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More Than Just Money


Upinder Singh

COINS IN INDIA: POWER AND COMMUNICATION
Edited by Himanshu Prabha Ray
Marg, Mumbai, 2006, pp. 116, Rs. 2250.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 10 October 2006

Many years ago, one of my students gave me a Marg volume titled Of Kings and Coins. Its sumptuous, luminous photographs were my introduction to the beauty of ancient and medieval Indian coinage. I held on to that volume and used it for many years as a teaching aid to show students the variety and aesthetic richness of numismatic sources. Over a decade later, here is another Marg volume on coins, this time with a special focus on coins as expressions of power and as media of communciation.   In older histories of ancient and medieval India, the distribution of a ruler’s coins was seen as reflecting the contours of his kingdom and the motifs on them were considered representions of his personal religious beliefs. The metallic purity of gold and silver coins was viewed as an index of general economic prosperity and debasement was interpreted as a symptom of economic decline or financial crisis. All these notions can be questioned. Coins have to be read as multilayered texts. Size, shape, fabric, metal, motifs and legends combine to make coins communicators of several different sorts of messages. The surface area they offer is relatively small, but their advantage lies in their ability to effortlessly travel far and wide as a part of large networks of economic exchange.   H.P. Ray’s Introduction draws attention to many important facets of ancient and early medieval coinage, while her second piece gives an overview of ancient Roman coins found in the Indian subcontinent. The range of types found here is different from those found within the Roman empire. The emperor’s portrait was sometimes defaced and counter-marks consisting of local symbols were added on. These coins have to be contextualized within the framework of the complex networks of Indian Ocean trade. A lot of water has flown under this bridge since the 1940’s when Mortimer Wheeler conjured visions of colonies of Roman traders living at Indian ports such as Arikamedu and Ray herself has made major contributions in this area of scholarship. Her overview highlights several important aspects of the evidence, but could have more sharply delineated the new conclusions flowing out of recent perspectives.   The starting point of Shailendra Bhandare’s excellent analysis of the Kshaharata-Satavahana coinage is the spectacular Jogalthembi hoard. This consisted of over 13,000 coins of the Kshaharata ruler Nahapana; over 8,000 of these were counter-struck by the Satavahana king Gautamiputra ...


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