Reading through Indian economic/monetary history using coins..

Prof. Pankaj Tandon who accidentally got into numismatics, now has quite an interesting story to tell.

Pankaj Tandon, a Harvard-trained economist, is a numismatist by calling. Poring over inscriptions and icons on old Indian coins, the academic has gathered enough evidence to put one forgotten dynasty on the Silk Route—the ancient trade route between the East and West—back on the map. And he is working on finding details about well-known dynasties as well—all from coins.
The detour into history was unplanned. Originally, the economist viewed ancient Indian coins simply as an investment. The price of cultural memorabilia is relatively low in developing countries, says Tandon, who teaches economics at Boston University.  “As the country becomes wealthier—its value skyrockets,” he says.
Back in the 1990s, India looked to be poised for growth. In 1998, Tandon bought his very first coin, which was probably issued around the time of Asoka the Great. But he learned that the Maurya dynasty had minted millions of coins, and many survived—so the coin was not as rare as he had thought.
As Tandon learned more, he created the virtual museum CoinIndia.comto promote an appreciation of coins from the subcontinent. Indian coinage goes back a long way—the first coins appeared about 2,500 years ago near present-day Patna. The designs, which evolved over time, reveal many influences—from Ancient Greece, Rome and Persia. So, plenty of variety here.

He solved one puzzle and created several questions for future researchers in the process:

So, what can old coins tell us? Details that corroborate recorded facts and, occasionally, lead to a rewrite of some chapters in history textbooks.
Take, for instance, a numismatic puzzle that Tandon cracked recently. In 1851, a hoard of gold coins was found near the holy city of Varanasi. They were issued by the Guptas, who ruled from the 4th to the 6th centuries CE. The Guptas stamped coins with their given names on the front and an assumed name ending with “aditya” on the back.
On two of the coins in the hoard, scholars were able to read only the king’s assumed name—Prakasaditya—but they assumed that these, too, were Gupta coins. Without the given name, however, they were left with a bunch of questions. Which Gupta king was this Prakasaditya? When did he rule?
Other specimens of the coin have been found since, but not one had that particular king’s name in its entirety.
Six years ago, when Tandon took on the challenge of finding the king’s identity, colleagues gave him the best images they had. He pieced the puzzle together—a missing letter here, another clue there—but it wasn’t quite enough.
Then, Tandon spent the 2011-12 academic year in India on a Fulbright-Nehru fellowship, teaching microeconomics at St Stephen’s College, his alma mater. One weekend, on a hasty, behind-the-scenes tour of a museum in Uttar Pradesh, he took pictures of their coin collection. Later, he realized he had some pictures of the mystery coin as well. One image had the missing letters. The king was no Gupta; he was Toramana, the Hun ruler.
In light of this unexpected find, there are new questions for historians to grapple with. What were the coins of an arch-rival doing in the heart of the Gupta empire? How were the Huns responsible for the precipitous decline of the Guptas, in the second half of the fifth century?
Fascinating bit..
History of Coins should be part of economic studies in India. There is just so much interesting stuff to learn via coinage in India.  As they  say – picture is worth 1000 words. Seeing the history of coins tells you much more than several economic history books put together.
Which metals were used shows the prevalence and availability of one metal over others. The shape and design of coins suggests how the authority wanted its image to be projected. Some kinds just used gods whereas others used their own pictures which indicated who was the final authority of the land. The domination tells you about usage patterns. And then there is obvious learning of the various empires in the process. It is much easier to remember and recall the various empires this way then the dates we just mug and then forget.
There is so much to learn from coinage but it has just been made a museum activity which sadly no one visits. By including them as part of economic discourse, we just help so many causes.
Much of monetary economics has been reduced to abstract gibberish. Monetary economics in form of coins has existed for so long and is there to see and figure. It is hardly an abstract imaginary variable as in our textbooks. However, barring some mention of coins in Class 11-12 economics, they are not even mentioned in economics textbooks in graduate and post graduate levels. This is obviously due to just blind usage of textbooks written elsewhere who hardly know much about our rich monetary history.
Such a pity all this is…

5 Responses to “Reading through Indian economic/monetary history using coins..”

  1. MS Says:


    Great article Amol, thanks for pointing. Just trying to parse this comment of yours. Do you mean to say that studying India’s monetary history through coins will prove useful in informing today’s policy decisions? Or you recommend just gaining the historical perspective for its own sake ?

    • Amol Agrawal Says:

      Hi Madhusudan. Thanks for following and sending your comment. I guess it is a bit of both. First, learn history for its sake and then eventually it does throw lessons for today as well. Money and its matters have been an issue for really a long time. What has changed is the form but overall issues remain the same. Even then we struggled to figure monetary stability with coins and today we do with currency notes (and will do with digi currency in future). History of money and its various forms is hugely rewarding. It changes your perspectives in many ways…

      • MS Says:

        Thanks for the reply. Yes completely agree.

        Based on what’s been published so far and read by you, are there any books that you recommend on India’s monetary history? Anything that provides the grand 4000 year perspective ? Thanks

      • Amol Agrawal Says:

        4000 years! I don’t know.

        But there are some books which connect the dots. SBI History by Amiya Kumar Bagchi is just a must read. He tells you a lot other than just SBI. Then econ history books by RC Dutt, Tirthankar Roy etc give you some ideas. There was a book on history of coins whose author I am forgetting. It is bits and pieces here and there.

        Leave 4000 year history, we do not even tell the monetary history after 1947…

  2. MS Says:


    Thanks again for the suggestions!

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