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Coins from Ancient India

I have accumulated a few coins from ancient India. Today's post shares several and focuses on the Buddhist symbols on a particularly unusual coin from the edge of Greek & Roman influence. Sulla never made it as far east as Punjab or Nepal, however my coin of interest today is a coin from the northeast of India, just south of the Himalayas, and it is from my favorite time period (issued during the lifetime of Roman republican general and consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla). In hand this coin resembles an Indo Scythian drachm like this one of Azes:

Indo-Skythians, Azes, Circa 58-12 BC, AR Drachm (15mm, 2.3g)

Obv: Azes right on horseback, holding spear; bhu in Kharosthi to right

Rev: Zeus standing left, holding Nike and long scepter; monograms to left; to right, B above a in Kharosthi

Ref: Senior 105.631D;

Or a Bactrian drachm like this one of Menander which was issued nearer to the same time:

Bactria, Indo-Greek Kingdom, Menander I Soter, circa 155-130 BC, AR Drachm (18mm, 2.3g,)

Obv: Diademed heroic bust left, seen from behind, wearing aegis and brandishing spear

Rev: Athena Alkedimos standing right, holding shield and thunderbolt; monogram to right.

Ref: Bopearachchi 7A;

This coin's Pankrit legends are in Brahmi (obv) and Kharoshti (rev) - Pankrit a general term for a family of dialects related to Sanskrit. This coin also comes with a cornucopia of symbols. (No Greek but they may have traded with the Indo-Greeks and issued these silver coins in imitation of indo-Greek coins)

Kuninda, Maharaja Amoghabuti, ca. 150-80 BC, AR drachm (2.11g), HGC 12-850, AICR-1144, "Six-Arched Hill" type

Obv: stag standing right, vase symbol above rump, an early śrīvatsa symbol above antlers, three-arched hill symbol between legs, Lakshmi standing facing to right, holding flower. Rajnah Kunindasya Amoghabhutisya maharajasya ("Great King Amoghabhuti, of the Kunindas").

Rev: six-arched hill, triratna above, swastika above indradhvaja to left, railed tree to right, wave below. Rana Kunidasa Amoghabhutisa Maharajasa, ("Great King Amoghabhuti, of the Kunindas").

The goddess on the obverse is Lakshmi a goddess of fortune, beauty, fertility and prosperity.

This variant has a ten-dotted sun is behind the deer,:

and ""Lotus" type" a variant with the goddess Lakshmi stands on a lotus flower bed

The deer on the obverse is identified as Cervus unicolour niger or equinus or Indian Sambar deer. This dear is associated with the Ushatrapada Kunindeshu, the patron god of the tribe.

Cervus unicolour. Image source Charles J. Sharp, Sharp Photography, via wikipedia. used under license CC BY-SA 4.0

Obverse Symbols:

  • The lotus flower is held by Lakshmi and perhaps could also be seen as a parasol - both important Buddhist symbols, although I am not sure of the timing.

  • The vase above the back of the deer is also a Buddhist symbol: vase of inexhaustible treasures of Buddha's teachings.

  • The śrīvatsa or Shrivatsa symbol is sometimes described as "two cobras" and could also be seen as two fish Sanskrit : gaurmatsya. Shrivatsa means literally "beloved of Shri" and epithet of the god Vishnu referring to Lakshmi, his consort, and the shrivatsa is a mark on the chest of Vishnu, where Lakshmi is said to reside.

  • The three hills (obv.) symbol is found over many years from about 500 BCE on Indian coins. It could be associated with the Tripura, three cities or three worlds in Brahman mythology, made of gold, silver and iron and located respectively in heaven, earth and the underworld. It could also be associated with the triad of goddesses, the Tridevi: Saraswati (learning), Lakshmi (fortune), and Parvati (love & war). It is also identified with a chaitya (stupa or "hill") which has a parasol at the top. Stupa is a manument which usually houses sacred relics of Buddha.

Reverse Symbols

  • The six hills (rev) symbol perhaps a variant of the three hills with similar references?

  • A triratana (the "w" on the reverse of this coin above a circle) represents the three jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha which roughly correspond to Buddha, his teachings, and the Buddhist community.

  • Swastika is a word derived from Sanskrit root swasti, composed from su for "well" and asti "it is" and is a symbol of good luck and prosperity in Buddhism representing the footprints of Buddha.

  • The indradhvaja is a "flagstaff of Indra", a banner or standard. Indra a Buddhist and Hindu deity and king of gods (parallel to Jupiter/Zeus in Roman/Greek mythology).

  • The railed tree or "tree held within an ornamental railing" (referring to the bok at the bottom of the tree) could relate to the Bodhi tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment.

Although I do not find a reference for this connected to the coin, I am wondering if this coin depicts an Ashtamangala, a suite of eight auspicious symbols representing the offerings from the gods made to Buddha after his enlightenment. An Ashtamangala seen on this Tibetan Buddhist door (image source : wikipedia)

For more on this coin see:

I am including in this Note a few other coins from ancient India starting with this large copper coin - a "tetradrachm" of Vima Kadphises with legends in Greek and Kharoshti. The Buddhist triratana (Three jewels) symbol showing up on this coin too:

Copper Unit (26mm, 15.86g) under Emperor Vima Kadphises (circa 105-130 AD), the father of Kanishka the Great in Kushan Empire, India. Siva & bull issue. Bilingual series. Provenance : Ex Robert Tye, Yorkshire, UK

Obv: King standing facing beside alter, holding trident, Tamgha on the left, with Greek legends

Rev: Siva & Bull

Ref: MA-3008 and Zeno-113526

Here are some additional coins from a region southwest of the first coin. The Western Kshatrapas issued multi-lingual coins that carry an interesting history at the intersection of east and west, involving Greeks, Scythians (Saka), Parthians, Yueh-chih, Bactrians and a reign of almost 400 years in Western India. On some, the date can be found behind the emperor's head, starting with 78 AD (first year of the Saka Era).

Approximate territory of the Western Satraps (35–415) circa 350 CE. Public Domain map created from DEMIS Mapserver.

Western Kshatrapas. Nahapana, AR Drachm, circa AD 53-99 - legends written in Greek, Brahmi, and Kharoshti

Western Kshatrapas, Viradaman, circa AD 234-238, AR drachm.

Western Kshatrapas, Vijayasena, circa 239-250 AD, AR drachm.

This next coin is one that does not follow the usual pattern of naming father and son and includes the words "varshe prathame" (first year) and the date is tentatively read as: S. 164 (=242 CE). Isvaradatta appears to have been a usurper during the time of Vijayasena. He did not last long as there are only "first year" and "second year" coins and "second year" coins are very rare. (see CoinIndia)

Isvaadatta, Head of king right / Chaitya (3-arched hill), river below, crescent moon and sun above, Brahmi legend around "rajno mahakshatrapasa isvaradattasa varshe prathame"

R. Senior published an "easy finder" in this journal in four installments from Issue Nos: 147-150.

"It has been conjectured that the interruption in the line of Mahaksatrapas between Vijayasena, year 171, and DamajadjisrI, year 176 (v. sup. 82), may have been caused by an insurrection of the Abhira king against his feudal lord. The contemporary Ksatrapa, Viradaman reigns uninterruptedly through this interval, but the position of
Mahaksatrapa seems to have been usurped by Isvaradatta who strikes coins apparently imitated from those both of Vijayasena and Viradaman dated in the first and second years of his reign. This conjecture is supported by arguments derived from
(1) the formation of the name, and
(2) the method of dating in regnal years."
-Rapson, Edward James, Sources of Indian history , p.22

Western Kshatrapas, Bhartrdaman, circa AD 276-295, AR drachm.

Western Kshatrapas, Visvasimha, circa AD 277-282, AR drachm.

Western Kshatrapas, Visvasena, circa AD 292-304, AR drachm.

The next set of five 5th century Indian coins are compelling to me for several reasons: - the blundered HOHO obverse Greek legend

- Garuda with spread wings on the reverse. Garuda is a Hindu demi-god, often shown as the mount of the god Vishnu.

- the continuity in obverse portrait style with the drachms of the Western Kshatrapas

India, Gupta Dynasty, AR Hemidrachms of Kumaragupta (CE 414-455) and Skandagupta (CE 455-480) (circa 2g each and 12mm in diameter).

Obv:bust of king facing right, blundered greek legend around

Rev: stylized garuda standing facing, with wings spread, brahmi legend around 'Paramabhagavata Rajadhiraja Sri Kumaragupta Mahendraditya' (alternatively Skandagupta)

Here is garuda illustrated on the state insignia of Thailand.

I've highlighted here the stylized garuda on the coin in pink:

India, Gupta Empire, First Dynasty, Skandagupta Kramaditya, circa 455-467, AR Drachm (13 mm, 1.9g)

Obv: Bust of Skandagupta to right, wearing headdress and earring.

Rev: VIJITA VANIR AVANIPATI JAYATI DIVAM SKANDAGUPTOYAM (‘Skandagupta, Lord of the Earth, having conquered the Earth, wins over Heaven' in Brahmi) Fan-tailed peacock standing facing with spread wings.

Ref: MACW, 4883-4884

Note: the Bhitari pillar inscription of Skandagupta provides a list of Skadagupta's achievements

Kidarite, Vinayaditya, 7th/8th century, debased dinar (7.15g)

Obv: highly stylized king standing left

Rev: Abstract Ardoksho seated facing, sri vinaya / ditya in Brahmi

Ref: Mitch-3656/60, Cribb-32

Note: this coin appears to copper with very little gold, perhaps a contemporary imitation or illegal strike at the official mint, bold VF-EF. Joe Cribb's article on the early medieval coinage of Kashmir appeared in Numismatic Digest, vol. 40 (2016), pp. 86-112.

Local Issues, Kabul. Shahis (Shahiyas), Jital (Silver, 18 mm, 3g), Samanta Deva, circa 850-1000 CE. SRI SAMANTA DEVA ('Lord Samanta Deva' in Nagari) Zebu recumbent to left with symbol on rump; in field to left, star above pellet. Rev. Rider facing on horseback to right, holding banner in his left hand; in field to left, 'bhi' (in Nagari); in field to right, uncertain symbol. Tye 14.

Local Issues, Kabul, Shahis (Shahiyas), Samanta Deva, circa 850-1000, AE Jital (18mm, 1.82g), Ohind mint?

Obv: SRI SAMANTA DEVA ('Lord Samanta Deva' in Nagari) Elephant advancing left.

Rev: Lion standing right with open jaws and a diamond symbol on his rump, raising his right paw; above, pelleted star.

Ref: Tye 19

Where is Ohind?

Useful resources for starting out with these coins:

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