Iconic coins and currencies on display at National Museum exhibition

Gupta, Roman and Islamic coins and shared currencies of India & Pakistan and East & West Germany feature in ‘India and the World’ exhibition


New Delhi, June 26: Pint-sized coins, with niggardly transactional value, may now be falling out of circulation but in olden times, these were not only a legal tender but also an instrument for kings across the world to assert their power, establish the sweep of their kingdoms, and advertise their faith and legitimacy.

Some of these coins of exquisite craftsmanship are currently on display as part of a landmark international exhibition, ‘India and the World: A History in Nine stories’, at National Museum here.

Besides coins, the exhibition also displays some iconic currency notes which reveal loads of information on nation building, statecraft and politics of the time, such as the shared currencies of India and Pakistan immediately after Independence and of West and East Germany after the Second World War. There are also banknotes on the Cuban independence.  

The nine-gallery exhibition, with one section devoted to coinage, has been jointly mounted by National Museum, New Delhi; the British Museum, London; Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai; and some 20 private collections. On display are 104 extraordinary works of art from the Indian subcontinent in dialogue with 124 exquisite pieces from the British Museum.

Overall, the exhibition showcases  31 historic coins and 16 currency notes, and a number of them, lent by the British Museum, are on display for the first time in India. These include Gupta gold coins (dinar), Roman gold coins, Pallava copper coins, Chinese copper coins, and Islamic coins as also shared banknotes of India and Pakistan and the first currency on Cuban independence.  

National Museum Director General Dr. B R Mani said the coins and currencies on display are truly historic.  “Traditionally, coins are merely viewed as representations of trade and commerce.  The exhibition offers the visitors an opportunity to view these coins and banknotes through a political prism though these were also a potent visual language of faiths of kings. With exhibitions like this, museums can rekindle interest of the current generation in coins and numismatics,” he added.

From the Gupta kings in India to Roman, Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire), Sassanian (last Persian Empire before the rise of Islam) and Aksumite rulers (100 AD-900 AD in now northern Ethiopia), coinage was the medium, besides military strength and administrative control, to publicise their faith, which helped them to assert their legitimacy by claiming descent from a god or having divine sanction to rule.

The kings of Gupta dynasty (A D 320–550), which ruled over large swathes of the subcontinent, issued gold coins (dinar) which had a Hindu deity on one side and the ruler on the other. This visual representation of their religion was a potent tool to advertise the king’s faith. Thus, on several Gupta coins, there are images of Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s bird mount, or his consort Goddess Lakshmi.

Such a coinage practice was followed by the Pallava and Chalukya rulers in the south, even if the image of the ruler was absent. A copper coin (AD 550–620) of the Pallavas shows a humped bull (Nandi, the mount of Lord Shiva) and on its reverse is the wheel, which symbolized the chakravartin or universal monarch. But it is also a symbol of Lord Vishnu, and it was a proof that kingship was bolstered by faith.

Outside India, this approach was employed by Roman and Byzantine kings as well as Sassanian and Aksumite rulers, who sought to demonstrate their personal relationship with the divine as a means to enhance their authority.

When the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the early fourth century AD and most of the subsequent kings adopted it as their personal faith, they showed their Christian allegiance on their coins to spread the message that Christianity was the new state religion. A coin of Romulus Augustulus (AD 475–76), the last Roman emperor in the West, shows his portrait on one side and a Christian cross on the other. However, the Christian cross was showed for the first time on the coinage of Aksumite rulers (100 AD-900 AD).

What signalled a major change in the coinage practice was the arrival and expansion of Islam in the Middle East in the 7th century AD. Coins began to be minted without representations of kings and religious symbols but with texts from the Qur’an representing the word of God instead. This new style of coinage had an underpinning message that the word of God, not the ruler, was the paramount power in the empire. Consequently, Muslim rulers were not depicted on the coins.

But coins minted in China did not carry images of rulers or religious symbols. Instead, they bear inscriptions confirming their economic value and legitimacy.

As for currencies, the exhibition displays a Cuban one peso paper note (AD 1879), which has been lent by the British Museum. It was printed before Cuba gained independence from Spain, and became the first way for that country to express its identity as a free nation. 

Equally fascinating is the first note issued by the RBI in 1938 with a portrait of King George VI, and this design continued in British India. Immediately after Partition, Pakistan continued using RBI notes with a superinscription, which read ‘Government of Pakistan’ in English and Urdu. India also used these notes until 1949, when the first one-rupee note for independent India was released with the national emblem, the Ashoka Lion Capital.

Likewise, when Germany was divided into East and West after the Second World War, the first currencies issued by the two countries in 1948 were one-mark notes. West Germany, led by the US, later introduced a new currency. To counter it, the Soviets introduced a rival currency, the Ostmark in East Germany, signalling the completion of Germany’s division.

The nearly two-month-long exhibition, which began on May 5, will conclude on Saturday, June 30.

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