portrait coins of india

                                             written and authored by Yashoda N Singh

I have been studying and collecting portrait coins of India, specifically Portuguese India and pre-Independence Principalities, for a while.

Brief History of Indian Portrait Coins

Mauryans and later kingdoms (~600 BC to ~300 AD) in both North and South India issued only punch-marked coins, bearing crude likenesses of animals, wheel and taurines, sun and moon, flora and symbols, for nearly a thousand years. Alexander the Great it is believed invaded India in 326 BC and upon his sudden death left his generals to rule his new empire. They came to be known as the Baktrians and Indo-Greeks. But Indian kingdoms apparently took no notice of their coinage and continued to mint punch-marked and later die-cast coins, sometimes adding stick human figures or crude depictions of gods and goddesses. The Baktrians and Indo-Greeks were supplanted on the Indian continent by the Kushans.

The early Baktrians, Indo-Greeks and Kushans imitated the Greeks and Macedonians, turning out coins rich in portraiture. The coins, especially the tetradrachms, of Diodotus, Euthydemos I & II, Demetrius I, and Eucratides, are works of art. The fact that all their coins show the same nearly identical facial features and in such detail for each ruler we can be fairly certain that in real life they looked as shown on the coins.

Baktrian: Euthydemos II (185-180 BC), Attic-standard tetradrachm

images Courtesy: Baldwin’s

 

Baktrian: Eucratides I (171-145 BC) Attic Standard tetradrachm

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

Some of the coins of the Indo-Greeks pass Greek muster but soon the art of the mint master falls off dramatically with the later rulers.

Indo-Greek: Philoxenos I (100-95 BC) Indian-standard tetradrachm

images Courtesy: Baldwin’s

 

To appreciate how far the coinage of the later Indo-Greeks had fallen from its artistic high, see the following example: Zoilus II (75-50 BC)

images Courtesy: CNG

The early Kushans – Heraios or Yeu Chi, Vima Kadphises, Kanishka and Huvishka produced beautiful portrait coins but the rulers who followed them allowed their coins to deteriorate to stick figures.

Kushan: Heraios or Yeu Chi (1-30 AD) tetradrachm. All his coins bear nearly the same portrait, leading us to believe that in real life Heraios looked as depicted on his coins.

images Courtesy: Baldwin’s

 

Kushan: Vima Kadphises ( 90-100 AD) dinar

images Courtesy: Baldwin’s

Note the bearded heavy jaw, the aquiline nose and body girth of Vima. All his coins show these features. The coins of Kanishka I, again, are unmistakable. It appears most of their coins were issued by local mints where artisans may have been familiar with how the king looked.

 

Kushan: Kanishka I (127-150 AD) dinar

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

It is an inescapable fact that the Indian mints were technologically far behind and could not match those of the Baktrians, early Indo-Greeks, or early Kushans. Claim has been made for the artistic beauty of the Gupta and post-Gupta gold coins but in my opinion very few of them can receive a passing grade. The lion- or tiger-slayer coins of Kumaragupta I or Samudragupta’s lyricist coins are exceptions. However, these coins are “realistic” portraiture of the king and queen only in the sense of being delineated with great detail and artistry, but they cannot be said to reflect how the rulers looked in real life.

Gupta: Samudragupta Lyricist type dinar (335-380 AD)

images Courtesy: Baldwin’s

 

Gupta: Kumaragupta I (415-455 AD) Tiger-slayer type dinar

images Courtesy: Baldwin’s

 

Like the coinage of the later Indo-Greeks, the coinage of the later Guptas also reveals how barbarous their coins had become.

For example: Budhagupta dinar (475-96 AD). This coin is in fact one of his better coins

images Courtesy: CNG

 

It is time we defined what we mean by “portrait” coins. Coins that bear portraits of historical people certainly qualify as portrait coins. Should we distinguish between portraits that are historically accurate (e.g., Demetrius I) and portraits that are imagined, for example Kanishka’s Buddha, since the artisans could have had no idea of what Buddha looked like centuries after his death. What about portraits of mythical characters, such as Athena, Zeus, Hanuman or Lakshmi?

Or for that matter, what should we think of portraits appearing on Western Mahakashtrapa or Gupta coinage that are nearly identical for all the rulers of that dynasty? If we restrict our definition to realistic portraiture, we would be left with very few Indian coins that would pass the test, so I propose we expand our definition to include all coins that realistically depict or try to depict as best they can rulers as human beings.

Coins of post-Mauryan India – Indo-Scythian, Western Satraps, Parata Rajas, Satavahnas, Hephthalite, Indo-Sasasian, Alchon/Nezak Huns, Kidarites, Vardhanas of Kanauj, Chauhan of Ranasthambpura, Samtata, Vallabhi of Gujarat – bore portraits of sorts. Below are three examples, the first of Gautamiputra Rajni Shri Satkarni of the Satavahnas, second of Nahapana of the Western Satraps, and the third of Kidarite “King B”. In these instances the portraits may or may not be accurate; the Nahapana portrait is certainly generic. One cannot identify a ruler by his portrait alone. If more proof is needed we only have to see the silver coins of the Guptas; they are clearly derived from the coinage of the Western Satraps and are also generic. We would have no way of telling who the ruler was except by what the inscription said.

Satavahanas: Gautamiputra Rajni Shri Satakarni (left) – 1st-2nd C AD

images Courtesy: Baldwin’s

Western Satraps: Nahapana (right) – 119-124 AD

images Courtesy: Baldwin’s

 

Kidarite “King B” (below) – 3rd-4th C BC

images Courtesy: CNG

 

Among the Muslim dynasties of India only two coin types bearing portraits can be cited – the Horseman tanka ino Shams al-Din Iltumish (Delhi Sultans) and portrait mohurs of Jahangir, one type shown below and the other holding a wine cup (Mughal).

Mughals: Jahangir (1605-1628 AD)

images Courtesy: CNG

 

AV Horseman Tanka ino Delhi Sultan Iltumish (1211-36 AD) Rare variety

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

Between the demise of the Vardhanas of Kanauj and the establishment of the British and Portuguese on the continent, Islamic coinage in North India and the Deccan bore only Arabic or Persian calligraphy; no human images were permitted. Not even the Hindu kingdoms or East India Company (till 1835) issued any portrait coins during this time. Another 1000 years passed before portraits graced the face of Indian coinage again.

Collections of Indian coins generally have been done by period (Mauryans, Chalukiyas, Mughals, British) or by region (South India, North India, Northeast India), or by ruler (Akbar, Victoria), or by State (Baroda, Hyderabad). No one to my knowledge has attempted to collect portrait coins exclusively. I, therefore, believe that collection of portrait coins is a worthwhile and refreshing addition to type collections. My current collection is one such effort. It includes coins of Portuguese India and pre-Independence States or principalities. It excludes British India.

 

Portuguese India

Portuguese India has been the most neglected area for coin collectors even though the Portuguese colonial rule lasted for nearly 5 centuries, longer than any other colonial power – the Danes, the Dutch, the French, or the English. Note that Portugal was the only colonial power that did not employ Arabic, Persian or other vernacular scripts. From the aesthetic viewpoint their colonial coins were arguably at par with those of the colonial Danes, Dutch and French but cruder than the English.

The early coins of Portuguese India did not carry portraits. At most they depicted saints such as Thomas or John. Beginning in 1726, coins of certain denominations bore the portraits of the reigning monarchs of Portugal till 1904 after which Portugal became a Republic and ceased to carry the monarch’s portrait. Only the rupia coin of 1912 shows a bust, that of lady Liberty. Denominations of Portuguese coins are a complex lot. Most of the names are derived from Oriental sources, e.g., Bazaruco meaning bazaar money, pardao, xerafin, rupia, and tanga.

The monetary system was designed to facilitate trade between Indian kingdoms surrounding Portuguese territories and their own and that between their territories in Africa, India and the Far East. The values of the various denominations were generally pegged to the Reis, for example one rupia was equivalent to 600 reis. In their Indian territories which included Bengal, Cochin, Chaul, Bacaim, Daman, Diu and Goa, the Portuguese denominations that bore portraits of reigning monarchs were the half xerafin, tanga and its fractions (1/2, ¼, 1/8, 1/12), pardao, half pardao, rupia and its fractions (1/2, ¼, 1/8).

Rulers under whose names these portrait coins were issued were: John V (1706-50 AD), Jose I (Joseph) (1750-77 AD), Maria I & Pedro III (1777-99 AD), Joao VI (1816-26 AD), Pedro IV (1826-28 AD), Miguel I (1828-34 AD), Maria II (1834-53 AD), Pedro V (1853-61 AD), Luiz I (1861-89 AD), and Carlos I (1889-1908 AD).

The hairdos of the male and female portraits and the elaborate jewelry on the female portraits are well engraved and remarkable for their diversity. Before 1800, lacking technical ability and perhaps the absence of artifacts such as paintings or busts which could have formed the basis for accurate portraits, the Portuguese mints on the subcontinent produced portraits of rulers that differed from year to year.

John V: ½ tanga, tanga, ½ pardao, pardao, rupia. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the ruler in bold.

1737 John V Rupia

 

Jose: ½ tanga, tanga, ½ pardao, pardao, rupia. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the ruler in bold.

1776 Jose I Rupia

images Courtesy: CNG

 

Maria I & Pedro III: ½ tanga, tanga, ½ pardao, pardao, rupia. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the rulers in bold.

1782 Maria I & Pedro III Conjoined Busts Rupia

images Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

1782 Maria I & Pedro III Conjoined Busts Pardao

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

Joao: tanga, ½ xerafin, pardao, rupia. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the ruler in bold.

1819/8 Joao VI ½ Xerafin

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

Pedro IV: rupia. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the ruler in bold.

1828 Pedro IV Rupia

 

Miguel I: ½ xerafin, pardao, rupia. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the ruler in bold.

1833 Miguel I Rupia

images Courtesy: Baldwin’s

 

Maria II: ½ pardao, pardao, rupia. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the ruler in bold. From this period, the Portuguese coins, chiefly rupias, show they have achieved parity with British coinage in execution.

1803 Maria II Rupia

images Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

1846 Maria II Rupia

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

1850 Maria II Rupia

images Courtesy: Numisma

 

1846 Maria II Meio (1/2) Pardao

images Courtesy: CNG

 

Pedro V: tanga, ½ pardao, pardao, rupia. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the ruler in bold.

1856 Pedro V Rupia

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

1856 Pedro V Meio (1/2) Pardao

images Courtesy: CNG

 

1857 Pedro V Tanga (60 Reis)

 

Luiz I: 1/8, 1/4 tanga; 1/8, ¼, ½, 1 rupia. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the ruler in bold.

1868 Luiz I Rupia

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

1881 Luiz I Uma Rupia

images Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

1881 Luiz I 1/8 Rupia

images Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

1881 Luiz I ¼ Tanga

images Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

Carlos I: 1/12, 1/8, ¼, ½ tanga; rupia. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the ruler in bold.

1903 Carlos I Uma Rupia

 

1901 Carlos I 1/2 Tanga

images Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

Liberty Head Uma overstrike Rupia,  dated 1912/1 – not a portrait coin in the strict sense of the term. Image courtesy Coin Kingdom.

Liberty Head pattern Uma Rupia in copper, dated 1911. Not strictly a portrait but included nevertheless for its aesthetic appeal.

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

British India: Pre-Independence States or principalities

After the Sepoy mutiny of 1857 the States or principalities of North India began to cozy up to the British. A number of States issued coins with the name of the British reigning monarch in Persian, Kaithi, Devanagari or English; some as protectorates of the British bore portraits of the reigning monarchs. Others issued coins bearing their own portraits. Muslim principalities, however, shunned such practice; only two Muslim States issued coins bearing their own ruler’s portraits.

States that issued portrait coinage were: Alwar, Bahawalpur, Baroda, Bharatpur, Bikanir, Bindraban, Datia, Dewas Senior Branch, Dewas Junior Branch, Dhar, Faridkot, Gwalior, Indore, Jaipur, Sailana, Travancore, and Tripura. Some of these States as well as other States not cited above issued coins bearing Devanagari, Persian or English inscriptions that included the names of Mughal emperors or English monarchs, but these cannot be considered portrait coinage.

 

Alwar: Rupee. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

“1788” Error (1877) coin of Mangal Singh Bahadur of Alwar State bearing a portrait of Empress Victoria.

Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

1891 Rupee of Alwar with bust of Empress Victoria

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

Bahawalpur: Rupee, ¼ Anna (Pice), ½ Pice, Asharfi. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

AH1343 (1925) Nazarana rupee of Sir Sadiq Muhammad Khan V of Bahawalpur State

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

½ Pice of Sir Sadiq Muhammad Khan V of Bahawalpur State dated AH1359

 

Pice (1/4 Anna) of Sadiq Muhammad Khan V of Bahawalpur State dated AH1359

 

Baroda: Patterns including off metal strikes, Rupee, ½ Rupee, 4 anna, 2 anna, 1/6 mohur, 1/3 mohur, mohur. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

Piedfort pattern rupee in copper dated VS 1943 (1886) showing a bust of Sri Sayaji Rao, Maharajah of Gaikwada

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

VS1949 (1892) Rupee of Baroda State (wide flan) with bust of Siyaji Rao III

images Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

Rupee (narrow flan) of Baroda dated VS1954 (1896) bearing portrait of Siyaji Rao

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

½ rupee of Baroda dated VS1948 (1891) bearing a portrait of Siyaji Rao

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

½ rupee of Baroda, dated VS1951 (1894) with bust of Siyaji Rao

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

4 anna of Baroda State dated VS1949 (1892) with bust of Siyaji Rao

 

2 anna of Baroda State dated VS1949 (1892) with bust of Siyaji Rao

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

1/3 pattern mohur in silver

images Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

Bharatpur: ¼ Rupee, Rupee, mohur. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

Rare variety Nazarana Rupee (VS1914) of Bharatpur State bearing a portrait of Queen Victoria

images Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

1858 Bharatpur State Rupee with a portrait of Empress Victoria

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

Bikanir: ½ Pice, ¼ Anna, Rupee, ½ mohur, mohur. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

Nazarana proof-like rupee of Bikanir State dated VS1994 (1937) with a portrait of Maharajah Ganga Singh

 

A proof re-strike ½ mohur commemorating the 50th anniversary of Ganga Singh’s reign

images Courtesy: Clark Smith

 

1892 rupee of Ganga Singh with a portrait of Empress Victoria

images Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

1/4 anna of Bikanir with a portrait of Victoria dated 1895

 

½ Pice of Bikanir with the portrait of Empress Victoria dated 1894

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

Bindraban: 1/4 , ½, 1 Rupee. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.
1/4 rupee of Bindraban State bearing a portrait of young Queen Victoria dated 1858

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

Datia: ½ mohur. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

ND Datia Nazarana ½ mohur

images Courtesy: CNG

 

Dewas S.B.: 1/12 Anna, ¼ Anna, Paisa. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

Paisa of Dewas Senior Branch (S.B.) showing a bust of Srimat Maharajah Vikram Singh Rao Pawar dated VS2000 (1944)

images Courtesy: Baldwin’s

 

1/12 anna issued by Narayan Rao of Dewas S.B., dated 1888, with a bust of Empress Victoria

images Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

1888 ¼ anna issued by Narayan Rao of Dewas S.B. showing bust of Empress Victoria

images Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

Dewas J.B.: 1/12 Anna, ¼ Anna. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

1888 1/12 anna issued by Narayan Rao of Dewas Junior Branch (J.B.) showing bust of Empress Victoria

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

1888 ¼ anna issued by Narayan Rao of Dewas J.B. showing bust of Empress Victoria

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

Dhar: 1/12 Anna, ¼ anna, ½ Pice. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

This is an early proof re-strike 1/12 anna of Dhar State dated 1887 bearing a portrait of Empress Victoria

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

1/2 Pice of Dhar State bearing a portrait of Empress Victoria dated 1887

images Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

¼ anna of Dhar State with a portrait of Empress Victoria dated 1887

images Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

Faridkot: Rupee, ½ Rupee, 1/3 mohur, 5 Rupee. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

Nazarana rupee of Faridkot State with portrait of Harindar Singh dated 1941

images Courtesy: CNG

 

Third Mohur of Faridkot dated 1941

images Courtesy: CNG

 

Nazarana Five Rupee coin of Faridkot dated 1941 maybe unique

images Courtesy: Baldwin’s

 

Gwalior: ¼ Anna, ½ Anna, 1/3 mohur. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

Proof re-strike ½ anna of Gwalior State with a portrait of Jivaji Rao dated v-VS1999 (1942)

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

1/4 anna of Jivaji Rao dated 1929

 

¼ anna of Madho Rao of Gwalior State with continuous legend dated VS1974 (1917)

 

1/3 mohur of Madho Rao dated VS1959 (1902)

images Courtesy: CNG

 

Indore: ¼ Anna, ½ Anna, Rupee. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

1/2 anna of Indore State bearing a portrait of Yashwant Rao II dated VS1992 (1935)

 

1/4 anna of Indore State bearing a portrait of Yashwant Rao II dated VS1992 (1935)

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

Rupee of Indore State portraying Shivaji Rao dated VS1956 (1899)

images Courtesy: Stephen Album

 

A rare variety of the rupee shown above

 

Indore State Rupee portraying Shivaji Rao dated VS1958 (1901)

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

Jaipur: Anna. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

Anna coin of Jaipur with a bust of Maharajadhiraj Sawai Mansingh

 

Sailana: ¼ Anna. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

1908 ¼ Anna bearing a portrait of Edward VII are very rare in such high grade

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

¼ anna of Sailana with a bust of George V dated 1912

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

Travancore: ½ sovereign, sovereign, chuckram. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

Below is an 1881 AV Sovereign of Travancore State portraying Sri Rama Varma. Off-metal Patterns of ½ and full sovereign also exist.

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

Sri Rama Varma Chuckram with no date but minted between 1938 and 1940

 

Tripura: Rupee. Indicates that portrait coins for this ruler exist for the denominations listed next to the name of the State in bold.

Rupee of Tripura State issued by Vira Vikrama Kishore Manikya dated 1930

images Courtesy: Heritage Auctions

 

Post-Independence Coinage (1950- )

Independent India discontinued the practice of issuing coins carrying portraits of erstwhile rulers. Each State or principality ceased to exist to become part of India or Pakistan. However, on the death of the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964, coins bearing his bust were issued commemorating the event. In 1969 the mint issued coins bearing the bust of Mahatma Gandhi to commemorate his birth centenary. Then upon Indira Gandhi’s death in 1985, the mint issued coins bearing her bust.

Nehru’s birth centenary was celebrated on Indian coinage bearing his portrait followed soon by that of Rajiv Gandhi in 1992 upon his death. The mint began to issue portrait coins on a regular basis beginning in 1996 celebrating Indian statesmen, freedom fighters, social workers, historical figures, saints, and martyrs – a bountiful source of modern portrait coins. Admittedly, the higher denomination coins – 20, 50, 75, 100, 150 rupees – were not meant for circulation; they were included only in uncirculated mint and proof sets.

1964 Nehru Proof Rupee – the first portrait coin of Independent India

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