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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

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.

Lakshmi, India, Madhya Pradesh state, Sanchi, the main stupa a 2200 year old Buddhist monument built by Emperor Ashoka.

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.

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

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

Three useful resources for starting out with these coins:

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