The Indo-Greek Coins

South Asia, and more precisely the modern state of India has experienced the incursion of several tribes throughout its history. Many of the famous military generals of the world had made their mark in the territories of South Asia. The Greek military genius Alexander also attacked north western India albeit without much success. The invasion of Alexander took place in the year of 326 BCE. However, he succeeded in establishing several Greek colonies. He left some of his military generals and soldiers to occupy and rule his Indian and Central Asian conquests. These Greek generals came to be known as Indo-Greeks in the history. They ruled roughly during the period between mid-3rd century BCE when Diodotus I established an independent kingdom to early 1st century BCE when they were overwhelmed by the Parthians and the Shakas.

Their rule extended over a vast part of central Asia and north western South Asia. It included the modern areas of Afghanistan, north western part of Pakistan, the Indian provinces of Kashmir and Punjab. There were several dynasties and over 40 rulers of the Indo-Greek lineage who ruled over this extended time period. And surprisingly the main sources of information about the rule of these numerous kings are the numismatic evidences.

The Indo-Greek coins inaugurated a new phase in the history of South Asian coinage. These coins carried elaborate details about their issuing authority. The name, the issuing year of the coin and a portrait of the reigning monarch was die-struck very precisely on the metal pieces.

We can identify elaborate measures of coin circulation in the Indo-Greek territory. The coins circulated in the north of the Hindu Kush Mountains were mainly made of gold, silver, copper and nickel. They were struck according to Attic weight standard. The obverse of the coins carried the portrait of the issuing monarch. The reverse of the coin was marked by the depiction of Greek gods and goddesses. The name of the monarch and his royal titles were also mentioned in the reverse in Greek.

The coins which were circulated in the south of the Hindu Kush bear more Indian touch. They were mostly made of silver and copper. Most of these coins are of round shape, while some of them are square. These coins were struck according to Indian weight standard. They bear the royal portrait on the obverse. But their reverse was marked by Indian religious symbols rather than Greek. These type of coins also carried bilingual and bi-script inscriptions using the Greek and Prakrit languages; and Greek and Kharosthi or Brahmi scripts.

The Indo-Greek coins have been found in large numbers in the modern Afghanistan. The largest number of coins was discovered from Gardez. This hoard is known as the Mir Zakah hoard. It yielded 13,083 coins. Among these large number of coins 2,757 were Indo-Greek coins. Other major finds are the hoard found at Khisht Tepe near Qunduz and the coins found during excavations at the city of Ai-Khanoum.

The Indo-Greek coins are very important source of ancient Indian history. Out of 42 Indo-Greek kings who ruled, about 34 kings are known only through their coins. Coins of such kings as Menander depicted them slowly progressing from their teenage to old age, which also indicated their long reigns. The high standard of coinage set by the Indo-Greeks worked as a model for several other Indian dynasties for a very long period of time. The representation of Indian religious figures and symbols in the Indo-Greek coins has a greater significance for the cultural history of South Asia. This illustrated the syncretism of the Indo-Greek rulers. A sort of cultural and religious fusion between India and Greece can be traced from these coins.

A Short History of Indian Coins

The earliest references to coins in the Indian context have been found in the Vedas. Though Vedas are primarily religious texts, they are not solely concerned about Yoga, spirituality or after-life. Rather there are numerous references to ‘nishka’ and ‘nishka-griva’ which are believed to be earliest specimens of Indian coinage.

Another breakthrough in the Indian coinage can be traced back to 6th century BCE. Several small states emerged in the northern India during this period. The trading activities grew rapidly. We came across several terms such as the nishka, karshapana, shatamana, vimshatika which were coins of different weight and value. Interestingly, the weight-system of the coins was based on the red and black seeds of a particular variety of tree called Abrus precatorius. The coins of this age were mainly made of silver and copper. They are known among the numismatists as punch-marked coins. Punch-marked coins did not show any great instance of artistic expertise.

But the coins of the next age which was circulated in India were destined to be the best examples of artistic expertise. They were issued by the Indo-Greek kings of north western India. These coins were found in large numbers in various places of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. These coins are significant because they carry detail information about the issuing monarch, the year of issue and sometimes even an image of the reigning king. Coins were mainly made of silver, copper, nickel and lead.

The reign of the Gupta dynasty is described by some historians and scholars as the ‘Golden age’ age. And this is quite evident from their coins. Numismatists have found number of gold coins of this dynasty. These coins are also rich in details of their issuing authority. The gold coins of the Guptas were known as dinaras. The writings on these coins were in Sanskrit. These coins depicted the reigning monarch in different poses.

Apart from the coins another major medium of exchange xxx in the early Indian market was the cowrie shell. Cowrie shells were used in large numbers by the ordinary masses for small scale economic transactions. It is said that the cowrie shells carried definite value in the market just as the coins.

With the fall of the Gupta dynasty in mid-6th century CE there was a marked decline in commercial activities in Northern India. This period is also significant in the history of Indian coinage because the decline of monetary system. The decline of coinage can be noted in their number, their appearance, and value.

However, the situation changed with the invasion of the Turks in 11th and 12th century CE. Vast areas of northern India came under the rule of the Sultans. Trade and commerce with West Asia was again flourishing. The various dynasties of the Delhi sultans issued silver and copper coins. The inscriptions on the coins were mainly in Perso-Arabic script. Interestingly the coins did not bear any image of the issuing monarch. The reason was the prohibition of idolatry in Islam.

Muhammad binTughlaq, one of the sultans of 14th century was famous for his monetary reforms. He circulated bronze and copper coins and token paper currency. However, his measures failed miserably as his subjects resorted to wholesome forgery of the currency notes. Ultimately he had to withdraw the currency notes.

The Great Moguls of 16th and 17th century issued coins closely resembling other Central Asian dynasties. Sher Shah, a ruler for a very short period of time in the mid-16th century was a bitter enemy of the Mughals. He is also remembered for his introduction of a kind of silver coin namely rupee. Interestingly, in India money is still known as rupiya.

The Moguls were succeeded by the East India Company’s colonial rule. The Company rule brought the monetary system of India in direct connection with the global economic system. However, the name of the Indian currency continued to be rupee under the Company rule.