Numismatics and its role in Indian history

The quest for past

The quest for truth has been innate in the human mind, since time immemorial. Right from the Vedic times, as the Nasadiya sukta tell us, man has been wondering as to whom and how did the universe appear as they do now.  While the quest has been undertaken on meta-physical levels, with questions being raised on the shashwatdccoin1practicality or impracticality of a supreme creator, this has in no way heeded the efforts to find the origins of the past. To know, from where it all began in a logical and chronological sequence. This quest for answers for roots lies at the very heart of archaeology.

In practical terms, archaeology is the physical effort undertaken to unravel the past. A scientific approach that either substantiates or debunks propositions from the past. The precise definition, reads something like this:

The systematic study of past human life and culture by the recovery and examination of remaining material evidence, such as graves, buildings, tools, and pottery.

But this quest for past has not been a recent one, many centuries yore, too people have been looking for answers in mythology, literature and religious books to discover the roots. The earliest historians, who documented India, were the religious or rather Buddhist travellers who came down to India with the objective of finding the real source of Buddhist literature.

Foreign nationals from across the shores or Himalayas have been frequent visitors to Indian since time immemorial as traders, travellers, scholars, and finally as rulers. One of the biggest fascinations for these travellers has been the immense wealth of epigraphical, architectural and sculptural material that is found in this region.

One of the first major documented visitors to Indian continent have been the shashwatdccoin2Chinese travellers Fa-hien (5th century CE) and Xuanzang (Hieun-Tsang-7th century CE) were interested in Buddhist remains and have left accounts of numerous cities and sites related with Buddhism, such as Nalanda, Bodh Gaya and Ajanta. Through their works, one is able to draw a clear anthropological picture of the time and lifestyles of Indians of those era.

In fact the name that stands out or comes to the memory is that of Hsuen Tsang – Xuanzang  [c.602 – 664] was a famous Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveler, and translator who described the interaction between China and India in the early Tang period.

Born in Henan province of China in 602 or 603, from boyhood he took to reading sacred books, mainly the Chinese Classics and the writings of the ancient sages. While residing in the city of Luoyang, Xuanzang entered Buddhist monkhood at the age of thirteen and developed the desire to visit India. He knew about Faxian’s visit to India and, like him, was concerned about the incomplete and misinterpreted nature of the Buddhist scriptures that reached China. Continue reading

How to be Benarsi in 4 Easy Steps!

Honestly, I do have these doubts at times that Shakespeare knew the city of Varanasi more intimately than we credit him for it. In fact, his oh so famous quip about the relevance of a name, or rather the irrelevance of it, was actually penned to encapsulate the radiant perseverance of the world’s oldest city. You see, a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, the name is hardly a factor there. But on the other hand, it is the city of Varanasi, or Benares, or Kashi that underscores the temperance and the James Prinsep_ varanasipermanence of things. Through the ages the motley township of a million temples closeted on either sides by two rivers Varuna and Assi, with the mighty Ganga flowing right through the heart of it, has been known by different names at different times, but it never really did matter, because no one name or a single title will ever be encapsulate the true essence of the city, the language that could do so, has not been invented as yet. Little wonder, through the very many ages the city of Kashi has been known by so many other names, Kasika, Avimukta, Anandavana, Rudravasa.


Step into the city at 4 am, you will be transported to another portal in a totally different dimension. A million temple clangs, a billion murmured hymns, the little rush of feet to the nearest ghat, the gentle wave of the serene ganga moving to its own cosmic hum, all this weave a magical blanket that rests over the city where time is of no consequence. Benares is regarded as the oldest living city in the world, it was a part of the original Mahajanapadas, the 16 republic states that dotted this land a thousand years before Christ was born, Athens, Troy or Sparta were mere tiny hamlets back then. Babylon was a thriving trade center, the Pyramidal pharaohs of Egypt were still very much in place, the roads to Rome had not yet been conceived, let alone being built and so on. With the legacy of the grand Harappa behind, the civilisation in the land was taking new shape. The city predates even Lord Mahavira. And not surprisingly a distraught prince confounded by the vagaries of life, death and the entangled cycle, found peace, solace, knowledge and nirvana sitting under a banyan tree in this very city. Kashi had the power to turn prince Siddhartha into Gautama Buddha.

The beauty of Kashi is that you don’t require an archaeologist to dig through the stratified mounds to uncover the passage of time. It is said that it is the favoured city of Lord Shiva, the destroyer, the ascetic, the all-pervading all powerful omniscient simpleton, Bholenath. Legend has it, that the city rests on one of the pointed tips of his trishul, thus protected by the very deity that destroys all. Not surprisingly, Kashi exists in a dimensional space, where time ceases to exist. The passage of time, hours, days, months, years, centuries, millenniums, is merely a statistic. Empires fall, empires created, new beliefs sprung up and old lose faith, the city has seen it all, gone through it all, without being affected or impacted. Kashi has always existed and will always, it has transcended the limitations imposed by of dimensions that we know, time, and space. Continue reading

Open Letter to Arvind Kejriwal

Dear Mr. Kejriwal,

Hope you are doing well. Inspired by the note that you wrote, I thought of dropping you a little one myself. I mean, the nation knows (apologies to Mr. Goswami) your views are pretty firm about how corrupt politics and crony capitalism has spoilt this “sone ki chidiya” nation of ours. You have taken on the very haughty and mighty, through your press conferences, revealing things that could not be revealed earlier, as there was no proof of them, before or now. While, going through your recent letter, I was impressed by your sheer concern about the nation, and its resources, and how it needs be saved at all costs. But then a sudden thought stuck me, a rather jarring one, and I thought I will ask you for an explanation, through your preferred route, an open letter.ArvindKejriwal2

The thing that concerns me is your silence on how bureaucracy (more so the corrupt one) has been one of the biggest bane of this nation. You have been unusually silent sir, on how cronyism and corruption is rampant in Indian bureaucracy. While there are but some 500 odd political leaders, and a few thousands MLAs. The bureaucracy is just around a  million strong and growing, and yes, in terms of corruption index they are no less above the board when compared to say a politician, or a business person. In fact, come to think of it, they are indeed more dangerous, I mean, you don’t have an idea of how much are these babus making, till one day there is an IT raid, and crores of cash, jewelery and property pop up. The corrupt bureaucracy is like a termite that is not on your face, but hollowing the insides. Ironically, Transparency International whose non-existent report you quoted, has apparently stated in one of its real reports that 62% of Indians have paid a bribe to get a job done at public office. There’s also some survey from 2009 that states that Indian bureaucracy is not only one of the least efficient but also one of the most corrupt among Asian nations. Continue reading

Kachcha Coinage, Pukka History

From 1750 to 1850, a unique set of coins proliferated in Central India, with little symbols and rough structure. Yet, the historical derivation goes much deep. Here is an attempt at time-travel.

The 18th Century was a very interesting time in the Indian history context, the Mughal empire after reaching the zenith in the previous century under Aurangzeb, had all but collapsed under a string of bickering successors. The Marathas. who had had just in a matter of decades gained ascendancy over a large tract of the subcontinent — from Peshawar (Pakistan) to Tamil Nadu, and from Bombay to Bengal on the east coast — lost the plot pretty swiftly too, especially after their rout by Ahmedshah Abdali in the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761. Close to the end of the century, the Marathas were a spent force, comprising of a loose confederacy of semi-autonomous states, like the Gaekwars, the Holkars and the Scindias. The Britishers, who had come in as traders in the garb of East India Company, were putting their plans in place from their base in the East to gain control in the new dynamics.  They were rubbing their hands in glee at the opportunity that lay in front of them.

Thus, in a manner of speaking, there was no real government in the subcontinent; rebellion, loot and anarchy, was a matter of everyday life. The populace had to suffer numerous excesses in terms of constant wars, and an uncertain future. Also, several famines wrought by climatic patterns and ill-management of resources, had added to the woe of the people at large. The prices of commodities were inflated. This was the time, when regional principalities proliferated. As uncertainty loomed, everything became temporal, even currency. And this is where we come across the 18th century indiaintriguing and interesting phenomenon of Kachcha Paisa that can be loosely translated from Hindi as “temporary money”. This set of Kachcha Paisa forms one of the most fascinating sets of coins in the Indian Numismatical (study of coins for the ignorant) context not only from a purely historical perspective but also as a study of the social dynamics that were in play at that day and time.

Essentially, the first mention of such a currency comes in 1823, by John Malcolm, who makes a mention of similar copper coins that are rudely cut pieces, show of stamp on one side, the established value of which was continually changed by local officers for the purpose of illicit profit. These coins were purportedly localised, “won’t pass 2 miles where it is coined, with a character that is so deteriorated, that the value changed every 2-3 months”.

But before we come to the temporal money, it is important to understand that over the very many centuries in India, right from 6th Century BC from the punch-marked series of the Mahajanapadas, coins were prevalent in India. With the Mauryas, Guptas, Cholas, Delhi Sultans and finally the Mughals, coins proliferated through the very lowest denominator. With the Delhi Sultans enforcing tax payments in coins, the barter system was largely pushed into the background, existing largely in a community setup. The traditional forms of exchange, namely, supari (betel-nut), bitter almonds, and cowries, existed but were gradually being replaced with “pukka” currency. Thus, while you could still find a potter in a 17th century village to sell you a cooking-pot in exchange of a half-a-sack of grain, he’d rather prefer that you paid him in Hali Sicca, the Ankushi rupee or even the Chandori rupee. Continue reading

The Legacy of Sultan Manmohan Singh Tughlaq

Time is a rather malleable entity, unpredictable and quite unfathomable. Linear it is, say many, like a fabric all meshed up, say few, heavy like gravity, like a quasar, multi-dimensional, ephemeral, unreal, say the rest. The passage of time, quantified by the circular rotation of two sinewy arms on our clocks, is meant to signify a sort of permanence, a moment that is lost or gone, ceases to exist. There’s nothing that one can do to bring it back, lost in the ever-infinite sea of eternity. Past is past, and present is present, and never the twain shall meet, is good a testament, that could have well been etched in stone on that tablets that were forged at Mount Sinai.

And yet for all its permanence, time sometimes also seems permeable, like a sponge or something. The little circles on one side forming a connection to another side. The connections are unmistakable, inescapable. And while the recorded history of our species only stretches a couple of thousand years, even in this short period we have seen events taking shape in different time, different climate, mirroring each other in a very strange ethereal manner. Separated by a vast ocean of time, yet, these events seem like some sort of cosmic clones of each other. History (which is a product of time) indeed has a very uncanny knack of repeating itself.

To give you an idea, lets flashback to 14th century India, much long before the very idea of India even firuzexisted. The precise time on the dial is set to sometime in the latter half of the century, somewhere say 1380s AD. The place is Firozabad, not very far from modern-day Delhi, and it’s the reign of Malik Feroze ibn Malik Rajab or more renowned as Sultan Feroze Shah Tughlaq. The Sultan is a septuagenarian man, lording over a dominion that is much weaker and lesser than what his pre-decessor had bequeathed to him. He is a sort of weakling, little in control of things around him. He had succeeded the strong-willed and maverick Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq, who was most famous for his decree to shift the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad or his experiments with token currency that failed spectacularly. But unlike his predecessor, Feroze Shah Tughlaq was a softie, or a little more of fruitcake. When he took over in 1351, the empire was vast but in a mess. There was much confusion as Muhammad bin Tughluq had died without an heir, and in the ensuing unrest, Feroze was enthroned as the new sultan. Continue reading

The Union Budget and me

(This piece was written quite a few years ago, some 7-8 to be precise when Jaswant Singh was the FM, for my blog Anonymuncle. At that time, I was with a financial newspaper and was overwhelmed with the importance and coverage that media gave to the budget. This piece is a subtle reminder of the same.

When I look at it now, I don’t see much of a difference in the way Union budget affects us. I still am non-chalant, a little morbid and a little unsure now)

Year after year, me, my ma and dad used to sit glued to the television set listening with rapt attention, how the finance minister would shape our destinities. Budget times were always something different and all purchases were either hurried or delayed depending on the probablity of it being good or bad.

The finance minister all of sudden seemed to acquire a halo, like those potraits of gods, with the sun shining behind.  Manmohan Singh used to be pretty entertaining, with his couplets and straight-faced humour. Then, there was Chidambaram, humble and up to the point. Yashwant Sinha, there was always something menacing about him, with him around, good news always seemed far away. Cut to the current incumbent Jaswant Singh, dont know how he is, neither do I care anymore. Simply because the budget doesnt interest me anymore.

A sense of forebrooding envelops me, I have an inkling of what is their in store. It is more or less the same, mobiles, PCs, Tvs, et al get cheaper and LPG, kerosene, petrol get dearer. The income tax slab is raised or retained. The fiscal deficit increases by a hundred thousand crore, the defence sector goes richer. Some new surcharges are introduced, be it Kargil, Gujarat or now Infrastructure.

What bothers me no end is the tax slab, simply because I constantly try to evade it. I simply cannot come to terms with the thought of wasting my hard-earned money on some 500 nincompoops who already make millions under the board. As a citizen of this nation, it is our duty to pay taxes, we are reminded again and again. Yeah, so that all our honourable leaders can lead a life of more comfort, as it is, they move in cavalcades, with glaring red lights and lead a life which would embarass even the Maharajahs of yore. No, give me a better reason. Continue reading