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Are Indus Valley Seals Proto – Coins?
by Rajat K Pal Bookmark and Share

The word 'Coin' is derived from the Latin word "cuneus" and it is believed that the first Recorded use of coins was in China and Greece /Lydia in around 700 BC and in India in the sixth century B.C.

In India

Many historians argue that Indian coinage existed prior to 6th century B.C in the Indus valley civilization between 2500 BC and 1750 BC. There, however, is no consensus on whether the seals excavated from the sites were in fact coins.

To the ancient Indians, a coin was not a piece of inanimate metal with an official stamp, but a form(metallic) pulsating with symbols, names of kings, gods and goddesses portraying wealth and prosperity. Each dynasty and even each king contributed his own innovation to the coinage resulting in a bewildering variety of Indian coins. The Kings chose such symbols, forms of gods and goddesses and legends which were a part of, social consciousness that the users of the coins could easily understand and appreciate.

Coinage began, with the traders, a supposition deriving not only from the “philological relation of pana — coin with pani, vanik = trader”, but from the entire process of the evolution of coinage of India, as Kosambi [1] saw it. The background was provided to him by several classes of silver pieces found in the DK area of Mohenjodaro. Although he was initially hesitant in considering them as precursors of latter day regular coinage, the remarkable similarity between the class IV of the Mohenjodaro pieces and later-day coins, and also the identity between the Mohenjodaro D-class weight (approximately 54 grains) and the weight system of the punch-marked coins gradually convince him of a connection between the two systems: “Even after the destruction of Mohenjodaro which is entirely a trade city as shown by its fine weights and poor weapons, the traders persisted, and continued to use the very accurate weight of that period. The first marks were traders’ marks, such as are seen on Persian sigloi, and the reverse of the punch-marked coins of the pre-Mauryan age. This is shown clearly by one coin, (which) is blank on one side like our Mohenjodaro pieces, but the other contains no less than thirteen small marks, in type to those known as the later ‘reverse’ marks” [1].

The Indus valley civilization of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa dates back between 2500 BC and 1750 BC. There, however, is no consensus on whether the seals excavated from the sites were in fact coins.

Issued initially by merchant Guilds and later by States, the coins (from 600 BC) represented a trade currency belonging to a period of intensive trade activity and urban development. They are broadly classified into two periods: the first period (attributed to the Janapada-s or small local states) and the second period (attributed to the Imperial Mauryan period). The motifs found on these coins were mostly drawn from nature like the sun, various animal motifs, trees, hills etc. and some were geometrical symbols.

Shatamana-s is the earliest coin during the Gandharan times and said to be possibly based on the Persian siglos coinage. Shatamana-s were said to have been circulated for a long period of time.

The first documented coinage is deemed to start with 'Punch Marked' coins issued between the 7th-6th century BC and 1st century AD. These coins are called 'punch-marked' coins because of their manufacturing technique. Mostly made of silver, these bear symbols, each of which was punched on the coin with a separate punch.

-s or Punch-Marked Coins
(circa 600 BC - circa 300 AD)

Purana-s are the earliest money coined in India. They were in circulation during the centuries long before the beginning of the Christian era. Sanskrit writers such as Manu and Panini, and the Buddhist Jataka stories have made mention of these coins.

An interesting feature of these coins is that they bear neither date nor any name of kings. We only find a number of symbols punched on the face of these coins. The symbols found on these coins are religious, mythological or astronomical in character. Among the marks commonly found are the sun, the elephant, cow, chariot, horse, bull, jackal, tree, tiger or lion and dharmachakra.

The punch-marked coins were in circulation in Northern India up to the beginning of the Christian era. In Southern India they continued to be in use for three centuries more.

Satamana Coin
(About 600 BC)

This is a rare type of the "Purana" coins. It is otherwise called as Punch-Marked coins. It is a long bent bar of silver weighing 560 grains. Satamana means one hundred mana, mana being the same of a weight which is equivalent to 5-6 grains.

This coin has on one side a sun symbol at each end. The other side is blank. Panini, the Sanskrit grammarian, has made mention of these coins in his work. Thus, first coins of Ancient India came into existence and were known as “Punch Marked Coins”. The Ashtadhyayi mentions that the metallic pieces were stamped with symbols. These were in circulation along with the unstamped variety of metallic coins which were referred to as the ‘nishka’, ‘satamana’ and ‘pada’. There is also a mention of ‘shana’ and ‘karshapana’, terms used for different monetary denominations.

In Gopatha Brahmana, Uddalak Aruna - a distinguished scholar of Kuru-Panchala, who was moving through the country carrying a banner to which a nishka was attached, had offered the same to one who could defeat him in a debate.

The Arthasastra of Kautilya contains references to silver coins (called pana, ardha-pana, pada and ashtabhaga) and copper coins (known as masaka, ardha-masaka, kakini and ardha-kakini).

In the Arhiya section of Ashtadhayayi (ca. 5thto 4th century BCE) Panini refers Karshapana or pana (32 ratis) and its various subdivisions like ardha-karshapana, pada-karshapana, dvimasa (1/8 Karshapana) and masa (1/16Karshapana). Panini also mentioned other denominations of coin viz. vimastika (40 ratis), trimastika (60 ratis), satamana (100 ratis) and sana (12.5 ratis).

Before the rise of Magadh-an Empire in 6th century BC the entire Indian sub-continent was divided into several Janapadas (small states) and Maha-Janapadas due to the absence of any imperial supremacy. A good number of Janapadas are narrated in ancient literature; like Vedic literature (17 Janapada), Ashtadhayi (38 Janapadas), Ramayana (24 Janapadas), Jataka (14 Janapadas), The Mahabharata (88 Janapadas) and Bhuvanakosa Chapters of Puranas (175 Janapadas). Among these Janapadas, sixteen became prominent during the time of Buddha and according to Anguttara- nikayathey were known as ‘Sodasa Mahajanapadas’. In fact, the coins of various Janapadas differed from one other in their execution fabric, weight, quality of metal and symbology.

The common symbols found on Indian punch-marked coins are sun, six-armed symbols (often called Sadaracakra), arched-gateway, arched-hill, arched-hill with crescent/dog/bull/peacock/tree on the top, elephant, bull, dog, deer, hare, camel, goat, peacock, frog, tortoise, fish, rhinoceros, snake, scorpion, tree-in-railing, bow-and-arrow, (with or without taurine), steelyard, water-wheel, arrow-tipped standard, elephant, goad, three standing human figure, taurine, caduceus, triangle-headed standard, lotus-bud, four-fingered hand print in a square, srivasta, zigzag line, star etc.

The weight of krishnala varies between 2.25 to 1.7 grains. So the weight of punch-marked coins was determined by several scholars in different ways. According to A. Cunningham and Prasad, krishnala weighed 1.8 grains in average and according to D.C.Sircar [5] and D.R.Bhandarkar [6] it was 1.83 grains. In view of these circumstances it is extremely difficult to ascertain the exact weight of punch-marked coins. That is why; researchers fixed the weight of punched-marked coins in different standard i.e. 57.6 grains/3.732 gm, 58.56 grains/3.794 gm and 51-54 grains/3.3-3.5 gm for one karshapana.

The silver karshapanas had several denominations. In fact, 32 rattis is the standard and most popular denomination, although both higher and lower denominations are reported. These denominations are double (64 rattis), adhyardha (one and a half karshapana; 48 rattis), three pada (three quarter karshapana; 24 rattis), ardha (half karshapana; 16 rattis) and pada (quarter karshapana; 8 rattis).The tripada-karshapanas of 24 rattis were mainly in circulation in the Kosala and Kashi regions. The ardhakarshapanas of 16 rattis are found in a small number at Lotapur in Uttar Pradesh, Agartala in Tripura and Wari-Batashawar in Narsingdi district in Bangladesh. The Adhyardha Padika karshapanas of 12 rattis have been reported from Madurai in Tamil Nadu, Krishna in Andhra Pradesh and Sonapur in Orissa. Four distinct tiny punch-marked coin series are also known from the Avanti and Gandhara regions. They are 1-8 karshapana (four rattis), a mashaka (2 rattis), Kakini (1/2 ratti) and ardhakakini (¼ ratti). A Series sata (hundred) rattis silver coins i.e. the wheel –marked or bent bar series is also known. No ancient silver coins confirming to this weight standard is found except the bilingual silver coins of the Indo-Greeks.

Copper punch-marked coins which were of relatively of lower value are generally of irregular weight and rarely confirmed to any theoretical weight-standard. As a result, it is often difficult to settle their denominations.

The Indus civilization had a broad trade network, but their currency was traded goods. Instead of money, there was a swapping and bartering system. The Indus Valley Civilization had what was called soapstone seals and this is what they might have used for money later on in the civilization.

What did Indus Valley people trade?

Trade goods included terracotta pots, beads, gold and silver, coloured gem stones such as turquoise and lapis lazuli, metals, flints (for making stone tools), seashells and pearls. Minerals came from Iran and Afghanistan. Lead and copper came from India. Jade came from China and cedar tree wood was floated down the rivers from Kashmir and the Himalayas.

Indus Valley cities lived by trade. Farmers brought food into the cities. City workers made such things as pots, beads and cotton cloth. Traders brought the materials workers needed, and took away finished goods to trade in other cities.

Trade with Mesopotamia

At the time of Sargon of Akkad (2334 to 2279 BC), Indus seals have been found in Mesopotamia. Sargon's scribes kept written records of ships from other lands. So we learn that the Mesopotamians bought gold, copper and jewellery from 'Meluhha', which is now identified as Indus valley by the scholars. Two common trading points (at Bahrain and Kuwait) are located where Indus seals are discovered.

What were seals?

In 1872, archaeologist Alexander Cunningham [4] was puzzled by a flat piece of stone from Harappa which had writing on it. It was a seal. Another archaeologist, Rakhaldas Banerji found more seals in 1919.

Over 3,500 seals have now been found. Most are square or oblong, and small, about 25 mm across. They are made from steatite or faience, usually baked hard. Each seal has a picture and writing on it, carved with a copper tool.

Pressed into soft clay, a seal left an impression (a copy of the picture and writing). When the clay dried hard, it could be used as a tag which could then be tied to a pot or basket. Indus Valley traders probably used seals like labels, to show who owned the goods and the quantity.

Currency used in Egypt and Mesopotamia ( 2500 BC – 1000 BC)

Before the advent of coinage around 700 BC, Egypt and Mesopotamia had developed pre-coin system as medium of exchange. Here we can have in brief their practices –

  1. Initially barter system was in practice everywhere, where goods were exchanged directly.

  2. Barter system had limitations like seller might not in need of the item offered by the purchaser.

  3. To solve this, food-grains were used as medium of exchange. But food-grains also had limitations to purchase expensive item as huge food-grains had to carry for small expensive items.

  4. In 3rd stage metals came to fill up the need. Powell [7] finds ‘silver in Mesopotamia functioned like our money today. It is a mean of exchange’.

  5. Though metal was introduced, food-grains were still in use for exchange in daily lives. Barley was used as cheap money and silver for more expensive items, though other substances were also used.

  6. In Egypt also, food-grains, beer and metals were used as medium of exchange side by side of barter system. Non-coin forms of silver and gold currency, such as silver rings and gold pieces were used.

  7. Powell [7] says, ‘money was not in coin form, although words like mina-s and shekel-s that are used in connection with coinage were applied to the weights of the ancient Mesopotamian form of money. Silver rings were used in Mesopotamia and Egypt as currency 2000 years before 1st actual coin’.

  8. For public use grain banks were established in Egypt. In lieu of coinage the cost of things was measured by ‘deben’. Deben was a piece of copper that weighed about 90 gm. Cost of 1 sack of wheat was 1 deben.

  9. In both Mesopotamia and Egypt, gold, silver and copper were paid to foreign traders in exchange of purchased items.

Currency in Indus Valley Civilization (IVC)

We now know that IVC was the largest civilization, having more that 1 million sq. km area, in 3rd Millennium BC. It had the largest market with internal and external trade practices. Like others civilizations, in IVC people had barter system to exchange ordinary goods. To overcome the disadvantages of barter system a common commodity was fixed to serve as an intermediate in all transactions. To exchange bigger quantity agricultural products were used as medium of exchange. Probably granaries at Harappa and Mohenjodaro were used like modern bank or treasury. Seeds were also used as medium of exchange. From Vedic texts we have the knowledge of the use of cow as medium of exchange. But cow, seed and grains also had disadvantages. Non-perishable, small and handy item like small metal came to practice in all three great civilizations (Egypt, Mesopotamia and IVC) simultaneously. It is difficult to identify the inventor, but through foreign trades the system spread to other areas quickly and was accepted by others. Metals and metallurgy being in initial stage all metals, be it gold, silver or copper, were in demand everywhere and all traders were willing to accept metals in exchange of their goods. Indus traders used to bring precious metals like gold and silver from West Asia in exchange of their goods. Silver and copper ingots are found in Indus archaeological sites.

Metals being not easy to get at Indus period [copper mines were not situated at western part of Indian sub-continent and gold and silver are rare in India] copper tablets are found specially in Mohenjodaro, as they imported metals from west Asia and Easter part of India. We get several places by the name ‘Ashurgarh’ at Andhra Pradesh, Orissa [Kalahandi], Bengal [Midnapore] having exhausted copper mines at surrounding areas.

There is no doubt that coinage was not in vogue in 3rd Millennium BC though there was full-fledged international trade in practice among Egypt, Mesopotamia and India. From India, Harappan people exported precious items like gemstones, ornaments, spices and food grains and imported mainly precious metals. Simple barter system, which was in practice at local areas might not fulfill the need of exchange for international trade. We can speculate that Harappan seals were used beyond the sealing purposes. The striking similarities of Indus ‘royal emblem’, wheel and ‘swastika’ signs and uses of common animals as motif with punch-marked and other coins used in India from 600 BC push us to that idea. Without naming Harappan seals ‘coins’, we can identify them as ‘semi-coin’ or ‘proto-coin’. Finding of Indus seals at various places of West Asia may indicate the idea, though some of the places are identified as ‘colonies’ of Indus civilization.

In IVC, internal people used different local system to exchange goods. Cowry was another form of medium of exchange. Traders used to bring back metals, along with other foreign goods, from external business. Seals were mainly used for sealing the items traded. Names of the owners along with the quantity of items were marked by the seals for export. Like in Mesopotamia, where thousands of tablets belonging to public and private archives register the metal (silver) as a mean of payment, IVC tablets might have used for the same purpose. Same duplicate signs in several tablets may be the evidence of it.

In Mesopotamia, Shekel was used as a unit of weight and currency, first recorded c. 3000 BC referring to a specific weight of barley and equivalent amount of silver, bronze and copper.

Like way, Indus seals might have been used for more than one purpose. We have some questions in accepting them used as sealing purposes –

  1.  In Ravi Phase (Mehrgarh, 3300 BC) no sample of sealing is found till fate.

  2. Button seals have purported boss backside, to be worn or sewed with cloths. The necessity of carrying seals for sealing purpose is not at all justified, as goods are to be sealed at the exporting places. Seals are not to be carried by the persons carrying goods.

  3.  For sealing same repetitive seals (duplicate seals) should not be kept in a same place. This question may be answered if we consider them as proto-coin like the gold and/or silver proto-coins used in Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Considering Indus seals, used for multipurpose reasons, we can discuss the readings to identify the names of the owners, quantity of the goods carried, and other volumetric units are inscribed on them. Sometimes magical and divine ‘akshara’ (single letter/ varna) – were written on them. In later historical period, many names were identified by the initials marked on punch-mark coins. At that time also the custom of placing a single initial on coins existed [1].

References –

1. Kosambi, DD, Essays of; ‘Indian Numismatics’, 1981
2. Gupta P.L., (1969): Coins, pp. 07, NBT, New Delhi
3. Goyal R.S.: Indigenous Coins of Early India
4. Cunningham A., (1891): Coins of Ancient India
5. Sircar D.C., (1968): Studies in Indian Coins
6. Bhandarkar D.R., (1921): Lectures on Ancient Indian Numismatics
7. Powell Marvin A.,(1996): Money in Mesopotamia

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