India has a long tradition of coinage with images of gods and goddesses. According to historians, the Kushans, who hailed from the Central Asian region and ruled till 3rd century AD, were the first to use the image of Goddess Lakshmi on their coins, along with Ardochsho, the Iranic Goddess of wealth.
“The Kushans also depicted Oesho (Shiva), moon deity Miro and Buddha in their coinage,” informs numismatist Amarbir Singh, who has a large collection of coins ranging from those minted by Mohammed bin Sam and Hyder Ali.
Closer home, the Vijayanagara kings used coinage with Hindu idols. Harihara –II (1377-1404) introduced coins that had Brahma-Saraswati, Vishnu-Lakshmi and Shiva-Parvati. Some of these coins can be seen in the museum set up in Hampi by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at Kamalapur.
The Vijayanagara coins continued in circulation even after the kingdom was snuffed out in 1565 and commanded a premium when French traveller Tavernier visited the region.
“The British East India Co. at Madras Presidency minted coins labelled as the Three Swamy Pagoda, which depicts Lord Balaji flanked by Sridevi and Bhudevi on either side. The coin in my collection weighs 3.4 gm and these were issued between 1691 and 1740,” Mr. Singh said.
Not all the coins were freshly minted. Some were repurposed. Some were issued to show continuity. About the coins with Goddess Lakshmi issued by Mohammed bin Sam, known to us as Mohammed Ghori after defeating Prithviraj Chauhan in the battle of Terrain in 1192 AD.
Specimen in British Museum
A specimen is now in the British Museum repository for which the info-document says: “Aware that visual elements on coins were fundamental to their acceptance and success as currency, he (Mohammed bin Sam) issued coins which maintained a visual tradition begun in India 1,000 years previously, on the coinage of Kushan king Kanishka II.”
“These coins circulated in numbers and have come down to us due to the tradition of hoarding wealth. They are frequently auctioned for just ₹15,000 to ₹20,000. They weigh 4.2 gm,” says Mr. Singh.
The tradition of minting coins to win the confidence of local people continued when the French and Dutch minted coins showing Vishnu between 1715 and 1774 and Goddess Kali in the late 17th century.