The Golden Age of Indian Coinage: The Gupta Coins

According to some scholars, the most glorious period of ancient Indian history is the rule of the Gupta dynasty. They ruled large parts of northern India from early 4th century CE to mid-6th century CE. The Guptas started their rule from a small state in eastern India. Gradually their rule extended over a large part of south Asia. The first of the significant Gupta rulers was Chandragupta I. The most famous ruler of this dynasty was Samudragupta. India prospered in almost every sphere of life during this period. The flourishing state of economy can be ascertained from the large number of gold coins circulated by different Gupta rulers.

The Gupta monarchs were famous for their gold coins. They also issued silver coins. However, coins made of copper, bronze or any other alloy metals are scarce. The abundance of gold coins from the Gupta era has led some scholars to regard this phenomenon as the ‘rain of gold’.

The Gupta gold coin is known as dinaras. The gold coins of the Gupta rulers are the extraordinary examples of artistic excellence. The coins depicted the ruling monarch on the obverse and carried legends with the figure of a goddess on the reverse.

The artists depicted the ruler in various poses. The study of these imageries is very interesting. Mainly the images celebrated the martial qualities and the valor of the ruler. In many coins of Samudragupta, he is depicted as carrying an axe. In others, he is carrying a bow in his left hand and an arrow in his right hand. The coins of Kumaragupta I (c. 415-450 CE) depicted him riding an elephant and killing a lion. Another very interesting image of Samudragupta depicted him as playing a ‘veena’, a stringed musical instrument. There are also some instances of Gupta coins which were jointly issued by the king and the queen. The ‘king-queen’ types of coins were issued by Chandragupta I, Kumaragupta I, and Skandagupta. These coins depicted both the figures of the king and queen in a standing pose. Kumaradevi, the name of the queen of Chandragupta I is known from these coins. But the other two kings did not mention the name of their queens in their joint issues.

The ‘Asvamedha’ or horse-sacrifice coins were issued by both Samudragupta and Kumaragupta I. Horse sacrifice is an ancient Hindu ritual in which a very powerful monarch sacrificed a horse after some elaborate rituals to demonstrate his political power. A very few among the ancient kings of India had performed this sacrifice as it was allowed for only those with enormous power and wealth. The fact that two of the Gupta monarchs performed it is evident from their coins. It also showed their immense power and wealth.

Almost every Gupta coin carried the figure of a goddess and an inscription in the reverse. Sanskrit was the language of the inscription. The goddess posed in either sitting or a standing position. There were many goddess depicted in these coins. The most common was the image of Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. Other goddesses who featured in the Gupta coins included Durga, the Hindu goddess of valor; Ganga, the goddess of the river Ganges; etc.

Some of the Gupta coins, mainly the silver ones, carried the images of Garuda, a mythical bird of Hindu tradition.  These coins are found in large numbers in western India. In some cases, the Garuda is replaced by a peacock. This variety of coins is extremely rare. And thus, carry a great value for the numismatists.

The first hoard of the Gupta coins was found at Kalighat, in Calcutta in 1783. The coins were handed over to Warren Hastings, the British governor-general who sent them to London. Now, many of the coins of this collection can be seen at the British Museum.

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