Coins of ancient India
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Ancient Indian Coins

image of an elephant and some writing
Harappan seal ca. 2000 BC

About 2500 BC, people in northern India began to use seals to mark their possessions not long after their neighbors in West Asia, from whom they probably got the idea.

skinny tall coin
Early Indian coin, ca. 600 BC

The first metal coins also probably came from West Asia, but again Indian traders were not far behind. By around 600 BC, in the time of the Vedic expansion, Indian traders and manufacturers were minting these long, skinny coins, and square coins, to make trade easier. But for a long time people also used cowrie shells as money, as they did all across Africa, Southeast Asia, and China.

green bronze coin
Coin of Ashoka

Gradually due to a shortage of cowrie shells, people in India (and elsewhere) turned more and more to metal coins. The Silk Road led people to decide on regular sizes and shapes (round or square) for coins all over Europe and Asia; the Sogdians and Seleucids minted standard coins north and west of India starting around 300 BC. The first standard coins minted in India are those of the Mauryan Empire's ruler Ashoka, about 250 BC.

gold coin
Coin of Chandragupta, 300s AD

By the time of the Guptan Empire in the 300s AD, the Indian kings were minting coins just like the coins of the Parthians to their west, or the Sogdians to their north with the king on one side and Hindu gods on the other side.

square bronze coin with elephant
South Indian coin (ca. 1100 AD)

During the early Middle Ages, western Indian traders often used Byzantine gold coins, which were good quality coins and easily available because there was so much trade with the Romans. But after the Islamic invasion of northern India about 1000 AD, the coins used there gradually lose their images (because Islam forbids images) and have Arabic writing on them.

Learn by doing: making Greek coins
More about the Indian economy

Bibliography and further reading about the ancient Indian economy:

Arab Seafaring Eyewitness India Ancient India

Arab Seafaring: In the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Early Medieval Times, by George Hourani and John Carswell (2002). For adults, a time-tested account of trade between India and the Arabian Peninsula.

Eating India: An Odyssey into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices , by Chitrita Banerji (2007). Not a cookbook, but a discussion of food in India, for grown-ups.

Eyewitness India, by Manini Chatterjee (2002). Written for kids.

Ancient India, by Virginia Schomp (2005). Written for teens. Very good for reports.

More about the Indian economy
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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