The advent of the Common Era brought the rule of the illustrious Kushan and the Gupta empires. When the mighty Kushan Empire crumbled, many small kingdoms acquired territories. One such was the Gupta dynasty. Starting from a small kingdom in Magadha in the late 3rd century CE, the Guptas gradually extended their rule over a large part of Southern Asia. Under the able and strong leadership of many rulers, this dynasty grew and became deeply rooted in the Indian subcontinent. The empire at its paramount included all of northern India from the Indus in the west to the Brahmaputra in the east and in the south it extended along the eastern coast of the Indian peninsula.
The Gupta period is considered as the “Golden Age” of classical India. This was a time when great universities flourished in Nalanda and Taxila, India made contributions in all sectors like mathematics, science, astronomy, religion etc. The famous story tales of Panchatantra, the very popular Kama Sutra, the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata were composed during the Gupta Era. Gupta art is regarded as the high point of classical Indian art, and their coinage as among the most beautiful of ancient India. A general atmosphere of peace and prosperity helped create a civilisation conducive to the cultural advent and social growth.
Coinage of the Guptas: An Introduction:
The flourishing state of the economy was ascertained by a large number of gold coins circulated by different Gupta rulers. Famous for their gold coins, the Gupta numismatic art has an abundance of coins in the variety of designs. They also issued silver coins. However, coins made of copper, bronze or any other alloy metals are scarce. This abundance of gold coins from the Gupta era has led some scholars to regard their reign as the ‘rain of gold’.
Let’s explore this Gupta Numismatic Art through their noteworthy accomplishments and downfall.
General coin specifications:
The Gupta gold coins are known as Dinars and they are the most extraordinary examples of numismatic and artistic excellence. The coins, in general, depicted the ruling monarch on the obverse and carried legends while the reverse depicted the figure of a goddess. Gupta coinage started out imitating that of the mighty Kushans, but very soon had their own identity which in turn became a forerunner for the dynasties and kingdoms to come thereafter!
Gupta coinage reached the height of metallurgy and iconography. After Indo-Greek and Kushan coins, Gupta coinage made a huge come back with a true Indian taste in it. Being indigenous, they portrayed the king, queen, and deities with Indian attire and with lots of grace. Now let’s see the famous Gupta kings and their contribution to the acclaimed Gupta numismatic art.
Samudragupta, a legendary king by the virtue of his military prowess and administrative efficiency, was an important ruler of the Gupta Empire. His competent ruling produced some high quality of gold coins and laid the foundation of the Golden Age of India. He is credited to have issued only gold coins (Dinar) during his reign in seven different types (‘Lichhaviya’ type included). The coins of Samudragupta give us a lot of information on the start of the mighty empire of Gupta, and its economy.
Samudragupta’s coins according to their design and variety are known in numismatic terms as:
• Standard types are numerous and common. This type of coins shows the king carrying a Garuda Dhvaja in his left hand and is shown wearing a cap. The reverse side of the coin portrays the goddess Laxmi.
• The Archer types, introduced for the first time in the Indian Numismatic, are rare and they portray Samudra Gupta holding the bow.
• Battle Axe type, Samudragupta’s coins featured weapons such as the battle axe, bow, arrow and swords. His battle axe type has the legend “Kritantparashuh” on them.
• Lichchavi type: The Licchaviya issue bears the image of King Chandragupta-I with his queen Kumaradevi of Lichchavi family. Though the legend is specific to Chandragupta I, it was issued by Samudragupta in memory of his father.
• Kacha type coin bears the legend “Kacha, having conquered the earth, wins heaven by the highest works”, while the reverse showed the legend “Exterminator of all the kings”.
• The tiger slayer type coins of the king show him trampling a tiger as while shooting it with a bow. The obverse legend reads “Vyagraparakramah”.
• The Lyrist type has the king in a high backed couch, playing the Veena which rests on his knees. The legend “Maharajadhiraja – Sri Samudragupta” decorates the obverse.
• Asvamedha types are unique, we find a horse standing before a yupa or a sacrificial post with legend around that decorates the King as the conqueror of heaven, earth, and the oceans.
All of his coin designs with their illustrious legends are indicative of the conquests of Samudragupta and his attainment of paramount power. Samudragupta’s coinage features a distinct Indian touch to it in reference to the depiction of the dresses, weapons, goddesses, etc. as compared to the earlier Kushan coinage.
Chandragupta-II inherited the Gupta throne at its peak. He contributed to the vastness of the empire by adding the few territories left off by his father Samudragupta. He extended great support to the arts and his reign saw the Golden Age of India developing and contributing to various fields under his royal patronage. He is known to have issued a total of eight types of gold coins (Dinars). Known through his coins as “Vikramaditya”, Chandragupta II also issued silver (Denaree) and copper (Daler) coins, probably to be circulated in the region that was conquered from the Western Kshatrapas. Let’s have a look at his coin types:
• Archer Type: Interestingly, where his father issued a lot of Standard Type coins, Chandragupta II issued Archer type in abundance. The archer type contains the legend “Deva Sri Maharajadhiraja Sri Chandraguptah”.
• Couch Type, are the rarest of Chandragupta’s coins with only two known varieties in the museum. Both of them differ in many details but have the legends “roopkrti” and “Vikrama”.
• The Chhatra type carried the image of an attendant holding a royal parasol over Chandragupta.
• Lion Slayer type which shows the king standing and shooting a lion with the bow contained the legend “Simhavikrama”
• Horse Man Type coin design was introduced by Chandragupta II and depicts the King riding a horse.
• The Standard Type, are similar in design with that of Samudragupta.
• Chakarvikrama Type, this extremely rare variety features a Chakra or the wheel on the obverse with the legend “Chakravikramah”.
• Kalasha Type, yet another extremely rare variety of Chandragupta II which depicts a Kalasha or a water pot.
It is said that in the later part of his reign, Chandragupta II started issuing silver and copper currency to be circulated in the regions of Gujarat and Kathiawar. However, the number of gold coins he issued was vast and the imperial mints were active throughout his reign.
Kumaragupta-I, often inscribed on coins as “Mahendraditya”, issued a good 14 different types of gold (Dinar) and silver (Denaree) coins. His coinage itself is enough to speak about the vastness and prosperity of his empire. His long reign saw both, the epitome and the decline of the empire as the Hun invasions during the later period of his rule shook the Gupta Empire. The financial crunch led Kumaragupta to issue silver-plated copper coins (Daler). Mostly continuing the coin types of his predecessors’, he introduced a few new varieties. Let’s have a look at his coins:
• Archer type depicts the King standing in left, holding the arrow in right hand and bow in left.
• Swordsman Type, King is seen with a sword in left hand with Bramhi legend “Gama – vajitya – sucharitaihi – kumaragupto – Divam – jayati”
• Asvamedha Type was issued to commemorate the performance of Horse Sacrifice. The legend on the obverse reads “Jayati Divam Kumarah” and the reverse reads “Sri Asvamedha Mahendrah”.
• Horseman Type, King on a horse with legends around that decorates his strength and victory on obverse and “Ajitamahendraha” legend on the reverse.
• Lion Slayer, depicts the king slaying a lion with the legend “shrimahendrasimha” or simhamahendrarah” on the reverse.
• Tiger Slayer, similar to the lion slayer type, this coin variety shows the king slaying the tiger with the legend “’Srimam vyaghrabalaparakramah” on the obverse.
• Peacock or the Kartikeya type: Is probably the most beautiful of his coins which shows the King offering a bunch of grapes to a Peacock with his right hand.
• Pratapa Type is an extremely rare variety which depicts the king with two attendants holding the Garuda Standard on both of his sides. The reverse reads the legend “Shri Pratapah”.
• Elephant Rider Type is only known from one unique specimen. Though the inscriptions are illegible, this variety is attributed to Kumargupta I for its similarity in coin design and make. The coin feature King with an attendant riding an elephant.
• Ashavamedha Types of Kumargupta is similar to that of Samudragupta and depict the horse tied to a Yupa or the sacrificial post on the obverse. The reverse has the Brahmi Legend “Shri – Asvamedha – Mahendra”.
• Kumargupta revived the Lyrist Type and King- Queen Type coins of the previous rulers.
• His Elephant-Rider-and-Lion-Slaying Type showcases his sportive and hunting capacities.
• His Rhino-Slayer Type variety is unique and features a rhino for the first time in Indian numismatic art!
Kumargupta I issued silver and copper coins for circulation in West of India but they were of a debased type. They generally depicted the bust of the king to the obverse and a peacock or a garuda (eagle) on the reverse. Though he issued a vast variety of coins, his coinage lacked an artistic excellence and consistency.
The gold coins of this king lack the variety of type. The illustrious Gupta Period began to decline during the reign of Skandagupta. Inscribed on coins as “Kramaditya”, Skandagupta issued four types of gold dinars and three types of silver denarees. The Gupta gold coins, once an ultimate example of numismatic art, now began to lose their lustre and the political strain became evident in coin designs and its execution. Let’s have a look at his coin types:
• The regular Archer type which depicts the King with a bow, arrow and a legend in Brahmi “kramadityah”
• King and Lakshmi Type: This type depicts the King with the goddess on the obverse and Brahmi Legend ‘Sri Skandaguptah’ in the reverse.
• Horse Man type has the king riding the horse.
• Chattra Type has the King with an attendant offering at a fire altar
• His silver coins have three varieties with the King’s bust on the obverse with Bull or Fire Altar or a Peacock on the reverse.
His successors Purugupta, Kumaragupta-II issued only one type of gold coins namely Archer type. Budha Gupta’s coins followed his predecessor’s type but the artistic degree declined greatly. Lack of consistency in the same coin design shows symptoms of a steady decline of the once mighty empire.
The decline in the later Gupta Period:
Gupta Period that was once distinguished for its creativity in art, literature and architecture began to decline during the reign of Skandagupta. This period was riddled with the invasions of the Pushyamitras and the Hunas which accompanied with the intra-territorial upheavals led to a substantial loss of their imperial authority. The rulers that came after Skandagupta struggled to handle the vast empire which was fast crumbling.
The expenses incurred from the constant wars drained the royal treasury and affected the general trade and commerce of the empire. Naturally, the disintegration of their political and financial prowess reflected on their art and culture. This decline is most prominently observed on the quality of their coins.
The Gupta gold coins now began to lose their lustre and were increasingly struck in base metals with very little gold or silver content. Furthermore, the plethora of artistic coin designs of the earlier kings soon was reduced to a standard Archer Type coin of the later rulers. The calligraphy of the legend and the execution of the coin design suffered too.
There was also a general paucity of coinage caused by the declining internal trade and weakening of a powerful centre. The newly emerging independent and self-sufficient local units or ‘Shrenis’ too contributed to a sharp decline in the number and purity of later Gupta coins. Hence it would not be an exaggeration to say that level of excellence of the Gupta numismatic art declined in the later times.
Interestingly, the Post-Gupta coins too became monotonous with slight or no creative changes at all.
The Coinage of the Gupta Empire – Dr A S Altekar
Catalogue of Indian Coins in the British Museum – John Allan
Indian Feudalism – R C Sharma
The Expansion and Consolidation of the Gupta Empire – R C Majumdar