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.