Kings, gods and traders: Decoding the art on ancient coins
Mauryan axes, faces of Satavahana kings, a lion from Alexander’s army – at an exhibition of ancient coins found on the subcontinent , money talks. It tells stories of war, peace, power and disappointment.
Art On Coins – India and the World, on at the NCPA, features 300 artefacts from the private collections of history buffs Pascal Lopes, Sanjay Joshi and Tejaswinee Pathak. Historians see currency as the only mass-produced public art in ancient times and they believe coin designs were used to spread messages and exert authority. The collectors hope the show will take history out of dry textbooks and offer a purse-led perspective of the past.
Consider the Venetian ducat, a gold coin introduced between 600 CE and 1,200 CE, when Indian kingdoms were financially struggling, making their non-precious metal currency less desirable to foreign traders. One side of the coin depicts Saint Martin blessing the king of Venice; the reverse bears a portrait of Christ. The ducat was widely used and is still found in interior pockets of Maharashtra.
“Some historians believe the traders wanted to spread word of the greatness of their emperors and religion in other continents,” says Lopes. “Many jewellers still mint commemorative medals and coins called putli, which look like the Venetian ducat. You’ll find them in Vasai and Palghar.”
Also on display is the larin, a hairpin-shaped silver coin used during the reign of Adil Shah of Bijapur in the early 1600s. “He wanted to make it easy for his subjects to carry money,” says Lopes. “This shape allowed women to fix the coins in their hair and for men to carry it on their belts.”
Mahesh Kalra, curator at the RBI Museum in Kolkata, says with ancient money, gold, silver and copper were not just valuable in themselves,. but for the inscriptions and designs on them. Today, our pockets jingle with brass and stainless steel discs, not a monetary loss but an artistic one.