Sri Lanka, then known as Lankadipa was one of first countries to embrace Buddhism in its original form (Theravada) from the Mahinda, the envoy of King Asoka in 3rd century BC. The earliest images of Buddha in the form of sculpture were of Greco-Buddhist origin in the regions of Taxila presently in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The earliest extant Buddhist sculptures of Buddha in Sri Lanka were in the 5th century AD. Before this time Buddha was not represented by his image as was his wish, only through reliquary such as his feet, footwear and dagobas. Later from 5th century onwards during the Anuradhapura period Buddha’s images were started to be produced in gold, bronze copper and other materials including ivory and stone from the 5th century AD on wards to the Kandyan and modern periods.
The early portable images of Buddha are made very scarce due to the fact that invasions mainly from South India may have interfered with the preservation of . Most of the oldest extant Buddha images across Sri Lanka are mainly of stone and are huge enough not to be transported or destroyed by usurpers, invaders or rogues.
The birth of colonial era in the 16th century saw the pilfering and destruction of many Buddhist elements and images. Today off and on we see Buddhist images of antiquity emerging from countries that once ruled Ceylon. It is not entirely unexpected to come across an old sculpture in a flea market in France, England or Germany as a colonial vestige.
Quite rightly and at last Sri Lanka has brought its laws to prevent the outflow of these valuable heritage that complements its history. However the value of this heritage is seen by the rarity of Buddha sculptures hence its extraordinary high prices in the international markets.
Standing Kandyan Buddha with his right hand in Vitaka mudra and left arm in lolahasta, carved from wood and magnificently painted on colours. The statue bears all the traditional features of Buddhist sculpture from Sri Lanka (former Ceylon). Ca 18th century. Standing on circular base wearing monastic robes (utterasangha) the shawl (sanghatta) in red, torso in yellow, and curly black hair crowned by sirispata or the flame ornament this religious art object represents an ultimate piece in Sri Lankan Buddhist art.
Although Buddha preached in the 6th century BC, Buddhism first took a firm root in India only in the 3rd BC when the Mauryan king Asoka embraced Buddha’s doctrine after he witnessed human misery as result of his war with adjacent Kalinga state. Prior to Buddha the predominant religion in South East Asia and neighboring countries was Brahminism or Hinduism. Buddha himself was probably a reactionary to the practice of Vedas by the Brahmins who were ritualistic and sacrificial, in contrast to his philosophy which practiced compassion to man as well as other animals. Tantrism is a fusion of the Vedas, Upanishads with sexuality, art, sculpture, theology, mythology, philosophy and cosmology. Tantric Buddhism appeared in Tibet in the 6th century AD following the introduction of Vajrayana Buddhism with the appearance of female (Taras), and male (Avaloketsvara) Bodisattvas (Buddhas to be). When Buddhism arrived at Khmer state in the 13th century, the preexisting Hindu gods such as Vishnu, Linga (Shiva), Uma and Bramah fused with the worship of Buddha giving rise to another form of Buddhist Tantrism as we would observe from the bronze and sculpture from this period. As Buddha himself did not sanction personal worship and the early images of Buddhism for veneration were confined to Buddha’s foot marks and stupas.
Gandhara in the present Pakistan is credited with the first representation of the Buddha in human form; the portrayal of Buddha in his human shape, rather than shown as a symbol. As Buddhist art developed and spread outside India, the Gandhara style spread to most eastern regions of the world. The adjacent Swat Valley, the land of romance and beauty, is celebrated as the holy land of Buddhist learning and piety. It is said that the Swat was filled with fourteen hundred imposing and beautiful stupas and monasteries, which housed as many as 6,000 gold images of the Buddhist pantheon for worship and education. There are now more than 400 Buddhist sites covering and area of 160 Km in Swat valley alone.The earliest discovered statue at Gandhara is that of the seated Buddha from 2nd or 3rd century AD. Other Buddha images from this period too are of Greco-Roman style. They seem to have flourished during the adjacent Kushan reign of Mathura (Uttar Pradesh). Gandharan’s role in the evolution of the Buddha image has been a point of considerable disagreement among scholars. It now seems clear that the schools of Gandhara and Mathura each independently evolved its own characteristic depiction of the Buddha about the 1st century CE. The Gandhara school mostly drew from the traditions of Rome and Greece and represented the Buddha with a youthful Apollo face, dressed in royal garments. The ancient Gandharan artisans in their composition of Buddha’s images and his experiences have transformed the religion into Buddhist Art.
The Satavahana (Stavhanas) Empire was an Indian dynasty based from
Satavana Coin, Satlkarni I 100 BC, Anton Sebastian Private Collection
Dharanikota and Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh as well as Junnar (Pune) and Prathisthan (Paithan) in Maharashtra. The territory of the empire covered much of India from 230 BCE onward. Although there is some controversy about when the dynasty came to an end, the most liberal estimates suggest that it lasted about 450 years, until around 220 CE. The Satavahanas are credited for establishing peace in the country, resisting the onslaught of foreigners after the decline of Mauryan Empire.
The Stavhanas were vassals to the Mauryan dynasty until the decline of the latter. They are known for their patronage of Hinduism. The Stavhanas were early issuers of Indian state coinage struck with images of their rulers. They formed a cultural bridge and played a vital role in trade and the transfer of ideas and culture to and from the Indo-Gangetic Plain to the southern tip of India.
Satavahana Dynasty, Satkarni I, Copper Unit,, Anton Sebastian Private Collection
The Satavahanas are among the earliest Indian rulers to issue their own coins with portraits of their rulers, starting with king Gautamiputra Satakarni, a practice derived from that of the Western Kshatrapas he defeated, itself originating with the Indo-Greek kings to the northwest.
Thousands of lead, copper and potin Satavahana coins have been discovered in the Deccan region; a few gold and silver coins are also available. These coins do not feature uniform design or size, and suggest that multiple minting locations existed within the Satavahana territory, leading to regional differences in coinage.
The coin legends of the Satavahanas, in all areas and all periods, used a Prakrit dialect without exception. Some reverse coin legends are in Tamil, and Telugu languages.
Several coins carry titles or matronyms that were common to multiple rulers (e.g. Satavahana, Satakarni, and Pulumavi), so the number of rulers attested by coinage cannot be determined with certainty. The names of 16 to 20 rulers appear on the various coins. Some of these rulers appear to be local elites rather than the Satavahana monarchs.
The Satavahana coins give unique indications as to their chronology, language, and even facial features (curly hair, long ears and strong lips). They issued mainly lead and copper coins; their portrait-style silver coins were usually struck over coins of the Western Kshatrapa kings. The Satavahana coins also display various traditional symbols, such as elephants, lions, horses and chaityas (stupas), as well as the “Ujjain symbol”, a cross with four circles at the end.
There are more animals and mortals depicted on coins than Gods. Yet religion is the oldest culture in the world. Kushan kings of India were the first represent gods incuding Shiva and Buddha in their coins as early as 100 to 300 AD.
Religion and deities depicted on coins are construed by some pious people as effacing the value of their gods. Coins are a part of everyday life for everybody, and religious coins can also be a reminder to the presence of god in daily life. In a puritan’s sense the use of religious coins in monetary transactions could mean that god looks over honesty and integrity when his image is used.
The coins have their own caste system or status too, the poorest being cooper or aluminium or copper, silver for the gentry, and gold for the kings and the wealthy.
Since late 19th century there came a new forum to represent gods in daily life: the postage stamps. The expression of gods on stamps and coins also contributed to philatelic and numismatic art in daily life.
Chandragupta II (also known as Chandragupta Vikramaditya) was one of the most powerful emperors of the Gupta empire in India. His rule spanned c. 380–413 – c. 415 CE during which the Gupta Empire reached its peak. Art, architecture, and sculpture flourished, and the cultural development of ancient India achieved new heights. The period of prominence of the Gupta dynasty is often referred to as the Golden Age of India. Chandragupta II was the son of the previous ruler, Samudragupta. He attained success by pursuing both a favourable marital alliance and an aggressive expansionist policy
in which his father and grandfather (Chandragupta I) set the precedent. Samudragupta set the stage for the emergence of classical art, which occurred under the rule of Chandragupta II. Chandragupta II extended great support to the arts.
From 388 to 409 he subjugated Gujarat, the region north of Mumbai, Saurashtra, in western India, and Malwa, with its capital at Ujjain. Culturally, the reign of Chandragupta II marked a Golden Age.
India, by far the most ancient culture since the pre-Harrapan period (3500 BC), happens to be the most diverse nation in the world with over 1000 spoken languages and equal or more number of Hindu Gods from which sprout the mythologies, rituals and beliefs which form the backbone of Indian culture. The early Aryans (1700 BC) , Persians (600-500 BC), Greeks (356-100 CE), Parthians (100 BC -395 CE), Sassanians (30-10 BC) and Scythians (100 BC – 400 CE) brought their own culture to the doorstep of India in the north west. The interlude that followed between the invaders and the native dynasties resulted in an epitome of culture brought about by the fusion of the foremost civilized societies of the ancient world. As a result India holds today a bewildering range of ethnicity, culture, color and traditions. The ancient coins of India are a reflection of India’s glorious past and there is no better way than through these coins to realize and relive the splendor that was India.
This article is not meant to be an exercise in numismatics but rather an appreciation of India’s colorful history through its tangible objects in bronze, silver and gold: the coins
Sixteen kingdoms or oligarchic republics existed in ancient India from the sixth century BC to the fourth century BC. These Pre-Buddhist states in the Mahabharata epic, include Kosala, Kuru, Magadha, Malla, Machcha (Matsya), Panchala, Surasena, Vriji and Vatsa. Each of these Janapadas (Jana; people, pada; foot) reflected the culture of its own people of the region and unique. Janapadas are also mentioned in both Buddhist and Jain texts which confirm their historical reality and continuity.
599 BC Traditional birth year of Mahavira of Jainism,
A 19th Century Temple Token of Jainism
Mahavira, 24th Tirthankar is born (traditional date) into a royal family in the present Bihar region of India. At the age of thirty, he left home in pursuit of spiritual awakening and to spread his philosophy which is now followed by over four million people in India.
Persian King Cyrus I “The Great” Ca 559-530 BC
Cyrus, Gold Coin ca 550 BC.
Cyrus, son of Cambyses I, founds the Persian Achaemenid Empire, and conquers the borderline North Western regions of the Indian subcontinent to establish one of the greatest empires of the ancient world.
Empire of Cyrus the Great
Darius I, 522-486 BC
In 516 BC, the Persian king Darius of the Achaemenid tribe embarked on a campaign to Central Asia, Aria and Bactria by marching from Afghanistan to Taxila (present Pakistan) before capturing Gandhara and other regions surrounding the Indus River.
Birth of Buddha 463 BC, Reign of kings Bhattiya, Bimbisara Ca 590-491 BC
First mortal image of Buddha, Gold coin of Kanishka 127 AD
Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha-to-be, born in Lumbini into a royal family in the republic of the Shakyas, which is now part of Nepal.
Darius III 450-330 BC
Gold coin of Darius III
Under the last Persian king Darius III the north western part of Indian Achaemenid Empire became fragmented and was ruled by many satraps. Alexander the Great defeated Darius and conquered the region
Alexander III of Macedon (356 BC – 323 BC), commonly known as Alexander the Great
Posthumous Silver coin of Alexander III (Author’s Private Collection)
Alexander defeated Darius III and invaded India in 326 BC, but was eventually forced to turn back at the demand of his troops facing the prospects continued war with King Porus who ruled parts of present Punjab.
Seleucus I Nicator c. 358 BC – 281 BC
Tetradrachm of Seleucus I, the horned horse
Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, his Greek general Seleucus I Nicator (c. 358 BC – 281 BC) carried an expedition to India, where, after two years of war (305-303 BC) with the Indian Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, made peace with him.
Nanda Dynasty 345-321 BC
Karshapana Mahapadma Nanda
Nanda dynasty originated in the region of Magadha and lasted during 345–321 BC. Their empire extended from Bengal in the east to Punjab region in the west, as far south as the Vindhya Range. Chandragupta Maurya conquered the Nanda Empire and founded the Maurya Empire.
Mayuran Empire 320-232 BC, Chandragupta I 340 – 297 BC
Silver Karshapana ca 320 BC
Mauryan Empire was founded in 320 BC by Chandragupta Maurya in Magadha after he defeated the Nanda dynasty and the Macedonian Seleucid Empire. Chandragupta unified the Indian subcontinent, fragmented into Mahajanapadas in the North West, and the Nanda Empire in the Indo-Gangetic Plain
Samudragupta, (c. 335 – c. 380 CE)
Samudragupta, Gold Coin, King and Garuda on a pillai
Samudragupta, the son of Chandragupta I succeeded after his father’s death and conquered almost the whole of India except the south. His vast military campaign added the neighbouring kingdoms of Ahichchhatra (Rohilkhand) and Padmavati (in Central India), whole of present Bengal, Afghanistan and Kashmir to his empire.
Bindusara, the son of Chandragupta inherited the vast regions of northern, central and eastern parts of India along with parts of present Afghanistan and Balochistan at the age of 22 years. Greeks knew him as Amitrochates, the destroyer of foes). Bindusara later conquered almost all the Indian peninsula, except the Dravidian South.
Asoka 268-232 BC
Punch marked coin of Asoka
Asoka, son of Bindusara 268- 232 BC reigned over the entire Indian subcontinent except the present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The misery following his war against the Kalinga state led him to embrace Buddhism. After his death, the Mauryan dynasty lasted just fifty more years.
The Shunga Empire (187 BC – 78 BC)
Shunga Copper Elephant and Swastik Coin
The Shunga Empire, an ancient Indian dynasty from Magadha that controlled vast areas of the Indian subcontinent was established by Pushyamitra Shunga following the fall of the Maurya Empire.
Indo-Greek Kingdom ca 180 BC – 100 AD
Silver Coin of Demetrius the Invincible ca 200 BC
The Indo-Greek kingdom was founded by Demetrius I who invaded the Indian subcontinent in the 2nd century BC. The kingdom had more than 30 Indo-Greek kings. Of them the most famous was Menander (Milinda) who ruled from his capital at Sakala in the Punjab (present-day Sialkot, Punjab, Pakistan). The Indo-Greeks ultimately disappeared as a political entity around 100 AD following the invasions of the Indo-Scythians.
Scythians (Sakas), a large group of Iranian Eurasian nomads migrated to central and northern South Asia including Gandhara, Sindh, Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in 100BC. The first Saka king in south Asia was Maues established Saka power in Gandhara (modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan region) extended supremacy over north-western India.
Mayuran Empire 380-415 CE, Chandragupta II (Vikramaditya)
Silver coin Rudrasimha III 380-387 CE
Gold Coin of Chandragupta II, 380-415 CE
Author’s Private Collection
Indo-Scythian rule in North Western India ended following the defeat of the last Saka Satrap Rudrasimha III by Chandragupta II, the son of Samudragupta, in 395 CE. During the latter’s rule the Gupta Empire reached its peak in art, architecture, and sculpture and came to be known as the “Golden Age” of India.
From the years 388 to 409 CE Chandragupta subjugated Gujarat, the region north of present Mumbai, Saurashtra, in western India, and Malwa, with its capital at Ujjain. Chandragupta was succeeded by his second son Kumaragupta I
Kumaragupta (415 – 455CE)
Gold Coin of Kumaragupta
Kumaragupta I succeeded Chandragupta II as emperor and kept the empire intact by defeating the invaders Pushyamitras from the banks of Naramada River and the White Huns, a Nomadic tribe from Central Asia. Kumaragupta was succeeded by his son Skandagupta after whom seven Gupta emperors ruled until the middle of 6th century when the greatest empire of ancient India disintegrated into petty chiefdoms.
The Indo-Parthian Kingdom (30-10 BC)
Coin of Gondophares I
Ancient Indo-Parthian Kingdom that occupied the present regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan was founded by Gondophares I or Phraotes of Central Asian Iranian Tribe in ca 30 BC . The city of Taxila is thought to have been the capital of the Indo-Parthians as per excavations by Sir John Marshall in 1913.
Kushan (Guishuang ) Empire (30-240 CE)
Bronze Coin of Kujula Kadphise
Gold Coin of Kanishka I
Gold Coin of Vasudeva I
The Kushan Empire was founded in the early 1st century by Kujula Kadphises (ca 30 – 80 CE) of a Yuezhi Chinese Tribe in the Bactrian region, encompassing much of present Afghanistan, and the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent as far as Sarnath near Varanasi
Vima Kadphises (c. 95 – c. 127) the grandson of Kadphises was Kushan emperor from ca 90–100 CE and his successor and son Kanishka I (c. 127 – c. 140) the Great ruled virtually all of northern India from his two capitals Purushapura (Peshawar) and Mathura.
Vasudeva I (c. 190 – c. 230) was Kushan emperor from about 20 years after the death of Kanishka. He was the last of the “Great Kushans whose rule coincided with the invasion of the Sasanians in the present Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwestern India from around 240 AD.
The Satavahanas (273 BC-220 CE)
Copper Coin of Satakarni 100 BC
Author’s Private Collection
Coin of Gautamiputra Satakarni 2nd century CE
At the decay of the Mayuran Empire a new power arose from the Deccan region which dominated from 1st century BC to 3rd century CE. This new Satavahana kingdom comprised of the present-day Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra and led by the early kings like Satakarni and reaching its zenith under the rule of Gautamiputra Satakarni and his successor Vasisthiputra Pulamavi. The kingdom fragmented into smaller states in the early 3rd century CE
South India, Chera. Chola Pandyas 300 BC – 900 AD
Pandya Sangam Period Coin 300-100 BC
While the North of India was subjected to almost continuous invasions and political upheaval the Dravidian peninsular in the south remained unscathed protected by the Vindhya mountain range in the north and the sea. on its either side. Never the less the Chera, Chola and Pandiya Kingdoms were known to King Asoka. The Tamil language and culture flourished through the support of the kings for the Tamil Sangam
The Hephthalites or White Huns ca 450-600 CE
Hephthalite coin of King Khingila, 5th century CE
The Hephthalites or White Huns, were a confederation of nomadic and settled people from Central Asia who expanded their domain westward in the 5th century. They invaded North-West India in ca 450 CE, posing a threat to late Gupta Empire. Although they were repelled, they served to destabilise the Guptas. At the height of its power in the first half of the 6th century, the Hephthalite Empire controlled territory in present-day Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, present Pakistan and other regions of north-west India.
Empire of Harsha 590-647 CE
Silver Coin of Harshavardhana
Prabhakarvardhana the 4th emperor of Vardhana dynasty defeats the Huna invaders, and his son and successor Harsha (c. 590–647), also known as Harshavardhana rules North India from 606 to 647 from his capital Kanauj. The Empire of Harsha at the height of his power spanned the Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bengal, Odisha and the entire Indo-Gangetic plain north of the Narmada River. Harsha was defeated by the south Indian Emperor Pulakeshin II of the Chalukya dynasty when he invaded the southern peninsula of India.
First Islamic Expansion into India 695-715 CE
Umayyad dynasty. al-Walid I, 705-715, Silver dirham,
‘Imād ad-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Qāsim ath-Thaqafī ( 695 – 715 CE) was an Umayyad general who conquered the Sindh and Multan regions along the Indus River (now a part of Pakistan) for the Umayyad Caliphate. He was born and raised in the city of Taif (in the present Saudi Arabia). Qasim’s conquest of Sindh and southern-most parts of Multan enabled Islamic expansion into India.
Gold Coin, Dharmapala, Pala Dynasty
Gold Fanam of Chalukyas
Rashtrakuta (753-982 CE) was a royal dynasty ruling large parts of the Indian Subcontinent between the sixth and 10th centuries. Having defeated King Kirtivarman of Chalukiya Dynasty (543-753) they rose to power with Karnataka as their power base in South India ca 753. Their contemporary rulers were the Pala dynasty of Bengal (ca 800-1200) and the Prathihara dynasty of Malwa (700 – 1036) in eastern and north-western India respectively.