depending on whether aligning with Occidental scholars or the Oriental scholars).

How did the first coins look like ?
The earliest coins were pieces of silver of a definite weight that were bearing official punches or Rupakas. The punches were usually Flora and Fauna, Religious symbols or Geometric patterns. This practice of stamping Rupakas is believed to be derived from the Vedic period tradition where cows were stamped to identify to whom it belonged to. This technique of punching Rupakas on coins lead to the modern scholars terming them as Punch Mark Coins (PMCs). The Punch Marked technique is unique to the coins of the Indian sub continent.

How were the first coins minted ?
There were two main steps for minting coins. The first was the preparation of the coin blank and the second was the application of the punches on the heated coin blank.

Which issue can be considered as the first Coin ? Were our first coins Indigenous OR Influenced ?
To answer these two questions, we will have to first look at the possible contenders for the oldest Indian coins. Based on factors like the minting technology used, number of punches appearing on the coin, the weight standard followed; scholars have determined two coin series i.e. the Narhan hoard(Narhan is a town in current day Uttar Pradesh) and the Gandhara bent bar(Gandhara is a region in current day Pakistan and Afghanistan) as the possible earliest coinage of our sub continent.

Comparing the two coins, we can observe that:
Nunber of punches: The Narhan hoard coins consist of a single main punch at the center and few smaller auxiliary punches where as the Gandhara bent bar have two main punches on either side of the coin. Going by the popular theory that the number of punches increased with time, the Narhan hoard coin could be considered as older than the Gandhara bent bar.
Minting technology: Looking at the coin fabric and appearance, the Narhan hoard coins look more archaic and the Gandhara bent bar coins look more refined.
Weight: The Narhan hoard coins weigh in the range of 6 – 7.5 g which does not have any matching weight standard in the coin issues of neighbouring regions like west Asia. The Gandhara bent bars are on an average about weigh in the range of 11.2 – 11.6 g and matches with the Double Sigloi standard of the Persian Achaemenid empire.
From the above points, it could be postulated that the Narhan hoard coins are perhaps the earliest coinage of the Indian subcontinent and were an indigenous creation. The Gandhara Bent bar was also indigenous in the sense that it used the unique Indian punch mark technique, however influenced by the Persian weight standard.

What was the weight standard of Ancient Indian coins ?
Similar to the wheat grain being the basic unit of weight in ancient Europe, the unit of weight in Ancient India was the Ratti seed (scientific name Abrus Precatorius). This was because Ratti seeds had the unique property of being almost uniform in weight which is 0.116 grams.

With the Ratti seed as the basic unit of weight, our ancient literature refers to three different weight standards- Shatamana, Vimshatika and Karshapana. There were also fractional weights in each of these standards.
Silver weight standards:
One Silver Shatamana = 100 Rattis(11.6 g)
One Silver Vimshatika = 40 Rattis (4.6 g)
One Silver Karshapana = 32 Rattis (3.7 g)
Copper weight standards:
One Copper Vimshatika = 100 Rattis (11.6 g)
One Copper Karshapana= 80 Rattis (9.3 g)

Ancient Indian Coins Revisited – Wilfried Pieper
PunchMarked coins of early Historic India – Dilip Rajgor
Coins by PL Gupta
Punchmarked coins of the Indian Subcontinent – Gupta and Hardekar

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