Beginning of Indian coins

The golden age of India.
Gold coin of Chandragupta II, 375-414 AD. Lion-slayer type.

          The story of coins is interwoven with the history of mankind. To trace its story, one has to look back to the remote past, when man was confined to himself or his family. Then his needs were limited. His requirements of shelter, food and covering were met by Nature and by Mother Earth; and he had nothing to worry about. In course of time, families grouped themselves into tribes or communities, and developed their own patterns of life; and gradually the communities or tribes of a region came into close contact with those of the other region and their life took a new shape. Till then, people of each community or tribe had their monopolies over the products of their own region. Now with the growth of community or tribe contacts, they knew of the products of the other regions; naturally, they became interested in acquiring these products of others. At this stage the mutual exchange of things was introduced. One gave one's own products in exchange for those of others, much in the same way as at school children exchange marbles for stamps.

          When people settled in localities and the communities grew in size, the exchange of different products became a necessity; then the mutual exchange of things took the shape of trade and the system of barter was evolved. But the disadvantages of the barter system were soon realised; and hence a new method was evolved. A common commodity was fixed to serve as an intermediary in all transactions. In course of time, certain commoditities got preference over others and a higher value was attached to them. They assumed the character of a medium of exchange and got a standard by which the value of other things was estimated. Thus emerged the notion of the unit of value, the first step towards the evolution of coinage.

          In India the Harappan people--the people who lived in the Indus valley with their extension towards the south in Gurarat and towards the west in the Punjab and Delhi--perhaps used agricultural prducts as their media of exchange as late as the third millennium B.C. Our archaeologists believe that the huge granaries that have been found in the cities of Harappan and Mohen-jo-daro were replenished by a system of State tribute; and they fullfilled in the State economy the function of the modern State bank or treasury.

          The pastoral Vedic people used their cows as the medium of their transactions. In a passage in the Rigveda, the price of an image of Indra, which was being offered for sale, is said to be ten cows. In another passage, a sage is said to have refused to sell his image of Indra even for a hundred or a thousand or even ten thousand cows. In a third passage, we are told that the Bharat army went out for war impelled by the desire to acquire cows. Again, we find that Indra sent his messenger to recover his stolen treasure; and his treasure was nothing else but cows. The Soma plant was in great demand amongst the Vedic Aryans; and it was usually exchanged for cows. Similarly, in the Aitareya Brahmana, wealth is frequently estimated in cows. It is mentioned there that a price of hundred cows was paid to the father of Sunahsepa, when he was sold for being sacrificed by Harishchandra. Again, when no one came forward to perform the odious work of fastening the boy to the sacrificial post, the father offered himself and wanted the fee of a hundred cows; and he was even prepared to sacritice his son for another hundred cows. Then we have many instances, refered to in later Vedic literature, where the dakshina (fee) to the ritvika (priest) was paid in cows.

          The cows were the medium of exchange still later in the middle of the fifth century B.C. appears from the Ashtadhyavi of Panini. there we have mention of purchase by means of go-puchchha, which literally means cow-trail; it was a term for the cows then in transaction. It had perhaps originated from the fact that the cattle then changed hands by their tails. The remnants of this practice still survive in the Hindu rituals of go-dan (the presentation of a cow to the priest), where the cow is handed over to the priest by putting her tail into his hands.

          The widespread use of cows show that it well met the needs of the age. They were not quickly perishable and were more stable in value than argricultutal products. They had a capacity for multiplication, for work and for the supply of milk. But at the same time, as a means of payment and a form in which purchasing power could be accumulated, the cows were troublesome also. They required care and some degree of skill in rearing. Then they could not be used for the purchase of small things, as they could not be divided without killing them and converting them into beef and by that act, they lost their value. So the medium of this kind was not suitable for all kinds of transactions as well as for the purpose of long-term savings. An alternate medium was necessary. The Vedic people found it in an ornament call nishka, which was probably some kind of necklace. In one of the passages in the Rigveda, Rudra is described as wearing a nishka, which is said to be visvarupa in form. What vishvarupa precisely meant is difficult to surmise. However, it is assumed that the nishka had probably designs or variegated scrolls. Whatever it might be, it seems almost certain that it was a piece of art. We have an allusion where Ushas, disclosing the beutiful view of dawn, in described as fashioning a nishka, or wearing a garland. As such, nishka was the most prized amongst all the ornaments in Vedic society.

          In a hymn of the Rigveda, Rishi Kakshivat has described how he obtained from the king Bhavya ten horses and ten nishkas. In the Atharvaveda, a poet has praised the generosity of his patron, who gave him a hundred nishkas, ten necklaces, three hundred horses and ten thousand cows. In the Gopatha-Brahmana, we find Uddalaka Aruni, a distinguished scholar of Kuru-Panchala country, moving throughout the country with a challenge for debate and an offer of a nishka attached to the banner to one who would vanquish him therein. Again, in the Chhandogya Upanishad, it is said that a king offered his daughter along with a thousand cows, a horse with a chariot, a village and a nishka to a sage as an inducement to accept certain esoteric doctrines. These references show that along with the cows, the ornament nishka was also the symbol of wealth in the Vedic period. It was frequently given by the kings as presents and gifts to their priests.

          With the introduction of an ornament as a medium of transaction, some people would naturally have thought of the metal itself, which could give them any desired ornament instead of having always the same ornament in exchange. And then in India, gold, which could be had from the sands of many of the great rivers after a proper wash and which was found abundantly in the south, and which also came from Central Asia. Afghanistan and Tibet, was perhaps used for such transactions. It is stated in a passage in the Rigveda that the king Divodasa presented to his priest ten bags (of gold ?), ten horses, ten garments and ten ingots of gold (hiranya-pinda).

          But the introduction of metal as the medium of exchange brought with it the problem of its measure. The invention of balance, which supplied the requisite method of weighing the metal, brought with it the need for a standrad of weight. And then people began to weight the metal against seeds. Seeds which were fairly uniform in weight and size were selected and the unit of metal was defined in terms of these seeds. In a passage in the Taitariya Brahmana, it is state that a krishnala was given to each of the participants in the chariot race at the time of the Rajasuya sacrifice as a reward for their services. This is indicates that gold or some other metal was given to each participant, which weight one krishnala. Krishnara is a seed, which is known in later literature as raktika or gunja and is known today is ratti. It is the same as Abrus precatorius. Yava (barley). tandula (rice) and masha (pulse) are the other seeds and grains that were used as units for weighing metals in this country. Karsha and Kalanju are the other two big seeds that were used in weighting.

          But a transaction with a metal needed scales every time; and this was quite a tedious job. To minimise the difficulties of weighing during transactions, the use of ingots of the desired weight and value was contemplated. A metallic piece, round in shape, call satamana (literally meaning a hundred units) is mentioned in the later Samhitas and the Brahmanas. Two such satamanas were attached to the two wheels of the royal chariot in the chariot race held in course of the Rajsuya sacrifice at the time of the coronation of the king. These satamanas were later given to the priest. Similarly, a reference to another metallic piece call pada (meaning one-fourth) is found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad in the description of the Bahudakshina sacifice perform by King Janaka of Videha. He had organised a philosophical congress and arranged a debate to find out the most outstanding scholar amongst those present in the court. For this he had offered the most tempting prize of a thousand cows, each having ten padas attached to their horns.

          These and many other such passages in the Vedic literature unmistakeably indicate the first two stages in the evolution of coins in the early period of Indian history between 1500 and 800 B.C. But the references are so scattered and intermingled that it is difficult to say precisely how and when the Indian people moved from one stage to the other in the course of the passage towards coinage.

          Though it became a well-established custom to settle bargains by transfer of metal of a particular weight and shape, some inherent difficulties were still there. In spite of the definiteness of the weight of the ingots and sheets, there was no guarantee about the exactness of the weight and the quality of the metal. One had a satisfy oneself about this point. And so, the necessity of scales and touch-stone was still felt. To obviate these difficulties in India and in a few other countries, stamping the metallic pieces with the mark or device of a responsible authority was thought of as a sign of guarantee of accurate weight and the right quality of metal. Thus the coin was born.

          The advantage of this innovation to the commercial community was immense. It rendered their business transactions most easy. One had just to give a piece of metal, thus stamped, and to take whatever one wanted. So, it is believed that the initiative in developing coins was taken by the merchants themselves. But this is extremely doubtful. The value of the coin depended on the integrity and goodwill of the man authenticating the metallic pieces. And all merchants, their guilds and corporations wielded influence only within their own locality. And as such, any metallic pieces issued by them could not be widely circulated. If the traders and merchants had a hand in the origin of the coins, it would have been only in the formative period or the primitive stage of coinage. The issue of coins at the hands of traders and merchants is nowhere mentioned in literary sources in India; nor is it revealed from any extant specimens of coins. The fact is that it was only the States, whose authority was above all challenge or suspicion, that ultimately undertook the responsibility of minting coins. In course of time, it became their prerogative.

          This stage of minting coins in India perhaps was not reached during the Vedic period. It is only in the Ashtadhyayi, a work on grammar by Panini, which is variusly dated in the sixth and fifth centurt B.C., that we have the earliest definite mention of stamped metallic pieces or coins. Here we find that the nishka, which was merely an ornament in the Vedic period, now represented a definite value. The terms naishkikam, dvi-naishkikam, tri-naishkikam are used to denote the articles purchase for one, two and three nishkas, respectively. Similarly, naishika-saika and naishka-sahasrika expressed the wealth of a person. Instances of transactions in terms of satamana are also cited in the said work. Besides nishka, satamana and pada, a number of other coin-terms like vimsatika, trimsatika, sana, and karshapana are also mentioned in the Ashtadhyayi. These indicate that by this time, coins had become quite common in India and they were used freely.

          This means that by this time, India was in quite an advanced stage in the use of coinage. It may well be assumed that a considerable time had elapsed between this period and the first minting of the coins. It would not be wrong, therefore, to say that the coin in their final form had originated in India long before the time of Ashtadhyayi. Since there is nothing expicit about coins in the Brahmanas and the Upanishads, it may be assumed that the coins took their form only after they were composed, but not long after, most probably some time in the seventh century B.C. If our assumptions are correct, it may reasonably be claimed that the coins originated in India at least a century before Lydia or China thought of them.

From: INDIA-THE LAND AND PEOPLE COINS by Dr. Parmeshwari Lal Gupta, National Book Trust, New Delhi, India. 1969.