Deciphering ancient coins is imperative, half remain unknown

There are coins dating back a thousand years in the Bangladesh National Museum and private coin collections.Courtesy: Professor Bulbul Ahmed of the department of archeology at Jahangirnagar University

It's a small piece of silver with five symbols on one side. It originates in Magadha. Magadha is one of the 16 Mahajanpadas or Great Kingdoms, mentioned in the religious book of the Buddhists, Anguttara Nikaya. It is thought that this kingdom covers Patna in Bihar, Gaya up till Bengal. Several dynasties ruled this area from 545 BC to 600 AD. Most historians and archeologists claim that among the coins of specific empires, the Magdha coins are the most ancient coins that have been found in Bengal.

The book, 'Understanding the Coins of Bengal, Ancient to Early Modern Period', has details on 172 types of symbols used on the coins discovered in this region. In this book authored by Md Shariful Islam and Md Mosharraf Hossain, it is said that these coins were etched with images of the sun, six-spoke wheel, flora and fauna and sometimes even human images.

Inscribed coins of around the same period or even older have been found in at least three places of the Bengal region -- Chandraketugarh of West Bengal, Wari-Bateshwar in Dhaka's northeast, and Bogura's Mahasthangarh. These coins have resemblance to the coins issued by the Magadha's Maurya royal dynasty, but were independent. These had four symbols instead of five. The emblems used repeatedly were wheels, oxen, birds, ploughs, boats, elephants, fish, prawns, the sun at different stages of the day and so on.

Historians have identified all kings from the first ruler king of the Magadha kingdom, Brihadratha, to all the pre- and post-Maurya dynasty rulers. In his book Arthashastra, Chandra Gupta Maurya's minister Kautilya explained how the coins of that era were made. But who were in charge of those three regions of Bengal? What did they look like? Did they have long hair? Were they big made? Dark-skinned or fair? And how were the people of the region? What did they eat? How were their lifestyles? Their wealth?

There is no way to get answers to these questions directly because Bangladesh has no initiative to decipher the inscriptions on the coins that speak about the history of specific times. However, in this day and age, deciphering coin inscriptions has become easier than ever before.

The biggest collection of coins from the different eras of Bengal is at the Bangladesh National Museum. Of the 96,000 artifacts in the museum, 56,000 are coins. There is no clear information on how many coin inscriptions couldn't be deciphered as yet. Managing director of the National Museum, Md Kamruzzaman, said, "Over 50 per cent of the coins haven't been deciphered as yet."

Monirul Huq, the official in charge of the coins and keeper of the history and classical art department, said, "This cannot be specified accurately. There are a few hundred copies of each coin. The inscriptions of probably around 5000 types of coins have not been deciphered." Another source said that the museum authorities have made three catalogues of the deciphered coins. These catalogues have details on the coins and gold coins of ancient Bengal. Outside of this, it has not been possible to decipher other coins and there is hardly any initiative in this regard."

Coins and the history of this region

In 2012 a book was published on the occasion of Bangladesh National Museum's centennial. In the book, Dr Md Rezaul Karim writes in his article on coins and paper currency of Bengal, that a coin is a piece of metal inscribed by the authorities with certain symbols or writing and is exchanged in transactions. In various countries, various eras and in various societies, animal fur, stones, metal pieces and salt were used as mediums of exchange. During the Vedic Age, cows were used in transactions as a medium of exchange, in Harappa and Mohenjodaro they used grains and in Bengal they used paddy.

In the same article it is said that around the same time in Lydia (Turkey), China and India, coins first came into currency in the 7th and 8th century BC. Coins in this region were made of copper and silver. The history of coin usage in Bangladesh is still unclear. Till date the most ancient written records regarding coins are the Mahasthan stone inscriptions. Written in Brahmi and issued during the rule of Asoka, the inscriptions on stone mentioned two coins called gandaka and kakanyika.

There are coins dating back a thousand of years at the Bangladesh National Museum and private collections. Such coins are generally quietly collected by certain persons who sell these to the national museum or to private collectors. They are particularly cautious so as to evade being harassed by the law enforcement.

Nurul Islam (94) has a private coin collection. Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said, "We have people around the ancient settlements. It often happens that they find a gold coin and go to a gold shop. The gold shop people understand and inform us." But that does not always happen. There are instances when the gold coin has been melted down and made into ornaments.

Sometimes common people have unearthed coins while digging their land. With the help of the local administration, they come up to the national museum. Quite a few gold coins of the Abbasid Caliphate were found while digging up the land in a certain homestead, said officials of the national museum.

Why it is important to decipher coins

Silver coins of the 3rd century BC were found at Wari-Bateshwar in Narsingdi near Dhaka. The coins were etched with images of fish, boats, elephants and birds.

A thousand years later, when Bangladesh won independence in 1971, artist KG Mustafa designed the first coins of the independent country. First as emblems on the taka and later on the 1 paisa, 5 paisa, 10 paisa, 25 paisa and 50 paisa coins, he chose Bangabandhu's image and then items to represent Bangladesh such as paddy, rivers, boats, jute, water lilies, rural Bangladesh and people.

While I was writing this report, colleague Monoj Dey took out a coin from the pen holder on his desk. On one side of the coin was Bangladesh's national emblem water lily surrounded by sheaves of paddy, jute and four stars. On the other side was Jamuna Multipurpose Bridge. From the symbols used on this coin it can be understood that this is a riverine, agrarian country and jute is one of our main industries. We have four fundamental pillars (nationalism, secularism, socialism and democracy). And the bridge symbolises development and progress.

Coin experts say there is no alternative to deciphering coin inscriptions to get an understanding of a country. It is imperative for the inscriptions on the coins of the national museum to be deciphered. This will give a clear picture of the history of Bengal, the evolution of this country's society and economy, and trade relations with other settlements and countries.

It is not possible on the part of the museum alone to decipher the inscriptions on such a massive number of coins. This needs partnership with local and foreign researchers. No initiative was taken to this end

What prevents deciphering coins?

Speaking to Prothom Alo, coin collector engineer Nurul Islam said, former director general of Bangladesh National Museum Dr Enamul Haque had collected the largest number of coins. He was in charge of the museum for long. Later a few officials who were multilingual worked here. They made an effort at deciphering coins, but later that initiative was stalled. The sack in which the coins were kept was never opened.

However, talking to the national museum authorities and independent experts, it seems that this task never gained pace due to excessive caution, lack of initiative and also the lack of skilled persons. The history and classical art department of the university is in charge of the collection, preservation and deciphering of coins. A team of three or four carries out the task of collecting, preserving and deciphering the coins. Head of the team, Munirul Huq, has a post graduate degree in Farsi. He has significant contribution to deciphering the inscription of the Sultani coins of the Bengal Sultanate. Two officials had worked before him. One of them has retired and the other met an untimely death.

It is not possible on the part of the museum alone to decipher the inscriptions on such a massive number of coins. This needs partnership with local and foreign researchers. No initiative was taken to this end.

The national museum is enmeshed in bureaucracy. It was learnt that the museum follows certain rules in collecting ancient coins. For example, if coins are recovered anywhere, members of the museum often go to the site themselves.  Sometimes the interested party brings the coins to them. A nine-member committee is formed to scrutinise the coins and verify the authenticity of the coins. Then, based on the approval of an 18-member committee, the museum accepts the coins.

An official, on condition of anonymity, told Prothom Alo, after the museum accepts the coins, these are kept in a bag marked with an accession number. If anyone wants to carry out research of the coins, they have to use the accession number. They have to submit an application to the authorities and then in the presence of a number of officials, the bag is untied.

The question is, how will historians or archeologists know the accession number of the coins? If the national museum had good intentions, they could opt for digitalisation. Then local and foreign researchers could gather primary information from the website. Now all they can see are the museum officials. Former director general of the website Faizul Latif Chowdhury said that this was digitalised during his tenure, but this was later taken over by a2i. He does not know what happened after that.

Excessive caution can also be a deterrent. Officials say that once there had been initiative to hold an exhibition of the national museum's artifacts in France. But before they could even reach there, to archeological artifacts went missing. There have even been instances of coins going missing. That is why those who take charge of the museum do not want to deviate from their routine duties.

Joining the dots of history

Archeologist and Jahangirnagar University Professor Bulbul Ahmed and Mohammad Abu Al Hasan have written a paper, 'Kushan Coins From Bangladesh: A Preliminary Study."

Large regions of the Indian subcontinent (excepting Bengal) were under the Kushan empire. This nomad race of China had been driven from their homeland and settled in Afghanistan and Tajikistan in 135 BC. Their empire stretched from the Aral Sea to Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and on to Benaras and Sanchi in the east of North India. Kujula Kadphises was the founder of this empire.

Five copper coins of issued by this emperor were found in Bangladesh. Three were discovered in Cumilla and the source of the other two was not known.  Seventeen coins of the second emperor of this dynasty, Vima Kadphises, and gold, silver, copper coins of the second emperor Kanishka, and gold, silver and copper coins of Huviska were found. These coins recovered in Cumilla and Bogura's Mahasthangarh are inscribed with images of the emperors in various posed adorned in royal garb.

Greek, Zoroastrian, Iranian and Indian deities appeared on the coins of this period. The language on these coins were Greek, Brahmi and Kharosthi. The writing was like Chinese, reading from top to bottom, not from left to right like Bangla script.

The Kushans never ruled undivided Bengal. What connection did they have with the people of this region? Perhaps it was trade. What link did they have with Cumilla or Mahasthangarh? Who would rule the Cumllia region at the time? Nothing has been found out as yet.

The history of coins in Bengal is very ancient, long before the birth of Christ. Shashanka, the independent ruler of Bengal and Gauda (8 AD), issued gold coins too. In his absence, the next 100 years saw extreme anarchy in this region, known as the Matsyanyayam period. After the Pala dynasty was (750-1161 AD) was founded, peace and stability reigned in the region. The Sena dynasty ruled after the Palas.

Bangladesh National Museum may have brought out a catalogue on coins of the ancient eras, but these are not complete catalogues. Academic methodology was not followed in deciphering the coin inscriptions. Also, the coins embellished with images of our local settlements demand more attention
Bulbul Ahmed, Professor of the department of archeology, Jahangirnagar University

There remains a dilemma as to whether the Palas and the Senas issued coins or not. Most historians and archeologists say that no coins of the Pala and Sena dynasties have been found. However, archeologist KN Dikshit claims that four coins found in Paharpur of Naogaon are of the Pala dynasty.

At the same time, though, gold and silver coins were in currency in the plains of the southeast Samatata region of Bangladesh. Coins were in use at that time in the Harikal of Chattogram region too. Harikal silver coins were found in Mainamati of Cumilla, in Chattogram and in Sylhet. It is still not known who issued these coins.

Curator of the National Museum's department of history and classical art Munirul Huq said that deciphering coin inscriptions can turn historic narratives upside down. Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said that those who issued coins in the Sultani era were considered to be powerful. It is said that during their time the economic conditions were good. There were also conceptions that Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah did not issue any coins. Later gold coins stamped with his name were found in the Sylhet region.

Similarly, it had been believed that Fakhruddin Shah had no offspring. Later, when coins stamped with the name Ikhtiar Uddin Gazi Shah were unearthed, it was leant that he was Fakhruddin Shah's son. Ikhtiar issued gold coins too.

Officials of the national museum, archeologists and researchers all believe that deciphering coin inscriptions can play a role in joining the dots of history, discovering lost links.

Museum makes a commitment

Speaking to Prothom Alo, the national museum's director general Md Kamruzzaman said they will make a Museum makes a commitment'smart' museum. As part of this, they will install CCTV cameras in the archives. But the main problem was a lack in skilled personnel. They have brought out a few catalogues and will bring out more. They have taken initiative to expand the area where the coins are on display. The visitors will not get to view a greater number of coins.

However, all the officials are speaking of the future. For example, they say that the museum will take initiative to work on coins of the British period of the neighbouring Tripura kingdom. But it is still not known if coins of the Portuguese or the French are tucked away somewhere in the depths of the archives. No one knows when all this will be found out.

Meanwhile, professor of Jahangirnagar University's department of archeology Bulbul Ahmed said, "Bangladesh National Museum may have brought out a catalogue on coins of the ancient eras, but these are not complete catalogues. Academic methodology was not followed in deciphering the coin inscriptions. Also, the coins embellished with images of our local settlements demand more attention. The neighbouring states have gone way ahead in identifying the ancient coins of the local settlements."

* Sheikh Sabiha Alam is assistant editor of Prothom Alo [email protected]

* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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