Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Ancient Indian coins and symbolism

Part One

Prior to Buddhist era unfortunately no written records are available to throw light on the socio-political history of ancient India. Puranic texts are loaded with myths and heavy corruption, making them mostly unreliable. The Vedic religious texts though boast of their religious supremacy, the physical proofs talk otherwise. Let’s have a look at the ancient coinage those were found in various excavations to try to know what could be the religious beliefs of those times.

India was divided in about 16 Mahajanapada’s in ancient times. Every Mahajanpada would be group of Janpada’s (small kingdoms or Republics) spread within the Mahajanpada’s. Till rise of Nanda dynasty (5th Century BC) and later on Mauryan dynasty, the system prevailed to some extent.  The coins found from almost every Mahajanpada prior to approx. 350 BC, bear no letters hence it is impossible to know the names of the issuers of the coins. But from banker-marks punched on the coins indicate that coins of different denominations (weights) used to be issued by individual bankers (Shreni or Nigam) of those times, and not the rulers.

Most significant factor that can be observed from those coins is that every Mahajanpada coin bear unique symbol, no matter who the banker is. The symbols used by Maha Janpada's are diverse in nature, have been retained over the time, at least from seventh century BC till third century BC.  The symbolism doesn't seem changed over the period of almost four hundred years despite political upheavals.

This continuance of the coin symbolism in every Mahajanapada for such a long time suggests that the commercial system was comfortably stable. Also it suggests that every Maha Janpada was represented by the specific symbol punched over the coin.

Symbolism is an ancient trait of mankind. Symbolism reflects faiths, beliefs of the people those invented them. In the pagan world symbolism had mystic values. Certain shapes, figures, geometrical signs played a vital role in religious practices of those times all over the world. In India, especially in Tantric (Occult) sect, symbolism has greater importance over texts or idols.  Shivlingam too is an ancient symbol worshipped from 3500 BC at the least, which became the foundation of the major Shaivait religion of India. Most of the religious practices were associated with male-female sexual organs those were considered to be divine for their ability of reproduction.

Let us have a look at the ancient coins and significance of the symbols embedded into them.

Gandhara Janpada:

Gandhara was a part of India in ancient times, stretching from modern north-west Pakistan to Kabul, till it was conquered by Darius in sixth century BCE. We have no clue as to who issued the coins, still the carbon dating confirms that the various coins were issued from 7th century BC till 350 BCE.

The coins of the earlier time are peculiar in shape, not round, but silver bent bars having punch-marks of two six petalled flowers at both ends of the coin with bankers mark in the middle. There also are square and oblong coins as well having single six-petalled flower of the same design. The flower signs are peculiar, having dotted round with trident shaped petals. Reverse side of the coins are blank.

Gandhara was close to or part of the Indus valley civilization. If we trace back history of the similar six petalled flowers at Kot Dijji excavations (2600 BC) have been found on the seals and pottery.

Finding six petalled flowers, petal having trident shape on all the coins found in Gandhar Janpada, suggests that the symbol represented geographical identity as well represented religious beliefs of the region.

Six petalled flowers in Shaivait tradition has been a symbol of female sexual organ from ancient times. Presence of trident shaped petals too suggests influence of Shaivait tradition of those times. This symbol cannot be confused with Sun motif. Dotted circle and sprouting six petal like tridents indicates fertility symbol.
Kuntala Janpada

Kuntala region was located between present South Maharashtra and north part of the Karnataka. The coins found in this region are timed from sixth century to 450 Century BCE. The coins are of dotted circle at the center having attached a triskelion design above between the two angular shapes having solid dots on the head.  

Circle having solid dot at centre represents sun motif that is in use even today as a logo by corporate houses, but two angular shapes having solid dot on the head connected to the circle suggests otherwise. Scholars call it “Pulley” design. However if looked carefully it doesn’t represent pulley. Presence of triskele between the dotted angular shapes doesn’t suggest other being pulley design.

The triskele above represents constant motion or revolution. Not exactly same, but triskelic symbols are found in Celtic paganism and in Indus valley civilization also. However no symbol alike this has been found elsewhere hence makes it unique. However there must be close connection between both the symbols and may be representing some occult religious practice of those times, which is unknown to us so far.
Kuru Janpada
Kuru Janpada is famous from ancient times. This region is located around modern Delhi. Many historical episodes have been unfolded on this land. However Janpada coins found here belong to the period from 450 to 350 BC.

On the coins found in this region bear dotted Triskelion sign. Triskelion sign is an ancient sign used by almost all the ancient cultures like Celtic, Gaulish etc. However finding the sign on the coin with unique design makes the symbol an indegenous development. 

On few coins we find Three Arrow sign as well on reverse side of the coin. As you can see the arrows are attached to the dotted circle in symmetric arrangement. Also you can notice Y signs between the arrows.

Although Triskelion signs mostly represent constant motion or spirit, the present sign is not similar to the sign present on Kuntal coins. We do not know for sure what these signs meant to the people of those times. But sign seems to have been in use since Indus culture era. But looking at the unique set of human mind the way it works, the sign may mean the same thing…perpetuality …constant motion and continuation of the human life through reproduction.

Three arrow sign having three Y signs placed between the arrows make another unique symbol not to find elsewhere. Dotted circle is a common feature as we have seen on Kuntal and Gandhara coins, the petals or angular objects or arrows or triaskeles make them unique symbols. Three arrow sign too is unique because of Y shapes present within the corpus of the sign.

Dotted circles normally are considered to be sun signs but with the geometry that symbol makes with attached objects like arrows it doesn't seem to be a sun sign.
Magadha Janpada

Magadha Janpada, present Bihar, is rich with its history and culture, has given birth to two religions like Jainism and Buddhism. The coins found here dates back from 7th century BC till 5th century BC.

The coins bear various signs. Central sign on the Coin is dotted circle surrounded by three arrows and three circles. Other punches are sun sign, Pipal sign, Moon sign, dotted triangle or circle with handle sign. Dotted circle with arrow sign is common on all signs suggesting the symbol of the region.

The distinct feature is the three arrow sign found on some Kuru coins and the three arrow sign on the Magadha coins are quite different in arrangement. Sun sign is clear enough on every coin suggesting sun worship cult was dominant in Magadha region in those times. Maga people have been ancient inhabitants of Magadh region and like others were alien to Vedic culture.

Though it has been tried to prove that Maga people migrated to India from central Asia, there have been no physical proof so far to prove this claim. Anyway, sun worship had been Magadha’s oldest tradition. Vedic literature finds mention of Kikata (Magadhi) people as foreigners to their culture and religious practices.

Shakya Janpada

Shakya (or Vajji/Licchavi) Janpada was located at the northern region of Indo-Nepal. In Shakya dynasty Lord Buddha was born hence it would be interesting to see what symbol Shakya’s used as their identity.

Shakya Coins date back to sixth century BC to 450 Century BC. The coins are too crude, having no particular shape, but every coin bears Pentagonal symbol.

Pentagon is a symbol that almost every ancient civilization (and even at present) has used in their occult practices. Pentagon not only suggests geometric perfection but represents the five basic elements in occultism as well as in ancient science. According to Sankhya philosophers Earth, Water, Wind, Energy and space are the five elements that make the universe.  In Shaivait Occultism too five style worship of the Goddess was widely practiced. The similar thought, like Sankhya’s, about five elements can be traced in Greek science and even in Freemason occultism of Europe. It also has been the symbol of the underground womb in Egyptian iconography. In later Buddhist Gnosticism also we find pentagram symbol.
Saurashtra Janpada

Saurashtra coins too date back from 6th century BC to 4th Century BC. The unique feature of the Saurashtra coin is most of the coins have been punched with an image of the fertility goddess. Also elephant and bull signs too are found on many coins.

Fertility Goddess symbol we find on abundant seals found in Indus valley civilization. If we look carefully at the headdress of the deity is quite similar to the mother goddess’s images of Indus culture. The image is normally attributed to “Shakti”. Bull and Elephant symbols too have been abundantly found in Indus civilization, those represent male productive provess. 

We thus can infer that the flow of Indus valley civilization was continued uninterruptedly till fourth century BC.

Every region (Maha Janpada) shows some unique symbol (motif) been representing its identity for over four hundred years.

The symbols, at the least in the five cases discussed above, though diverse in nature, still possess one similarity that the presence of centrally dotted circle, pentacle or triangle. This indicates thought process of the civilization as a whole being unique.

The symbols moreover represent Gnosticism prevailing in the civilizations of those times along with Shiva-Shakti (fertility) worship.

we have seen on every triangle, petal or pentagram centrally a solid dot is positioned. In Shaivait occultism (Yogic practice) centered dot signifies the focalized energy and its intense concentration. It can be envisaged as a kind of energy deposit which can in turn radiate energy under other forms.

Presence of the trident and arrows, weapons of Shiva suggests Shaivait religious practices of those times.

There seems no influence of Vedic religious thought and practices in any symbolism on the coins, as it doesnt seem any way that the Vedicism had influenced local cultures and religion that had rooted in ancient tatntas. 

We also are going to have a look in next chapters at the coinage of later times till second century AD to understand whether symbolism changed with the introduction of monarchist political system and what was the language being used in those times. 

Also, we have observed that many symbols like triskele, six petal flower, and the pentagram with few others are found in the ancient paganism worldwide. Though there are slight differences in the design, the striking resemblance shows that to some extent inner force of the human mind works similarly, no matter how geographically far apart.

We cannot attribute the similarities in the symbolism worldwide to borrowings or exchanges as symbolism is an innate expression of the human being that carries its unique identity. Though symbols are same, meaning or purpose attached to it may differ from one region to the other and also may change with the time.  

If language too is made of vocal symbols, same applies to it also. It needs no single source for the evolution of the languages. Hence there cannot be any group of the language those have the single source. Independent Evolution Theory, which I am proposing for species, symbols and languages only can answer the vital questions those still keep on baffling us about our ancient civilizations and remote past.

We will discuss more on this in next installment!

-Sanjay Sonawani
 (Image Courtesy: coinindia.com)