Written by Namrata Sarmah, Project Curator, Directorate of Museums, Government of Assam (India, ITP Fellow 2018)
The study of coins is called Numismatics. Coins are a crucial source for tracing the past. This is because often very crucial historical details are inscribed on the coins. This includes the kings or rulers who issued them, details about their reign and life, details about their contemporary society, religion and economic conditions. Often, coins enable us to fix the chronology of ruler and dynasties.
In 1953, a coins cabinet was set up in Assam State Museum. Currently it contains more than 6000 coins. The lion’s share of the coins were handed over by Kamarupa Anusandhan Samiti, also known as Assam Research Society. It was an organisation established in 1912 by scholars interested in the past heritage of Assam. While this cabinet includes coins from the Sultanate and Mughal period and Princely States, today my focus will be on the coinage of the Ahom State and its neighbouring states in the North-Eastern region of India.
Ahom coins are primarily gold and silver coins. While some of them being exhibited in the Museum, a certain section has also been kept in the reserve. The major details inscribed in these coins are: the names of the rulers and their fathers, the dates on which the coins were issued, and the royal insignia of the dynasties to which the rulers belonged. Most of the coins belong to the Ahom kings of the later period, such as Shiva Singha, Rajeshwar Singha, Lakhsmi Singha and Gaurinath Singha. Some coins also mention the names of the Queens, which is indicative of the higher status of the women during these times.
The majority of the Ahom coins are octagonal in shape. There are numerous different interpretations on why this particular shape was chosen. The most commonly accepted interpretation is that it represented the eight different sides of the Ahom Kingdom. In addition, cowries were also used as a medium of exchange during Ahom rule. As cowries are primarily procured from seas, they were rarely available locally. These had to be imported from the islands and atolls of the Indian Ocean via Bengal. The one disadvantage that cowries possessed was that they were circulated in numbers. This made carrying them a bulky process for bigger trade and transactions. This was resolved by using coins instead of cowries. The values of coins were determined by weighing them against cowrie shells.
Nonetheless, the word ‘cowrie’ still persisted in Assamese language to refer to currency. Often, the the term Futa Cowrie (Cowrie with a hole) is used to denote a meagre sum. Cowries were also used during the British period. In fact, the term Futa Cowrie has come from from a circular coin with a hole issued during World War II.
We also possess numerous coins from the Naga Hills, currently the state of Nagaland. They are called Jabilees and are elongated in shape. They were weighed against the two most prized possession in the region during the medieval period: slaves and mithuns. Slavery was prevalent in the period, and slaves formed a crucial part of the economy of the hills. On the other hand, the animal Mithun also known as Gayal, was important for agriculture, for its meat, and also as a gift in rituals. 50 Jabilees were equal to one slave and 100 Jabilees were equal to one Mithun. It is interesting to note that the value of one Mithun was twice that of an enslaved person. In addition to the Naga hills, coins from the neighbouring kingdoms of Tripura and Jaintia are also on display.
So, we can see that the coinage of the medieval North-East India have been quite well preserved and documented in the Museum. Researchers have regularly consulted these coins to shed more light on the history and heritage of the region. And for the common public, these coins open up a window through which we may have a glimpse of the past heritage of our region.