“II am visiting this gallery for the second time in a month,” says Ayushi, a New Delhi-based history honours student. “The glimpse into the past is so fascinating that I have brought along my friends to have a first-hand experience of the remarkable collection of Indian currency,” she adds.
The coins gallery on the first floor of the National Museum at Janpath is certainly remarkable for its variety, rarity and antiquity. It provides a trip back in time to a world when coins were the sole currency. Sanjib Kumar Singh, archaeologist and museologist, National Museum, remarked, “It traces the journey of Indian coinage from its shell avatars to the modern-day plastic version of credit cards. Aptly called, ‘From Cowries to Credit Cards’, it has on display more than 1,500 most famous coins from the museum’s vast collection.”
“The entire history of Indian coinage, starting from about 6th century BCE to the beginning of the 21st century CE, is well represented along with the dioramas depicting various techniques of coin production. It has been set-up in such a manner that not only historians and researchers but even the general public find it interesting,” Singh, also spokesperson for the museum, added.
Bringing alive the money trade in all its hard forms, several sections depict, through clay models, how different forms of coins were moulded, punched, cast and marked.
Komal Pande, assistant curator (Numismatics & Epigraphy), Coins Gallery, National Museum, says, “These coins are a rich and authentic source of information on various aspects of ancient, medieval and modern Indian history that holds a record of political and economic changes in the country.”
Interspersed with coins on display are historical facts that provide an insight into these coins. A panel reads, “Between 6th century BCE and 1st century CE, merchant guilds and royal families used punch-marked silver and copper coins all over India. The process of making the metal sheets, cutting them into strips and then to pieces of uniform sizes and weight varied from one period to another.” Barring minor variations, it remained the same during the Imperial period. These coins bear various symbols including: bulls, elephants, rabbits, deer, turtles, palm tree, fig tree, wheels and the sun.
For a punch-marked coin, a blank coin and one or more punches are required. Pande explains, “The punch is a narrow cylindrical metallic bar bearing the outline of a symbol. Impressing upon a pre-processed and highly heated blank coin produces the punch-marked coin.”
A series of inscribed and non-inscribed copper coins were also used in several north-Indian states. While the early coins bore symbols from tribal and popular cults, they paved the way for Buddhist and Brahmanical religious symbols.
Tribal and dynastic
The coins during the tribal period of the 2nd century BCE were inscribed with names and places in Brahmi script. Coin casting was done in a single operation. Two moulds were joined together by pouring molten metal into the void through a small hole. Once the metal solidified, the moulds were taken apart to get the coin. Cast coins, in different shapes and sizes, were usually crude and dumpy in fabric. Copper was used as the prime metal for such coins, though few tribes also issued coins in silver.
Further exhibits display dynastic coinage. These were introduced between 2nd century BCE and 2nd century CE with the arrival of foreign conquerors — Indo-Greek, Saka-Pallava and Kushan. Issued under the Indo-Greek traditions, the silver coins depict Greek dieties on one side and portraits of issuers on the other. “These coins assume great significance, as reconstruction of history of this time, is mainly based on these,” the curator said.
Even as the system of dating coins continues in India, the earliest dated coins in the gallery are of the Western Kshaprapas that belong to the Saka era of 78 CE. Until the Kushans arrived and introduced major changes, portraiture was common to all foreign and indigenous issues. Kushans initiated a new concept with their gold coins. Iconographic forms drawn from Greek, Mesopotamia, Zorastrian and Indian mythology, including Lord Shiva, Kartikeya and Buddha, were portrayed on the coins.
Guptas used Kushan gold coins. And according to Pande, the variety, aesthetic sensitivity and rich narrative content found in these surpass any other coinage of Ancient India. “With the Gupta coinage (4th to 6 century CE) began a process of indigenisation. The post-Gupta coinage was represented by a monotonous and aesthetically less interesting sense of dynastic issues including during 7th century CE and early medieval Rajput rulers (9th to 12th century CE),” she says.
Spiritual and religious
Early south Indian coinage belonged to a conservative variety. While some carried portraits and bilingual legends, others had dynastic symbols such as boar, tiger, lion, fish, bow and arrow. Children visiting the gallery generally spend a lot of time observing this section.
The foreign coins of Chinese and Arab origin were found in south India at the beginning of the Christian era and between 9th and 12th centuries CE. Whereas medieval Indian coinage represented by the Arab, Sultanate and Mughal coins, is dominated by Islamic traditions. Kalima (Islamic creed), the names of the Caliphs as spiritual heads and Quranic verses in calligraphy were used extensively around then.
Coins from the time of Mahmud Ghazni (10th to 11th century CE) carried Arabic Kufic and Sanskrit-Nagari scripts. During Muhammad Ghori’s reign, the Hindu deity of wealth, Lakshmi, was also featured on coins. The Deccan gold, which filled the coffers of the Khiljis, was turned into an interesting series of coins of Alauddin Khilji with titles such as Sikander-al-Sani. But Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq was the one to create history by introducing economically significant currency.
While talking to the curators, I spy a young student taking pictures of a particular section with his smartphone. “I will show these to my teacher,” he says. On display are Babur’s coins inscribed with his name and title. His son, Humayun followed the tradition. Akbar issued coins in gold, silver and copper. His coins were round and square in shape. The commemorative gold coins during his reign were hexagonal.
“The Mughal coinages have been ranked among the greatest currencies in the world for their originality and innovative hallmarks,” the curator says.
When Jahangir, popularly known as Salim, ascended the throne of the Mughal empire after his father Akbar, the coins bore the name Salim. In the first year of his rule, he issued gold mohurs with the portrait of his father. The weight of gold and silver coins was increased by 20 per cent and these were known as Nurjahani and Jahangiri. But as he again increased the weight of each coin by 3 per cent, the public approached him expressing inconvenience in carrying the coins. Promptly, the weight was reduced. His son Shah Jahan also launched new coins during his reign.
Another interesting unit displays zodiac signs, portraits and literary verses in calligraphy on coins that were introduced by Jahangir. These were preceded by Ilahi coins of Akbar to commemorate his religious ideals. Not meant for general circulation; these were used as royal gifts to ambassadors, courtiers and loyal servants. In contrast, Aurangzeb’s omission of the kalmia on his coins is the result of his complete devotion to Islam. He believed that carrying the Kalima (on coins) compromised the sanctity of the faith.
In Mughal history, the credit for standardisation of the weight of silver coins goes to Sher Shah Suri (during 1540-45 CE). This formed the basis for all subsequent coins leading to the emergence of the modern rupee. While during the reign of Haider Ali (1772 to 1799 CE) Hindu deities were inscribed, Tipu Sultan carried both Islamic and Hindu features on coins.
The National Museum also attreacts visitors from overseas. An elderly English couple is intrigued to find coins from the British era. A panel reads, “After 1857 CE, when Queen Victoria gained authority over India, a new series of coins were issued from Bombay and Calcutta mints in 1862 CE. These bore the Queen’s name and portrait. However, ‘Empress’ substituted the word ‘Queen’ in 1877 CE. Thereafter, coins were issued in the names of Edward VII in 1901 CE, George V in 1911 CE and George VI in 1936 CE. During the World War, due to acute shortage of silver, paper currency was introduced.”
Subsequently, the British introduced the single currency system and this was the beginning of a uniform currency for India. In 1943, when India faced shortage of copper, thin-holed coins were issued. The silver coins were entirely suspended in 1945 and coins made of nickel were produced in 1946.
After India’s independence in 1947, the holed coins were suspended. But coins bearing the figures of George VI and the lion continued for three years. The coinage of independent India underwent several changes. Commemorating the third anniversary of India’s independence on August 15, 1950, the design and specification of coins were changed. The country adopted the decimal system on April 1, 1957 and the Indian rupee was divided into 100 units instead of 64 paise, which then was the norm. With a sudden increase in the prices of copper and nickel, a new alloy was introduced in 1962. After this, coins were issued in different shapes and metals.
Visibly delighted to discuss the recent past, the gallery official says, “From 1964 onwards, commemorative coins began to be issued. Of lower denomination, these were for regular circulation. The first such coins of Re.1 and 50 paise were issued in the memory of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on his 75th birthday. Also, for the first time currency above the value of 1 rupee was introduced on Mahatma Gandhi Centenary on October 2, 1969. This was in denomination of Rs 10 among others. Thereafter, coins with slogans like ‘Grow more Food’ and ‘Family Planning’ were issued. Coins were also issued to commemorate the Asian Games in 1982.”
The barter system, an old method of exchange, is on display with numerous clay models. The system, used for centuries long before currency was invented, has been given a prominent space in the gallery and is one of the major attractions. A visitor, accompanied by his children, explains to them, “In olden times, instead of money, people were given goods in return for their services. The system still prevails in many parts of rural India, where labourers receive wages in kind, that includes, grains.”
A variety of vessels in different shapes and sizes are also exhibited. Made of brass, iron, wood, cane and stone, these were filled with cowrie shells that were a substitute for currency measuring. Grains of the same weight were given to the people for their services. To measure gold, silver or other precious metal, rattis were considered as the most suitable alternative, as their weight and size was fairly uniform.
“Who would have imagined that 5,000 years later, people would use credit cards to buy commodities,” the official said.
Nilima Pathak is a journalist based in New Delhi.