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Images courtesy CoinIndia.com
Images courtesy CoinIndia.com

Deciphering history, one coin at a time

Pankaj Tandon, an accidental numismatist, is breathing life into forgotten kingdoms and solving historical puzzles with the help of ancient currency

Pankaj Tandon, a Harvard-trained economist, is a numismatist by calling. Poring over inscriptions and icons on old Indian coins, the academic has gathered enough evidence to put one forgotten dynasty on the Silk Route—the ancient trade route between the East and West—back on the map. And he is working on finding details about well-known dynasties as well—all from coins.

The detour into history was unplanned. Originally, the economist viewed ancient Indian coins simply as an investment. The price of cultural memorabilia is relatively low in developing countries, says Tandon, who teaches economics at Boston University. 

“As the country becomes wealthier—its value skyrockets," he says.

Back in the 1990s, India looked to be poised for growth. In 1998, Tandon bought his very first coin, which was probably issued around the time of Asoka the Great. But he learned that the Maurya dynasty had minted millions of coins, and many survived—so the coin was not as rare as he had thought.

As Tandon learned more, he created the virtual museum CoinIndia.com to promote an appreciation of coins from the subcontinent. Indian coinage goes back a long way—the first coins appeared about 2,500 years ago near present-day Patna. The designs, which evolved over time, reveal many influences—from Ancient Greece, Rome and Persia. So, plenty of variety here.

Upinder Singh, head of the history department at the University of Delhi, says that in the virtual museum, the quality of the images is excellent and the text is reliable and informative. Cataloguing close to 2,000 coins for CoinIndia was a good learning experience, says Tandon.

But serious collectors don’t just want to know about coins—they want to be able to read the inscriptions by themselves. That can be challenging.

Unlike today’s machine-made currency, coins struck by hand could be missing critical parts of the inscription that reveal who issued it, when and why. A scholar of ancient Indian coins would have to read inscriptions in Greek, the extinct Kharosthi script and Brahmi, the mother of most modern Indian scripts.

Mystery coin

All this could make deciphering ancient coins akin to solving crossword puzzles. Tandon happens to be a crossword aficionado. “I never consign my copy of New York Times to the recycling bin till I have solved the puzzles," he says. 

Thanks to his training in mathematics, Tandon knew the Greek alphabet. “We all do, from studying mathematics and science in school," he says matter-of-factly. He taught himself to read Kharosthi and Brahmi.

So, what can old coins tell us? Details that corroborate recorded facts and, occasionally, lead to a rewrite of some chapters in history textbooks.

Take, for instance, a numismatic puzzle that Tandon cracked recently. In 1851, a hoard of gold coins was found near the holy city of Varanasi. They were issued by the Guptas, who ruled from the 4th to the 6th centuries CE. The Guptas stamped coins with their given names on the front and an assumed name ending with “aditya" on the back.

On two of the coins in the hoard, scholars were able to read only the king’s assumed name—Prakasaditya—but they assumed that these, too, were Gupta coins. Without the given name, however, they were left with a bunch of questions. Which Gupta king was this Prakasaditya? When did he rule?

Other specimens of the coin have been found since, but not one had that particular king’s name in its entirety.

Six years ago, when Tandon took on the challenge of finding the king’s identity, colleagues gave him the best images they had. He pieced the puzzle together—a missing letter here, another clue there—but it wasn’t quite enough.

Then, Tandon spent the 2011-12 academic year in India on a Fulbright-Nehru fellowship, teaching microeconomics at St Stephen’s College, his alma mater. One weekend, on a hasty, behind-the-scenes tour of a museum in Uttar Pradesh, he took pictures of their coin collection. Later, he realized he had some pictures of the mystery coin as well. One image had the missing letters.

The king was no Gupta; he was Toramana, the Hun ruler.

In light of this unexpected find, there are new questions for historians to grapple with. What were the coins of an arch-rival doing in the heart of the Gupta empire? How were the Huns responsible for the precipitous decline of the Guptas, in the second half of the fifth century?

The economist in the numismatist

Sometimes, coins spell out clear-cut answers that have resonances in today’s world. Take the case of the hoard of coins found in Balochistan, in present-day Pakistan, issued by the Paratarajas. These kings, who issued copper coins with legends in Kharosthi, and silver coins with legends in Brahmi, have won a mention in the Mahabharata.

Tandon soon drew up a list of the Parataraja kings who, in all likelihood, ruled from around 125 to 300 AD. The discovery of the hoard had put the all-but forgotten kingdom of Paradan back on the map, but his work turned it into a living breathing place.

Curious about the source of the kingdom’s wealth, Tandon scoured ancient texts and concluded that the Paratarajas owed their prosperity to international trade. One export was a fragrant plant that grew in abundance in the arid desert. It was prized by Romans for perfumery.

Around 225 AD, civil wars raged in Rome. As if on cue, the coinage of the Paratarajas went from silver to copper, signifying declining fortunes.

The Roman economy was the biggest in the world, just like the US’s is today. A recession in Rome must have led to recession in India, Tandon hypothesizes. “Globalization may not be the modern phenomenon we think it is," he points out.

The crossover has happened—Tandon has transitioned from collector of coins to a researcher. And as he had predicted, the price of ancient Indian coins is going up in the market. Indian dealers, who once came to sell coins at top New York auctions, now buy coins instead, as they fetch a handsome price back home.

These days, when Tandon can’t get a coin he has set his sights on, he tells himself that all he needs for his research is a high-resolution image. Truth is, though, he doesn’t seem entirely convinced by his own argument.

Much after they outlived their original use, coins—sturdy pieces of metal that they are—are like snapshots of history, waiting to be deciphered. When diligent scholars get access to coins, we could end up learning interesting things about our collective past.

The British Museum in London and the National Museum in New Delhi have the largest collections of coins from some of the greatest empires of India. Many coins from ancient India now belong to private collectors and are all but inaccessible to the world at large.

Someday, Tandon hopes, his coins will be displayed in a brick-and-mortar museum, ideally in India, their place of origin.

Vijee Venkatraman originally reported on Pankaj Tandon’s work for Boston University Research.

Vijee is a freelance science journalist based in Boston. Her Twitter handle is @vijeescijo

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