Resources for collectors - early (1st and 2nd) issue large Magadha karshapanas (ca.550-470 BC)

This page is meant as a resource for collectors, illustrating and discussing 1st and 2nd issue Karshapanas from the ancient Kingdom of Magadha in India. The coins pictured on this particular page are not for sale.

Last modified: December, 2007

If you want to use some of this page or some of the images - please ask first. Please do not copy the information shown here and reproduce it elsewhere.

Go to the catalogue of Series 1 karshapanas (ca.550-470 BC)  | Series 2 karshapanas (ca.470-445 BC)

Brief history of the Haryankas' dynasty of the early Magadha

Magadha Janapada corresponds roughly to the modern areas of Patna and Gaya in south Bihar in India, bound in the north by Ganges, Son in the West, Champa in the east and Vindhyan range in the south. It was one of the original Janapadas of the Buddhist chronicles, and is sometimes called Kikita. Unlike many of the other Janapadas, Magadha was a monarchy, ruled by hereditary monarchs since its' inception in the 7th century BC. The main enemy of Magadha seems to have been Kasala Janapada, which pursued expansionist policies since annexing Kashi Janapada in the sixth century BC.

There is little certain information available on the early rulers of Magadha. The most important sources are the Buddhist Chronicles of Sri Lanka, the Puranas, and various other Buddhist and Jaina texts. 

The first of the historic (more or less) Kings of Magadha was Bhattyia, father of Bimbasara. King Bimbisara is knowns chiefly from the Bufddhist chronicles from Sri Lanka as a good friend of Buddha (who was only five years older than Bimbasara). Siddhartha Gautama (more commonly known as Buddha) himself was born a prince of Kapilavastu in Kosala around 563 BCE and spent a good portion of his life in Magadha, which, as the scene of many incidents in his life, became a holy land. 

Bimbasara was probably the first of the Magadhan kings who led an active and expansive policy, conquering Anga in what is now West Bengal after killing the Angan King Brahmaddatta. Eager to avoid a full-blown was with Magadha's arch-enemy Kasala, Bimbasara entered a marriage alliance with the royal family of Kasala. 

The greatest of the Madgadhan kings was Bimbasara's son - after his death (at the hands of his son Ajatashatru himself), Ajatashatru,  a war between Kosala and Magadha over the Kingdom of Kashi began. The fortunes of Ajatashatru varied from time to time, but the war culminated with the complete defeat of Kasala, and annexation of the vast territories of Kasala, Kashi and Vaisali to Magadha. The exact dates of these events are not known, but by time time Ajatashatru was dead (ca.461 BC) his conquests were complete, and Magadha, now an Empire, became the most powerful force in the Gangetic plains.

The last of the Haryankas, names Nagadasaka, was murdered and succeeded by one Sisunaga (Shishunaga) in 413 BC, and the Sisunaga dynasty ruled Magadha for the next 68 years.

Chronology of the Haryankas kings

A list of kings before the Maurya dynasty according to the Sri Lankan Chronicles The Puranas give a rather different list before the Maurya dynasty with long reigns, making the Śiśunāga dynasty 321 years long

"Accepted" list of Haryankas' Kings 

 Bimbisāra (ruled for 52 years) 
Ajātaśatru (32 years; The Buddha is thought to have died in the 8th year of Ajātaśatru's reign.) 
Udāyin or Udāyibhadra (16 years) 
Anuruddha (c. 4 years) 
Munda (c. 4 years) 
Nāgadāsaka (24 years) 
Śiśunāga (ruled for 40 years) 
Kākavarna (26 years) 
Ksemadharman (36 years) 
Ksemajit or Ksatraujas (24 years) 
Bimbisāra (28 years) 
Ajātaśatru (27 years) 
Darśaka (24 years) 
Udāyin (33 years) 
Nandivardhana (40 years) 
Mahānandin (43 years) 

Bhattya (died 545 BC)

Bimbasara (545-493 BC)

Ajatashatru (493-461 BC)

Udayina (461-445 BC)

Annurudha and Munda (445-437 BC)

Nagadasaka (437-413 BC)

Punchmarked karshapana coinage of the Early Magadha

The earliest coinage was Magadha was based on 11.1-11.5 grams silver shatamana standard, though extremely rare electrum 1/2 shatamanas (1/2 suvarnas?) are known, although their authenticity is doubtful. The original and the dating of this coinage is uncertain at best - they probably originated around 600 BC and were struck for about 50 years.

The second coinage was based on a vishmatika (sometimes called "heavy karshapanas") standard (about 5.5 grams) - it was probably based on the Kasala coinage standard (where vishmatikas were commonly produced). The vishmatika coinage was short-lived, and the few known types are very rare.

After the abolition of the vishmatika coinage (or, perhaps, in parallel with vishmatikas), large silver karshapanas weighing about 3.5 grams each were produced. These coins proved long-lived and popular - the 3.5 gram standard for these silver karshapanas was to last for hundreds of years, until the last punchmarked karshapanas were produced under the Sunga kings in the early 2nd century BC. These large silver karshapanas of the Kingdom of Magadha were among the first truly widespread silver coins on the Indian subcontinent. As Bimbasara and, especially, Ajatashatru, were implementing their policy of expansion, they needed vast amount of coinage to finance the campaigns of conquest and also use them as a replacement for the coinage of the conquered areas. These coinage come in form of punchamarked karshapanas, weighing 3.5 grams, and ranging in side between 19mm and 33mm, and struck on either oval, square and rectangular flan of varying thickness. The earliest (very rare) examples bore 3 or 4 punchmarks, but the type quickly became standardized to show 5 different punchmarks.  

The date when these coins started being issued is most obscure. It is fairly certain that by ca.470 BC the large flat karshapanas such as this coin were replaced by karshapanas of the same weight but struck on smaller, thicker flan. So the tentative dating of these coins is ca.550 BC (when the first coins of this type were produced) until about 470 BC, when they were replaced by type II karshapanas. This page is concerned only with type I karshapanas - type I in Gupta/Hardaker and series 12 in Rajgor, and type II karshapanas, a short-lived issue struck between ca.470 and 445 BC.

Go to the catalogue of Series 1 karshapanas | Series 2 karshapanas

The coins:

As the interest in the early Indian punchmarked coins continues to rise, many new types reach the international numismatic market, and new and unpublished types keep appearing. Many of the coins of this type we sell are not listed in either Rajgor or Gupta-Hardaker, and I thought that making an easily accessible online reference for these karshapanas would be of use to many collectors. The coins catalogued and pictured below show coins that passed through our inventory in the last year or so. If you want to contribute the images of the coins in your collection to this catalogue - you are welcome to do so. Please email them to alex@ancientcoins.ca - I will gladly put them here and will reference you as a contributor. This page will be updated as I attribute and list more of these karshapanas.

The forgeries:

Ancient forgeries: It is fascinating to see that as soon as official coinage appeared, people started faking the coins almost immediately. Fouree karshapanas (silver-plated bronze coins) are known, though they are much more common for series III karshapanas than for series I and II. These coins are very collectible and interesting and they are all rare.

Modern forgeries: The modern forgeries of the very early karshapanas are known, but they are few and far in between. The most common of these forgeries are very large flan oval "coins", showing a large and varying number of punchmarks (unlike the official coins which always show 5 punchmarks), with the same punchmark repeating a number of times. The most prominent of these punchmarks is always a "branch". These fakes do look interesting, but if you keep the basic properties of the authentic punchmarks (correct weight, correct number of punchmarks, only one strike by each punch and the correct style of the punchmarks), these fakes would be easy to avoid.

Until recently these coins were too inexpensive to justify forgery. Now, as the interest in them grows, and the price is growing accordingly, it is only a matter of time until more of these forgeries will appear. The extensive discussion of forgeries lays outside of the scope of discussion on this page - meantime, buying from reputable dealers and avoiding ebay is probably the best course of action one can take in order to avoid purchasing forgeries.

The five symbols

The "standardized" karshapanas of Magadha showed five symbols, though, rarely, a sixth symbol was sometimes added, presumably by mistake (a few such specimens are shown below). The 5 marks were not random in any sense of the word - the frequency of each mark changed differently, allowing for cataloguing of these types. The punchmarks often overlap, especially on smaller karshapanas - correctly identifying the punchmarks is a difficult task, especially for a novice collector. The task becomes easier after one becomes familiar with the expected shape and nature of the punchmarks, which comes only with a lot of practice examining and handling these coins (the first karshapanas I handled drove me INSANE - they simply all looked the same!!! It is not the case anymore :-)

The 5 marks were arranged as follows:

Mark 1: The sun. The mark was never changed (though two types are known - the earliest shown "bent" rays, while the later pieces showed. These marks were in used for almost the entire duration of the karshapana coinage, and were used at different mint, so they could not have represented a single king or mint. It was theorized that the sun was meant to represent the authority of the Magadhan state, guaranteeing the weight and purity of the silver value in the punchmarked karshapanas.

Mark 2: The so-called "six-armed" symbol. It changed only rarely, but about 90 different types are known (only a couple of the most common types are shown here). These symbols were used for a long time, though, and reused at different times, and thus could not have been personal badges as well. These symbols might have been the actual "mintmarks", or symbols representing a geographical area where these coins were produced. The correlation of these "six-armed" symbols to a particular mint or area is impossible at this point, unfortunately, but careful study of hoards might provide the needed data in the future.

most common types

Mark 3-5: These marks were usually changing much faster than marks 1 and 2, with mark 3 changing less than mark 4, and mark 4 changing less than mark 5. Mark 5 was changing very quickly, but it appeared on coins showing different combinations of marks 3 and 4, and might have represented the personal mark of a certain moneyer or celator. The marks are all different - some depict abstract patterns, while many are taken from the nature, depicting various animals (elephants, bulls, birds, fish, alligators etc.)

 

Bankers' marks: In addition to the large 5 marks, many type I karshapanas show one or more small bankers' marks struck on either the obverse or the reverse. In some cases the large number of these bankers' marks completely obliterates the punch-marks. These small marks are not correlated to any particular issues and should not be confused with the "proper" punched symbols. 

 

Overstrikes:

While many of these karshapanas are struck on newly prepared flans, many coins are struck on flattened coins, usually on older issue I karshapanas. Clear overstrikes, where the undertype is recognizable, are of considerable numismatic interest and importance, since such specimens allow for precise placement of a particular type within the series, a task almost impossible to achieve by any other means. A few examples of such overstrikes are shown below.

Further reading and main references:

The information given above is quite brief - if you are interested in learning more about these coins, the best reference is "Ancient Indian Punchmarked Coins of the Magadha-Maurya Karshapana Series", by P.L.Gupta and T.R.Hardaker. The book is very difficult to get, but it is currently the most common and comprehensive reference for Magadhan and Msuryan silver coinage. The other book is "Punch-marked coins of the Early Historic India" by Dilip Rajgor. The book deals with the coinage of all known Janapadas, but has a fairly large section about the early coinage of Magadha.

I also want to thank Mr.Shinji Hirano for generously contributing the images of some coins in his possession for the use in this webpage.

Corrections to the Gupta/Hardaker and Rajgor books:

 

Gupta/Hardaker is a very accurate and comprehensive catalogue, but there are a few errors I came across.


Incorrect (?), as published

Correct

1. For series I XXIII A in Gupta/Hardaker (#160-164), and for the corresponding series 12 number 226-230 in Rajgor, one of the symbols is incorrectly depicted. The "branch" is depicted as having 7 asymmetric leafs   - in reality it is a different branch type, with symmetric 8 branches instead of 7 branches). It is possible that there are two types of these coins, with the 8-leafed type unrecorded, but I doubt this is the case, since all the coins from this series come with an 8-branch symmetric punch. I think it is much more likely that this is a simple error in the Gupta/Hardaker book, and Rajgor reproduced the incorrectly recorded asymmetric 7-branch type (series 12, #226) of the same type as in Gupta/Hardaker.


Incorrect as published

Correct

1. For series II XIV A 3 (and a few unpublished varieties of this series) in Gupta/Hardaker (#287), one of the symbols (the fourth one, symbol number 197, known only for this type) is incorrectly depicted. The "branch" is depicted as having 6 horizontal and symmetric branches, while the real symbol has all 6 branches slightly diagonal, with only two top branches being symmetric. The incorrect and the correct symbols are depicted above.


 

 

Go to the catalogue of Series 1 karshapanas (ca.550-470 BC)  | Series 2 karshapanas (ca.470-445 BC)

 

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