Thursday, January 6, 2011
The Iron Age (Vedic, Post-Vedic and Early Buddhist era ~ 1500 B.C. - 500 B.C.)
The period following Harappan civilisation’s decline was the Iron Age period of early Vedic civilisation when the Rig Veda was first composed around 1500 B.C. on the banks of River Saraswati. The Vedic people were pastoralists by profession and hence the cow formed an important form of currency for storage of value and large exchanges like royal estate, donation to the Brahmans for Yagnas, etc. References to cow as wealth is seen in the multiple terms derived from the cow in the Vedic literature like Gou Puccha (lit. cow’s tail being handed to a new owner), Gowdhar (Village headman) Duhhitri (synonym for daughter and one who milks the cow), Gaavishthi (cattle raids by enemy tribes),etc.
Gou Puccha was the first reference to accounting in the Veda of commodities i.e. a king/priest’s wealth indicated by the number of Gou Pucchhas. This concept in combination to branding of cows was later extrapolated to the official stamping of coins for ensuring authenticity of coins issued by the state.
The later Vedas mention the use of gold and silver in form of Hiranya pinda and Rupakas for transactions. A verse in the Yajurveda mentions the sale of Soma (wine) against gold pieces called Candra (pl. Candrani) and its lower denominations called Pada meaning feet of the cow (equivalent to the quarter of a cow) and Safa meaning the hooves of the cow (equivalent to one-eighth of a cow). The later writings speak of other types of gold coins called the Nishka, Suvarna and Shatamana. However, no existing samples of these coins have been found leading to the inference that these coins were probably unstamped ingots of gold exchanged for their intrinsic value.
The late Vedic period (8th century B.C.-6th century B.C.) and early Buddhist period (6th century B.C. – 5th century B.C.) saw the rise of newer political units called the Janapadas (Jana ~ People Pada~ Foot) that rose in various parts of India and issued India’s first ever coinage in silver. Each Janapada issued a unique coinage with varied symbols punched on the coin as a symbol of its sovereignty. These coins are thus called ‘Punch Marked Coins’ by modern numismatists named after the unique technique of using multiple punches to strike various symbols on the coins.
The Janapadas merged into sixteen larger units referred to as Solasa Mahajanapadas in the Buddhist and Jain texts; these were Anga (Bengal and east Bihar) Ashmaka or Kuntala (modern Andhra Pradesh), Avanti (Ujjain), Chhedi (Bundelkhand), Dakshina and Uttar Panchala (the Gangetic Doab), Gandhara (N-W Afghanistan), Kamboja (Hindukush region), Kashi (Varanasi), Koshala (Ayodhya-Faizabad region), Kuru (Delhi and surrounding areas), Magadha (south Bihar and East Bengal), Matsya (modern Jaipur and Alwar districts of Rajasthan), Malla (modern Gorakhpur in eastern U.P. and parts of Nepal), Shurasena (Mathura region) and Vrijji (North Bihar).
The Punch-marked coins are found all over the country and each region issued a unique type of Punch-marked coin for circulation in its jurisdiction.
The Punch-marked coins were essentially pieces of silver cut from metal sheets, weighed and punched with particular symbols unique to the Janapada issuing it; hence these pieces were rectangular or square shaped. Additionally, Punch-marked coins were uninscribed in nature i.e. without written legends in any script to provide details of their exact origin.
For e.g. Gandhara Janapada in the North-West Afghanistan issued a very typical silver Punch-marked coin called the ‘Silver Bent Bar’ coin by modern numismatists that has a typical long bar of silver weighing around 11 grams with punch marks of a six-armed symbol called Shadachakra on the either ends of the obverse (‘heads’ end) side. Additionally the bar is slightly bent giving coin a concave surface on the obverse side.
Other Janapadas like Ashmaka/Kuntala (parts of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh) issued punch marks of a unique double-pulley symbol. Most of the coins have numerous symbols ranging from two to four stamped on its obverse sides. The reverse (‘tails’ end) side have no symbols except for small marks called ‘Shroff marks’ made by traders to authenticate the coin for general circulation.
The Punch-marked coins are referred as Karshapanas (Kahapanas in Pali) in Buddhist literature like Jataka tales and Jain literature of the ancient period. The most famous tale of Buddha’s foremost disciple Anathapindika, a merchant who purchased a garden called Jetavana for his Master by covering its entire floor with silver Kahapanas amounting to an astounding sum of eighteen crore rupees!
Interestingly, the Roman historian Quintus Curtius refers to presentation of 80 talents of stamped silver ‘signati argenti’ to Alexander by the Indian king Oomphis (Ambhi) signalling the presence of Indian silver currency during Alexander’s invasion of Indus region in 326 B.C.
The smaller units of Karshapana existed in binary denominations ranging from half to 1/32th part of Karshapana and are called Ardha Panas, Pada Pana, Dvi-Mashaka, Mashaka and Kakani. These lower units were minted with copper to reduce the inherent value of the currency. According to the Arthashastra, a labourer was paid a mashaka (1/16th Karshapana) as a day’s wages during the Mauryan period!
Thus, the period saw the actual use of precious metal as coins which began a new phase in Indian History. Trade and economy were boosted by the use of coins which were measurable units of exchange leading to increased prosperity and welfare. However, Indian coins were used by the very wealthy only as is evident from the large hoards of these punchmarked coins found through the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent. Money thus finally acquired a definite form at the end of this period and progressively became a tool of state power.
These early coins are believed to have been issued by a large number of traders or their guilds initially; only later did the state evince an interest in controlling their issue.
The varieties of punchmarked coins point to a number of states called Mahajanapadas (Great People's states) which soon combined under the power of the Magadha Empire in 4th Century B.C. under the Mauryas. The Mauryan Imperial issues which are found all over the sub-continent till Mysore in South India have five punch marks (impressed symbols)in contrast to other local issues which have one to four punchmarks only. These imperial coins are more numerous and less damaged indicating a wider and later issuing by the authorities.
The coins may have been issued as early as eigth century B.C. but most possibly their issuing was around 5th century B.C. as suggested by numerous Buddhist and Jaina scriptures.
Thus, Punch marked coinage represents the earliest Indian coinage with their unique shapes and sizes attesting to an indigenous evolution as opposed to a Persian inspiration as suggested by numerous Western scholars.