Function versus Propaganda – the evolution of Indian coinage

A coin with a historical figure depicted on it is one of the attractions coin collecting offers history buffs.  It is also a reason why so many collectors commence their collections with Roman imperial coins.  Roman coins from the 3rd century onwards are easily available for fairly low prices and collecting by Emperors is a common pursuit.

Unfortunately for collectors who start their collections with Indian coins, collecting by emperor is no easy task.  Indian coinage commences with punch marked coins with various kingdoms stamping their symbols on bars of silver of fixed weight.

For Kingdoms like Gandhara, the punches are fairly uniform.  At 11.4 gms the full Shatamanas of Gandhara are the heaviest of early Indian coinage.  Coincidentally (or perhaps not since it was subject to the Persian Empire) they happen to be twice the weight of the Persian siglos.  Also unusually among early Indian coins, Gandhara provided fractional coinage – probably made necessary by the weight of the Shatamana.

Shatamana and one-eighth Shatamana of Gandhara

In contrast the other kingdoms used lighter weight standards (between 5.5 gms-3.5 gms depending on the kingdom).  They also typically had more punches.  The Kingdom of Magadha which founded the first Indian empires spread its Karshapana weight standard of of 3.5 gms across the subcontinent.  Coins of Magadha typically have 5 punches.  Two are generally the sun and a six-armed symbol.  The purpose of the remaining punches is not known.

Karshapana of Magadha – Notice sun symbol at bottom right and six arm symbol above

Magadhan coins have been catalogued across seven series by Gupta-Hardaker and by Rajgor.  These series also assign the coins to kings known to us through the Puranic lists.   However, with no script on the coins I am not sure how definitive these attributions are.

The early Magadhan coins are thinner with large flans.  They get thicker with smaller flans towards the end of the series.  Silver karshapanas disappear under the Sunga Empire as copper coinage makes its first appearance in India (presumably due to the economic stress from the Indo-Greek invasion).

With no ruler pictured and no text these punch-marked coins do not provide any propaganda value to the issuing state.  Their role appears to be primarily functional in providing a reliable currency.  The punches (and varied bankers marks) guarantee the quality of silver and identify the state issuing the coins.   It took exposure to Indo-Greek coinage for (some) Indian states to respond in kind.  Indo-Greek coinage is generally bilingual often with a royal portrait and replete with other titles.

Silver drachm of Menander I (155-130 BC). Obv: Greek legend, ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΣΩΤΗΡΟΣ ΜΕΝΑΝΔΡΟΥ (BASILEOS SOTEROS MENANDROU) lit. “Of Saviour King Menander”. Rev: Kharosthi legend: MAHARAJA TRATASA MENADRASA “Saviour King Menander”. Athena advancing right, with thunderbolt and shield. Taxila mint mark.

The first Indian state to respond appears to have been the Kuninda Kingdom at the foothill of the Himalayas.  Known largely through its coinage, this state minted beautiful (if cluttered) silver coins at the Indo-Greek weight standard.  The coins also use two scripts – Brahmi and Kharosthi.

Silver coin of the Kuninda Kingdom, c. 1st century BCE. Obv: Deer standing right, crowned by two cobras, attended by Lakshmi holding a lotus flower. Legend in Prakrit (Brahmi script, from left to right): Rajnah Kunindasya Amoghabhutisya maharajasya (“Great King Amoghabhuti, of the Kunindas”). Rev: Stupa surmounted by the Buddhist symbol triratna, and surrounded by a swastika, a “Y” symbol, and a tree in railing. Legend in Kharoshti script, from righ to left: Rana Kunidasa Amoghabhutisa Maharajasa, (“Great King Amoghabhuti, of the Kunindas”).

While these coins identify at least one king, they still do not have a royal portrait.

That honor goes to the Satavhanas (note: this categorization excludes the Indo-Scythians, Indo-Parthians, Kushanas, etc. from the ambit of native Indian states).  Probably inspired by the coinage of the Kshatrapa Nahapana (whose coins are often overstruck) the Satavahanas produced some silver drachms with some rather unique royal potraits.

Coin of Gautamiputra Satakarni. Obv: King in profile. Prakrit legend “Rano Gotamiputasa Siri Yana Satakarnisa”: “In the reign of Gautamiputra Sri Yana Satakarni” Rev: Hill with Satavahana symbol, sun and moon. Dravidian legend “Arahanaku gotami putaku Hiru Yana Hatakanaku”.
Silver coin of king Vashishtiputra Sātakarni (c. 160 CE). Obv: Bust of king. Prakrit legend in the Brahmi script: “Siri Satakanisa Rano … Vasithiputasa”: “King Vasishtiputra Sri Satakarni” Rev: Ujjain/Sātavāhana symbol left. Crescented six-arch chaitya hill right. River below. Early Tamil legend in the Brahmi script: “Arahanaku Vahitti makanaku Tiru Hatakaniko” – which means “The ruler, Vasitti’s son, Highness Satakani” – -ko being the royal name suffix.

It is not clear how stylized or life-like these portraits are (some actually depict the Emperor with a mustache).  But they reflect an attempt to put a face to the ruler of the state, an effective method of propaganda.  Sadly such attempts are rare.  With the exception of the Guptas, later Indian coins with royal portraits are often frozen or abstract images (and even the Gupta silver coins copied the Kshtrapa portraits).

Coin of the Western Kshatrapa ruler Rudrasimha I (178 to 197). Obv: Bust of Rudrasimha, with corrupted Greek legend “..OHIIOIH..” (Indo-Greek style). Rev: Three-arched hill or Chaitya, with river, crescent and sun, within Prakrit legend in Brahmi script:Rajno Mahaksatrapasa Rudradamnaputrasa Rajna Mahaksatrapasa Rudrasihasa “King and Great Satrap Rudrasimha, son of King and Great Satrap Rudradaman”

Some later states like the Maitrakas went further and froze the legends to honor their founder of the dynasty.  As will be discussed in a later post, Indian coinage between 500-1000 AD lacks the variety and artistic value of the centuries that preceded it.  Coinage becomes more abstract.  The portraiture is crude.  Kings and dynasties often don’t even bother to identify themselves and attributions are often made by the location of coin hoards.  Crude imitations of earlier and Sassanid coinages are very common.  The pendulum swings back to function for the next few hundred years.


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