Who doesn’t love elephants? This massive yet cute animal has captured our hearts since our childhood. All authoritative “Hathi” from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle book, the obedient pet “Shep” from George of the Jungle, the cute baby elephant “Dumbo” with abnormally large ears, “Heffalumps” from Winne the Pooh, Dr. Seuss’ elephant “Horton” just so many of them, each uniquely beautiful.
Elephants have always been a topic of artistic representation all over the world. But they find a special place in India. The elephant is a very popular animal in India and has been the subject of various cultural depictions in mythology, symbolism, and popular culture. Elephants are both, revered in religion and respected for their prowess. Ever since the Stone Age the elephants have been represented in ancient petroglyphs and cave art, they have also been depicted in various forms of art, including pictures, sculptures, music, film, and architecture. So much so that there are elephants on Indian coins too!
अश्वपूर्वां रथमध्यां हस्तिनादप्रबोधिनीम् ।
श्रियं देवीमुपह्वये श्रीर्मा देवी जुषताम् ॥३॥
“(O Laxmi) who is abiding in middle of the chariots driven by horses, whose arrival is heralded by the bellowing trumpet of the elephants…”
The elephant in religion and mythology:
Elephants find a special place in the mythologies and religions of the Indian sub-continent. The earth is said to be supported and guarded by mythical elephants according to the Hindu cosmology. The elephant which represents wisdom, divine knowledge and royal power is associated with Lakshmi, Brihaspati, Shachi and Indra. Indra is said to ride on a flying white elephant named Airavata. Indians, especially Hindus have worshipped elephants for centuries, elephant is a sacred animal and is considered as the living incarnation of Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed deity.
In Buddhist iconography, the elephant is associated with Queen Maya or Mahamaya, the mother of Gautama Buddha. Further according to the Buddhist Philosophy the elephant is associated with the birth of Buddha and the stability of the “Dhamma” too. The elephant symbolises royal authority and majesty.
Elephants and India:
This strikingly beautiful and opulent animal has over the years come to represent India. It is impossible to think of India without thinking about elephants. Elephants till date remain an integral part of religion in South Asia and are even featured in various religious practices and folklore. Just as we relate China to Dragons!
Hence it is not a surprise that some of the earliest specimens of elephant representations in art or otherwise are from India only! A seal from Indus Valley civilization (2500 BCE – 1500 BCE) depicts this majestic animal on it.
Further, the earliest representation of elephants on Indian coins is found in the “punch-marked silver” coinage (PMC) of India which dates from historic India of ca. 600 BCE to ca. 300 BCE.
Now let’s take a look at few specimens of Elephants on Indian coins:
The earliest coins of India are commonly known as punch-marked coins. As the name suggests, these coins bear the punched symbols of various types on pieces of silver of specific weights. These coins are marked with 1-5 or more marks representing various symbols, each of which was punched on the coin with a separate punch.
These punch-marked coins are widely classified into two periods:
The elephant is a recurring symbol both in early and imperial janapada PMCs. Along with Magadha, one of the largest of the 16 Mahajanapadas, other janapadas from Deccan, Madhya Pradesh, Saurashtra, etc too has elephants on their PMCs.
Though the significance of the symbols on the PMCs is not certain and is subject to debate amongst the scholars, we can infer that the representation of the elephants on these coins are either suggestive of some religious importance or refer to the royal power and strength.
The most interesting part of these imperial Magadha coins is that they are found all over the Indian subcontinent and are hence referred to as “Pan-Indian coinage”. Meaning that after the unification of India under one rule (for the very first time in history) of the Mauryans, the coinage was standardised and coins of standard weight (Karshapana of 3.4 g) and designs were used (and hence found too) from almost all the corners of India.
Obverse: PMC from Magadha Kingdom (c. 350 BCE), Karshapana. Elephant with a raised trunk along with a variety of other symbols and rabbit!
Obverse: PMC of the Nanda dynasty of Magadha. The five symbols on this coin are Sun symbol, six-armed (Magadha) symbol, a bull on the hilltop, Indradhvaja flanked by four taurines, elephant with a raised trunk.
Obverse: PMC from Ashmaka Janapada, Silver, 1/2 Karshapana, a four-symbol type with an elephant standing to right, a tree in railing, Nandipada-like symbol placed inside a crescent.
Uniface PMC from Eran-Vidisha (3rd BCE), Copper, around 10 g, Square, with five punches including a tree in railing in the centre, a river with fishes and turtles inside below the tree, an elephant with upraised trunk on the left, a trident-headed standard at top and a lotus on the right.
The tradition of depicting elephants on coins continued even after the disintegration of the Mauryan Empire. The smaller city-states and independent kingdoms that came thereafter have elephants on their coins too.
These local coins follow the design and symbols as the Mauryan PMC. However, most of these coins are un-inscribed cast copper or die-struck copper coins and served alongside the silver PMC Mauryan Karshapanas. Local coins from regions of Ujjain, Eran, Taxila, Vidisha, Kukutakhade, Erich, Suktimati etc had elephant symbols. This majestic animal played a prominent role in un-inscribed Mauryan/Shunga cast copper coins and the PMCs from Vidarbha region also proudly depict elephants on them in various designs.
Obverse: Silver PMC from Vidarbha region in Deccan, ¼ Vimshatika, c. 2 g, Standing elephant looking to left is seen along with several other punches.
Obverse; Cast Copper coin from Mauryan/Shunga period, elephant walking towards left with various symbols like Swastika, Indradhvaja, along with a rectangular railing below the elephant.
Obverse: Die struck copper coin from Ujjain region, Elephant standing facing right with a tree in a railing on right.
Obverse: a Copper double-dye coin from Taxila region; Elephants standing looking right with a three-arched symbol with a crescent on top over it.
Obverse: Cast Copper coin from Post-Mauryan period, Standing elephant looking left.
Obverse: Inscribed die-struck copper coin of Kukutakhade, a dynasty of Marathwada / South Vidarbha, An elephant walking to right with horizontal triangular headed standard above, Brahmi legends: Rano Kukutakha…” above.
The disintegration of the Mauryan Empire left a political void and the period of 2nd Century BC – 2nd Century AD is considered to be one of the significant periods of Ancient India. Along with the downfall of the Mauryan Empire, this period marked the emergence of numerous dynasties, tribal republics and city-states. The Satavahana was one of such dynasty that emerged in South India who ruled from middle of the 1st century BC to 3rd century AD and was one of the longest ruling Dynasty of Ancient India.
And when we say Satavahana we cannot just miss the beautiful and ornate elephants on their coins! Representation of various symbols and animals is commonly found on Satavahana coins. The occurrences of these animals and symbols have different significance, either religious or geographical.
Obverse: Coin of Sri Satakarni of Satvahana Dynasty, Lakshmi sitting on lotus being watered by elephant shown with uplifted trunks, Brahmi legend “Siri Satakanisa”. These type of coins are called as “Gaja-Laxmi”.
Obverse: Coin of Yajna Satkarni of Satavahana Dynasty, An elephant standing facing right with an upraised trunk, Legend in Brahmi “Siri Yana Satakanisa”. Here we see a very artistic depiction of an elephant with stylised ears very prominent.
Obverse: Coin of Kaushikiputra Satkarni, An elephant with its trunk upraised with a “hauda” or “ambari” above it. Ujjain symbol is also seen. Brahmi legend “Rano Siri Kochiputasa”.
Obverse: A Pre-Satvahana un-inscribed die struck copper coin, has a standing elephant with a “hauda” or “ambari” like traces above it.
Elephants on Indian coins of North-Western region:
Do you know that the animal which represents India to the western world was also depicted on the coins of foreign rulers?
As a tradition or a mark of triumph, the “conquest of India” was represented by depicting elephants on coins. The very peculiar elephant head-dresses were depicted on coins by the Greco-Bactrian rulers like Demetrius (c200-180 BCE) and Lysias (120-110 BCE) possibly celebrating their Indian triumphs and asserting their connection to the legendary Alexander. Further, the Indo-Greek and Indo-Scythian rulers of the North-Western India also depicted this magnificent animal on their silver and copper die struck coins.
Obverse; Greco-Bactrian King Lysias wearing an elephant scalp or elephant headdress, facing right.
Obverse: Coin of an Indo-Greek King Apollodotos I, Standing elephant in the centre looking right. Greek legend around reading left to right “Basileos Apollodotoy Soteros”. Monogram below the elephant.
Obverse: Coin of Indo-Greek king Menander I, Bust of an Elephant in centre facing left , with a bell around its neck, surrounded by Greek legend “Basileos Soteros Menandrou” reading from left to right. This representation of bell around the neck is very typical to the religious symbolism and importance of elephants in India.
Reverse: Coin of Indo-Scythian King Azilizes, Lakshmi standing on a lotus with one elephant on both of her sides showering her with water or doing “abhisheka”. Each of the elephant, in turn, is seen standing on a lotus. Kharoshti letters “Ya” on left and “A” on right. Kharoshti Legend: “Maharajasa Rajadhirajasa Mahatasa Ayilishasa”
This type of coin has been called by R.C. Senior as “Abhisheka-Laxmi”. Such depiction of “Gaja-Laxmi” is found in many of art forms in India, such as paintings, sculptures, etc. “Gaja-Lakshmi” which literally translates to Lakshmi with elephants, is one of the most significant Ashtalakshmi aspects of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. In this aspect, the goddess is typically depicted seated on a lotus, flanked on both sides by an elephant (Gaja) generally with raised trunk. The elephants are either showering her with flowers or water, an act which is termed as “abhisheka” in Sanskrit. Hence the term “abhisheka-Lakshmi”.
The dynasties which came after the fall of the Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian and the Indo-Parthian continued with the coin minting techniques of their precursors. This numismatic continuity of depicting similar symbols and motifs on coins helps us in constructing the history of our glorious past.
Obverse; King Huvishka of Kushan Dynasty riding an elephant to right. Holding an elephant goad in left hand and spear in right. Elephant with straps and rings. Three dot motif. Bactrian inscription starting at 8 o’clock “ÞAONANOÞAO OO–HÞKO KOÞANO”, meaning King of kings, Huvishka Kushan.
Obverse; King KumarGupta of Gupta Dynasty holding ankush (elephant goad) in right hand, seated on an advancing elephant, attendant seating behind holding a chattra on his head.
Elephants have for ages symbolized many things in India, an animal truly revered in ancient times and still popular. The calmness and sheer strength of the elephant are virtues that many of us would love to see become a part of our own selves. The wisdom of elephants is something that we hope to see reflected in people. Elephants have played an important part in Indian history be it as being effective in the building of colossal temple structures, or in war strategies, or helping construction projects such as irrigation etc, to being worshipped!
And as we have seen so far, elephants are a common symbol too and have been portrayed in various designs and styles all through the Indian coinage. But does this saga of elephants on Indian coins end here?
No of course not! There are just so many more interesting coins to see. But that’s a tale for another time. Till then keep visiting our site and if you come across such animals motifs or symbols on coins do let us know!
(To Be Continued…)
Wilfried Pieper: Ancient Indian Coins Revisited
Bhandare Shailendra: ‘Historical Analysis of the Satavahana Era: A Study of Coins’
Dutta Mala: A Study of Satavahana Coinage
P L Gupta & T R Hardaker: Punchmarked Coinage of Indian Subcontinent, Magadha- Mauryan Series:
John M. Rosenfield: Dynastic arts of the Kushan
R. C. Senior: Indo-Scythian Coins and History
Joe Cribb: Kushan, Kushano-Sasanian and Kidarite coins
 Shree Suktam from Rig Veda forms the appendices to the 5th Mandala of the Rig Veda. This suktam is a Sanskrit hymn revering Shree as Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, prosperity and fertility. The motifs of lotus and elephant are consistently linked with the goddess and the later Hindu iconography often represents Shri-Laxmi in the form of Gaja-Lakṣmi, standing on a lotus, flanked by two elephants that are shown showering her with water with their trunks.
 The appearance of the PMCs from c. 4th BCE coincides with the rise of Buddhism in India. Elephants have a special place in Buddhist mythology and religion with them representing the mental strength.
 With the Mauryans emerging as an imperial power and exercising control over most parts of the Indian sub-continent, the elephants must be symbolic of the strength and might of the Mauryan Empire.
 These animals sometimes have relevance in accordance with a particular region. For e.g. the elephant, which is depicted on the majority of the Satavahana coins, is a popular animal of South India. The sculptures of elephants are also found at the many rock-cut caves such as Karle, Bedse, Sanchi, Bhrut, Amravati etc. which belong to the Satavahana period.