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HISTORY OF THE GUPTA PERIOD:-
The advent of the Common Era brought the rule of the illustrious Kushana and Gupta empires. When the mighty Kushana Empire crumbled, many small kingdoms
acquired territories. One such was the Gupta dynasty. Starting from a small kingdom in Magadha in the late 3rd century CE, the Guptas gradually extended their rule over a large part of Southern Asia. Under the able and strong leadership of many rulers, this dynasty grew and became deeply rooted in the Indian Subcontinent.
The empire at its paramount included all of northern India from the Indus in the west to the Brahmaputra in the east and in the south it extended along the eastern coast of the Indian Peninsula.
Towards the beginning of the fourth century A.D., the dynasty of the Gupta emperors rose out of a small principality in Eastern Uttar Pradesh or Bihar and lasted for more than two centuries. The king named Sri Gupta was the progenitor. His grandson, Chandragupta I (319-335 or 319-350 CE) was the first paramount ruler, who extended his kingdom far and wide. His son Samudragupta (350-370 or 326- 375 A.D.) made extensive conquests and made his influence felt over the rulers of the southeastern coast as well as the rulers beyond his frontiers in the North West. He celebrated an Ashvamedha (horse sacrifice).
His son Chandragupta II (376-414 A.D.) extended still further the boundaries of his empire up to Kashmir in the west Orissa in the east. Chandragupta 2’s son Kumaragupta I (415-450 A.D.) performed two Ashvamedha’s and added to the empire a greater part of central India, Gujarat, and Saurashtra. Towards the end of his reign, he had some setbacks probably at the hands of the Hunas, who were invading India during this period. His successor Skandagupta (455-467 A.D.) remained occupied mostly in defending the empire against the inroads of the Hunas. He ultimately gained a decisive victory over them. Soon after him, the empire began to crumble. By the time of Buddha Gupta (496-500 A.D.), the western part of the empire was lost; and after him, it remained confined to Bihar, Bengal, and some parts of Orissa.
The Gupta period is considered the “GOLDEN AGE” of classical India. This was a time when great universities flourished in Nalanda and Taxila. India made contributions in all sectors like mathematics, science, astronomy, religion, etc. The famous story tales of Panchatantra, the very popular Kamasutra, and the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata were composed during the Gupta era. Gupta art is regarded as the high point of classical Indian art, and their coinage is among the most beautiful in ancient India. A general atmosphere of peace and prosperity helped create a civilization conducive to the cultural advent of social growth.
COINAGE OF THE GUPTAS:-
The Gupta monarchs or the Gupta rulers were famous for their gold coins. They also used silver coins. The coins of Gupta emperors are known to be chiefly in gold. They issued gold coins so profusely that a contemporary poet has allegorically termed the phenomenon a “RAIN OF GOLD”. The Gupta Coins are far superior in their execution to their prototypes and are more original. The flourishing state of the economy was ascertained by a large number of gold coins in a variety of designs. However, coins made up of copper, bronze, and alloy metal are found scarce.
The first hoard of the Gupta coins was found at Kalighat in Calcutta in 1783. The coins were handed over to Warren Hastings, the British Governor- the general who sent them to London. Now, many of the coins in this collection can be seen at the British Museum.
SPECIFICATIONS OF THE COINS IN THE GUPTA PERIOD:-
The Gupta gold coins are known as DINARS and they are the most extraordinary examples of Numismatics and artistic excellence. The coins in general depicted the ruling monarch on the obverse and carried legends while the reverse depicted the figure of a goddess. Gupta coinage reached the height of metallurgy and iconography. After Indo-Greek and Kushana coins, Gupta coinage made a huge comeback with a true Indian taste in it.
The Gupta rulers hold a spear or a standard or a battle-ax or a bow or a sword. Again, the trident which is seen in the right field is replaced here by the Garuda-headed standard (Garudadhvaja), the royal insignia of the Gupta dynasty. Along with these modifications, the Guptas retained the method of placing the name of the king perpendicularly in Chinese fashion, on the left hand. Likewise, they placed a circular Brahmi inscription around the king towards the edge of the flan.
On the reverse, goddess Ardoksho seated on a high backed throne holding a cornucopia in her left arm and fillet (pasha) in her right, was retained on the early Gupta coins but gradually she was transformed into her Indian counterpart, Lakshmi, with a lotus in her hand, first seated on a throne than on lotus. The most common Gupta coin is that which shows the king holding a bow in his left hand. This type was issued by all the rulers of the dynasty. The king is also seen holding an arrow in his right hand.
On some coins of Samudragupta and Kumaragupta I, the king is shown seated on a couch playing Veena. These coins were evidently issued to pay a graceful tribute to the king’s accomplishments. They are portrayed in Indian dress, sitting crossed-legged on a high-backed rather ornate couch, playing the Indian lute.
KINGS OF THE GUPTA DYNASTY AND THEIR COINS:-
CHANDRAGUPTA - I:-
The Gupta mints had issued coins of sixteen other types. They are quite original in their content and are of artistic excellence in their appearance. In one type both the king and queen are portrayed. Such coins were issued by Chandragupta I, Kumaragupta I, and Skandagupta. Here the king and the queen are standing face to face. Chandragupta, I issued coins of only this type.
A legendary king by virtue of his military powers and administrative efficiency was an important ruler of the Gupta Empire. His competent ruling produced some
high-quality gold coins and laid the foundation of the Golden Age of India. He is credited to have issued only gold coins (DINAR) during his reign in seven different types (LICHHAVIYA type included). The coins of Samudragupta give us a lot of information on the start of the mighty empire of Gupta and its economy. Samudragupta’s coins according to their design and variety are known in a numismatic term as;
1. STANDARD TYPE: -
These coins are numerous and common. It shows the king carrying a Garudadhvaja in his left hand and also shown wearing a cap. Its reverse side portrays the goddess Lakshmi.
2. ARCHER TYPE: - This type of coin was introduced for the first time in Indian Numismatic. They are found rare and portray Samudragupta holding a bow.
3. BATTLE - AXE TYPE: - This type of coin are featured weapons like a battle ax, bow, arrows, and swords. Samudragupta’s battle-ax has the legend “KRITANTPARASHUH”.
4. LICHHAVIYA TYPE: - This type of coin bare images of King CHANDRAGUPTA I with his queen KUMARADEVI OF the Lichchavi family. It was issued by Samudragupta in memory of his father Chandragupta I.
5. KACHA TYPE: -
It bears the legend “KACHA” having conquered the earth, wins heaven by the highest works on the reverse side of the coin it is showed the legend “EXTERMINATOR OF ALL THE KINGS”.
6. TIGER SLAYER TYPE: - In this type, it is shown the king trampling a tiger while shooting with a bow. The obverse legend reads “VYAGRAPARAKRAMAH”.
7. LYRIST TYPE: - Has the king on a high-backed couch playing the VEENA which rests on his knees. The legend “MAHAADHIRAJA” decorates the obverse.
8. ASVAMEDHA TYPE: - These are unique, find a horse standing before Yupa (sacrificial post).
All of his coin designs with their illustrious legends are indicative of the conquests of Samudragupta and his attainment of a paramount power. Samudragupta’s coinage features a distinct Indian in reference to the depiction of dresses, weapons, goddesses, etc. as compared to the earlier Kushana Coinage.
CHANDRAGUPTA – II:-
Chandragupta - II inherited the Gupta throne at its peak. He contributed to the vastness of the empire by adding the few territories left off by his father Samudragupta. He extended great support to the arts and his reign saw the Golden Age of India developing and contributing to various fields under his royal patronage. He is known to have issued a total of 8 types of gold coins (DINARS). Known through his coins as “VIKRAMADITYA”, Chandragupta- II also issued silver (DENAREE) and copper (DALER) coins, probably to be circulated in the region that was conquered from the Western Kshatriyas. Chandragupta – II has issued such types of coins where he is shown seated on a couch and holding an object in his hand. The excellent modeling of the king’s figure, the skillful delineation of the features, and the careful attention to detail place these coins amongst the best expressions of numismatic art of the Guptas. Royal interest in hunting and riding is the subject of a few other types of coins of Chandragupta-II. He also issued coins on the occasion of his worship CHAKRA-PURUSHA. On these coins, the CHAKRA-PURUSHA is shown bestowing upon the king three round objects which meant either the three worlds or the three royal powers. Chandragupta issued eight types of coins and they are;
1. ARCHER TYPE: - These coins were issued in abundance and contain the legend “DEVASRI MAHAADHIRAJA SHRI CHANDRAGUPTA”.
2. COUCH TYPE: - These are the rarest Chandragupta- II coins with only two varieties known in the museum. Both of them differ in many details but have the legends ‘roopkrti’ and ‘vikrama’.
3. CHHATRA TYPE: - These coins carried the image of an attendant holding a royal parasol over Chandragupta-II.
4. LION SLAYER TYPE: - In these coins, it shows the king standing and shooting a lion with the bow containing the legend ‘simhavikrama’.
5. HORSEMAN TYPE: - This design was introduced by Chandragupta-II and depicts the king riding a horse.
6. STANDARD TYPE: - Similar in design to that of Samudragupta.
7. CHAKRAVIKRAMA TYPE: - It’s an extremely rare variety found featuring a chakra or a wheel obverse with the legend ‘chakravikrama’.
8. KALASHA TYPE: - It’s an extremely rare variety of Chandragupta-II which depicts a Kalasha or a waterpot.
It is said that in the latter part of his reign, Chandragupta-II started using silver and copper currency to be circulated in the regions of Gujarat and Kathiawar. However, the number of gold coins he issued was vast and the imperial mints were active throughout his reign.
Kumaragupta- I, often inscribed on coins as “MAHENDRAADITYA “issued a good 14 different types of gold and silver coins. This coinage is itself enough to speak about the vastness and prosperity of his empire. His long reign saw both, the epitome and the decline of the empire as the Huna invasion during the later period of his rule shook the Gupta Empire. The financial crunch led Kumaragupta-I to issue silver-plated coins (DALER). He had also issued coins of two other types where he has combined the slayer and rider motifs into one. On one, he is riding a horse and killing a rhinoceros and on the other, he is riding an elephant and killing a lion. On one type of coin, the king is portrayed along with a dwarf male attendant who is holding a chhatra(parasol) at the back. Lastly, on a type of coins of Kumaragupta-I, three standing figures are shown. What exactly they represent has not been ascertained yet. Some of the other types of coins are;
1. ARCHER TYPE: - Depicts the king standing on the left, holding the arrow in his hisright hand and a bow in the left hand.
2. SWORDSMAN TYPE: - King is seen with a sword in his left hand with the Brahmi legend “Gamavajitya-Sucharitaihi-Kumar Gupta-Divam-Jayati”.
3. ASVAMEDHA TYPE: - Issued to commemorate the performance of horse sacrifice. The legend on the obverse reads “Jayati Divam Kumarah” and the reverse reads “Shri Asvamedha Mahendrah”.
4. HORSEMAN TYPE: - King on a horse with legends around that decorates his strength and victory on the obverse and “AJITAMAHENDRAH” legend on the reverse.
5. LION SLAYER: - Depicts the king slaying a lion with the legend “SHRI MAHENDRASIMHA” or “SIMHAMAHENDRAH” on the reverse.
6. TIGER SLAYER: - It's similar to lion slayer types of coins, this coin variety shows the king slaying the tiger with the legend, “SHRIMAM VYAGRAHBALA-PARAKRAMAH” on the obverse.
7. PEACOCK or THE KARTIKEYA TYPE: - This is probably the most beautiful of his coins which shows the king offering a bunch of grapes to a peacock with his right hand.
8. PRATAPA TYPE: - An extremely rare variety that depicts the king with two attendants holding the Garuda Standard on both of his sides. The reverse reads the legend “SHRI PRATAPAH”.
9. ELEPHANT RIDER TYPE: - Is only known from one unique specimen. Though the inscriptions are illegible, this variety is attributed to Kumaragupta-I for its similarity in coin design and make. The coin features King with an attendant riding an elephant.
10. ASVAMEDHA TYPE: - This type of coin of Kumaragupta is similar to that of Samudragupta and depicts the horse tied to Yupa on the obverse. The reverse has the Brahmi legend “SHRI-ASHVAMEDHA-MAHENDRA”.
Kumaragupta revived the lyrist type and king queen type coins of the previous rulers.
Elephant rider and lion slaying type showcase his sportive and hunting capacities.
The Rhino slayer type variety is unique and features a rhino for the first time in Indian numismatic art.
Kumaragupta-I issued silver and copper coins for circulation in the west of India but they were of a debased type. They generally depicted the bust of the king to the obverse and a peacock or a Garuda on the reverse. Samudragupta and Kumaragupta -I had also issued special coins for distribution as Dakshina amongst the priests who had participated in their Ashvamedha sacrifices. These coins portray the sacrificial horse before the Yupa on one side and the goddess of victory, Vijaya with a fly whisk on the other.
The gold coins of this king lack a variety of types. The illustrious Gupta period began to decline during the reign of Skandagupta. Inscribed on coins as “KRAMADITYA”, Skandagupta issued four types of gold dinars and three types of a silver denarius. The Gupta gold coins, once an ultimate example of numismatic art, now began to lose their luster and the political strain became evident in coin designs and their execution. His coin types are;
1. ARCHER TYPE: - It depicts the king with a bow, arrow, and a legend in Brahmi “KRAMADITYA”.
2. KING AND LAKSHMI TYPE: - It depicts the king with the goddess on the obverse and Brahmi legend “SHRI SKANDAGUPTAH” in the reverse.
3. HORSEMAN TYPE: - It has the king riding the horse.
4. CHATTRA TYPE: - It has the king with an attendant offering at a fire altar.
His silver coins have three varieties with the king’s bust on the obverse and with bull/fire altar/ peacock on the reverse.
His successors Purugupta, Kumaragupta-II issued only one type of gold coin namely Archer type. Budhagupta’s coins followed his predecessor’s type but the artistic degree declined greatly. Lack of consistency in the same coin design shows symptoms of a steady decline of the once-mighty empire.
SPECIFICATION OF GODDESSES ON GUPTA COINS:-
On the reverse of all coins, the goddess is shown either sitting or standing. The goddess on these coins originated from the Kushana Ardoksho, as referred to earlier, and took the form of the Indian goddess LAKSHMI. But not on all coins she is depicted as Lakshmi. On some coins, where she is riding a lion, she may be identified as DURGA. Similarly, where she is seen standing over a makara (crocodile), she may be GANGA. On some coins, the female on the reverse is seen seated in profile on a wicker stool. Divinity in the profile is unknown elsewhere in Indian art traditions. On one type of Kumaragupt- I coin lord KUMARAA (Kartikeya) is shown seated on his peacock.
INSCRIPTIONS ON GUPTA COINS:-
Like the motifs, the inscriptions on the Gupta coins are also interesting. The obverse inscriptions that encircle the motif, with a few exceptions, are in the form of verse, celebrating in highly ornate language the king’s glory on the earth and his future bliss in heaven attained through his merits. Six different legends may be noticed on the coins of Samudragupta, ten on coins of Chandragupta-I, and no less than twenty-four on the coins of Kumaragupta-I.
GUPTA COINS IN DIFFERENT REGIONS:-
No silver coins of the early Gupta rulers are known. These were introduced for the first time in the reign of Chandragupta-II, sometime after the Gupta year (409 A.D.), when he came into contact with the Malwa region, where the silver coins of Western Kshatrapas were current. Chandragupta’s silver issues closely follow the Kshatrapa coins. The king’s bust appears on the obverse with the date in the Gupta era at the back or in front of the king. The three-arched hill of the Kshatrapa coins is replaced here by the figure of Garuda. But the coins of this king which are known, are only a few in number and they all are confined to the western region. Kumaragupta-I followed his father and issued similar coins in quite a large number in the Gujarat-Saurashtra territories of his empire. But the metal of these coins is highly debated and at times appears to be almost copper. It seems these coins remained current for a long time after him in the region. He also introduced a new type of silver coin of the same weight and fabric, where the Garuda is replaced by a fan-tailed peacock. This type was meant for the eastern part of the empire. But these coins are rare. Budhagupta was the last ruler who issued silver coins; his coins are only of the eastern type and were extremely scarce. From Malwa, particularly from Vidisha and Eran, a large number of tiny copper coins, similar in form and fabric to the coins of the Nagas, have come to light. They bear the name Ramagupta, brother of Chandragupta-II and the first husband of the queen Dhruvadevi, which is known from some literary sources. These coins in all probability belong to him. However, some scholars hesitate to accept this. These coins are known in several varieties; lion seated to the left, lion standing to the right, Garuda with outspread wings, vase with or without a creeper, etc.
THE DECLINE IN THE LATER GUPTA PERIOD:-
The Gupta period which was once distinguished for its creativity in art, literature, and architecture began to decline during the reign of Skandagupta. This period was riddled with the invasion of Hunas and Pushyamitras by the extraterritorial upheavals. The rulers after came after Skandagupta faced problems to handle the vast empire which was fast crumbling. The expenses incurred from the constant wars drained the royal treasury and affected the general trade and commerce of the empire. Naturally, the disintegration of their political and financial powers is reflected in their art and culture. This decline affected the quality of their coins. The Gupta coins began to lose their luster and were increasingly struck in base metals with very little gold or silver content. Furthermore, the calligraphy of the legend and execution of the coins suffered too. General paucity occurred due to the decline of internal trade and the weakening of the powerful center. The newly emerging independent and self-sufficient local units or ‘SHRENIS’ too contributed to a sharp decline in the number and purity of later Gupta coins. Hence, it would not be an exaggeration to say that level of excellence of the Gupta numismatic art declined in later times.
The Gupta Empire is the epitome of the classical coinage of India. It was the most glorious period of ancient Indian history. This period was called as ‘SONE KI CHIDIYAN’ of Indian history.
We have found gold and silver coins and copper (very few) during the reign of the Guptas.
Lastly, it may be added that some square lead coins of Chandragupta-II, Kumaragupta-I, and Skandagupta have come to light in recent years from the Gujarat-Malwa region. They are in the tradition of the Western Kshatrapa lead coins. The splendor of Gupta coinage was never to be seen again. Even the Mughal Empire was no match to the artistic display of Indianite motifs, poetry, and innovativeness of the Gupta money.
Gupta Parmeshwarilal, 1969. Coins, National book trust, India.
The COININDIA Coin Galleries: Gupta: Samudragupta. Retrieved May 13, 2022, from http://coinindia.com/galleries-samudragupta.html
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Bhavita Jadhav, (Mumbai)
Postgraduate with Ancient Indian culture and Archaeology (2019), St. Xavier’s Autonomous College.
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