Thursday, April 19, 2018

An Octagonal Relic of Assam's Past under the Ahom Dynasty

Medieval Assam, also known as Kamarupa, came under the Ahom rulers in the thirteenth century during the reign of Sukapha (c. 1228-1268) when the Ahom people crossed over the Brahmaputra valley and occupied the region centred over Charaideo.
The Ahom kingdom's polity was a mixed one comprising of Tai' language speakers of their homeland and native Assamese who were assimilated in the new kingdom's power structure as well as social system which was essentially Ahomese under the early Ahom Kings from the thirteenth till the sixteenth century including the Tai' language of the Ahoms.
Assamese language entered the court in the sixteenth century and came to dominate the court culture from the seventeenth century along with Hinduisation of the court culture including the use of Saka era to record court events.
Most of the Ahom Kings and queens (their names also featured on Ahomese coins) took Hindu names along with their Ahomese names.

The Ahoms began to issue silver and gold coins essentially to monetize their economy with Tibet and other regions and also to mark the ceremonial customs of the court especially coronations of new rulers. The coronation series had legends in the Ahom-Tai script along with the date in the Ahomese calendar. These coins were supplemented with silver coins featuring Bengali and Nagari script. The earliest coins of Assam were issued by Jayadhvaja Simha (Sutamla) (c. 1648-1663 C.E.) who issued coins with Bengali and Chinese character legends on his coins. His descendants used Ahom-Tai and Bengali/Nagari legends on their coins.
However, later rulers like Rajeswara Simha (1751-1769 C.E.) also issued Persian script coins in accord with the growing influence of the language around.
The other marked feature of Ahom coins was their octagonal shape which was adopted, according to one theory, as it was believed that the land of Kamarupa was octagonal in shape.
The Ahoms looked to the Bengal Sultanate's silver tankas as the chief inspiration for the weight of their coins and thus we have their silver units called Rajamohuri taka or rupas weighing 96 rattis followed by their half (adhuli adhataka), quarter (Siki/Maha), one-eighth (Adamaha), one-sixteenth (Charatiya) and its one thirty-second part (teeni-rattiya 3 rattis).
Later Ahom coins also have the names of Ahom queens reflecting on the importance of the chief queen in the kingdom's power structure in the period.

Most of the coins in Bengali script have religious invocations on one side of the Shaivite or Vaishnavite inclination and the reverse has the king's name and titles along with the date in Shaka era. The fractions do not have any date on them due to the coin's limited space and long titles of the ruler.
 The coin featured in this blog post is one of the best examples of an Ahom Bengali script silver coin with legends on one side praising Lord Shiva and the reverse having the titles of the ruler, Rajeshwara Simha.

Historically, Ahom coins represent the long glorious period of North-East History where two cultures of diverse origin met and assimilated in a very organic fashion with mutual respect for each other's customs. Additionally, these coins reflect the high volume of trade in the region which would have compelled the mint to issue these coins. The coins continued issuing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is also a reflection of the robust opposition offered by the Ahoms to the Mughals during the latter's attempts to subdue the kingdom and bring it under imperial command.
Ahom power came to an end in the first quarter of the nineteenth century when they came under the Burmese influence and after the defeat of the latter in the First Anglo-Burmese war with East India Company, it passed into the hands of the East India Company in 1826 when the last ruler Chandrakanta Simha reigned under the Company's influence.
The last of the Ahomese coins were issued by the dynasty's penultimate ruler, Jogeshwara Simha (1821-1824 CE)

Monday, April 9, 2018

A Silver 'Two Dirham' from the Mongol Ilkhanate of Persia

The Ilkhanate of Persia was a Mongol state which rose in 1259 C.E. from the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire and was ruled by Hulagu Khan, the grandson of Chingiz Khan. Hulagu's armies dominated the south-western parts of the Mongol Empire majorly comprising of Iran and its neighbouring regions. Hulagu was responsible for the sack of Baghdad and killing of the last Abbasid Caliph, Al-Muta'sim in 1258. At its height, the Ilkhanate thus ruled a vast region comprising of modern day Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkeministan, parts of Turkey and Western Afghanistan.
Hulagu and his immediate successors were close to Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity but embraced Islam under Ghazan in 1295 C.E. when the character of the state became decidedly Islamic, though some later rulers continued to flirt with Buddhism and other pagan faiths.
The last ruler of the clan was Abu Said Khan who strangely fell to the Black Death of the 1330s with his sons thus bringing the Ilkhanate to its disintegration and eventual dissolution.

Abu Said 'Bahadur' Khan lorded over the Ilkhanate for almost two decades and he issued a vast coinage in gold and silver from various mints of his vast empire. Silver coins were issued from at least 150 mints with few minor variations in their design. The silver coins were issued in three denominations, Half dirham (0.72g-0.90 g), 1 dirham (1.44g - 1.80g) and 2 dirhams (3.24g -3.60g)

Shown below is a 2 Dirham of Abu Saeed probably issued from Tabriz mint (similar to S. Album # 2214 Type 'G') in the collection of our institute. It is a fairly common coin with worn out features reflecting its rich circulation history in the period of its issue. Abu Said Khan also took the epithet Bahadur the Brave not seen on this coin but seen on his other coins. The coin has the Sunni Kalima on the reverse reflecting his strong links to Sunni Islam as a ruler of the Ilkhanate. The calligraphy on the coins is late Kufic type with the geometric features of the script fast being replaced with curves and designs and the multiple-cartouche design also shows a late embellishing nature seen on Islamic coinage compared to the bland designs of the early Islamic coinage shorn of any designs or decoration.
Importantly, this coin matches the later Islamic tradition of autonomous rulers issuing their own coins without any recognition of the higher authority of caliph which was a situation created by Hulagu's killing of the last Abbasid Caliph during his siege of Baghdad. The Ilkhanate's rulers' conversion of Islam did not stop their aggression towards fellow Muslim kingdoms. In fact, like most medieval empires, it sought to engulf neighbouring kingdoms and take over their resources and sovereign rights including Sikka, the right to coin independently, a pragmatic principle adopted in Islamic world after the exit of the Abbasid Caliphs. 

Map of Ilkhanid Persia Image Courtesy: wikipedia

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Peeping into the Past via a Silver Dirham of Mahmud Ghaznavi

Sultan Yamin-ud-Daula Abul Qasim Mahmud ibn Sebuktigin of Ghazni (r. 998-1030 C.E.) was a zealous Islamic ruler whose entire reign was spent in expanding the authority of his kingdom on the decadent structure of the Abbasid Caliphate taking over territories captured from his ancestors' suzerains, the Samanids in Central Asia, the Shia' Buyid Empire's remnants in Eastern Iran and the kingdoms south of Hindukush into the Indian sub-continent.
Mahmud almost would have taken over the Abbasid Caliphate but was restrained by the nominal suzerainty he owed to the Abbasid Caliph Al-Qadir Billah (991-1031 C.E.), who ruled the declining caliphate contemporary to Mahmud's period. Caliph Al-Qadir appeased Mahmud by recognizing his rising status in the world of realpolitik and upgrading his title from Amir to Sultan in 992 C.E.
Caliph Al-Qadir's ideological war with the Fatimids Shias of Egypt also gave Mahmud a valid reason to attack both the Ismaili kingdom of Multan as well as the Shia Buyid rulers of Eastern Persia. 

Mahmud was most probably inspired by the 'Golden Age' of Islam which has just passed by his reign. This is evident from his efforts to fashion his capital city, Ghazni in central-east Afghanistan in the mould of Abbasid Baghdad, enriching the capital city with his newfound riches and treasures plundered from kingdoms as far as the Caspian Sea to the Gangetic plains of North India.
As Mahmud's vast plundering raids increased, they brought him enormous riches especially in the form of bullion and coins of these foreign realms. He was thus obliged as a good Islamic ruler to issue coins in the joint name of the Caliph and him in the newly instituted tradition of Sikka (Coinage). Additionally, he was also obliged by Islamic law to distribute these spoils termed as Ghanima among his victorious soldiers after deducting one-fifth of the same as the traditional tax of Khams to be transmitted to the Caliph's treasury, the Bait-ul-Maal at Baghdad, though it is highly likely that in view of the Caliph's weak status Mahmud would have withheld this tribute to the Leader of the Faithful. 
However, like all conquerors before him, the best example being Alexander the Great, Mahmud would have converted the captured treasuries of his opponents into his own coinage thus expanding the volume of Ghaznavid currency exponentially.
Thus, the coin above represents the basic raison d'etre of Ghaznavid currency as well as its propensity to survive the long period that has passed by since Mahmud's era.

If we look at the weight of the coin, it is fashioned on the Greek drachm, thus the name dirham which is not the only Greco-Roman legacy connected to this Islamic currency. The coin's legend begins with the word Adl (Arabic for Justice), which was a term used by Abbasid Caliphs on their coinage as well. The term is philologically similar to the Latin Ideal  (Adl also lends to the term, Adil to describe a just ruler as well as recalls the English description 'ideal and just' ruler) which again points to the use of the phrase inspired from Greco-Roman coinage where the rulers were supposed to dispense Justice. As a further pointer, I have shown a commemorative coin of Livia 'Julia Augusta' with the image/legend 'IUSTITIA' issued by her son, Emperor Tiberius.

Another highlight of the dirham illustrated here is that it gives the major title of Mahmud, Yamin-ud-daula (literally ~ right hand of the realm) which again point to the borrowing of the concept of Satraps of Greco-Roman rulers both in ancient and early medieval times. In fact, Mahmud's kingdom comprised of Eastern Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan and North-West India which matched the ancient Satrapal kingdom of Greco-Bactria which rose by breaking away from the Seleucid Empire just like Mahmud grew on the remains of the Abbasid Caliphate. 

Thus, this single dirham of Mahmud of Ghazna helps us understand the various theoretical underpinnings of his tumultous reign which though controversial and bloody, contributed immensely to the History of the world, adding a new thrust to Islam's growth in the Indian sub-continent.  

I thank Stan Goron, Senior Numismatist and Author of the catalogue, 'COINS OF THE INDIAN SULTANATES' for his help in deciphering this coin especially in view of lack of resources like the Tuebingen Catalogue

A good online catalogue for Ghaznavid coinage can be seen on this link
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       Ghaznavid Empire c. 1030 at the end of Mahmud's reign. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons

Roman Commemorative  Coin in honor of Livia 'Julia Augusta' with the legend 'Justicia' issued by her son, Emperor Tiberius

Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Bull-headed Huna ruler's coin issued in Kabul-Gandhara

The fifth century of the Common Era saw tectonic changes in the fortunes of the Gupta Empire of the Indian sub-continent and the Sassanid Empire of Persia due to the increasing incursions of the White Huns from the North-West border of India. 
Originating like the earlier dynasty of Kushans on the outskirts of China, the Shweta Hunas rose from the Eastern border of Persia and probably  spoke a variant of Eastern Iranian language. They first took over Tokharistan (Central Asia) from the Kidarite Kushans (Later Kushans) soon driving them out of areas around modern day Afghanistan and Pashtun belt of Pakistan. The Hunas soon attacked the outposts of the Gupta dynasty in the second half of the fifth century with a prominent defeat at the hands of  Emperor Skanda Gupta and a later expedition defeated by a coalition of Narasimhagupta (Baaladitya) and King Yashovarman in Central India. 
However, the Hunas overall succeeded in subduing the Later Guptas' chieftains in Northern India under Toramana and his son, Mihirakula forming their major base in Kashmir which became a refuge for them after the defeats and reverses at the hands of local rulers in the mainland. 

According to most experts, the Hunas spoke a variant of Iranian language which is attested by the legends on the coins of the initial rulers whose coins have a monolingual Pehlavi legend followed by later bilingual and trilingual legends. 
The coin on display in this post is a billon drachm issued in the name of 'NAAPKI MALLEKA' inscribed in Pehlavi script, as described by Michael Mitchiner in his book, 'ANCIENT CLASSICAL WORLD' 
The Coin is no doubt inspired by Sassanid drachms of the period in terms of fabric of the coin with the King's bust on the obverse with winged head-dress and the reverse having a fire altar with two attendants. However, the iconography of the Huna ruler, Naapki Malleka has a Bull's head surmounted on the king's head which is quite an unique feature of this series. The Bull's head could be indicative of Tantric worship by the Hunas or merely indicate a cultic practice of sacrificing bulls as indicated by a Chinese Buddhist traveller, Song Yun who visited Hunnic regions in A.D. 540 and states that the Huns "did not recognize the Buddhist religion and they preached pseudo gods, and killed animals for their meat." 

The Nezaka Malleka coinage's period would be guesswork but in view of its use of Pehlavi legend, one is inclined to place it in sixth century C.E. rather than a later period. The preference to Pehlavi over Brahmi legends would also place it in the far northern part of Kabul-Gandhara region. Additionally, the use of Pehlavi also indicates the coin's issue by Iranian dialect speaking people to the later Turkic people who replaced the Huns.

Napki Malleka coins were issued in probably two series, one in pure silver and the second in billon (with more copper than silver); our coin belongs to the latter series which would have been again issued in a later era of lesser prosperity with plateauing of the resources of the Huna Empire. The Napki Malleka series would thus have been issued as a continuum coinage by a series of rulers who could have the title, Napki Malleka (Malleka meaning King) with variant legends seen in the series. 
Thus, the Huna Coinage issued in the interim by Huna rulers represents a transitional coinage between two cultures, Sassanid Persian and Indian where the series was adopted by Huna rulers, Toramana and Mihirkula to transplant the series in the Indian mainland leading to a unique series called Indo-Sassanian. It also represents the power of coinage to convey religious messages by an alien people whose hybrid faith borrowed from other faiths but yet tried to impress its individual features upon posterity      

Pehlavi Legend 'NAAPKI MALEKA'