Coin crusader

Scholar Dr. Osmund Bopearachchi says numismatics fill the gaps in history.

September 17, 2015 07:39 pm | Updated March 28, 2016 06:00 pm IST

The Alexander Medallion, obverse side. Photo: Special Arrangement

The Alexander Medallion, obverse side. Photo: Special Arrangement

When Afghanistan became the theatre of conflict between countries determined to pursue their self-interest at all costs, it was not just political turmoil that resulted. Pillaging, looting and wanton destruction took a toll of the country’s many layered cultural heritage. This turned numismatist Dr. Osmund Bopearachchi into a scholar activist, who was haunted by the name - Mir Zakah.

Mir Zakah is a 5th century B.C. E. well in Afghanistan, and Bopearachchi’s interest in Mir Zakah began when he was doing his PhD in France. He studied the coins in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, many of which were from Mir Zakah, and had long discussions with Raoul Curiel, who had excavated Mir Zakah in 1948.

As luck would have it, in 1994, Bopearachchi got the opportunity to examine coins from the second Mir Zakah deposit. He was in Peshawar, and in the Shinwari Bazaar, he found coins with the same patina that he had seen in the coins in France. But nothing prepared him for the cornucopia of coins that he was to see. Sacks full, each containing 50 kilograms, were emptied in heaps before him, and after some time he had to tell the coin sellers to stop. He calls the experience a joy and a curse - a joy, because no numismatist could have seen such a deluge of coins; a curse because he knew that many of them would disappear into private collections, to which no one would have access. And as feared, in 1995, three tonnes of coins from the second Mir Zakah deposit were smuggled by private aircraft to London, and then taken toBoulogne and on to Basel, in Switzerland.

The UNESCO convention of 1970 prohibits the illicit export and import of cultural objects. But Switzerland accepted the terms of the convention only in 2003, long after the Mir Zakah hoard had reached Basel.

A unique gold coin from Mir Zakah is in the possession of a Pakistani collector. and Bopearachchi identified the portrait on the obverse of the coin as that of Alexander. He says that the coin must have been a commemorative one to mark Alexander’s victory against King Porus on the banks of the river Jhelum. So it must have been a rare coin, not an ordinary one in circulation. To celebrate Alexander’s victory over Porus, who had elephants in his army, Alexander was shown with an elephant’s skin over his head, like his ancestor Herakles who wore the skin of the Nemean lion. In 2005, Bopearachchi visited Mir Zakah, and, with the help of Nader Rasouli, Director General of Archaeology, Afghanistan, established that the collection in the Miho Museum, Japan, was also from Mir Zakah.

“Numismatics helps fill many gaps in history,” says Bopearachchi. “Even if one were to read all the available Chinese, Greek and Latin literature, one would get the names of only seven Greek kings who ruled Afghanistan and Pakistan, after Alexander’s time. But coins have helped identify 48 kings.”

Coins tell many stories. For example, a coin commemorating the parents of Eucratides (2nd century B.C.E) indicates that Eucratides was a usurper, for his mother wears a royal diadem, but his father does not.

One can infer from a coin found in Ai Khanum in Afghanistan that Agathokles (2nd century B.C.E) ruled over Indian territories too. On the obverse is Balarama, with a plough in his hand, and the king’s name in Greek. On the reverse is Vasudeva-Krishna, with disc and conch in his hands, and the king’s name in Brahmi - ‘Rajane Agathuklayasa.’

Bopearachchi says coins in the name of Menander, the greatest of the Indo Greeks kings, are abundant. Menander is mentioned in the Pali work titled after him – Milindpanha. . There is a Chinese version too. Both the Pali and Chinese versions are perhaps based on an earlier Sanskrit work, probably written during Menander’s lifetime.

Menander ruled in the 2nd century B.C.E., but “his absolute chronology is not known.” His capital was Sagala - present day Sialkot, in Pakistan. Scholars such as A.K. Narain argued, that according to Milindpanha, Menander goes to Sagala to meet the Buddhist monk Nagasena, Sagala could not have been his capital. Bopearachchi says that the words have to be interpreted symbolically. What Milindpanha implies is that the king’s wisdom is inferior to that of Nagasena’s, and the inferior wisdom goes to meet the superior wisdom. The locative form Sagalayam, in Pali, indicates the place where the two wisdoms meet.

Menander and the monk discussed Buddhism. Did Menander convert to Buddhism? “There is no concrete proof that he did. But one gets a clue in the work of Plutarch, who says that when Menander died in war, different cities in his kingdom competed with each other in sharing his remains. This is similar to Indian Kings fighting over Buddha’s remains. So while Menander might not have converted to Buddhism, he perhaps favoured it.” Would a person who had a soft spot for Buddhism wage wars? Bopearachchi points to the case of Dutugamanu, the Sri Lankan King, who killed thousands in battle. According to the Thupavamsya, he is reassured by Buddhist monks about his salvation.

Talking about links between South India and Sri Lanka, Bopearachchi says that in the first three centuries of our era, Romans did not directly trade with Sri Lanka. Roman ships left the ports of Egypt in July, so as to make use of the South West Monsoon. They arrived in South India in September and had time until November to head back home, using the North East monsoon. If they had gone to Sri Lanka, they would have missed the North East monsoon, and they would have had to stay back for a year. So South Indian traders acted as intermediaries, selling Sri Lankan products in South India.

There are numismatic and epigraphical evidences to the presence of Tamil traders in Sri Lanka. Iravatham Mahadevan helped Bopearachchi decipher the Brahmi inscription in a coin found in Sri Lanka. The inscription reads: Kapati katalan. According to Mahadevan gapati is derived from the Sanskrit grihapati- householder, a title by which traders were known. Ga becomes ka, because of the influence of Tamil. Katalan is a Tamil name that is seen in the Mangulam inscription, and also in Sangam literature. Coins with Tamil names such as Uttiran, Mallan and Cattan have also been found in Sri Lanka.

Trade brought with it cultural exchanges too. Limestone slabs depicting the life of Buddha discovered in Sri Lanka, must have been executed in Amaravati/Nagarjunakonda and taken to Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Buddhist sculptures were inspired by the Andhra style.

The conversation with Bopearachchi is wide ranging, but it comes back to Mir Zakah. Bopearachchi says he wrote to all the major museums of the world, to raise funds to buy the Mir Zakah hoard sitting in Switzerland, with a view to studying the coins, and then returning them to the Kabul Museum, but received negative answers. The Lattes Museum in Montpellier was the only one to respond positively, but was unable to raise the amount required.

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