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

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