How do you justify the view that the level of excellence of the Gupta numismatic art is not at all noticeable in later times?
According to some scholars, the most glorious period of ancient Indian history is the rule of the Gupta dynasty. They ruled large parts of northern India from early 4th century CE to mid-6th century CE. The flourishing state of economy can be ascertained from the large number of gold coins circulated by different Gupta rulers.
The Gupta monarchs were famous for their gold coins. They also issued silver coins. However, coins made of copper, bronze or any other alloy metals are scarce. The abundance of gold coins from the Gupta era has led some scholars to regard this phenomenon as the ‘rain of gold’.
The Gupta gold coin is known as dinaras. The gold coins of the Gupta rulers are the extraordinary examples of artistic excellence. The coins depicted the ruling monarch on the obverse and carried legends with the figure of a goddess on the reverse.
The artists depicted the ruler in various poses. The study of these imageries is very interesting. Mainly the images celebrated the martial qualities and the valor of the ruler. In many coins of Samudragupta, he is depicted as carrying an axe. In others, he is carrying a bow in his left hand and an arrow in his right hand. The coins of Kumaragupta I (c. 415-450 CE) depicted him riding an elephant and killing a lion. Another very interesting image of Samudragupta depicted him as playing a ‘veena’, a stringed musical instrument. There are also some instances of Gupta coins which were jointly issued by the king and the queen. The ‘king-queen’ types of coins were issued by Chandragupta I, Kumaragupta I, and Skandagupta. These coins depicted both the figures of the king and queen in a standing pose. Kumaradevi, the name of the queen of Chandragupta I is known from these coins. But the other two kings did not mention the name of their queens in their joint issues.
The ‘Asvamedha’ or horse-sacrifice coins were issued by both Samudragupta and Kumaragupta I.
Almost every Gupta coin carried the figure of a goddess and an inscription in the reverse. Sanskrit was the language of the inscription. The goddess posed in either sitting or a standing position. There were many goddess depicted in these coins. The most common was the image of Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. Other goddesses who featured in the Gupta coins included Durga, the Hindu goddess of valor; Ganga, the goddess of the river Ganges; etc.
Some of the Gupta coins, mainly the silver ones, carried the images of Garuda, a mythical bird of Hindu tradition. These coins are found in large numbers in western India. In some cases, the Garuda is replaced by a peacock. This variety of coins is extremely rare. And thus, carry a great value for the numismatists.
The first hoard of the Gupta coins was found at Kalighat, in Calcutta in 1783.
The collapse of the Gupta dynasty in the fifth century under the pressure of foreign invasions from the north- west led to the demise of the golden age of Guptas reflected most conspicuously in the coinage of the sub- continent. The post-Gupta period saw various regional coinages which were poor in terms of artistic value and minted in baser alloys like billon (silver and copper). The period is seen as a period of numismatic decline in terms of circulation with fewer coins found as coin hoards (buried treasures).
The Guptas were temporarily replaced by the Huns or the Indo-Hepthalites who invaded and occupied the Western parts of the country via Kabul-Qandahar route. Toramana, the Hun leader issued silver and copper coins fashioned on the coins of Sassanid rulers of North-West India; he also issued silver coins based on Gupta coinage turning the king’s head to the left and with ‘Toramana Deva’ inscribed on the reverse.
Toramana’s Indo-Sassanid coins have a typical bust of the King facing right on the obverse and a Sassanid fire altar with Gupta Brahmi legends on reverse. Toramana ruled over Malwa region till 510 A.D. but his successor, Mihirkula was driven off Malwa by the joint forces of Narsimha Gupta ‘Baladitya’ and Yashovarman of Malwa in 528 A.D. He captured Kashmir and issued coins based on the Sassanid standards with ‘Jayatu Mihirkula’ engraved in Brahmi on the reverse.
Regional coinages continued to be highly influenced by the Gupta coinage; in Bengal, two kings, Samacharadeva and Jayagupta issued debased gold coins resembling the archer type of Guptas with a Bull standard on the coins. The reverse has Lakshmi seated on a lotus suggesting that Samacharadeva replaced the last Gupta ruler, Vishnu Gupta in the middle of the sixth century.
The next major coinage from Bengal was by Sashanka, the king of Gauda who was the rival of Maukharis of Kannauj and their famous ally, Harshavardhana. The coins have images of Shiva reclining on Nandi on the obverse and Lakshmi seated on lotus flanked by an elephant on the reverse.
At the beginning of the seventh century, the entire North India came under the sway of Harshavardhana, the ruler of Thaneswar, a small principality near Kurukshetra. Harsha was a great patron of arts, Buddhism etc. However, Harsha did not initiate any new coinage in his four decade reign. Instead, he chose to copy the ‘Eastern peacock’ type of Kumaragupta with the king’s portrait turned to left.