CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series: Coinage of the Guptas

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
 

IN INDIA’S LONG HISTORY, the Gupta Empire (c. 319 – 550 CE) is remembered as a golden age of art, literature, science, and culture. Economically it was truly a golden era; Gupta kings issued a flood of beautiful gold dinaras – coins that reflected the prosperity created by the thriving Silk Road trade in luxury goods between East and West.

The empire’s heartland was the central Ganges plain of northern India. Ancient Pataliputra[1] was the royal capital. For Gupta rulers the precise dates are disputed, but generations of diligent work by Indian and Western scholars have unraveled the sequence of which kings issued which coins. One mint was in or near the capital, while another was in the western part of the empire. There might also have been a military mint that moved with the army on campaign.

Chandragupta I

Chandragupta I. Dinar, King and Queen type, circa 319-343, AV 7.61 g.
Chandragupta I. Dinar, King and Queen type, circa 319-343, AV 7.61 g.

Chandragupta I was the first Gupta king to issue gold coins[2]. Designs were influenced by the coins of the earlier Kushan Empire. In older catalogs (Allan, 1914; Altekar, 1954), many of his coins were attributed to his grandson, Chandragupta II. He made a brilliant political marriage with Kumaradevi, princess of the Licchavi, a powerful neighboring state. They stand together facing one another on the obverse of the “King and Queen” type dinara[3]. Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity, appears on the reverse, seated on a lion. The dinara of about 7.8 grams, struck in nearly pure (94%) gold, was based on the weight of the Roman aureus[4], a coin that reached India in large quantities to pay for spices and silks.

Chandragupta I. Circa AD 320-335. AV Dinar (7.74 g, 12h). Archer type.
Chandragupta I. Circa AD 320-335. AV Dinar (7.74 g, 12h). Archer type.

Chandragupta I issued other designs that were copied by subsequent rulers, including the “Archer type” which shows the king standing, holding a curved composite bow in one hand and an arrow in the other. Beside the king is the dynastic emblem, the “Garuda standard”: a staff topped with an image of Garuda[5], a mythical bird and companion of the god Vishnu. Kumar (2017) suggests this derives from the Roman eagle legionary standard, which would have been familiar to Indians from depictions on Roman coins.

Kachagupta

Kachagupta. Circa AD 335. AV Dinar (20mm, 7.57 g, 12h).
Kachagupta. Circa AD 335. AV Dinar (20mm, 7.57 g, 12h).

The succession to Chandragupta I may have involved a power struggle. Some rare coins bearing the name “Kacha” date from this confused period (c.335 – 343 CE)[6]. He may have been an older son of Chandragupta who was overthrown and erased from history.

On the obverse of these coins, the king stands holding a chakradhvaja – a standard topped with a spoked wheel. An important symbol in Hindu and Buddhist iconography, the wheel appears on the modern flag of India[7].

Samudragupta

Samudragupta. Circa AD 335-380. AV Dinar (21mm, 7.67 g, 12h).
Samudragupta. Circa AD 335-380. AV Dinar (21mm, 7.67 g, 12h).

However he came to power, Samudragupta enjoyed a long, prosperous, and victorious reign (344 – 378). Some rare coins commemorate his performance of an ancient royal ritual, the horse sacrifice (Asvamedha[8]). On the obverse, a muscular horse stands tethered beside an altar. The inscription proudly boasts:

The king of kings who has performed the horse sacrifice wins heaven after protecting the earth.

The reverse shows a standing female, variously described as the queen or a goddess, holding a fly whisk (a practical item to bring to a horse sacrifice!) An EF example of this coin from the famous Lawrence Adams collection brought $8,000 USD (against a $1,000 estimate) in a 2015 auction[9].

Samudragupta. Dinar, Lyrist type, circa 344-378, AV 7.66 g.
Samudragupta. Dinar, Lyrist type, circa 344-378, AV 7.66 g.

Along with his military prowess, Samudragupta was an accomplished poet and musician. His rare “Lyrist Type” coins show him seated, played a veena, a classical Indian stringed instrument[10]. The reverse shows Lakshmi seated gracefully in profile on a wicker stool, holding a cornucopia – the familiar “horn of plenty” adopted from depictions of the Roman goddess Fortuna[11].

Samudragupta issued at least eight different types of gold dinaras, including Archer, Javelin, Scepter, Battle-Axe, and a very rare Tiger-Slayer (17 examples known, most in museums).

Chandragupta II

Chandragupta II Vikramaditya. Circa AD 380-413. AV Dinar (19mm, 7.81 g, 12h). Archer type.
Chandragupta II Vikramaditya. Circa AD 380-413. AV Dinar (19mm, 7.81 g, 12h). Archer type.

Chandragupta II was the son of Samudragupta. He reigned for about 35 years (exact dates are uncertain), adopting the title Vikramaditya (“Brave as the Sun” – the name of a legendary emperor) as his epithet[12]. Kālidāsa, a famous Sanskrit writer and dramatist, may have served as his court poet[13].

Chandragupta II. AV Dinar (7.87 g, 12h). Horseman type.
Chandragupta II. AV Dinar (7.87 g, 12h). Horseman type.

The abundant gold coinage of this period includes Archer[14] (common), Parasol, Horseman, King and Lakshmi, and Lion Slayer types, with many variants. Examples of the Horseman type show the king holding a variety of weapons and riding either to the left or the right[15].

Chandragupta II’s conquests extended the empire to the fertile Indus River valley and the rich trading ports of the western coast. He established a second capital at Ujjain.

Kumaragupta

In his long, poorly documented reign of about 41 years, Kumaragupta, son of Chandragupta II, issued at least 15 different types of gold dinaras, including some of the rarest and most spectacular Gupta coins.

Kumaragupta. Dinar, Apratigha type, 409-450/452, AV 7.91 g.
Kumaragupta I. Dinar, Apratigha type, 409-450/452, AV 7.91 g.

On the Apratigha type[16] (17 examples known; 11 in museums) three standing figures appear, but it is uncertain what event or ritual is represented, and the obverse inscription is unclear. In a recent European auction, this coin brought over $85,000 (double the estimate)[17].

Kumaragupta. Stater, Rhinoceros Slayer type; 7.95 g.
Kumaragupta I. Stater, Rhinoceros Slayer type; 7.95 g.

In the same sale, Kumaragupta’s Elephant Rider type brought over $55,000 (more than double the estimate)[18].

The Rhinoceros Slayer type (11 known) may commemorate Kumaragupta’s conquest of the jungle province of Assam, where Indian rhinos lived. In March 2019, this coin apparently realized the record price for a Gupta coin, over $100,000[19].

Kumaragupta. Stater, Rhinoceros Slayer type; 7.95 g.
Kumaragupta I. Stater, Rhinoceros Slayer type; 7.95 g.

In the Western provinces of his empire, where silver coinage circulated widely, Kumaragupta issued silver “drachms” of about two grams, bearing his profile portrait on the obverse and the emblematic garuda (sometimes described as a “peacock”) on the reverse.

Kumaragupta I, 415-455 AD, Silver Drachm, 2.15g, Madhya-Desha (Central India) type.
Kumaragupta I, 415-455 AD, Silver Drachm, 2.15g, Madhya-Desha (Central India) type.

Kumaragupta had at least two sons by different wives, and there may have been a struggle for the succession between two half-brothers, Purugupta and Skandagupta, who each issued coins.

Skandagupta

Skandagupta is considered the last great Gupta ruler. He came to the throne about 455 and ruled for 12 years. He fought successfully against invaders called the Hunas, who may or may not have been related to the Huns, who ravaged the Roman Empire at the same time[20].

AV dinar (8.51g), Mitch-4865, Altekar: plate XIV:8, Kumar: class I, variety B, standard archer type.
Skandagupta. AV dinar (8.51g), Mitch-4865, Altekar: plate XIV:8, Kumar: class I, variety B, standard archer type.

His successors presided over a dwindling empire, and this is reflected in the declining gold content[21] and workmanship of the coins. To partly compensate, the weight of the coins increased from about 8.4 grams to nine or even 10 grams. Most of Skandagupta’s gold coins are of the Archer type[22]. He also issued small silver coins very similar to those of his predecessors. These are quite affordable, with VF examples going for about $150 or less at auction[23].

Kumaragupta II

Kumaragupta II. Dinar, Archer type, 474-476, AV 9.60 g.
Kumaragupta II. Dinar, Archer type, 474-476, AV 9.60 g.

There are at least 15 kings that followed Skandagupta, up to the last Gupta king, Vishnugupta, in 543. It is possible that in reality there were a lot more… minor kings that ruled over minor territories carved out of a disintegrating Gupta empire (Kumar, 366).

Kumaragupta II was the nephew of Skandagupta, and probably the son of Purugupta. He came to the throne c. 473 – 476 and took the epithet Kramaditya. An example of his rare Archer type dinara brought over $4,000 (again about double the estimate) in a recent auction[24].

Budhagupta

AV Dinar (9.31 g, 12h). Archer type.
Budhagupta. AV Dinar (9.31 g, 12h). Archer type.

Another son of Purugupta, Budhagupta ruled c. 476 – 495. He may have come to power after deposing his brother (Kumar, 23). Despite his name, he was a devout Hindu (the Guptas were generally tolerant of all religions.) He fought against the invading Hunas. He issued rare Archer type gold[25] (eight examples known), and profile portrait silver coins (15 known).

Narasimhagupta

AV Dinar (21mm, 9.61 g, 11h). Archer type, Class II.
Narasimhagupta. AV Dinar (21mm, 9.61 g, 11h). Archer type, Class II.

Narasimhagupta may have been yet another son of Purugupta. His dates are uncertain – probably c. 495 – 530. He took the epithet Baladitya, which appears on the reverse of his rare Archer type gold coins[26].

Toramana

HUNNIC TRIBES, Toramana. Circa 490-515. AV Dinar (18mm, 9.53 g, 12h).
Toramana. Hunnic Tribes, Toramana. Circa 490-515. AV Dinar (18mm, 9.53 g, 12h).

Toramana was a king of the Hunas (c.493-515) who conquered much of northern and central India. He issued gold coins (62 examples known) that copied Gupta designs and inscriptions so closely that until recently they were considered to be issues of a Gupta ruler (Tandon, 647). On the obverse, the king appears on horseback wearing Hunnic garb, spearing a small lion that looks like an angry house cat. An example of this type from the famous Adams collection brought $10,000 (against an estimate of $5,000) in a recent auction[27].

Kumaragupta III

AV Dinar (20mm, 9.43 g, 12h). Archer type, Class II.
Kumaragupta III. AV Dinar (20mm, 9.43 g, 12h). Archer type, Class II.

Kumaragupta III (sometimes misidentified as Kumaragupta II) was a son of Narasimhagupta. He ruled a disintegrating empire c. 530-540. His Archer type gold coins[28] (38 examples known) are heavily debased (16 – 12 kt; Kumar, 388).

Vishnugupta

AV Dinar (9.58 g, 12h). Archer type.
Vishnugupta. AV Dinar (9.58 g, 12h). Archer type.

Vishnugupta, a son of Kumaragupta III was probably the last ruler of the Gupta empire, c. 540 – 550, although a number of small, ephemeral successor states continued to issue coins in Gupta style for another century. Some of Vishnugupta’s Archer type coins are struck in a good alloy[29], while others are as little as 20% gold (5 kt).

Collecting the Guptas

Gupta coins are found in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The largest group ever found (2,100 coins) was the Bayana Hoard of 1946, discovered by three boys following a hunting party of the Maharaja of Bharatpur to pick up spent shell casings. Local villagers melted down 285 coins, but the surviving ones were carefully documented (Altekar). The Maharaja had some of the coins made into cuff links and blazer buttons, which were given to his friends.

In recent years, Gupta coins have gained increasing attention from collectors in the West and Japan. Kumar (2016), a work of careful scholarship by a dedicated collector and superbly illustrated in color, is now the standard reference for this series. The book even has its own web site.

* * *

Notes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pataliputra

[2] He bore a famous ancient name: Chandragupta Maurya (ruled c. 321 – 297 BCE) founded a powerful empire, united most of India, then renounced it all to die as a humble monk.

[3] NAC Auction 117, 1 October 2019, Lot 228. Realized $4,010 USD.

[4] The aureus of about eight grams in the time of Julius Caesar was reduced to 7.3 grams under Nero.

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garuda

[6] CNG Auction 100, 7 October 2015, Lot 149. Realized $3,200 USD (estimate $1,000).

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashoka_Chakra

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashvamedha

[9] CNG Auction 100, 7 October 2015, Lot 151.

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veena

[11] Numismatica Ars Classica, Auction 117, 1 October 2019, Lot 231. Realized $13,034 USD.

[12] The Indian Navy aircraft carrier Vikramaditya (in service 2014) commemorates the name.

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kālidāsa

[14] CNG Triton XXII, 8 January 2019, Lot 476. Realized $1,000 USD.

[15] CNG Triton IX, 10 January 2006, Lot 1175. Realized $4,500 USD (estimate $6,000).

[16] The word apratigha meaning “invincible” in Sanskrit, appears on the coin’s reverse.

[17] NAC Auction 117, 1 October 2019, Lot 239. Realized CHF 85,000 (estimate CHF 40,000).

[18] NAC Auction 117, 1 October 2019, Lot 242. Realized CHF 55,000 (estimate CHF 25,000).

[19] Künker Auction 318, 11 March 2019, Lot 2189. Realized $112,246 USD.

[20] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huna_people

[21] Initially about 18 kt, or about 75% gold, by the end of the dynasty the coins were about eight karats or less.

[22] Stephen Album Auction 29, 14 September 2017, Lot 1346. Realized $5,500 USD (estimate $1,000-1,200).

[23] CNG Electronic Auction 143, 12 July 2006, Lot 103. Realized $145 USD.

[24] Numismatica Ars Classica, Auction 117, 1 October 2019, Lot 251. Realized $4,010 USD.

[25] CNG Triton XI, 8 January 2008, Lot 395. Realized $1,000 USD (estimate $1,000).

[26] CNG Triton XVI, 8 January 2013, Lot 681. Realized $3,000 USD (estimate $5,000).

[27] CNG Triton XIX, 5 January 2016, Lot 2177. Realized $10,000 USD.

[28] CNG Triton XVI, 8 January 2013, Lot 682. Realized $1,400 USD (estimate $2,000).

[29] CNG Triton XI, 8 January 2008, Lot 396. Realized $1,000 USD (estimate $1,000).

References

Allan, John. Catalogue of the Coins of the Gupta Dynasties. British Museum. London (1914)

Altekar, A. S. Catalogue of the Gupta Gold Coins in the Bayana Hoard. Bombay (1954)

Altekar, A. S. The Coinage of the Gupta Empire. Banaras [Varanasi], India (1957)

Chakrabarti, K. “The Gupta Kingdom”, History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. III. UNESCO. Paris (1996)

Danielou, Alain. A Brief History of India. Rochester, Vermont. (2003)

Kumar, Sanjeev. Treasures of the Gupta Empire: A Catalogue of Coins of the Gupta Dynasty and Later Guptas, Sasanka and Coinage of Bengal. Mumbai, India (2017)

Raven, Ellen M. “Samudragupta’s Asvamedha Coins in the Patterning of Early Gupta Coin Designs”, Pratna Samiksha: A Journal of Archaeology 7 (2016)

Tandon, Pankaj. “Horseman Coins of Candragupta III”, Numismatic Chronicle 173 (2013)

–. “The Identity of Prakāśāditya”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 25.4 (2015)

Vohra, Ranbir. The Making of India: A Historical Survey. Armonk, NY (1997)
 

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