Kashmir’s coins & history

Print edition : May 15, 2015

A Dogra two-rupee note. The Dogras refer to their currencies being minted specifically in Srinagar, Jammu, or Ladakh, as the case may be.

Toramana's copper coins with standing king and seated goddess. This coin type remained unchanged in Kashmir for over 1,200 years.

The book provides the reader an opportunity to gain a long-period perspective not only on the coins found in Jammu and Kashmir but on the associated historical changes in the State.

IN the writing and teaching of ancient Indian history, coins have been perhaps the least exploited source, and numismatics has remained a rather sequestered discipline in terms of the incorporation of its insights into mainstream works. If this is so for the general histories written of mainland India, where coins are either “added and stirred” or, for the most, relegated to a section on “economic history”, as if that is all they could tell us, it is as true for works on Jammu and Kashmir. Indeed, the ancient history of this northern-most State of India is, by and large, a hazy grey area. Not because a large number of scholars, Indian and European, have not applied themselves to the task of elucidating it since the mid-19th century but because the bulk of these, especially since the 1970s, contented themselves with relying on, or rather duplicating, the contents of Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, that iconic Sanskrit text celebrated (somewhat erroneously) by modern historians as the first and only work of true history written in the ancient subcontinent. While the rich and systematic information this text contains is not to be scoffed at, that alone cannot justify literal readings of the text standing in for an interpretive history of the ancient land.

Further, the archaeology of Jammu and Kashmir that could have moved forward seems to have lagged instead. That is why we do not have a connected and coherent material picture of ancient Kashmir. This is a sorry state of affairs for a region that was once studied by the likes of Aurel Stein and R.C. Kak. The former’s efforts (1900) have been defining for Kashmir studies, but it is the latter’s steady documentation of the monumental remains of Kashmir (1933) and of the archaeological and numismatic galleries of the State’s museums (1923) that established a benchmark for practitioners of local archaeology. Unfortunately, however, it remains that even a century after Kak wrote, surprisingly unsurpassed and unextended.

It is to redress this lacuna that Iqbal Ahmad, as he tells us in his introduction, decided to put together his Kashmir Coins. A senior archaeologist in the Jammu and Kashmir State Archives and Museums, Srinagar, he is indeed uniquely positioned to have undertaken such a venture, namely, creating a consolidated record of currencies in the entire State. The currencies span the earliest monetary era to the 20th century although the subtitle to the book leads one to expect only the ancient period. The value of such a collection is instantly obvious: It provides the reader an opportunity to gain a longue dur e e perspective not only on the coins found in the State but on the associated historical changes or continuities that Kashmir has known abundantly.

This comes out clearly from Ahmad’s notes accompanying the images of coins. For he divides and classifies these, as is the common practice, according to the dynasties that issued them. So one is able to trace the issues by the Indo-Greeks, Shakas, Indo-Parthians, Kushanas, Kidaras and Hunas, through the Karkota coins, and those of the later “Hindu Rajas”, as he rather curiously terms and impatiently bunches together major historical kings (and separate dynasties) of early medieval Kashmir such as Didda, Kalasha, Harsha, and Jayasimha. He then moves onto the “Sultans”, the Shahmeris, Chaks and Mughals, followed by the Durranis, Sikhs, and finally the Dogras.

The temporal sweep of the collection is, therefore, impressive and true to its claim; spatially, however, the subregions of Jammu and, more so, Ladakh are hardly touched. The treatment of the coinages is also another story. As Ahmad ruefully mentions from time to time, cataloguing of most of the hundreds of coins this book alludes to has simply not been done. His book does not seek to remedy that situation either. Hence, the absence of a detailed context to most of the coins illustrated in the book, especially the ancient ones, such as the find spot of coins even when they were found in a horde, and their quantity (the sparse appendix given does not really help), and where they are housed now. Noticeable also is the absence of a careful organising of the images of coins within a dynasty in such a way as to not confuse their chronology. For a professional historian, this rather erodes the analytical potential of this volume.

Punch-marked coins

The reviewer found this particularly disappointing for the earliest coins found in the Kashmir valley, the punch-marked silver and copper coins, known as pana in ancient Sanskrit and Pali literature (interestingly, the Kashmiri word for money is also pans). Punch-marked coins are considered diagnostic of the spread of civilisation and urbanism in the Gangetic valley and beyond at the dawn of the early historic period in the 6th century BCE. The significance of their showing up in Kashmir cannot be exaggerated: It pushes back the early historic archaeology and monetary history of Kashmir to the 6th-4th century BCE from the 1st-3rd century C.E. The latter period is that of the Kushana empire, which was until now regarded as the most influential political and cultural formation in Kashmir.

These punch-marked coins point beyond reasonable doubt to the fact that, for all the peripherality and isolation over-imputed to the region by misplaced scholarship, the Kashmir valley was a part of the Mauryan empire (the punch-marks being identical). This is what Kalhana categorically stated and Ahmad endorses (page 13). It seems to have been a part of subcontinental economic and trading networks of the rest of India as well from the “beginning”. This is further confirmed by the ceramic remains discovered at the site of Semthan (ancient Vijbror or Bijbehara).

This actually should not come as a surprise given that the neighbouring Gandhara (Potwar plateau and Peshawar plains that adjoin the Jhelum valley on its west) with its capital Takshashila (Taxila) was very much a part of the political, commercial and cultural contretemps of the Indian heartland from the earliest times, a fact somewhat overshadowed by its Hellenistic experience.

Of a piece with this picture is the other, extraordinary finding reported in the book: The “Sri Pratapa” type coins of Lalitaditya Muktapida, that most stellar of Kashmiri kings, turning up in excavations at Rajghat (Banaras), Sarnath and Bhitware in Uttar Pradesh and at Monghyr and Nalanda in Bihar (page 38). This may attest, as Ahmad thinks (page 5), to the reality of Lalitaditya’s far-reaching conquests ( digvijaya) so elaborately described in Rajatarangini but regarded with some scepticism by scholars. And/or it could point to an intensive commercial presence of Kashmiris in the Gangetic valley in the 8th century C.E., and even to other affairs, like education, occupation, and pilgrimage, which prompted such frequent traffic to and from the two valleys. These comings and goings are described by Kalhana and other Kashmiri authors such as Bilhana and Kshemendra. We know, for example, that Kashmiris subscribed so frequently to the ritual obsequies at the sacred site of Gaya (Bihar) and that these were apparently so important to them that a 9th century Kashmiri minister wrested a tax concession from the local authorities at Gaya for Kashmiris!

It is to the credit of Ahmad that he recognises the import of the punch-marked coins in no uncertain terms. However, given all this, one would have liked to know about these early coins a great deal more than the very cursory treatment the book allows.

Coin types

Kashmir Coins does throw up some other interesting observations. These concern both the history of coinage as well as the larger state of affairs in Kashmir numismatics. Ahmad’s documentation, though selective, does easily bring out the main motifs that characterised different coin types through Kashmir’s early past. Thus, you have bust portraits of the king distinguishing the Indo-Greek coins found in the Kashmir valley, as indeed in other parts of their kingdom in the Punjab (2nd century BCE). This is replaced, as it were, by the image of the king on horseback in the succeeding Indo-Scythian or Shaka issues. Among the Parthian or Pehlava copper coins appears the Indian humped bull together with the Bactrian camel. The bull-and-camel type continues in the Kushana coins of Kujula Kadphises, apparently, but more striking is the appearance of what Ahmad identifies as the Siva with Nandi and/or trishula image on gold and copper Kushana coins.

Thereafter, with the so-called Kidara and later the Huna issues, there emerges an established formula of the standing king on the obverse and a seated goddess on the reverse, even as the Siva/Nandi motif also carries on. This goddess is identified by Ahmad as Ardoksho, the Bactrian goddess of fortune, a most interesting counterpart to Sri Lakshmi, whose association with royal fortune is a common one in ancient India. Indeed, Ahmad tells us that the transition from Ardoksho to Lakshmi, as it were, is visible on the Huna coins of Toramana and Mihirakula (6th century C.E.) where the cornucopia in her hand is substituted by the lotus.

Fascinatingly, this coin type—standing raja, seated goddess—remained unchanged in Kashmir for over 1,200 years, which must be quite a record. It was given up only in 1339 with the advent of “Muslim rule” (page 37). Before that, the only exception was the new types released by king Harsha (not to be mistaken with Harshvardhana of Kanauj), who adopted the elephant type borrowed from Karnataka and the horseman type borrowed from the Hindu Shahi kings of Kabul (Kapisha). This is a wonderful tribute not only to the eclecticism of this quaint, tragic king but to the openness and dynamism of Kashmiri politics and culture themselves that were once handsomely in touch with other parts of the subcontinent, far and near, as we have seen earlier in this review as well. Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to coins. We know that every aspect foundational to early Kashmiri culture—religion (Buddhism, Saivism, Saktism), language and literature, script, art and architecture, philosophy—bears the impress at once of this plurality and of the obvious role of Indic traditions that both shaped and were shaped by Kashmir’s genius.

The Sultans introduced to Kashmiri coinage the bar and nought symbol, the kalima in Arabic, the legend of Al Sultan Al Azam (the supreme emperor), and a reference to Kashmir as the mint house (zarb-i-Kashmir). Ahmad tells us that their quality of die-striking was poor (page 45) and they also, for some reason, seemed to have continued extensively with coins minted by the much earlier Huna king , “Shri Toramana” (pages 38-39). Perhaps, this had something to do with the availability of metals. It is noteworthy that even Zain ul Abidin, the beloved 15th century Budshah of the Kashmiris, did not get round to issuing too many gold coins, at least going by how rarely they have been recovered (page 48). This is somewhat curious.

The Chak dynasty preferred Persian to Arabic for the legends on their coins. The Mughal emperors from Akbar to Aurangazeb essentially continued the sultanate type but added their individual names. To the Durrani period belong the interesting coins commemorating posthumously two Kashmiri saints, Noor ud din, or Nand Rishi, and Humza Makhdoom (page 77). The Sikh rupees bore Gurmukhi legends in addition to Persian couplets, and the Dogras refer to their currencies being minted specifically in Srinagar, Jammu, or Ladakh, as the case may be.

Sold as scrap

Apart from these and other details, which are more copious in this book for the medieval and modern periods than the ancient, a larger point that emerges pertains, it would seem, to the state of numismatics of all periods in Jammu and Kashmir; namely, the apathetic procurement scenario in the State to which Ahmad rightly calls attention (page 4). Thus, precious ancient coins are seen being sold by the kilo on the scrap-dealing streets of Srinagar, on the one hand, ready to be melted for their metal content (page 39) or being haemorrhaged into private collections and auctions abroad, where they remain unknown and inaccessible to varying degrees (page 16). Such private collections, especially if acquired through anonymous purchases in other countries, are scattered and difficult to trace for the researcher and layman alike. One wishes a guide book such as Ahmad’s gave a list since it refers to some of them. Who knows what treasures these house!

Ironically, many coins that public museums did manage to acquire also lie undeciphered and uncatalogued (pages 4, 9). Ahmad tells us that no less than 70,000 coins were piled up in the reserved lockers of the SPS Museum, Srinagar, when he joined in the 1990s (page 2). This shows the general neglect of government- run museums across India. That a major part of the region’s varied past is thus ignored and unaccounted for is particularly detrimental to Kashmir history.

A word about the production quality of Kashmir Coins is in order. For all the academic labour and good intentions gone into putting together this necessary book, the copy-editing is appalling. Important terms or place names or dynasties are misspelt or spelt in many different ways. Grammatical errors abound. All this additionally renders the book, slim as it is, overpriced. What is more, this flawed form is a liability for a volume that could otherwise well claim to be an adequate introduction to an important aspect of the history of Jammu and Kashmir.

Shonaleeka Kaul is Assistant Professor of History in the University of Delhi.

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