Mysterious Symbols: Punch-Marked Coins of Early India
Symbols are a way of communicating beyond words, and various types of symbols have existed from 100,000 BCE and even earlier. In early India a number of symbols were found, particularly on a group of coins commonly termed ‘punch-marked coins’. Punch-marked coins are dated from the 6th century BCE and continued to be used to a limited extent up to the 3rd century CE. They were most prolific in pre-Mauryan and Mauryan times and are usually made of silver, irregular in size and shape, but of a standard weight. Some were cut from flattened silver bars, and then punched with various symbols. Others were oval, square, oblong or rectangular. While the scholar Joe Cribb traces their origin to the Achaemenids, others feel they were an indigenous development. The 6th century BCE was the time whenmahajanapadas or large states developed in India, and they issued coins, including punch-marked coins. Magadha, one of the mahajanapadas, developed into the Nanda and later the Mauryan empire. Early coins were punched with just one or two symbols, later ones with five.
Thousands of punch-marked coins have been found all over India, though there were some regional differences. The coins are also found buried in hoards, indicating that they were viewed as a form of wealth. Ancient texts refer to early coins as karshapana, masha, pana and purana. Silver coins were generally called purana or dharana. Historians have analysed these coins in terms of trade and sovereignty, but some have focused more closely on these strange and mysterious symbols. Around 450 symbols can be identified, though they include variations of a single symbol. Two types of symbols occur on most of the coins, a sun with radiating rays, and a six-armed symbol. Then there are various geometric, plant, nature, and animal symbols. Geometric symbols include dots, circles, rectangles and squares, a ladder symbol, wheels and swastikas. There are bows and arrows, an axe-head, and a kind of victory symbol referred to as a jayadhvaja. A symbol with three or more arches is called a hill symbol, and may be topped with a crescent, an animal, a peacock or something else. Numerous types of plants are depicted, some in pots, some in railings. A mushroom is clear on some coins. There are insects with many legs, a scorpion, and fish. Animals include bulls, goats, elephants, dogs and hare. Among reptiles there are snakes and frogs. Sometimes humans are depicted, including a woman in a skirt, and men dancing. One symbol resembles the anthropomorph, a type of copper implement found in the much earlier Copper Hoard Culture.
The coins must have been used in trade, but the symbols had their own meaning. They have been related to tribal groups and to totems, or identified with royal power. The three-arched hill, surmounted by a crescent or peacock is said to be a symbol of Mauryan power. Some have interpreted it as representing a Buddhist stupa, or the sacred mountain Meru. The six-armed symbol, which occurs in seventy different varieties, is thought to represent an issuing authority, with its various forms possibly indicating individual rulers or dynasties. Other coin symbols have been associated with villages and towns, hills and rivers. They have even been seen as tantrik symbols. A taurine symbol was also used on pillars and could be a votive symbol connected with the god Shiva. Geometric signs have been linked with the Brahmi alphabet, and may represent the first letter of a personal name.
Though a lot has been written about these symbols, they remain mysterious, and much more analysis could be done. A book by Genevieve Von Petzinger, The First Signs, on geometric symbols of Ice Age Europe indicates that some of these symbols may be universal, as dots, crosses, plants and snakes, are among those found in caves across Europe. She feels the symbols in the recesses of dark caves could be related to Shamanism, and to trance states. During Shamanistic trances, symbols similar to those on punch-marked coins are said to be seen. Perhaps the mushroom and dancing men could also be connected with such states? Probably, though, this is just too fanciful an interpretation for symbols on coins, but the universality of symbols needs to be recognised.
In India, many of the symbols continued to be used by later dynasties, both on coins and as representative of the dynasty. For instance the three-arched hill was used in later Taxila coins, and on coins of the Shunga dynasty. The three-arched hill, fish, and elephant are also found on Pandya coins in south India. The typical symbol of the Chera dynasty was the bow and arrow. These are only a few examples of how the symbols continue to be used over time. Even today symbols are used in so many different ways, in road signs, in representing a political party, or even in forms of dress and ornamentation. Future historians may face as much difficulty in understanding and analysing the symbols of political parties, as we have in understanding those on the punch-marked coins of long ago!
(A PhD in ancient Indian History, the writer lives in Dehradun and has authored more than ten books)
Monday, 01 April 2019 |Roshen Dalal| Dehradun
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