Thoughts on economics and liberty

The role of private guilds and the king in the issue of coins in ancient India

I’m trying to figure out the origin of Indian coins and money. This is a placeholder post.


owrie shells, found abundantly in the Indian Ocean, were among the earliest forms of currency used in the world. In India, they were colloquially referred to as kaudi and were used in certain areas like Odisha even until the early 1800s. [Source]


In the Artha the general term for coin is rupa from which the modern name `rupya’ (in English ‘rupee’) is evidently derived. [SOURCE]


one kahapana was equal to twenty masakas; therefore one pada was equal to five masakas. By this standard it is to be understood that, in all the provinces, the quarter of the kahapana is a pada. [Source]

PRE-INDEPENDENCE COINS – much more recent

256 Damri = 192 Pie = 128 Dhela = 64 Paisa = 16 Anna = 1 Rupya [Source]

Before the ‘Naya Paisa’ was introduced in 1957, a rupee had 64 paisas in it. There used to be 4 paisas in an Anna, making 16 Annas in a rupee. (Giving rise to idioms such as ‘Solahon Anne sahi’.) And paisa used to be so valuable that further divisions were required:

1 Taka = 2 paise/ 2p brass coin

1 Dhela=1/2 paisa

1 Chhadaam/Tukda=1/4 paisa

1 Damdi=1/8 paisa

1 Daam=1/24 paisa

1 Kaudi=1/80 paisa [Source]

Some residual terms from old money:

एक ‘फूटी कौड़ी’ भी नहीं दूंगा।

‘धेले’ का काम नहीं करती हमारी बहू !

चमड़ी जाये पर ‘दमड़ी’ न जाये।

‘पाई-पाई’ का हिसाब रखना।

सोलह ‘आने’ सच।


Mintage by guilds continued even when kings took over the minting function:

“The references of different types of coins are found in the Bauddha and Jaina literautres. The Jatakas (Jat) or Buddha’s birth stories of the 6th or 7th century B.C. are the important sources to know about the conditions before the origin of Buddhism.’ The BI- tales refer to different classes of coins which were current in India at the early period.”… “in the 6th – 7th century B.C., in ancient India, three types of gold coins were current:- niska, suvarna and suvarna masaka.” [Source]

“at the time of Kautilya the system of coinage was in vogue. Regular trade carried out on coined money, salaries in the medium of pana, and fines etc. existed there.”[Source]

“This indicates that currencies other than the official ones were prevalent. There was also provision for the big merchants or merchant guilds to get their coins with their own marks stamped elsewhere than at the royal mint.” [Source]


Money started through private initiative in India, as was the case all over the world. There was a period when kings started certifying the quality of coins, and thereafter, in due course, took over the function completely.


[Sanjeev: these are somewhat different from the “received” literature, and need to be further explored. The entire timeline of Indian history could potentially be affected by Sanjay’s research]

Roots of the Guild or Shreni system can be traced back to Indus era, for it was a manufacturing and trading community. From the Indus seals we can guess that the seals were meant to inform the origin, and name of the goods and the price. The later coins of Mahajanpada era too were incorporated certain information in symbolic form, such as, the name of the mint, issuing guild etc.

Nigams (shrenies) were authorized  to issue coins too, which abundantly have found in excavations from Gandhar region to south India. Rather in Janpada era till Gupta era the issuance authority of the coins were the guilds. Every guild had their own unique trademark associated with the symbol of their kingdom (Janpada) or Gana’s.

during this Satvahana-Kushana era, on coins and in inscriptions we find mention of non-Vedic deities like Shiva, Kumara etc.and tantric symbolism, there is no trace of any Vedic deity or Vedic symbolism

Merchant Guilds had the authority to mint the coins and issue them. All the coins we have from the 4th Century BC onward were issued by the merchant Guilds and not the king. Mauryan kings too didn’t issue their coins.

In Maharashtra, from copper plates and rock inscriptions, we know about the villages of the Cobblers, Jaggary makers, Weavers etc. The artisans, specialized in certain crafts,  together would form Shreni, elect their President and other office bearers to represent them to protect their professional interests and account keeping as Craft guilds would provide loans or accept deposits from the member craftsmen and the public. The Kings too have seen to deposit their money on interest with the guilds. Rishabhadutta, Son-in-law of Nahapana, too had invested in two guilds of the weavers. Mandsor (old Dashpura) inscription of Kumargupta (I) details the activities of the Guilds of those times. According to inscription, the control of the manufacturing and trade was the domain of the guilds.

Guilds would donate to the temples or Buddhist or Jain sanctuaries. Mathura inscription (2nd century AD) refers to the two permanent endowments of 550 silver coins each with two guilds to feed Brahmins and the poor from out of the interest money.

India was the main exporter of the luxury items to the Roman Empire and earned huge profits. A large number of coins of this period those of the Indo-Greeks, Sakas, Parthians, Kushanas, indigenous rulers and tribal republics, cities and guilds have been found, some in hoards. It indicates a greater circulation of money-economy and fairly advancement of trade and commerce, in which guilds must have played a significant role.

In the Gupta era too, guilds, whether merchant or craft, remained prominent, but it seems that the authority to issue coins was withdrawn. We do not find coins issued by the guilds during Gupta era.  banking activities, accepting deposits and advancing loans, of the guilds gradually shifted towards select Vaishnavait temples. Though the artisans and merchants, along with farmers were prosperous in this era too, foundation of the guilds started weakening.


Guilds in Ancient India (Antiquity and Various Stages in the Development of Guilds upto AD 300) – Kiran Kumar Thaplyal (download)

Perhaps the punch-marked coins in earlier stages were issued by rich merchants and guilds, may be with the permission of the state.(V.A. Smith, Catalogue of the Coins in the Indian Museum, I, p.133.). Since the state earned a sizable income from taxation through guilds, it naturally provided facilities to them by maintaining roads for transport of merchandise and perhaps (Sanjeev: this is not the way of science. There needcs to be evidence. It is almost certain that loans were made the other wayalso granted subsidies and loans to them. Some prosperous merchants, as members of the guilds, or otherwise, must have extended financial support to kings in times of emergency. [Sanjeev: this is certain, as it is substantiated in Arthashastra]

The decline of the Mauryan empire (c. 200 Bc) led to political disintegration and laxity in state control over guilds, allowing them better chances to grow. Epigraphs from Safichi, Bharhut, Bodhgaya, Mathura and sites of western Deccan refer to donations made by different craftsmen and traders. Guilds of flour-makers, weavers, oil-millers, potters, manufacturers of hydraulic engines, corn-dealers, bamboo-workers, etc. find mention in epigraphs.”

The period witnessed the elucidation of the seasonality and seasonal changes in wind direction of the south-west monsoon (c. AD 46), leading to closer commercial intercourse with the Roman empire in which Indian merchants earned huge profits. The find of a large number of coins of the period indicates progress in money-economy, so vital for the development of trade and industry. The evidence of the Manusmriti and the Yaffiavalkyasmriti shows an increase in the authority of guilds in comparison to earlier periods. Epigraphic evidence of the period refers to acts of charity and piety of the guilds (below) as also their bank-like functions (below). There is evidence to show that large merchant guilds had some control over small craft guilds.”


[Sanjeev: If Arthashastra was written during the Mauryan era, as some argue, then the Sanjay’s theory of private coinage till Gupta dynasty doesn’t hold true. However, Sanjay argues that Arthashastra is a later book, just preceding the Gupta dynasty. This suggests that the centralisation of coinage was taking place around the second century AD, possibly motivated by similar centralisation that was occurring in Europe].


The coin most often mentioned in the text is the pana, which is subdivided as follows: sixteen mashakas to a pana and four kakanis to a mashaka. The coinage in circulation was: silver coins of one, half, quarter and one-eighth pana and copper coins of one mashaka, half a mashaka, one kakani and half a kakani. An indication of how much a pana was worth is given in I.iii. The value of the coinage was sought to be maintained by stringent punishments for counterfeiting. A special official, the Coin Examiner certified the genuineness of coins {2.5.10}, collected the taxes and charges on coinage and punished those who bought, sold or examined coins {2.12.25}. The punishment for bringing counterfeit money into the storehouse was the Lowest Standard Penalty, for making it or putting it into circulation 1000 panas and for paying it into the government treasury, death {2.5.12, 4.1.48}. The detection of counterfeiting is also dealt with {4.4.20,21}.



The Chief Master of the Mint shall be responsible for the

(i) minting of silver coins, made up of [an alloy consisting of] 11/16th part silver, 1/4th part copper and 1/16th part hardening metal (such as iron, tin, lead or antimony) in the following denominations—one pana, 1/2 pana, 1/4 pana and 1/8 pana [the weight of each coin being proportional to its value.]

(ii) minting of copper coins, made up of [an alloy consisting of] three-quarters copper and one-quarter hardener, in the denominations



The Examiner of Coins shall

(i) be responsible for certifying that the coins used in trade and commerce as well as those used for making payments into the Treasury

(ii) levy the charges for his services as follows:

(iii) ensure that no new coin is put into circulation unless all charges and taxes have been paid; {4.1.45}

(iv) levy and collect the fines for illegal minting of coins, buying or selling them or certifying their genuineness; {4.1.48}

(v) Discipline:

The Examiner of Coins shall not reject genuine coins or certify spurious ones as genuine; if he does so, he shall be fined 12 panas. {4.1.44}

He shall not put a new coin into circulation on payment of [only] a one masha per pana [i.e. paying only 1/16th or 6 1/4%; the correct fee is 13 1/ 8%, adding up vyaji, testing fee and coining fee]. If he does so, he shall be fined on a pro rata basis of 12 panas for every pana. {4.1.46,47}


[Throughout the text the currency almost always used is a pana, a silver coin; in {5.2.17-22}, there is mention of ‘kara’ which, from the context, seems also to mean a pana. Half, quarter and one-eighth pana silver coins were also in circulation. There were sixteen mashakas to a pana and four kakanis to a mashaka. There were one mashaka, half a mashaka, one kakani and half-kakani copper coins. The smallest coin was, therefore, one hundred and twenty-eighth the value of the highest. More details about coinage, testing coins, charges payable to the Treasury and punishments for counterfeiting will be found in VII.iv under the Chief Master of the Mint and the Examiner of Coins.

What was the pana worth? According to the salary list in 5.3, the highest salary paid in cash, excluding perquisites, was 48,000 panas a year and the lowest 60 panas a year. The ratio of the highest salary to the lowest, was eight hundred to one. While we find that, in {3.2.15}, 2000 panas is prescribed as the maximum for a wife’s endowment on marriage, we also see that {2.27.6} the amount payable for redeeming a courtesan in the King’s service was 24,000 panas!

Fixed monetary fines ranged between one-eighth pana to 5000 panas, with 12 or 24 panas being the fine for a large number of offences. However, the three levels of standard fines (explained below) were 48 to 96 panas (lowest SP), 200 to 500 panas (middle SP) and 500 to 1000 panas (highest SP).

The charges for washing clothes {4.1.22} ranged from one or two mashakas for rough white fabrics to one pana for delicate garments needing special care. For normal work, silversmiths were paid one-sixteenth of the metal worked, goldsmiths one eighth and base metal workers five per cent {4.1.32-35}

Four and a quarter panas was the reward for bringing in a pair of tusks of an elephant dying naturally {2.2.9}. The reward for saving someone from a wild animal was 12 panas {4.3.32}.

A more direct indication of the value of a pana in relation to the cost of living is in {5.3.34}; an annual salary of 60 panas could be substituted by an adhaka of grain per day, enough for four meals for one Arya male {2.15.43}. However, in {2.24.28}, the wages of cowherds, labourers and watchmen is prescribed as food in accordance with the number of persons dependant on the workman and, in addition, a monthly wage of one and a quarter panas (i.e. 15 panas per annum). Thus, a cash wage of 60 panas a year may be considered as adequate for a family of normal size of the lowest paid. The other criteria, such as the endowment for a wife or a courtesan’s ransom, must have applied to the relatively better off and the richest in the land.

Given the fact of a cash wage of 5 panas a month for the lowest paid, the pana was, indeed, a valuable coin; the kakani and the mashaka were, perhaps, the coins which most people ever saw or used.]

Counterfeiters and adulterators of precious metals:

A counterfeiter can be identified by (i) his frequent purchase of metals, chemicals, bellows, pincers, vices, anvils, dies, chisels and crucibles; (ii) having blacksmith’s tools [necessary for making coins] and (iii) clothes and body blackened with smoke, soot and ashes. A secret agent shall join him as an apprentice, gain his confidence and then expose him. A similar technique shall be adopted for exposing those who adulterate precious metals. The punishment is exile for both types. {4.4.20-22}


For new coins issued—a coining fee of 8% of value.


For coins received into the Treasury or certified as genuine 1/8 the of one percent of value.


From this chapter. Download.

In the manufacture of coins under the supervision of the Laksaijadhyaksa or Rupyadhyaksa, metal was first melted in India (crucibles) and cleaned and purified with ksara (alkalis), then the metal was beaten into sheets on an adhikarani (anvil) with the mustika (hammer) and then cut into pieces with sandamsa (clippers) and finally they were stamped with dies or punches having symbols (bimbatarika). In this way coins were manufactured. The coins were round, oval and elliptical in shape.

The Laksanadhyaksa was to issue coins on behalf of the king. The Rapadargaka or the examiner of coins was to examine the acceptability of coins. For the term Rupadargakam, Patanjali uses the term Rupatarka. In the above passage Kautilya mentions different names of coins. As Panini has also mentioned the names of these coins as, papa, pada, masa, etc., it follows that this system of currency was current during the time of Panini and continued to be so during the reign of Chandragupta, till it was replaced by dinara and its subdivisions some time before Patanjali.

For the coins to be used by the public for trade and for receipts in the treasury, the rule was that they were to be punched with three symbols as a certificate of clearance by the Rupadargaka after charging the state taxes on these coins’. Thus the duties of the Rilpadargaka were : (i) to establish the currency after the Laksanadhyaksa had minted the coins of specific purity and denomination in copper and silver (ii) to accept or reject a currency after examining it and (iii) to establish a currency or panayatra after charging certain taxes.

D.R. Bhandarkar traces two references to the type of coin called suvarna masaka in the Jat stories.

It is mentioned in Jat that a professional was paid eight karsapanas as his fee and a nice plump dog was bought for one karsapana.

The weight of the masakas of cheap metals like copper, iron, brass, lead, etc., was determind by their intrinsic value, depending on the current market prices of the metals, as one sixteenth of the standard silver coin. It also explains the impossibility of classifying the punch-marked coins discovered in different parts of India according to any difmite weight standard. There the great diversity in the weight standard of the ancient Indian coins seems also be the fact that the basic masaka weight was not the same in different localities and periods even in regard to the same metal.

The silver coins of the Sakas of Western Indians were in circulation atleast as late as the 5th century A.D. They were known by the name of Rudradamaka. The whole class of the Saka silver coins was known as Rudradamaka after the greatest and most famous of the Saka rulers of Western India, viz., Rudradaman.

punch-marked coins were manufactured as late as the 5th century, long after the other type of coins, sometimes bearing names of kings who issued them, appeared in the field. There is a little doubt that the old-type kartsapanas are the same coins as mentioned in the Visuddhimagga apparently as private issues. The Satavahana kings issued coins of their usual types only in cheap metals like copper, lead, and potin, but at the same time, also the punch-marked coins in silver. The punch-marked coins were in circulation during the Satavahana age, because that age falls,earlier to the days of Buddhaghosa. They were probably private issues.

Some copper coins bore the names of certain localities like Tripuri, Ujjayini, Kaugambi, and Varanasi. It is hardly possible to prove that they were not issued by local bodies pertaining to the places in question. The same is the case with similar coins bearing the word negama (Sanskrit – naigamah) meaning traders or members of an administrative board pertaining to a town. Lumps of copper, known as the Dhabud, were not state issues.


Origin of money in ancient India

Origin of coins

Please follow and like us:
Pin Share

Sanjeev Sabhlok

View more posts from this author
Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial