The Decline of Coins in the Early Medieval India

Have you ever thought of life without money? Can you imagine a society where no one uses coins and currency in economic transactions? Though it may sound weird, it was the case in India at a certain point of time. After the fall of the mighty Gupta dynasty in the mid-6th century CE, several smaller states came into existence in India. The big cities of the earlier age were all in decline. With them declined trade and commerce. The prosperous days of Indo-Roman trade were gone. Under these circumstances, the economy of India became more agrarian and land-centric.

Based on these evidences several scholars has argued that the period between the fall of the Gupta dynasty (mid-6th century CE) and the commencement of the Muslim Sultanate rule in Delhi in the 13th century was marked by the emergence of an Indian variety of feudalism. This same period is known among the historians of India as early medieval period. The scarcity of money, in the form of coins of course, was another major feature of this age.

So, how did the people buy goods or services in the absence of hard cash? The proponents of feudalism theory argued that the cowrie shells became the principal medium of exchange during this period. The cowrie shells had definite market value. They were used by merchants and ordinary people for small scale local transactions. Though long distance trading activities were in decline, some merchants still managed to export rice from the eastern part of India to Maldives. In exchange they brought cowrie shells from Maldives to use in the local market. The Indian Ocean trade was the main source of cowrie shells in the Indian market.

However, foreign merchants refused to accept cowrie shells in exchange of their products. Thus, the states were compelled to issue some debased and devalued copper and silver coins. Thus, there was not any absolute absence of coins. There were certainly some coins in circulation in the market. But these coins were no match with the coins of the Guptas. Gold coins became very rare in this period as they were not essential for an economy based on declining trade. The coins of this period also lacked the aesthetic quality and precision of the earlier period. They remained mere imitation of the earlier age.

Nevertheless, there are some scholars who countered the hypothesis of scarcity of coins in the early medieval India. John S. Deyell is one the champion of this counter-argument to the theory of shortage of coin. He suggested that the number of coins in circulation did not decline in this period. What was in decline was the value of the coins. As trade was in decline, people needed very little amount of hard cash for their sustenance. Moreover, the circulation of cowrie shells solved their problem of acquiring metal coins as there was a scarcity of silver supply in early medieval India. This shortage of silver came to known as the ‘Silver famine’. The opponent of the feudalism theory further argued that a human society could not exist completely abandoning trade and commerce. Salt and iron are two essential commodities for sustenance and they are not available everywhere. Thus, people had to engage in some sort of economic transaction to procure these products.

Well, now-a-days our economy is again leading towards a system where carrying and transacting via hard cash is becoming obscure day by day. Digital and plastic money is becoming more convenient. It is interesting to note that the idea of inventing the alternatives to hard cash is not at all new. People in the early medieval age, too, look for the alternatives and they found cowrie shells.

Numismatics: The Study of Coin

Now-a-days most of our economic transactions are controlled by electronic technology. However, the importance of hard cash has not been diminished. Since c.700 BCE human beings are using pieces of metals in exchange of goods or services. We called these pieces of metals as coins. Coins are everywhere in our daily life even in this age of plastic money. We used them in malls, markets, restaurants, and in numerous other places. The scientific study of coins is known as Numismatics. Also the hobby of collecting various types of coins is included within the discipline of numismatics.

The term ‘numismatics’ is derived from Latin numismatis which means coin. Its earliest use in English can be traced back to 1829.

The numismatists analyzed the materials of the coins. Their study also included the identification of the source of metals used, the classification of the coins according to their shape, time period and issuing authority. Ancient coins are generally found in hoards, or sometimes as stray individual finds. The numismatists study those coins and prepare their report. These scholarly reports are of immense importance to the historians. Numismatists provided the historians with the raw data about the material condition of people of the past. The historians used those data in writing his accounts of the past. On the basis of the information supplied by the numismatists the historian can determine the chronology of a particular ruler, the extent of his rule, the material condition of the common people under his rule, the condition of trade and commerce, etc.

The numismatists used several scientific methods to study the metal content of the coins. These included the use of modern X-ray Fluorescence spectrometry. The increasing use of modern technologies in the field of numismatics is greatly beneficial to obtain accurate results quickly.

The Renaissance in Europe witnessed an enthusiasm among the people to collect antiques of the Classical age. This is the same age when we met the first of the numismatists. Although there must have been earlier instances of collecting coins, they were not sufficiently documented. The famous Renaissance personality Petrarch is often credited as the first of the coin collectors during Renaissance. Guillaume Bude wrote the first authoritative text on coins in the year 1514. His book came to be known as ‘De Asse et Partibus’. Several famous royal personalities were interested in numismatics. Even the Pope Boniface VIII (1230-1303) was a collector of coins. Some of the famous modern numismatists included Charles Seltman, the British archaeologist; David Hendin, the American expert of Jewish and Biblical coins; and Guido Bruck, an Austrian numismatist specializing in late Roman period.

In modern days, both the professional scholarly activities of the scientific study of coins and  the amateurish enthusiasm of collecting coins is largely dominated by organized bodies. Most of these organizations came into being during the 19th century or early-20th century. Some of the famous organizations dealing with numismatics are The Royal Numismatic Society and The British Numismatic Society in Britain and The American Numismatic Society. The Royal Numismatic Society published a renowned scholarly journal, the Numismatic Chronicle. The American Journal of Numismatics is also a critically acclaimed scholarly journal. It was first published in 1866.

Besides these bodies almost all the governments patronized numismatics through their respective Archaeological departments. As numismatics is an integral part of the archaeological explorations, almost every archaeological department has separate sections to deal with the coins.

Numismatics is growing in its popularity worldwide. Many local societies and clubs all over the world are facilitating its growth. Certainly, the “hobby of the kings” is no more confined only within the palaces and among the royalties.