Menander was a king of the Indo-Greek line who ruled in the north western India during the Mid-2nd century BCE. King Menander is the most famous of the Indo-Greek kings due to a number of reasons although the exact date of his reign and realm could not be ascertained. First and foremost among them is various stories about his patronage of Buddhism recorded in the various Buddhist religious books. One such famous book is Milindapanha which is actually a conversation between the king and the Buddhist sage Nagasena about different philosophical problems. Apart from the literary sources, Menander is also famous for his coins which are found in large numbers in various parts of northern and western India.
Menander was quite popular among his subjects as has been evidenced by the writings of several contemporary chroniclers including Plutarch. His reign saw the growing trade between India and Europe via west Asia. To facilitate trade and commerce Menander issued a large number of coins. These coins were struck in the well established Indo-Greek fashion with elaborate details. Menander was also influenced by the Indian tradition and accommodated the Indian cultural and social elements in his coins. The silver coins of Menander were known as Drachms.
The coins of Menander carried legends in both Greek and Kharosthi. The legends on his coins read the following: ‘Maharaja Tratarasa Menadrasa’. The earlier silver coins of Menander carried a portrait of goddess Athena on the obverse and the figure of an owl on the reverse.
In the later issues of Menander, the coins also carried the portrait of the king on the obverse. The reverse of these later coins carried the figure of Athena Alkidemos throwing a thunderbolt. After this, Athena Alkidemos became the royal standard emblem of several other Indo-Greek kings and rulers.
These above mentioned silver coins of Menander were very light weight. They weigh a little more than 1 gram to a little less than 2.5 gram.
Another series of Menander’s coins were struck in Attic weight standard carrying the portrait of King Menander wearing a helmet and depicting him as throwing a spear in the obverse. The reverse depicted the portrait of goddess Athena. The legend of these coins read ‘Of King Menander, the Saviour’. These coins weighed 13.03 gram each. Probably, these coins were special issues to mark some significant event during the King’s reign. But in our present state of historical knowledge it is not possible to find out the exact reasons or events for the issue of these coins.
There were also a number of bronze coins recovered of Menander. These Bronze coins were of relatively inferior value. But they are important for different reason. These bronze coins of Menander carried the images of several deities of both Greek and Indian pantheon.
The coins of Menander are a rich source of Indian socio-economic as well as political history. The number of Menander’s coins found was greater than any other Indo-Greek rulers. They have been found in widely varied geographical regions such as modern day Afghanistan, Indian state of Kashmir, Punjab, and Gujarat. Even centuries after the conclusion of Menander’s reign, his coins were in much use among the traders of Gujarat. This is evident from the narrative of the ancient text, ‘Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’ where the unknown author of the stated that coins of Menander were largely used in the trading activities in the great port of Barigaza or modern day Broach situated in the Gujarat coast by the traders hailing from different regions.