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'

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Experiential Teaching in Numismatics - CENNUMIS Style

Necessity is the Mother of all invention. I experienced the truth in this adage when I was forced to launch a new institution in the aftermath of losing a prestigious university position in June 2014 in view of no new jobs on the horizon in the rarefied field of Numismatics! 

Today, CENNUMIS is a two-and-a- half-year old institution which though doesn't have its own premises, is always on the move and open to new experiences in conducting courses on Indian Numismatics.
I have been particularly blessed to have an experience of a better part of the last decade in teaching Numismatics with lectures, specialised sessions, etc. in various parts of the country on various fora. 
However, CENNUMIS has been a special forum as we decided to give it a distinct USP of having an actual collection of 'teaching coin specimens' for all its courses with the idea of imparting an authentic experience for the audience. 
The only problem was that I did not possess any coins to begin with as I  was a numismatic researcher and not a collector. However, we worked around the problem by purchasing actual coins from coin dealers in the beginning, then coin auctions always trying to procure the best specimen from the viewpoint of the student. 
Beginning our journey in August 2014, we had our first course called 'Primer Workshop in Numismatics' at a well-wisher's office in Central Mumbai. 
The success of the Workshop (it was full to my surprise!) gave me the confidence to invest more into coins and soon organize a specialized Workshop on the Arabic-Persian Script as seen on Indian Coins in January-February 2015. It was not my first experience at teaching the script but I improvised on my earlier experience by teaching it from the viewpoint of a collector who wanted to decipher a Mughal coin for his own sake. Thus, we did away with the formal teaching by an Arabic teacher and taught each letter as it appeared on Indian coins from Day One. 
Needless to say, the Workshop had its own challenges as it was to teach others the difficult script. We took 4-5 sessions of 4 hours each (a week apart) to give the participants time to practice the script and its variant forms.
The results were amazing as most of the participants who diligently practiced the script learnt it quite well. We also encouraged the participants to make eye copies of important coins during surprise tests conducted during the Workshop. This boosted many a participant's confidence as it led them to know that the script was not as alien and out-of-reach as they had imagined. Thus, CENNUMIS has conducted 3 Arabic-Persian Script Workshops and 4 Primer Workshops and numerous 'Introduction to Numismatics' Workshops all over the country. During our courses, we also take students and participants to actual coin galleries (especially in Mumbai and New Delhi where the RBI Museum and the National Museum have fantastic Numismatic Galleries.
CENNUMIS Coin Collection has burgeoned to numerous coin albums of high quality teaching coins which are taken for lectures on Arabic-Persian, Brahmi, Kharoshti and Greek Script on Indian Coins. Even our simple Introduction to Numismatics have around 20 odd coins from different periods of Indian History to make the participants aware of India's unbroken 2500 year plus numismatic history. We also carry a tool kit to make students aware of the various equipment necessary to examine and record coins as research data viz. digital weighing scale (under 200 grams), vernier calipers, magnifying glass, etc.
The most satisfying part of the CENNUMIS' experience is watching students enthusiastically examine a Gandhara Punch-marked coin or hold a 20 gram plus Mughal paisa with great awe. Watching these students, I feel that my investment on these coins has been paid back to me many times over!

CENNUMIS is a dynamic and active organization which is ready to travel to any part of the country especially if our modest financial conditions are met with equal enthusiasm at the other end. To contact us, write to us on

A Group of Mumbai Undergraduate Students visiting RBI Museum with the author

Participants at our 1st Arabic-Persian Script Workshop in Mumbai in January 2015 examining a coin specimen

The right way of holding a coin being taught to participants at a workshop

Coins and other artefacts for a CENNUMIS 'Introduction to Numismatics' Workshop

Eye Copies of Mughal Coins drawn by a participant at CENNUMIS' 2nd Arabic-Persian Script Workshop

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Story of Indian Money - Part XX British India Coinage

The English East India Company (EIC) was established on the last day of the year 1600 A.D. and was just one of the European companies to flock to India to benefit from the spice trade. The EIC soon set up bases in three corners of the Indian sub-continent with one in Eastern India centered on Bengal with headquarters at the new found city of Calcutta, another located in Western India initially centered upon Surat and later Bombay and the last one based in South India centered at Madras. These centres eventually were named Presidencies viz. Bengal Presidency, Bombay Presidency and Madras Presidency after the EIC won a series of wars against European competitors including the Portuguese, the Dutch and lastly the French in the last part of eighteenth century.
After emerging supreme over its European rivals, the EIC began encircling its Indian rivals in a long drawn process stretching from 1755 till 1856 when the Indians put up a combined armed resistance with a coalition of various rival powers. 
The First War of Independence or the Mutiny as it is named failed to dislodge the British army which was far superior in terms of technology, regimental discipline and resources and the movement collapsed in the summer of 1858. However, it did manage to highlight the disaffection of the Indian masses to the British Parliament which resolved to dissolve the EIC with immediate effect in August 1858 and transfer the ruling powers to the British Crown under the Government of India Act 1858.
The British Crown created a new department the India Office in London headed by the Secretary of State to handle the India affairs and the Governor-General was renamed the Viceroy of India.

Importantly the Uniform Coinage introduced by the EIC in 1834 and 1840 was continued with the fixed date of '1862' on the coinage continued for a period of a decade or longer to break the nexus of moneychangers who charged a commission called 'Batta' to exchange older coins at lower value than coins of the current year. 
The coins were minted at the modern machinized mints of Bombay and Calcutta which issued machine-struck coins of uniform weight, fineness and metallic content. The Imperial coinage had the crowned bust of Queen Victoria with a Roman legend on the obverse and the name of the denomination with the name 'INDIA 1862' on the reverse.
 This series had issues in gold, silver and copper replicating the Mughal tri-metallic idiom to a 'T' and was made current throughout the Indian Empire for the entire decade while the two mints recalled old coins for recycling into the imperial currency in a manner akin to the Mughal imperial mints. 
 The gold mohur valued at fifteen silver rupees was issued with the dates of 1862, 1870 and 1875 with fractions valued at ten and five silver rupees also being issued between 1870 and 1879. 
The silver rupee was also issued in a fashion similar to the mohur with the image of the Queen and the fixed date 1862 but with a unique system of dots which was used from 1863 till 1875. These dots occur on the reverse below the date, above the word 'ONE', or in both positions. From 1874, this practice was halted and coins began to be dated continuously. 
The silver rupee had its lower denominations viz. the half rupee, the quarter rupee and 2 Annas.

The copper denominations were issued for the lower denominations with the Half Anna, the Quarter Anna, the Half Pice and the one-twelveth Anna with the Rupee having 12 Annas or 64 pice or 192 pies. The Copper denominations did not have the dotting system in place probably as the Batta was not applied to copper denominations.

Importantly in 1877, Queen Victoria assumed the title 'Empress of India' which was used on the coins from this date for all British sovereigns till 1947 to indicate their imperial status over the sub-continent. The coinage was then issued every year till 1901 when Victoria died and her son, Edward VII ascended the British throne and assumed the title 'King-Emperor' for his reign.
Coins in the name of Edward VII have the king's right profile with the legend 'EDWARD VII KING& EMPEROR' on the obverse and the reverse has a crown on the top with English and Persian legends denoting the denomination flanked by flower stem designs, was followed on his silver coinage whereas the copper coins retained the old pattern of the Indian Victorian era.

The important economic change in relation to British India at the end of the nineteenth century was the shift of Indian currency to the gold exchange standard which led to easy conversion of Indian currency with British standards which only furthered the drain of Indian money abroad. The Indian Rupee was fixed at  one shilling and four pence (1s 4d) Sterling. 

The Coinage of Edward VII adoption of Persian legends was the only unique feature adopted during his reign of less than a decade ending in 1910 with his death as he had ascended the throne at a ripe old age of 60 years (it was ripe old age in the early modern period when modern medicine was yet to make a mark) and had little time for his Indian territories which saw the rise of political movements calling for the end of colonial rule.

His successor, George V on the other hand travelled to India in December 1911 and held a 'Delhi Darbar where he and his royal consort, Queen Mary were presented to an assembly of Indian princes and dignitaries as 'Kaisar-i-Hind'. It was incidentally the 1911 issues of George V which created a major issue which had a portrait of the King-Emperor with an elephant pendant (encircled) which was believed to be a 'pig' and this led to a major row with the Muslim populace taking exception to the portrayal of a taboo animal on the coinage of the Empire. The coins were removed from circulation and most issues melted which has led to their rare status in comparison with other issues of George V.

The reign of George V saw the First World War with its own consequences for the Indian economy. It also saw the introduction of Government of India banknotes towards the end of the Great War with the issue of One Rupee Banknote in 1917 and a Two-and-half Rupee Banknote in 1918. The process of introduction of official coinage and banknotes was shifted from the Government of India to a new authority towards the fag end of George V's reign with the establishment of the Reserve Bank of India on 1 April 1935 just few months before George V's death on 20 January 1936. 
His immediate successor, Edward VIII did not rule long enough to merit a coinage though some Indian Princely States like Kutch enthusiastically issued coinage in his name. Edward's abdication led to the installation of his younger brother on the British throne as George VI. The new king began his reign on 11 December 1936 with the Second World War looming over the horizon which became apparent when the War was declared in 1939. The main impact of the War was seen on British Indian coinage as the silver rupees were melted to match the demand of the war-time economy. Thus, the 1940 Rupee had 50 percent silver and a security edge was introduced to prevent its forgery by the Axis Powers.
The use of half silver continued till 1944 and was totally suspended in 1945 when the use of nickel in place of silver began. George VI's final issue was in 1947 when a Nickel Rupee with the obverse image of the King-Emperor and his titles while the reverse had the image of a lion marching to the left in defiance of the British losses in the War. This issue was continued in circulation of the newly independent states of India and Pakistan which were formed by the partition of the British India till the evolution of the Republic of India's coinage under the new Constitution and President in 1950.

British India Gold Mohur 1962 Image courtesy

British India Queen Victoria Ten Rupee Gold coin Image courtesy
British India Quarter Rupee 1862 Image courtesy:
Edward VII Silver Rupee 1907 Image courtesy

George V 1911 'Pig' Rupee

'Two-and-Half' Rupee Banknote issued in 1918 Image courtesy
George VI Silver Rupee of 1939 Image Courtesy Heritage Auctions

George VI Nickel Rupee of 1947 Image Courtesy: National Museum