The Unique Punch-Marked Coins of India
- December 21, 2020
- By Arun Ramamurthy
Coins were first minted in India sometime around 600 BCE. While Indian coinage itself may have been inspired by trade with Persia, the mode of manufacturing of the coins was indigenous. Small ingots of silver with three circular dots represent the earliest forms of coinage. These were followed by heavy bent bars of silver with a punch on either side. Thousands of what are now known as ‘punch-marked’ coins have been recovered from number of ancient sites all over India. These coins were made of silver (sometimes copper) of standard weight but with an irregular shape. The punch-marked coins of this period went by names such as shatamana, masha and karshapana. The coins were made by cutting up silver sheets into pieces of appropriate size and then cutting each piece down to a desired weight by clipping off one of the corners. The coins were then marked with punches. Coinage evolved from the single-punch type to multiple punch types. Some of these punches may have been official punches, and some may have been so-called ‘banker's marks’. Banker's marks were special punches applied by bankers or money-changers to the coins. They were struck to indicate that the ‘banker’ had verified the metal content and purity of the coin. It is possible that the first coins were struck by goldsmiths and subsequently, they must have passed under royal control when the royal seal would have been substituted for the private bankers' marks. The punches reflect the worship of nature and Gods.
With the expansion of the Magadhan Empire under Ashoka, punch-marked coins began to be used across the length and breadth of the Mauryan terrritories from western Afghanistan to today's Bangladesh, and from the Himalayan foothills to the Deccan. The silver punch-marked coins also travelled beyond the Mauryan territory to the Chera, Chola and Pandya kingdoms of south India and to Sri Lanka due to the spread of Buddhism and extensive maritime trade.
Punch-marked coins circulated in North India until approximately the beginning of the first century CE, but lasted three centuries longer in the south, ( until about 300 CE ). In the North, after the fall of the Maurya Empire and the increased influence of the Indo-Greeks, punch-marked coins were replaced by die-struck coins.
Were the punch-marked coins the first coins of the world ? They were certainly among the first and maybe not the first. But what is indisputable is that these punch-marked coins represent a unique type of coin manufacture, unknown in any other part of the world.