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Exploring Early Kashmir through its Coins, from the Earliest Times to the Hun Rule



By Arka Chakarborty


Coins, from the moment of their first minting, have been fascinating tangible microcosms of human economy, society, politics, religion and culture. As objects of value designed to replace the barter economy primitive humans had developed, they served their purpose to various degrees of effectiveness in the societies they were minted. However, as the study of the human past has become a field of intense disciplinary enquiry, so has increased the value of the coins which have survived their immediate socio-historical contexts. The metal quality, artistic crudity or refinement, iconographic representation and inscriptional features of a single coin can reveal details about the political regime, elite/royal fashion, economic prosperity, aesthetic sensibility and religious affiliations of the society it was an active part of. Hence, each coin is a window to our past. The valley of Kashmir has historically been a hub of human activity, sometimes as an isolated entity and at other times as a part of an interregional or imperial enterprise. Throughout most of it, coins have been struck which reflect the politico-social, economic and religious matrix the valley found itself in at a given era. Hence, a numismatic study cannot be left out if one has to attain a holistic understanding of Kashmiri history.


The earliest coins minted in the Indian subcontinent seem to have been the regional punch- marked coins. Generally sporting four vague symbols on the obverse and little to no iconography on the reverse, these coins had numerous regional types, reflecting the fact that the subcontinent at that time (c. 600-350 BCE) was inhabited by a series of regional polities or ‘jamapadas.’ The Janapada era gave way to the Mahajanapada era which finally culminated in the rise of Magadha as an imperial power. The rise of the Maurya empire saw the replacement of the earlier regional punch-marked coins with an imperial series of punch-marked coins featuring five symbols on the obverse. These are the earliest coins found so far in Kashmir which leads one to believe that the region came under the sway of the Maurya empire. Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, corroborates this and mentions Emperor Ashoka in its king-list.


The Rajatarangini mentions Ashoka’s son Jalauka inheriting his domains in Kashmir and

battling the mlecchas. These ‘mlecchas’ are identified as Bactrian Greeks by scholars and the term would be used by Brahmanical authors to denote any ‘foreigner’ during and after this time. Foreign incursions into the subcontinent had become the norm in the post-Ashokan era and it seems that the region of Kashmir was heavily affected by this phenomenon. The earliest coins referring to Greeks found in Kashmir are those of Demetrius of Syria. Philip II or Macedon and Alexander III of Macedon, but these are so sparse that it can be concluded that none of them had any significant influence in the region. Alexander the Great had invaded north-western India, but he seems to have never conquered Kashmir. As Alexander’s empire fragmented after his sudden death (323 BCE), Greek incursions into India in a politically significant manner were halted by the powerful presence of the Maurya empire. However, the political turbulence and weakness evident after Ashoka’s death (c. 232 BCE) had encouraged Bactrian Greek raids into the subcontinent which were followed by the more permanent conquests of the Indo-Greeks.


The Indo-Greeks were the first to mint coins with the busts of their rulers in India. These coins were immensely consequential in the numismatic history of India as later rulers, both Indian and non-Indian, who ruled in various parts of India seem to have adopted this method of coin- striking. A. K. Narain’s research has revealed that we can know of nearly 30 Indo-Greek monarchs from coins themselves. There were two prominent royal houses of Indo-Greeks in India founded by Demetrius and Eukratides. The most prominent Indo-Greek monarch in India was Menander, who was featured in Milinda Panha written by the Buddhist monk Nagasena.


The Indo-Greeks struck mainly silver and copper coins. Hundreds of such coins found in Kashmir, in addition to substantial archaeological evidence, lead one to believe that they had considerable influence in this region at some point. The Indo-Greeks deviated from the ‘attic’ weight standard of their Bactrian predecessors and seem to have adopted the Indian ‘karshapana’ standard: the Indo-Greek ‘drachm’ was around 3 grams and the ‘tetradrachm’ was just under 13 gms. The obverse of these coins generally contain the diademed busts of the issuing rulers, while the reverse sport images of Greek deities such as Zeus, Heracles, Pallas and Dioscuri. While the earlier coins bore legends in the Greek language and script, coins of Indo-Greek kings have them Indian transcripts of Greek legends in Kharoshthi script. The most commonly occurring Greek legend, ‘Basileous Basileon’ is translated in Kharoshthi as ‘Maharajasa Rajadirajasa’ and features prominently as a title in monarchs far outliving the Indo-Greek dominance in India. Indo-Greek rulers like Menander and Appollodotus featured Indian animals like the humped bull and the elephant in their coins. Some even portray Indian deities, which suggest a considerable degree of adaptation to the new surroundings by these foreign rulers.


Greek rule in Bactria ended around 170 BCE due to the rapid incursions of the Scythian people and the Yueh-chi tribe. Within a few decades, the Indo-Greek domains in India were taken over by Scythian invasions. The Scythian rulers in the Indian subcontinent i.e. the Indo-Scythians, followed ‘the Kashmir route’ instead of the Kabul route which the Bactrian Greeks and Indo- Greeks had followed before them. The prominent Indo-Scythian rulers in India were Maues, Vonones, Azes I, Azilises and Azes II. The archaeological and numismatic evidence found in Kashmir strongly suggests that they had political dominion over the region. They faithfully followed the standards set by the previous Indo-Greek kings when it came to the minting of coins, with the only noticeable departure being the replacement of the bust of the king in the obverse with the image of the king on horseback. The reverse continued to sport Greek deities like Zeus, Heracles and Nike along with Greek legends in Kharoshthi script. However, the silver and copper coins issued by the Indo-Scythians had less metallic purity than their Indo-Greek predecessors, which might suggest an economic downturn. The Indo-Scythians were soon overthrown in parts of north India by the Parthians who invaded and settled in India and therefore came to be known as the Indo-Parthians. Their first and seemingly only significant ruler was Gondophares (mid-1 st century BCE). The coins found in Jammu and Kashmir pertaining to the Indo-Parthians seem to have been issued by Gondophares, Aspa Varma, Abdagases, Hyrecodes and Zeinoses. While the Indo-Parthian coinage followed the same pattern as the Indo-Greek and Indo-Scythians before them, the metallic purity of their coins is so low that they are designated as base metal coinage. The Greek characters found in these coins are mostly illegible. Zeinoses’ coins of the bull/lion type and the horseman type are the most numerous in the Union Territory.


In the mid-1 st century BCE, a complex array of political movements in Central Asia led the Greater Yueh-chi branch of the Yueh-chi tribe to settle in the region below Oxus. Sometime later, Kujala Kadphises, the leader of the Kuei-shang (now more popularly known as Kushana) principality of the Greater Yueh-chi branch, united the five principalities under his banner and started pushing south towards the Indian subcontinent. Kujala was also the first to mint coins in his name in the subcontinent. Parameshwari Lal Gupta rightly points out that the Kushana period in Indian history saw a great degree of experimentation in coinage, reflecting the self-portrayal of Kushana rulers and the socio-religious matrix they found themselves in. Kushana coinage brought many firsts in Indian numismatic history: the concept of divine kingship (beginning with Vima Kadphises), the bringing together of Saivite, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Greek and Egyptian pantheons, the introduction of gold coins and the adoption of mid-Iranian/Khotanese language and script among others. According to Mohamad Ajmal Shah, Kushana rule in Kashmir lasted from the 1 st century CE to around 450 CE, outlasting their rule in regions like Gandhara and the Indo-Gangetic plains. Few gold coins have been found in the valley, the majority of those found being copper coins. Most coins show the emperor Kanishka I standing and sacrificing at an altar on the obverse, while the reverse is populated by the mid-Iranian names of deities from various cultures like MAO, MIIRO, NANA, OESHO (a form of Siva), OADO, MANAOBAGO and ATSHO. One type of Kujala Kadphises’ coins i.e. the Bull and Bactrian camel type, has also been found in Kashmir. The double-humped Bactrian camel, a strong pack animal, may indicate the Kushanas’ nomadic past or their strong connection with trade. Some Kushana copies of Roman coins have also been found here, suggesting that as early as the first century BCE the Kushanas were participating in the trade that connected the Roman empire with the east via the Silk route.


The Hepthalite branch of the Hiung-Nu (popularly known as the Hunas) tribe started raiding

northern India in the fifth century CE but were repelled by emperor Skanda Gupta. After

conquering Persia, reinvigorated Hunnic raid into India led by Toramana and his son Mihirkula in the sixth century CE resulted in Huna dominion in western India, Malwa and northern India. Mihirkula was later driven out by the rebellion of his vassals which led him to occupy Kashmir and remain there till his death in c. 528 CE. P. L. Gupta states that the Hunas imitated the coinage of the areas they occupied with little to no novelty. In Kashmir, they copied the Later Kushana coinage and gave rise to the ‘Kidara Kushana’ coins. Most commonly, these coins had the figure of Toramana on the obverse and a crude figure of Ardoksho with the legend ‘Kidara’ on the reverse. The death blow was dealt to Huna rule in India when they were ousted in Persia around 565 CE.


The silver, copper, base metal and (more rarely) gold coins of early Kashmir tell a story of a region which was beyond any doubt part of an interconnected world. The political, social and economic changes that took place in Central Asia and India in the late centuries BCE and early centuries CE deeply affected Kashmir on every level and the coins issued in the region serve as snapshots of these changes. Whether through barely legible punch-marked coins pointing towards a shadowy Mauryan past, coins with Greek and Indian deities reflecting the rapid succession of Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian and Indo-Parthian rulers, Kushana coins embodying a period of prosperous trade and inter-cultural interaction or Huna coins indicating towards a time of instability, the early historic coins of Kashmir provide the observer glimpses into a past that was connected, colorful and ever-changing.

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