The study of coinage in history is called numismatics. This article is an attempt to capture the significant evolutionary changes the ancient Indian coinage experienced.
The beginning of ancient Indian coinage can be traced between 1st millennium BCE to 6th Century BCE. This stage comprised of coins that were made of copper and silver.
The coins found in ancient Indian history were mainly stamped bars of metal. The metal stamped bars were inspired by the currency that was in circulation during the Janpadas in the early historical phase and evolved further with the emergence of different dynasties.
Table of Contents
Prehistoric and Bronze Age
In the Indian context, no significant evidence is found to conclude that people in Stone age used currency or they conducted exchange in barter.
The Indus Valley Civilization seems to have conducted an extensive trade on a wide network, but it was predominantly conducted around the barter system. However, the Harappans also used metals like silver of fixed weight for trade and mercantile activities.
Coins in the Vedic Period
The Rigveda has references to nishka (gold) and nishka greeva (ornaments of gold) but it is not sure if these could be understood as coins.
However, the later Vedic texts had references to nishka, suvarna, shatamana, and pada. But scholars are of the opinion that these terms do not indicate a wide circulation of conventional coins.
Coinage during Janapadas
The most definite literary and archaeological evidence that suggests the usage of coins in the subcontinent, dates around 6th-5th Century BCE. It was in the context of the emergence of states, urbanisation, and rising trade activities that the Buddhist texts and Panini’s Ashtadhyayi refer to terms like kahapana/karshapana, nikkha/nishka, shatamana, pada, vimshatika, trinshatika, and suvanna/suvarna.
It is interesting to note the basic unit of the weight of the Indian coins was the red and black seed of gunja berry (Abrus precatorius).
In South India, the standard weight of the coins was ascertained by calculating the relationship between the weight of two kinds of beans- the manjadi (Odenthera pavonia) and Kalanju (Caesalpinia bonduc).
The most conventional system of coinage emerged with the circulation of punch-marked coins, that were mostly made of silver, and sometimes even copper. They were sometimes square, or round but mostly rectangular in shape.
The symbols on these were hammered using punches and dies. That is why we know them as punch-marked coins.
A standard punch-marked coin often weighed around 32 rattis or about 52 grains (1 grain = 64.79 mg).
Punch marked coins are found across the subcontinent and were popular till the early centuries CE.
The Punch marked coin series can be further divided into four categories: The Taxila-Gandhara type, the Kosala type, the Avanti type, and the Magadhan type.
With the expansion of the Magadhan Empire, the coins that belonged to the Magadhan category replaced the other three types. It must be noted that these coins do not have any legends inscribed on them which could convey the details of the kingdom.
Coinage and the Mauryas
The Mauryan Empire used the punch-marked coins but with royal standard to make sure of their authenticity.
The liberty to use two different metals for coins was granted, and hence coins in silver and copper were very popular.
Coinage by the Indo-Greeks
The next prominent range of coins that were issued belongs to 2nd/1st century BCE by the Indo-Greeks. The Indo-Greeks system of coinage becomes significant because the minting was executed in a more refined manner.
The coins were mostly made of silver, usually round, with exceptions to few rectangular or circular) bore the name of the issuing ruler along with depicting legends.
For example, the coins of Menander and Strabo I show them passing through different stages of life, suggesting their long reigns.
The languages on these coins was Prakrit, inscribed mostly in Kharoshthi script.
The Kushana type coins
The Kushanas (1st-4th Centuries CE) were the first dynasty in the subcontinent that issued a large number of gold coins. The lower denomination was usually found in copper coins.
The coins usually bore the figure, name, and title of the ruler on the obverse and the deities on the reverse. The legends are either entirely in Greek, or in some cases in Kharoshthi on the reverse.
Coinage by the Imperial Guptas
The Imperial Guptas issued well-minted and well-executed gold coins, die struck with various impressive legends in Sanskrit. These coins, also known as dinaras, were mostly found in North India.
The obverse has the kings in various poses, mostly in martial mood, but sometimes even in artistic calibre.
Coins have also shown rulers like Samudragupta and Kumaragupta playing Vina.
The Gupta coins were issued in gold in large numbers and have been credited to their fine aesthetic appeal. However, the purity of gold saw a decline during the later Guptas.
Post Gupta Coinage
The dynasties like the Gurjaras, Pratiharas, Chalukyas, Paramaras, and the Palas from circa 530 CE to 1202 CE can be put under a broad category of Indo-Sassanian styled coinage.
The main features of these coins included the bust of the ruling sovereign in a simplified geometric style on the obverse and a motif like a fire altar on the reverse.
Coinage by the Imperial Cholas
The coinage of the imperial Cholas bore semblance to the South Indian dynastic coins. The Chola coins exhibited a tiger crest. They also suggested political developments.
The emblems like fish and bow which belonged to the Pandyas and Cheras suggested a political conquest of these political powers, and also the idea of co-existence.
Comparison of Coin used in India
Script and language
Mostly silver, sometimes copper
Mostly geometrical shapes, plants, animals, and geographical features
Indo Greek type
Name of the issuing ruler with depicting legends
The language was Prakrit, mostly in Kharoshthi script
Mostly gold, but also silver and rarely copper
Figure, name, and title of the ruler on obverse, and the deities on the reverse
Legends in Greek, inscribed in Kharoshthi script
Mostly gold coins were issued
A figure of the ruler, with a deity
Gold, silver and copper
Legends of the rulers
Decline in gold, mostly silver and copper
Names of the rulers, and a motif
Varied with dynasties.
Table: A brief overview of the numismatic history of early India
Significance of numismatics in history
Coins are an important source of history, as they suggest important historical processes. Not only the monetary situation, but broader questions related to economy and polity can be answered through numismatics.
The wide distribution of Kushana coins suggests trading activities, and the presence of ship motifs on Satvahana coinage reflects the importance of maritime trade. The inscribed figures of rulers, deities and legends give us an insight into social and political aspects of various kingdoms.
It must be noted that dates are seen very rarely on early Indian coins. Barring western Kshatrapa coins which give dates in the Shaka era and some Gupta silver coins which give the regnal years of kings, coins in early India are mostly devoid of dates. Dated or undated, coins found in archaeological excavations often help date the layers of time. An example is a site of Sonkh near Mathura, where the excavated levels were categorised into eight periods on the basis of coin finds.
With regard to the later development in coinage, the numismatic history of later ancient and the early medieval period saw a decline in trade and the feudal order marked stressed urban centres, and as a result, even though the circulation of coins did not stop, their purity and aesthetic quality saw degradation at many levels.
- Cribb, Joe, Investigating the introduction of coinage in India- a review of recent research, Journal of the Numismatic Society of India xlv (Varanasi 1983), pp.95-101. pp. 85–86.
- Gupta, Parmanand, Geography from Ancient Indian Coins & Seals, Concept Publishing Company, 1989, p. 158
- Brown, C.J. (1992), The Coins of India, Association Press (Y.M.C.A)
- Singh, Upinder, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: from the Stone Age to the 12th Century, Pearson Publications, 2009, pp. 116
Questions related to the topic asked in the UPSC Civil Services Examination:
How do you justify the view that the level of excellence of the Gupta numismatic art is not at all noticeable in later times? (Mains 2017)
Article by: Kaustubh
The Coinage of India began anywhere between early 1st millennium BCE to the 6th century BCE, and consisted mainly of copper and silver coins in its initial stage. The coins of this period were Karshapanas or Pana.What was used for coins in ancient India? ›
The beginning of ancient Indian coinage can be traced between 1st millennium BCE to 6th Century BCE. This stage comprised of coins that were made of copper and silver. The coins found in ancient Indian history were mainly stamped bars of metal.What were the first coins of ancient India? ›
1. The First Coins. These pretty, slim discs called Karshapanas were some of the earliest coins in the Indian subcontinent, dating back from around the 6th century BC.What is the history of coinage in ancient India? ›
The first documented coinage is deemed to start with 'Punch Marked' coins issued between the 7th-6th century BC and 1stcentury AD. These coins are called 'punch-marked' coins because of their manufacturing technique. Mostly made of silver, these bear symbols, each of which was punched on the coin with a separate punch.What were the coins used in the medieval period in India? ›
All the coins of various metals like Rupee (silver), Jalali (square shaped silver), Jital (copper), Ilahi (gold) Shahanshah (large gold) were known for its 'purity of metal, fullness of weight and artistic execution'.Which type of coins were used in the later Vedic age? ›
The coins which were in circulation were “Nishka”, “Satamana” and “Krishnala”. The unit value of goods was a gold bar called “nishka” weighing three hundred and twenty ratis, which was also the weight of a satamana.What is the oldest known coin? ›
Created over 2,700 years ago, but now located in the British Museum, is the Lydian Lion, the oldest coin in the world.Which is the oldest Indian one rupee coin? ›
Indian 1-rupee coin.
|Years of minting||1950–present|
|Mint marks||⧫ = Mumbai B = Mumbai Proof issue * = Hyderabad ° = Noida No mint-mark = Kolkata|
The Guptas issued the largest number of gold coins and hence, a lot of historians regard this period as the Golden Age of Indian history.What were medieval coins called? ›
Financial records, such as deposit, debts or contracts, were usually written down in terms of silver pennies, but larger sums were recorded in shillings (one shilling equating to 12 pence) and pounds (240 pence). Financial sums could also be recorded in marks (160 pence) and ora (originally 16 pence, later 20 pence).
Thus, we can conclude that Shatman were coins called in the Vedic period.Which coin was used by Vedic people? ›
Karshapana (Sanskrit: कार्षापण, IAST: Kārṣāpaṇa), according to the Ashtadhyayi of Panini, refers to ancient Indian coins current during the 6th century BCE onwards, which were unstamped and stamped (āhata) metallic pieces whose validity depended on the integrity of the person authenticating them.Which were the earliest type of coins that were used for around 500 years ago? ›
Punch-marked coins were used for 500 years. There was an increase in the use of such coins about 2,500 years ago. Archaeologists have found evidence of many coins used during this period.What is the rarest coin on earth? ›
1849 Double Eagle Gold Coin
The one remaining specimen is carefully preserved at National Numismatic Collections at the Smithsonian Institution. The 1849 Double Eagle is currently the rarest and most valuable coin in the world, with an estimated worth of nearly $20 million.
World's Earliest Coins
True coins, made of electrum--a mineral combining gold and at least 20 percent silver--were first minted in the ancient kingdoms of Lydia and Ionia. Around 560-546 BC, the Lydians learned to separate the gold from the silver in electrum and began to mint gold coins.
1991's Noida mint coin has a value of up to 30,000 rupees in uncirculated condition. In fine to extra fine condition, this coin can give you 10000 to 20000 rupees. The mint mark of Noida mint is a dot and the edge of this rare coin must be a security edge.Which dynasty issued coins first in India? ›
The Indo-Greeks were the first rulers in India to issue coins which can definitely be attributed to the kings. They were the first to issue gold coins in India.Which coin is the earliest punch marked coins in India? ›
Complete answer: The first coins in India may have been minted around the 6th century BC by the Mahajanpadas of the Indo-Gangetic plain. The coins of this period were punch-marked coins called Puranas, Karshapanas or Pana.Did peasants have coins? ›
Coins were certainly not used all the time, but they changed hands between most members of society, from kings and bishops down to individual peasants and slaves.What is the difference between ancient and medieval coins? ›
The difference between the coins used in the ancient times versus the medieval times is that the coins of ancient times featured a profile face with a Sanskrit text while medieval period coins showed the full face on the obverse side with khutba inscribed on the reverse side.
The largest medieval silver coins were known as groat (German Groschen), from denarius grossus or "thick penny". These rarely exceeded a weight of 6 grams.Which metals were used for making coins in India in later? ›
Some of the widely used metals were copper, silver, and gold.Which metals were used for making coins in India in later stages? ›
Gold, silver and copper coins were used for making coins in later stages in India.What were ancient coins used for? ›
Coins help in knowing the information about the kingdom, language, administration, religion and economic condition and also the title of the ruler who minted those coins. Coins were first made of scraps of metal by hitting a hammer positioned over an anvil.What were ancient coins made of? ›
Ancient coins were made from gold, silver, electrum, and copper and its alloys, bronze or brass. The earliest coins, minted in Asia Minor in the mid- to late seventh century B.C., were of naturally-occurring electrum, an alloy of gold and at least 20 per cent silver.Which is the oldest metal used in India? ›
Copper. Copper technology may date back to the 4th millennium BCE in the Himalaya region. It is the first element to be discovered in metallurgy, Copper and its alloys were also used to create copper-bronze images such as Buddhas or Hindu/Mahayana Buddhist deities.Which was probably the first metal to be used in India? ›
The first metal to be extensively used by the people in India was copper. Archaeological evidence suggests that copper was first used between 8,000 and 5,000 B.C., most likely in the regions known now as Turkey, Iran, Iraq and toward the end of that period the Indian subcontinent.What were small copper coins once used in India? ›
A dam was a small Indian copper coin. The coin was first introduced by Sher Shah Suri during his rule of India between 1540 and 1545, along with Mohur, the gold coin and Rupiya the silver coin.What metals did ancient Indians use? ›
The Yajurveda mentions gold, silver,iron, andseveral other metals, including lead and tin. used. date from about 4000 b.c.What was the only metal during the Neolithic Age in India? ›
The Neolithic Age was succeeded by the Chalcolithic Age (c. 2100 to 700 B.C.) which saw the use of copper; the first metal to be used at the end of the Neolithic Age.
Roman coins found in India are of gold, silver and copper mostly between 2nd century BC and 6-7th century AD the closing years of the Roman Republic to the time of Byzantine rulers.What is the most common ancient coin? ›
The most common size of the earliest coins was the 1/6th stater – called a “Hekte.” These small coins were about 10 mm in diameter and were not the smallest denomination. Interestingly the ancient die cutters were able to put intricate design details into coins as small as 5 mm.What is the most famous ancient coin? ›
1. The Most Important Ancient Coin: The Brutus “Eid Mar” Denarius, 42 BC. This ancient coin marks one of the most significant events in western history- the assassination of Julius Caesar.When was coin first introduced in India? ›
The Coinage of India began anywhere between early 1st millennium BCE to the 6th century BCE, and consisted mainly of copper and silver coins in its initial stage. The coins of this period were Karshapanas or Pana.What were coins made out of precious metals called? ›
Bullion coins are coins made from precious metals.Which metal was first used to make coins? ›
Ancient India in circa 6th century BC, was one of the earliest issuers of coins in the world. Since that time, coins have been the most universal embodiment of money. These first coins were made of electrum, a naturally occurring pale yellow mixture of gold and silver that was further alloyed with silver and copper.