Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Post-Mauryan period of Indo-Greek influence (180 B.C. – 55 B.C.)
The Mauryan Empire which ruled large parts of the Indian sub-continent as a central authority declined around 180 B.C. leading to the fragmentation of the country’s polity into successor states that were based on tribal allegiance, older clans, oligarchies and newer trade guild states.
However, another political development was the emergence of a strong Greek state called Bactria around 250 B.C. north of Hindu Kush which spread to North-western India around 180 B.C. under King Demetrius I. This led to the founding of a new kingdom referred as the ‘Indo-Greek Kingdom’ by modern historians.
The 30-odd Indo-Greek kings, who issued India’s first coinage based on Classical Greek coinage, are known by their coins only. Their coins were generally struck by employing the Western ‘die-striking’ technique and had the portrait of the ruler on the obverse with inscribed titles of the ruler along with the image of a Greek deity on the reverse.
Demetrius I issued a unique coin with his portrait with an elephant’s scalp on his head portraying after the subduing of the Indians under their local ruler, Sophagasegnus (Shubhagasena?) in Kabul valley in 180 B.C.
Demetrius went on to issue a bilingual coinage using Greek script on obverse and North-Western Indian script of Kharosthi on the reverse; making it the first Indian coin inscribed in a local Indian script. His successors, Agathocles and Pantaleon who ruled the kingdom jointly issued a bilingual coin using Greek and the North Indian script of Brahmi which was prevalent throughout the Indian sub-continent since Ashoka’s period when he used it on his famous pillars to issue his edicts on Buddhism throughout his realm.
The Indo-Greeks also introduced a new weighing system called the Attic system which used multiples of 4 grams instead of the ratti system. Their coins were more sophisticated and circular in shape; using real life portraits of the rulers in conjunction with images of deities to confer legitimacy on the rulers.
The Indo-Greek coinage influenced later Indian rulers to use portrait images and deity images to convey their religious beliefs to the common public. Agathocles issued a bilingual coin with the images of Vasudeva and Sankarshana (Krishna and Balarama) on either side making it the first Indian coin to feature Indian deities!
Thus, the Indo-Greek numismatic legacy lingered in the Indian sub-continent for a long time as later Indian kings used the Indo-Greek prototype of the portrait of the king on the obverse and a favoured deity on the reverse for their coinage inspired by the example of the Indo-Greeks who were in turn inspired by their Mediterranean counterparts.
The bilingual script on coinage was also adapted by later foreign rulers like the Kushans to convey their regal authority over their subjects in a vernacular language and script. This concept has prevailed till modern times as the coins of Republic of India have legends in both Devanagari used to write India’s national language Hindi and Roman for English!
Thus, the Indo-Greek period left an indelible mark upon the numismatic traditions of the Indian sub-continent long after the disappearance of the Indo-Greek kingdom.
Images: Left Obv: Menander's Portrait with Greek legend 'Basileus Soteroy Menander' 'King Saviour Menander'
Right Rev: Image of Zeus with thunderbolt and incomplete Kharosthi legend 'Maharajasa Tratarasa..
Image courtesy: National Museum, New Delhi, India