Sources of Indian History - Archaeological Sources: Coins, Seals and Inscriptions

From the ancient times, India has attracted a number of visitors from the foreign lands. Some of its early visitors included invaders, explorers, traders, travellers, scholars and monks. Many of these visitors have left behind chronicles of their visit to India, which constitute a rich source for knowing about our past.

In the last episode we showed you some of these accounts written by the Greek, Roman, Chinese and Arab scholars.

Sources of Indian History – Archaeological Sources: Coins, Seals and Inscriptions

Namaskar and welcome to another episode of History of India.

As a house is constructed bit by bit and brick by brick, the history of a country and its people is constructed by putting several pieces of evidences together. An honest historian never remains contended unless he has verified the facts he has gleaned from the literary sources, with other hard evidence. And these hard evidences come to him in the form of coins, seals and inscriptions.

The coins are the earliest evidence of the economic activity of the human being. When early men started to have surplus produce, the need for exchange was felt. In the primitive society, this exchange was done through barter – commodity for commodity or commodity for service. However, as the social structure grew complex and the needs of the people multiplied, a metallic medium, commonly accepted by all, came into use. These metallic media varied in different societies: if it was Nishka – an ornament in the Vedic Society in India, in China it was an iron knife. Later metallic pieces of definite weight and purity came into use in India. These pieces were stamped with certain symbols, probably to vouch for their weight and fineness. Thus, Punch Marked Coins, the earliest coinage of the world was born in India.

The coins were primarily minted in gold, silver and copper, but sometimes alloys of different metals were also used. The manufacturing techniques also differed from punch marking to casting and die-striking. All these features reflect the advancement in metallurgy during those times.

On the basis of their contents the coins are of two kinds: uninscribed and inscribed. The coins bearing inscriptions or the legends generally display the name and title of the issuer, and sometimes, particularly during the medieval times, also the date and place of their issue. These features help a historian in ascertaining the development, use and extent of a particular script, the name of the issuer, his reign, the extent of his empire and a number of such things.

The coins also display the artistic attainments of the times as also the social customs and religion practiced by the issuer. Thus on the coins of the Indo-Greeks, Indo-Scythians, Kushanas and the Guptas, the effigy of the king is invariably depicted, usually in association with various gods and goddesses. The Gupta kings are depicted in various postures namely, hunting animals, playing musical instrument, riding a horseback, sting on throne and holding bow and arrow.

The legends inscribed on the coins are also varied in nature. The language and script in use in a particular region is depicted on the coins used in that region. Thus, on the coins of the Indo-Greeks we find Greek legends in Greek script, on the coins of the post-Mauryan republics of northern India we find Sanskrit legends in Brahmi or Kharoshti scripts, while on the coins of the Muslim rulers, there are Arabic or Persian legends in Perso-Persian scripts.

The coins were issued in India since 8th century BC to facilitate the economic transaction in their times. This they did faithfully, but their importance did not diminish with the passage of time. Once these coins ceased to be current, they passed into the realm of history as one of its most reliable sources. The study of coins is called Numismatics, and it is one of the specialist disciplines to discover the past.

While coins supported the economic activity such as transfer of value, medium of exchange and storage of wealth, seals were employed primarily to mark ownership and keep track of goods. Over time the elaboration and variety of designs of seals increased, as did their usage. Seal is the device used to make impression; it is sometimes also called the matrix. The impressions left by a seal which record and convey information is called the sealing. This information ranges from economic to social, political and religious. The ability to own goods and claim control over them related to the social position and political authority. The religious orientation of the owner of the seal is reflected in the devises and motifs used on the seals. Like the coins, seals are also both inscribed as well as uninscribed. The seals are generally found impressed on clay or wax. Sometimes metal sealings are also found, especially with the copper plates. To avoid further addition or alteration of such copper plate grants, a metal ring was passed through its sheets and was soldered with a seal.

From the days of the Indus Valley civilization, seals were extensively used in India, both for internal as well as external trade. A number of Indus seals have been found in ancient Mesopotamia. Impressions of seals were made on ceramics and tags used to seal bundles of trade goods. The impression might have been applied to denote ownership or for security. A large number of these seals represent different animals. According to B. Rowland, the Harappan seals are among the world's greatest examples of an artist's ability to embody the essentials of a given form in artistic shape.

Importance of Coins and Seals as source of Indian History.

Apart from the coins and seals, legends are also found inscribed on a number of other media such as stones, clay tablets and terracotta objects, cloth, gold, silver and copper plates and even on certain household items such as kitchen utensils.

The study of inscriptions in their various manifestations is called Epigraphy. These inscriptions are the written records of history – an incontrovertible evidence. They provide information about the names of the kings, their genealogy, their victories, the names of the conquered kings, the dates of events, the extent of empire, the names and designations of the State officials and a number of such things providing an insight into the political history of the times.

Similarly many inscriptions provide invaluable information about the structure of the contemporary society. The inscriptions of the Mauryan king Ashoka for instance, reveal that he had made elaborate arrangement for the medical treatment of humans and animals and for distribution of medicines. He constructed rest houses and planted trees along the major roads throughout his empire. The Hathigumpha inscription of King Kharvela of Kalinga informs us about the practice of census in the empire. The population of Kalinga during that time was 35 lakh.

One of the advantages of inscriptions for historians is that unlike literary sources they cannot be tampered with and hence give a fair idea of the person who got the inscription engraved as well as of his times. It is true that most of the inscriptions found are in the nature of prasastis or panegyrics extolling and, practically in all cases, exaggerating the virtues of the king or the emperor who got the engraving done. In fact, even in land-grants mostly inscribed on copperplates, the donee has exaggerated praise, and perhaps naturally so, for the donor. Hence it is incumbent on the historian not to take inscriptions at face value and, by comparing them with other sources of information of the time and even with other inscriptions belonging to the same period, try to reconstruct the past. But in spite of their limitations, inscriptions are perhaps the most important of material sources for reconstructing the history of ancient India.

In our next episode we will take you to the fascinating world of historical monuments and archaeological sites, each one of which has a unique chapter of history hidden in its bosom.

This and much more next time; Till then, Good bye.

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