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Aug 18, 2002

Ancient Coins and Inscriptions:

Their importance in building the history of ancient India
S. G. Dhopate

The barter system is the exchange of available surplus commodities by the individuals. For example, a
potter may exchange his pottery which is surplus with him, for grains with farmer, milk and milk
products with cowherd, skins and bones with hunter or cloth with weaver. Another form of exchange
similar to above system is acquiring needed commodity by offering cattle such as cows and sheep.
The first system must had been in practice even in prehistoric period of mankind. It is in practice till
today in certain parts of various countries world over. The exchange of cattle has a documentary
evidence from the Rigvedic verses which are the oldest literatures of the world. During the Vedic
sacrifices cows were offered to the Brahmins as Dakshina. Many purchases are mentioned by
offering cows. A Rishi in a dialogue with another Rishi refused to part his golden Indra idol even at
price of 10,000 cows. In one sacrifice each Brahmin was given for Dakshina a cow to one of whose
horn was tied a gold globule. Here in the verse this globule is termed as NISHKA. As several
Brahmins received Dakshina in this form it is clear that all the gold pieces must had been of uniform
weight, otherwise a variation in the weight would have been a cause for injustice. This is the oldest
document of offering metallic piece as a means of exchange. Moreover as there is a provision for
tying the piece they might had also been used as the ornaments.

Thus in Vedic, post Vedic as well as other all classical ancient Indian literatures up to the period of
Mahabharat there are references of Nishka and also of Shataman and Hiranyapind as the means of
exchange of uniform weights. They were certainly used as money but at present we can not conform
them as coins.

Harappan Mohonjodaro excavations have reported silver pieces with CUNIFORM marks. They were
some 12-13 pieces with fractions and multiples of a certain unit. A stone weight preserved in British
Museum obtained from Egypt is in a form of recumbent ox with an inscription of TETA, the Egyptian
ruler of 4500 years B. C. Another ancient wall painting in Egypt shows a treasure in the form of gold
rings being weighed against a weight in a shape of an ox. However the survey does not furnish us the
information regarding the beginning of coinage and acceptance of coins by the masses.

Two reasons must had been the cause of popularity of coins. 1)While offering a cow or a sheep a half
and quarter part, i. e. their fractions would have posed the problems during the transactions. 2)A
farmer might had been in need of cloth or pottery occasionally but the weaver or the potter would have
been in need of grains regularly. In this case farmer might have refused to bargain every time for the
commodities offered by the weaver or the potter. These and some other difficulties might be the
cause for the introduction of universal means like metallic pieces. Interestingly it is noteworthy that a
Sanskrit word PACU and similar Latin word PACUS or PECUNIA having a meaning cattle, were and
still are used to denote money (in Sanskrit DHANA). The present day English word PECUNIARY (i. e.
related to money) is reminiscent of early transaction of barter system.

With the passage of time the integrity in offering pure and genuine metal pieces might have been
under dispute because of adulterations of silver and copper in gold and copper in silver. This dispute
was brought to end by the rulers or by the treading authorities by stamping a mark of authenticity
and thus initiated the minting the 1/4
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coins. The
earliest such small round and thick piece of silver having a H type mark is reported in 1901 from
Crete, (ancient Greek colony). Its estimated date is 1200 years B. C. In the context of India it is a bent
bar coin having somewhat rectangular shape on which are Sun like figures on both sides. They are
reported from North West region of India, Taxila. Their approximate date is 700 years B. C.

The Punch Mark Coins are the indigenous ancient coins of India. They are issued in silver metal
having uniform weight around 3.4 to 3.6 gm., on obverse of which are generally five Punches of figures
of sun, moon, hill, river, bull, standard, and so many. On the reverse side is a single punch. They are
uninscribed , having no portrait of a king and also the date.

At Taxila on Bhir mounds excavations was discovered a hoard of silver coins having 1170 pieces. In
this two as if freshly strucked coins of Alexander and one coin of Phillip Aridatus associated with 1167
punch marked coins which were worn out due to their long time circulation. This discovery is a
landmark in the history of Indian coinage because we know the date of Alexander rule which is known
from other sources as c. 350 B. C. The very fact is a conclusive proof of minting coins in India before
the entry of Alexander. As already stated earlier their antiquity goes back to C. 700 years B. C.

Historically known Indian Empire is of Mahapadmanand of Nand dynasty. It is considered that coins
issued here onwards are uniform in verity. Chandragupta Mourya with the ambitious efforts of
Kautilya Vishnugupt succeeded Nandas and became the emperor of vast territory of India. Kautilya in
his treatise on Arthashastra elaborated the extraction of Metals from ores, the manufacture of metallic
alloys and minting of coins. For the silver coins he has used a term KARSHAPANAS. These are the
punch mark coins called by the numismatists. Of course it is only a prediction.

Greek coins were in circulation along with punch mark as the official currency. Later on the Roman
coins especially those of gold and silver were brought in by traders. From late first century B. C.
onwards a trade between the Roman empire and India was very flourishing. From Rome there used
come in chemicals, wines, high quality pottery, some metal alloys and gold and silver in the form of
coins and bars where as in exchange India was exporting silk and their articles, spices, precious
stones, jewelry etc. This trade was very favorable for India.

This was a period of Kushan rulers who entered in India from central Asia and established a large
empire in North India. They started issuing the gold coins. This is the beginning of golden era of Indian
coinage. Their successors were the Imperial Guptas. Their gold coins are reported in abundance
from various hoards. It is note worthy that all foreign coins discovered have adequate legends and
also the portraits of the rulers. This same system was followed by Kushan and Gupta kings. But from
the study of hoards found in South India we come to know that majority of them are associated with
coins along with local coins. It is noteworthy that though the coins of silver, copper, brass, potin and
lead are found in plenty, gold coins of Satvahana, Kshatrap, Traikutak, Abhir and Kalachuri rulers who
ruled during 250 years B. C. and 5th century A. D. are not found in any hoard, any where as stray find
or even in any excavation. Suvarna and Dinarias mentioned in literatures and inscriptions are the
terms used for the foreign coins. The first indigenous gold coin reported from South India is that of
Pulakesi II of early Chalukyas. This coin has a legend Satyasraya in Brahmi around the VARAH (i.e.
bore) motif at the center. Varah is the third incarnation of Lord Vishnu which was the family deity of
Chaukyas. However they are very rare and Roman and Byzantine coins were very predominant in
circulation which are evident from inscriptions and the contemporary literary records.

Gadyan coins later on became popular generally with inadequate or sometimes even without
legends. From various records we come to know that they are issues of copper, silver and gold. Again
in the 10th, 11th and 12th century AD we come across the coins of Kadambas, Yadavas and Cholas
in south. The base metal coins like those of copper, brass, potin and lead along with silver were in
circulation for day to day use and gold coins were used as a treasure and also for making ornaments. 2/4
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Barring few like Rashtrakutas these coins are issued by all the rulers of South India. There are few
coins with only motifs and no legends or partial legends. Their attribution is based on their find spots
or data available from other sources. The coins of Vishnukundins and Pallavas are from this category.
Even then Byzantine coins of foreign origin were also in circulation. Thus for a long period of thousand
years or even more, India`s foreign trade was of surplus nature. With a continuous inflow of gold in the
form of coins or bars by the foreign traders to purchase Indian commodities transformed India into
SUVARNA BHOOMI. Now let us review some data available from numismatic and epigraphic

1) By oral tradition we are familiar with one Greek monarch Alexander who conquered
The North West region of India. However Indo-Greek coins obtained in excavations
in this part brought to our notice as many as 42 Greek rulers.

2) We know only one Satavahana king based on mythological stories, although the Puranic
statements give the list of about 22 to 30 kings. Inscriptions in Nashik, Naneghat, Kanheri caves give
us the existence of seven kings and out of them almost all are known from the legends of the coins
they issued. Interestingly few kings not
listed by Puranas have been made known to us by coins.

3) The contemporary Kshatrap rulers are known us from their coins and inscriptions found in
Maharastra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Not only that they have helped in establishing
their genealogy, ruling period and a broad history, from 150 AD to 410 A D.

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4) A tremendous data compiled from these two sources gives us glimpses of cultural, social and
political history of Satavahana and Kshatrap during a period 250 years BC to 250 years AD.
5) Some 250 years back from now our fore fathers were completely ignorant about the rule of
Traikutakas and Shilaharas who ruled in Konkan. It is only because of hard and time consuming
efforts of European and Indian numismatists and epigraphists who studied these two historical
sources to compile their history.
6) Our history books teach us a lot regarding the empire of Ashoka and then suddenly jump to the
Mughals as the emperors of India. Never the less several copper plate grants of Rashtrakuta dynasty
which ruled from Manyakheta as their capital in south India inform us that once upon a time during 8th
and 9th century AD the boundaries of their empire was extended in north India as far as trans Yamuna
7) Satavahana queens Naganika and Balashri, Vakataka queen Prabhavati, Chalukyan queen
Vinayavati Kadamba queen Malaldevi who are the towering personalities of ancient Indian history
mentioned in various inscriptions are unknown even to the students of history.

These are very few examples cited here in this short essay. As we go deeper and deeper to study this
branch of history more and more fascinating new information we come across and some times they
compel us to change our present concept of a particular portion of conventional history.

At the same time a history student be free from any bias. His interpretations should not be twisted to
mislead the readers. Due to the controversial statements by the scholars, there are many problems
which are yet to be settled.


A special essay prepared for the inaugural day of Indology Group, Pillais` College of Architecture,
New Panavel on July 29, 1998. 3/4
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