News was shared this week by India’s Customs Commissioner, Sanjay Gahlot, about the seizure of hundreds of antique coins from various ancient and medieval cultures in the region.
Although it remains unclear what the motivation was for bringing the valuable coins into India across the border from Pakistan, the customs authorities say that a special committee will try to determine the countries of origin for each of the more than 500 coins.
Among the 539 coins, a range of bygone empires and cultures are represented. It is still unclear if these coins will ultimately be returned to their respective countries of heritage, but this appears to be the aim of Indian customs. While the reports of the seizure don’t immediately make clear in what way the transport of the coins ran afoul of the law, there are always questions of impropriety when you’re dealing with priceless antique coins.
In many parts of the world, the lucre associated with the sale and trade of ancient coins gives criminals an incentive to tamper with archaeological sites, destroy irreplaceable cultural heritage items, or engage in other illegal activity.
The coins in the cache range in origin from the Indo-Greek ancient culture to the Kushan Empire and to the Mughal Empire. The oldest specimens are believed to date to the 2nd century BCE, or 2,200 years ago.
Some experts estimate that the coins could be worth millions of Indian rupees, or tens of thousands of dollars.
Long History of Coins in India
The most recent scholarship on the history of coins being introduced into ancient societies suggests that India developed a coinage system independently, but around the same time, as the very first coins in the world in Europe. One of the keys to this development was the trade and contact made with India by the Ancient Greeks through the conquests of Alexander the Great, establishing the Silk Road trade routes.
According to Wikipedia,
“During the two centuries of their rule, the Indo-Greek kings combined the Greek and Indo-Iranian languages and symbols, as seen on their coins, and blended Hindu, Buddhist and ancient Greek religious practices, as seen in the archaeological remains of their cities and in the indications of their support of Buddhism, pointing to a rich fusion of Indian and Hellenistic influences. The diffusion of Indo-Greek culture had consequences which are still felt today[.]”
However, South Asia came under the dominion of various other empires after the fall of Indo-Greek rule. These subsequent regimes also minted their own coins. Adding to the diversity was the fact that the region was broken up into many small, competing kingdoms for much of this time.
Beginning around the late 15th century, European colonists began trading with India. The first were the Portuguese—and, naturally, they minted coins for this trade. The Dutch and British followed in the 17th century and beyond. The influence of Europeans added to the expansive and varied dossier of coins from India and the surrounding polities.
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