Ancient Indian Coinage, Rekha Jain

Published by D.K.Printworld Ltd, India, 1995, xiii, p.247, 50 figs.
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Rekha Jain has written an interesting account of pre-medieval coinage. This book is both detailed and provocative. There are good and bad points about this book. The good points are that RJ has clearly invested a great deal of time and effort in her research. This is reflected in the clarity of the presentation and the detail that goes to with each section. The bad points are in the general thesis of the work and it is these I will consider first.

Two aspects of the book will make students of history immediately suspicious. Firstly, Rekha Jain is a faculty member at the Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics, Bombay. Secondly, she adopts a teleological approach, trying to show how events in the past build to a particular conclusion. This type of approach is unpopular with most historians, who suggest that there is a tendency to superimpose the conclusion on whatever evidence is available.

RJ's thesis (18-19) covers a wide period from the Janapada period to the early ninth century. She says that in the earliest period all economic exchange is through barter. Barter has several problems. It is difficult to transport goods as they must be exchangeable, this limits trade. The goods are not divisible, which prohibits easy exchange, and it is not possible to give credit. To cope with these problems coinage is developed. From the Mauryan period the minting of coins is taken over by the state to deal with problems of counterfeiting and debasement. Under the Kushan Empire this goes further with the creation of currency for foreign exchange. RJ suggests that by this time the monetary economy is fully developed but that it regresses during the Gupta period, which is one of decline for the coinage and for international trade as a whole. And RJ suggests that a full monetary economy returns from the ninth century onwards when new innovations, including money lending and a mercantile community, are introduced. This economy, suggests RJ, underpins the modern monetary economy of India.

RJ concentrates only on the economic aspect of the coins. This is unfortunate as it has led her into a teleological approach, one in which she sees historical changes directed towards a particular end. The development of a non-monetary economy into a monetary one which is the basis for the modern monetary economy (218). I am not an economist but I was under the impression (perhaps mistakenly) that India's modern monetary systems were borrowed from the west and largely a result of British Colonialism in the 19th Century. Nothing that RJ writes anywhere in her work has convinced me of any intrinsic link between the ancient economy of India and the modern economy of India. Instead her attempts to establish a link seem awkward and uncomfortable, tending to imply that she has imposed modern conceptions on the ancient evidence rather than drawing out any true link between the ancient and modern.

As an example I will consider the section dealing with Kushan coinage in more detail (96-110). In short RJ divides the development of Kushan coinage into a number of stages. Under Kujula Kadphises she places the start of international trade with the imitation of the coins of Augustus (96). The second change is under Soter Megas when a standard coin type is developed for the region (98). The third change was introduced by Wima Kadphises and Kanishka. They developed a gold coinage based on the Roman weight standard purely for international trade. RJ then goes on to consider the reduction in the weights and purity of Kushan coins. She concludes that the reduction in the gold content of Kushan coins must have been an answer to an economic problem (107).

There are several problems with this. It is well known that gold coinage used for export was valued simply as bullion. Beyond its own political control no ancient government could maintain the value of its currency. This is the reason for Roman merchants wishing to export pre-reform denari (heavier in silver). They could then keep the coins that had less silver for use inside the Empire where all denari were of equal value. If the Kushans had minted their gold coinage purely for international trade then reducing the gold content would be pointless, it would simply reduce the value of the coin. Secondly, it is not clear why the Kushans would wish to mint in gold. India expressed a strong demand for gold, brought in from the Roman Empire. Why would any Indian king wish to export gold. Thirdly the distribution of the coins does not support a currency intended for use in international trade. A map of the regions that Kushan coins appear in is presented below. This map shows that most of the coins were found in the Indian territories of the Kushans and in neighboring kingdoms. If the coins were for international trade it would be expected to find them much further abroad along the routes to China and Rome.
[Map showing the distribution of Ancient Indian Coinage]
The distribution of coins is taken from Xinru Liu's book Ancient India and Ancient China. There are very few finds of Kushan coins beyond these regions. This is in stark contrast to the Roman coins used in trade, which are found all over the world.

I think part of the reason that these problems are left untouched is that RJ fails to place the coinage in its political context. As well as having an economic role in the ancient world coinage has many political overtones. To realize that this is still true today you need only look at the fuss that has been generated over Britain's possible entry into the Euro. The debate has shown that there is something deeply important about whose head is stamped on coin. Something which has nothing to do with economics at all. Thinking about these problems in political terms leads to alternative conclusion. The Kushans went to some trouble to develop a standardised gold coinage once they had conquered northwest India. Each coin had the advantage that it carried the Imperial propaganda of the Kushans. It also had the advantage of being minted in gold which few other coinages were. This would have made it easier to establish a standard coin for the whole Empire. Since the gold stater is too valuable for day to day purposes and in international trade the bullion value of a coin was the important factor it seems unlikely that a standardised coinage was an economic advantage. The distribution of the coins is important as it matches those regions where the Kushans had political influence or ruled through a local aristocracy. The gold coinage could have served a double purpose. Minted from the supply of gold in the north and sent south to pay off the Indian aristocrats that the Kushans used to administer their Empire. And as a stamp of Imperial authority, replacing the influx of Roman coins and clearly displaying the power of the Kushans to every minor prince and trader who handled them.

As a propaganda tool the Kushan coinage was hugely successful. In the ancient world the designs of Kushan coins were copied for hundreds of years after their Empire came to an end. This could not be explained in economic terms, it must have been because the coinage had Imperial overtones. Even now historians justifying Kanishka's greatness use his coins. The Kushan propaganda has managed to reach across the centuries and impact on the modern mind, it can hardly have failed to impress in the ancient world.

This does not mean that the coins had no economic impact. They almost certainly did facilitate international trade. But that does not mean they were introduced for that reason. RJ states that she wants to examine the impact of the money economy on the socio-economic set up (27) but her concentration on coinage and economics to the exclusion of non-metallic money and social aspects prevents her from doing so. If she had considered that money can be introduced, developed and changed for reasons that have nothing to with the economic role that they come to have she might have developed a more convincing argument.

Before digressing to show the opportunities RJ missed in limiting her study to purely economic terms I did say that there were good points about this book. RJ is comprehensive in her coverage of the coins of ancient India. Rather than presenting only the most famous coins of each period she delves into the local and regional issues. The level of detail is very impressive, both in her knowledge of the coins and her use of ancient literature. And the book is clear and well organised. The first chapters which outline the general thesis of the book and RJ's research methodology are particularly useful as they prevent the reader from being lost in the detail of later chapters.

As RJ points out most scholars concentrate on the coins themselves without putting them into context. Coins are just a source of evidence for historians, they have no intrinsic value in themselves. So RJ's attempt to draw something more out of the coins is to be applauded. The ideas are provocative and well thought out even if I don't agree with them. I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in Indian coinage though it is too broad for anyone who is specifically interested in Kushan studies.

Contents Page Review Page  Studies in Silk Road Coins Silk Road Coins Coins of the Great Kushans

Robert Bracey.