India has been one of the earliest issuers of coins in the world and has been known for its sheer diversity in terms of minting techniques, motifs, sizes, shapes, the metals used, etc. The Coinage of India has played a very important role in the history of economic development of the country ever since its inception. 

The motifs, symbols, stamp used on the Indian coins since ancient times depict a lot about the rulers and their reign. Many archaeologists and explorers have done a deep analysis of these ancient Indian coins. This study of coins is known as Numismatics

History of Coinage in India

  • Stone age people had neither currency nor coinage and conducted exchange via barter. Chalcolithic cultures too conducted trade without the use of coins. The Harappans, for instance, had a very extensive trade network based on barter.
  • The Rig Veda mentions words such as nishka and nishkagriva (gold ornaments), and hiranya-pinda (gold globules), but these cannot be understood as coins.
  • Later Vedic texts use terms such as nishka, suvarna, shatamana, and pada. These may have been metal pieces of definite weight, not necessarily full-fledged coins.
  • The earliest definite literary and archaeological evidence of coinage in the Indian subcontinent dates from the 6th–5th centuries BCE in a context of the emergence of states, urbanization, and expanding trade.
    • Buddhist texts and the Ashtadhyayi refer to words such as kahapana/karshapana, nikkha/nishka, shatamana, pada, vimshatika, trinshatika, and suvanna/suvarna.
    • The basic unit of Indian coin weight systems was a red-and-black seed of the gunja berry known as the raktika, ratti, or rati.
    • In South India, the standard weight of coins was theoretically calculated on the basis of the relationship between two kinds of beans—the manjadi and the kalanju.
    • The advent of coinage did not mean the disappearance of barter—both co-existed for a very long time.
  • Punch-marked coins:
    • The oldest coins found in the subcontinent are punch-marked coins, made mostly of silver, some of copper.
    • They are usually rectangular, sometimes square or round. These coins are often irregular in shape.
    • The blanks for making these coins were generally cut from a metal sheet. The symbol or symbols were then hammered on these coins using dies or punches.
    • Most of the silver punch-marked coins weighed 32 rattis or about 56 grains.
    • Punch-marked coins are found all over the subcontinent, and continued to circulate in many places till the early centuries CE, with a longer period of circulation in peninsular India.
    • The punch-marked coins of northern India can be divided into four main series on the basis of their weight, the number and nature of punch marks, and their area of circulation—
      • the Taxila Gandhara type of the north-west with a heavy weight standard and a single punch type;
      • the Kosala type of the middle Ganga valley, with a heavy weight standard and multiple punch marks;
      • the Avanti type of western India, with a light weight standard and single punch mark; and
      • the Magadhan type with a light weight standard and multiple punches.
    • Changes in coinage patterns mirrored political changes. With the expansion of the Magadhan empire, the Magadhan type of punch-marked coins came to gradually replace those of other states.
    • Although these coins do not have any legends (i.e., anything written on them), it is likely that most of them were issued by states.
    • In later times, there is evidence of city issues and guild issues, and it is possible that this practice also prevailed in the period of the punch-marked coins.
    • Symbols on these coins include geometric designs, plants, animals, the sun, wheel, mountain, tree (including treein-railing), branches, and human figures. Some symbols may have had a religious or political importance.
    • The coins often have primary and secondary punch marks. The latter are ‘counterstamps’ or ‘countermarks’ which were added on later, without heating the coins.
  • Uninscribed cast coins:
    • Uninscribed cast coins made of copper or alloys of copper appeared soon after the punch-marked coins. They have been found in most parts of the subcontinent except the far south.
    • These coins were made by melting metal and pouring it into clay or metal moulds. Clay moulds have in fact been found at many sites and a bronze mould was found at Eran in central India.
    • The discovery of punch-marked and uninscribed cast coins in the same archaeological level at some early historical sites indicates that they overlapped in time.
  • Uninscribed die-struck coins:
    • Uninscribed die-struck coins were mostly in copper, rarely in silver.
    • The symbols, some similar to those on the punch-marked coins, were struck onto coin blanks with metal dies that were carefully carved with the required designs.
    • The minting of such coins may have begun in about the 4th century BCE and they
      have been found in large numbers at sites such as Taxila and Ujjain.
  • Die-struck Indo-Greek coins:
    • The next stage in the history of Indian coinage is marked by the die-struck Indo-Greek coins of the 2nd/1st century BCE.
    • These are very well-executed, usually round (a few are square or rectangular) and mostly in silver (a few are in copper, billon [a silver–copper alloy], nickel, and lead).
    • They bear the name and portrait of the issuing ruler on the obverse. Coins of Menander and Strato I show them slowly aging from teenagers to old men, indicating their long reigns.
    • Coins issued jointly by kings reflect the practice of conjoint rule.
    • The reverse of the coins usually had religious symbols.
    • The Indo-Greeks issued bilingual and bi-script coins, the name of the issuer appearing on the obverse in Greek and on the reverse in the Prakrit language and usually in the Kharoshthi script (rarely in Brahmi).
    • Coins of the Shakas, Parthians, and Kshatrapas follow the basic features of IndoGreek coinage, and include bilingual and bi-script issues.
  • Kushana’s coins:
    • The Kushanas (1st–4th centuries CE) were the first dynasty of the subcontinent to mint large quantities of gold coins; their silver coins are rare. They also issued many copper coins of low denominational value, which indicates the increasing spread of the money economy.
    • Kushana coins have the figure, name, and title of the king on the obverse. On the reverse are deities belonging to the Brahmanical, Buddhist, Greek, Roman, and other pantheons.
    • The legends are either entirely in Greek, or in some cases in Kharoshthi on the reverse.
  • Local coins:
    • A number of coin types ranging from the 3rd century BCE to the 4th century CE, referred as indigenous, tribal, janapada, or local coins form an important source of information on the history of the dynasties of northern and central India.
    • These coins are mostly cast or die-struck in copper or bronze, but there are some silver coins and a few rare examples of ones in lead and potin (an alloy of copper, lead, tin, and dross).
    • They include those issued by chieftains, kings, and non-monarchical states such as the Arjunayanas, Uddehikas, Malavas, and Yaudheyas.
    • There are also coins bearing the name of cities such as Tripuri, Ujjayini, Kaushambi, Vidisha, Airikina, Mahishmati, Madhyamika, Varanasi, and Taxila, presumably issued by the administration of these cities.
    • Some coins with the word negama seem to represent coins issued by merchant guilds.
    • Certain Taxila coins with the legend pancha-nekame may have been issued jointly by five guilds.
  • Satvahana’s coins:
    • In the Deccan, the pre-Satavahana coinage was followed by the copper and silver coins of the Satavahana kings. Rulers of this dynasty also issued coins of small denominational value made of lead and potin.
    • Most Satavahana coins were die-struck, but there are some cast coins.
    • The legends were generally in the Prakrit language and Brahmi script. However, the portrait coins (mostly in silver, but also in lead) use a Dravidian language and Brahmi script.
    • Punch-marked coins continued to circulate alongside the Satavahana issues.
  • Ikshvakus:
    • In the post-Satavahana period in the eastern Deccan, the Ikshvakus of the lower Krishna valley (3rd–4th centuries) issued lead coins similar in fabric to the Satavahana ones.
  • Western Deccan:
    • There was a greater demand for silver currency in the western Deccan, perhaps due to commercial reasons. The Kshatarapa ruler Nahapana introduced a silver currency in the Nashik area.
    • Roman gold coins also flowed into peninsular India in large quantities in the early centuries CE and may have been used as a medium of exchange for large-scale transactions or as currency reserves and capital deposits. Locally made imitations of Roman gold coins have also been found.
    • So, in the early centuries CE in the western Deccan, there was a co-existence of Satavahana, Kshatrapa, punch-marked, and Roman coins.
    • Currencies of the western Deccan also flowed into the eastern Deccan.
  • South India:
    • Some of the punch-marked coins found in various parts of South India have been identified as dynastic issues on the basis of their symbols. For example, coins found in a hoard at Bodinaikkanur near Madurai had a double carp fish—the symbol of the Pandya kings.
    • In recent years, there has been increasing evidence of dynastic issues (some with portraits) with legends of the Cholas, Cheras, and Pandyas.
      • Coins with the legend Valuti have been assigned to the Pandyas.
      • Silver coins with the portrait of a Chera king and the legend Makkotai have been found in the Krishna riverbed near Karur.
      • There are also coins with the legends Kuttuvan Kotai and Kollippurai along with the Chera symbols of the bow and arrow and the double fish and tiger.
  • Gupta’s coins:
    • The imperial Gupta kings issued well-executed die-struck gold coins with metrical legends in Sanskrit.
    • Known as dinaras, these coins have been mostly found in north India.
    • The obverse depicts the reigning king in various poses, usually martial ones, but there are interesting instances of coins of Samudragupta and Kumaragupta I showing them playing the vina (a stringed instrument).
    • The reverse of the Gupta coins have religious symbols indicating the kings’ religious affiliations.
    • There was a decline in the metallic purity of gold coins in the later part of Skandagupta’s reign.
    • The Guptas also issued silver coins, but their copper coins are rare.

Numismatic history of the early medieval period:

  • The numismatic history of the early medieval period is a subject of continuing debate. Historians who describe this period as marked by a feudal order talk of a decline in coinage along with a decline in trade and urban centres, followed by a revival in the 11th century.
    • This hypothesis can be questioned. There was certainly a decline in the aesthetic quality of coins, in the number of coin types, and in their message content. Many are devoid of names or titles, and are therefore difficult to associate with a particular king. However, as demonstrated by John S. Deyell, there does not seem to have been a decline in the volume of coins in circulation.
  • A number of base metal alloy coin series were issued by dynasties in early medieval times.
  • Rajputana and Gujarat:
    • In the Ganga valley, billon coins circulated in the Gurjara-Pratihara kingdom, while other coin types circulated in Rajputana and Gujarat.
  • Sindh:
    • Copper coins were minted by the Arab governors of Sindh between the mid-8th to mid-9th centuries.
  • Kashmir:
    • In Kashmir, copper coins were supplemented by bills of exchange (hundikas) denominated in terms of coins or grain, and the use of cowries.
  • Bengal:
    • During the 6th– 7th centuries, kings of Bengal such as Shashanka issued gold coins.
    • No coin issues of the Pala and Sena dynasties have so far been identified. It has been suggested that the references to currency units in their inscriptions do not represent actual coins but theoretical units of value made up by a fixed number of objects such as cowries.
    • However, a number of silver coins known as Harikela coins were circulating in Bengal between the 7th and 13th centuries and these had corresponding local eastern series, issued in the name of various localities.
  • Western Deccan:
    • In the western Deccan, some early medieval coin types have been tentatively identified with the Chalukyas of Badami.
    • Although gold and silver coins found in the Andhra region have been attributed to the early eastern Chalukyas, there seems to be a subsequent gap of about three centuries till the end of the 10th century, when there was a revival of gold and copper coinage under the later kings of this dynasty.
    • The attribution of certain gold and silver coins to the Chalukyas of Kalyana (8th– 12th centuries) and to the Kalachuri Rajputs remains uncertain.
    • Coins issued by the Kadambas of Goa (11th–12th centuries) have been identified, and a few gold coins have been attributed to the Shilaharas of the western Deccan (11th century).
  • Far South:
    • In the far south, coins with lion and bull motifs, some inscribed with titles, have been associated with the Pallavas.
    • The tiger crest is the emblem on Chola coins. The seals of several Chola copper plate inscriptions show the tiger, fish (the Pandya emblem), and bow (the Chera emblem), indicating that the Cholas had achieved political supremacy over these two dynasties. The appearance of these three emblems on many gold, silver, and copper coins suggests that these were Chola issues.
    • Gold coins found at Kavilayadavalli in the Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh have the motifs of the tiger, bow, and some indistinct marks.
      • The obverse has the Tamil legend sung which seems to be a short form of
        sungandavirttarulina (abolisher of tolls), one of the titles of the Chola king
        Kulottunga I.
      • The legends on the reverse—either Kanchi or Nellur—may indicate the
        names of mint towns. The last phase of Chola rule is only represented by
        copper coins.
    • Coins—mostly copper ones—of the early medieval Pandyas have been found
      largely in Sri Lanka.
  • Cowries:
    • In many parts of early medieval India, cowries continued to be used as money along with coins.
      • At Sohepur in Orissa, 25,000 cowries were found along with 27 Kalachuri coins.
      • At Bhaundri village in Lucknow, 54 Pratihara coins were found along with 9,834 cowries.
    • Cowries were probably used by people either for small-scale transactions or where coins of small denominational value were in short supply.
    • The market value of cowries fluctuated, depending on demand and supply.

Coins as a source of History

  • Language and script:
    • Legends on coins give information on the history of languages and scripts.
  • Economic history:
    • Monetary history:
      • Coins are linked to monetary history, which includes:
        • an analysis of the production and circulation of coinage,
        • the monetary values attached to coins, and
        • the frequency and volume of issues.
      • Monetary history is in turn an important aspect of the history of exchange and trade.
    • Trade:
      • The wide distribution of Kushana coins indicates the flourishing trade of the period.
      • The ship on certain Satavahana coins reflects the importance of maritime trade in the Deccan during this period.
      • Roman coins found in various parts of India provide information on IndoRoman trade.
    • Importance of guild:
      • The few coin series issued by guilds indicate the importance of these institutions.
    • Economic prosperity:
      • Coins are often taken to indicate levels of economic prosperity (or the lack of it) or the financial condition of ancient states.
      • Historians frequently interpret the debasement of coins as an indication of a financial crisis in the state or more general economic decline, for instance, in the time of the later Guptas.
        • However, in a situation where the supply of precious metals is restricted or reduced, alloying or debasement can be a response to an increase in the demand for coins created by an increase in the volume of economic transactions.
  • Helps in date the layers:
    • Dates appear rarely on early Indian coins. Exceptions are western Kshatrapa coins which give dates in the Shaka era and some Gupta silver coins which give the regnal years of kings.
    • Whether dated or undated, coins discovered in archaeological excavations often help date the layers. An example is the site of Sonkh near Mathura, where the excavated levels were divided into eight periods on the basis of coin finds.
  • Political history:
    • As important royal message-bearing media, coins form a vital source of political history.
      • The area of circulation of dynastic issues is often used to estimate the extent and frontiers of empires. However, caution has to be exercised, because coins made of precious metals had an intrinsic value and often circulated beyond the borders of the state issuing them.
      • They also sometimes continued to circulate for some time after a dynasty faded from power.
      • Several different currency systems could prevail in an area, and it is necessary to visualize multiple overlapping and intersecting spheres of coin circulation.
    • Numismatic evidence is an especially important source for the political history of India between c. 200 BCE and 300 CE.
      • Most of the Indo-Greek kings are known almost entirely from their coins.
      • Coins also offer information on the Parthians, Shakas, Kshatrapas, Kushanas, and Satavahanas.
      • The coins of over 25 kings with names ending in the suffix ‘mitra’ have been found in the area from east Punjab to the borders of Bihar.
      • Coins found in various parts of north and central India (Vidisha, Eran, Pawaya, Mathura, etc.) mention kings whose names end in the suffix ‘naga’, about whom little is known from other sources.
    • Ancient political systems:
      • Coins also offer information on ancient political systems. The term gana on coins of the Yaudheyas and Malavas points to their non-monarchical polity.
      • City coins are suggestive of the importance and possible autonomy of certain city administrations.
    • Biographies:
      • Sometimes, numismatic evidence offers more than just the names of kings and provides biographical details.
      • For instance, the only specific detail we know about the life of the Gupta king Chandragupta I is that he married a Lichchhavi princess, and this detail comes from coins commemorating the marriage.
      • Coins have helped prove that a Gupta king named Ramagupta ruled between Samudragupta and Chandragupta II.
    • The performance of the ashvamedha sacrifice by Samudragupta and Kumaragupta I is recorded on coins. The archer and battleaxe coin types of Samudragupta predictably advertise his physical prowess, while the lyrist type, which shows him playing the vina, represents a completely different aspect of his personality.
  • Religion:
    • The depiction of deities on coins provides information about the personal religious preferences of kings, royal religious policy, and the history of religious cults.
    • For instance, representations of Balarama and Krishna appear on 2nd century BCE coins of the Indo-Greek king Agathocles at Aï- Khanoum (in Afghanistan), indicating the popularity and importance of the cults of these gods in this region.
    • The depiction of a great variety of figures from Indian, Iranian, and Graeco-Roman religious traditions on the coins of the Kushana kings is generally interpreted as a reflection of their eclectic religious views.
    • But it can equally be read as evidence of the many religious cults prevailing in their empire and the wide range of religious symbols through which the Kushanas chose to legitimize their political power.


  • The various literary and archaeological sources for ancient and early medieval India have their own specific potential as well as limitations, which have to be taken into account by the historian.
  • Interpretation is integral to analysing the evidence from ancient texts, archaeological sites,
    inscriptions, and coins.
  • Wherever several sources are available, their evidence has to be co-related. The co-relation of evidence from texts and archaeology is especially important for a more comprehensive and inclusive history of ancient and early medieval India.
  • However given the inherent differences in the nature of literary and archaeological data, it is not always easy to integrate them into a smooth and seamless narrative.
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