Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Story of Indian Money – Part IX The Age of the Guptas (A.D. 320-550)

North India witnessed the rise of the Gupta dynasty in the early fourth century of the Christian era with the rise of Chandra Gupta I (r. 320 -335 A.D.) at Pataliputra in 319-20 A.D. aided by his marriage to an influential Licchavi princess, Kumaradevi, an alliance which helped him overcome his regional adversaries.
His successor, Samudra Gupta (r. 335 – 380 A.D.) took the empire to further heights by invading Central and South India and annihilating all neighbouring kingdoms on the way. Apart from his coinage, Samudra Gupta’s martial exploits are well-documented as inscriptions on the famous Prayag Prashasti (Allahabad Pillar) by his friend and court-poet, Harishena.
Samudra Gupta was also the chief architect of a prolific coinage in gold for general usage and began his reign by issuing a commemorative coin in honour of his parents’ marriage with the image of a couple with Brahmi legends ‘Chandra’ and ‘Kumaradevi’ in Gupta Brahmi script. The reverse of the same coin has the legend ‘Licchavya’ commemorating the Licchavi allies of the regime.
Samudra Gupta also initiated a new gold coin prototype, named the ‘standard type’ coin by modern numismatists, which was emulated by all later Guptas. The coin has the king’s profile on the obverse making an offering at the fire altar with his right hand. The coin also has a Garuda standard (Vaishnavite symbol) on the right with a legend written vertically below the king’s left arm in Chinese fashion. This prototype is the biggest pointer to the coinage’s derivation from Kushan coinage. The reverse has Goddess Lakshmi’s image with all attendant paraphernalia like cornucopia, lotus, etc. inspired by Kushans’ use of Ardoksho.
The Gupta coins also continued the Kushana practice of using the Western weight system of drachms (each dinar weighing around 8 gm) till Skanda Gupta (c. A.D. 455-467), the last of the Great Gupta replaced it with a heavier Indian standard known as Suvarna weighing around 9.2 g.
Another Gupta innovation was the use of Sanskrit meter legends on their coins with inscriptions in Gupta Brahmi with use of Visarga which enhances the last alphabet’s phonological effect by echoing it. This unique alphabet is seen on many Gupta coins showing the use of Sanskrit on their coins

Samudra Gupta was a prolific coin issuer and issued six different types of coins apart from the standard type, viz. the archer type, the battle axe (Parashu) type, tiger slayer type, Ashwamedha type and King-Queen type to showcase his martial achievements. He also issued the ‘Lyrist’ (Veena player) type to exhibit his gentler side.
Samudra Gupta’s illustrious son, Chandra Gupta II (Vikramaditya) (380 - 415 A.D.) further enhanced his father’s achievements by annihilating the Western Kshatrapas and went on to issue a silver coinage for his Western regions specifically fashioned after Western Kshatrapa coinage. His reign was the most prosperous of all rulers as is apparent from the predominance of his coinage in hoard findings.
Kumara Gupta I (Mahendraditya) (r.415-455 A.D.) ruled the Gupta Empire at its zenith; he issued a record fourteen types of coins, the largest by any Gupta emperor! He re-introduced the ‘Tiger slayer’ and ‘Lyrist’ types issued by his grandfather, Samudra Gupta and issued newer types like ‘Rhinoceros slayer’ ‘Peacock rider’ (Karttikeya), ‘Apratigha’ (Parents crowning him), etc.
Skanda Gupta (r. 455-467 A.D.) was the ‘last of the Great Guptas’ and braved the attacks of Hunas from the North vanquishing them. He issued many beautiful types especially the King-Lakshmi type where Goddess Lakshmi bestows victory upon the king.
But the Gupta Empire could not withstand the Hunas’ continued onslaught after his death in 467 A.D. The later rulers like Buddha Gupta (467 - 487 A.D.), Narasimha Gupta (Baladitya), Kumara Gupta II continued to fight till the last Gupta ruler, Vishnu Gupta (r. 540-550 A.D.) was confined to Kannauj as a local ruler.
Thus, the Gupta coinage set high standards in terms of quality and artistic beauty that brought Indian coinage at par with the coinage of other classical cultures like the Roman Empire, the Sassanid Empire of the Middle East and the Han dynasties of China. The Guptas also set an example for all later rulers who tried to issue similar coins in the post-Gupta period, an influence which was seen till the later day Mughal era in the sixteenth century as gold ashrafis of Akbar and Jehangir!

Featured: Samudra Gupta's Standard Gold Dinar with the epithet 'Parakramah' (with visarga on reverse) also see illustration of Sanskrit Visarga at bottom