Society diversity

Coins are a window into early Deccan society

OWe examine how local coins can help understand early Deccan social formation. Local coins are the coins issued by local rulers, who bore names or titles such as Gobhada, Samagopa, Mahāsenāpati, Mahātalavara, Mahārathi, Sada, Kura, etc., and ruled over several early Deccan localities since the middle of the second century BCE to the third century CE. These coins were among the first in the subcontinent to have the names and legends of local rulers inscribed on them, which provide details about these rulers not known to us from any other source of information. These rulers were distinct from the well-known kings of the Sātavāhana dynasty.

It is essential to assess the role these leaders played before Sātavāhana’s reign, while coexisting with their reign and, in some areas, succeeding them. In each of these phases, the nature of local politics reflects different tendencies. We identify these pieces as an unconventional source that can be used to reinterpret the polity of several localities in the Deccan and their interrelationship with the larger Sātavāhana empire. This allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the historical landscape, which is not usually addressed in the region’s dominant political narratives.

Scholars who have thus far studied these local coins as source material have done so either to trace their individual political identities or to show how they can be used as a corroborating source when writing the history of the region. Numismatic data of this type, which have been closely examined to date, only offer us scientific information about the people to whom these coins can be attributed and, to a certain extent, help us to determine the chronologies of these leading groups. Some of these local coins have been found along with other excavated material at different sites across the Deccan. It has been observed that the minting of these coins did not usually take place under royal patronage, and so we have many cases where people in a subordinate position also issued and minted coins in their name. Therefore, these coins are unique because the long period of their existence has not been influenced by the changing trajectories of power at the pan-regional level, which raises fundamental questions that require a re-examination of the nature of the political regime in these regions. .

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Geographers, archaeologists and historians have so far defined the Deccan according to its sub-regional spaces and their specific geo-cultural zones, according to their material and physical characteristics. The geographic roots of diversity in the Deccan provide essential information on how these sub-regions have evolved over historical time. Emphasizing the diverse physiographic features of the Deccan, Parasher Sen highlighted the material peculiarities of its four distinct sub-regions, namely the southern Deccan (constituting most of present-day Karnataka region, followed by the upper valley areas of Krishna-Tungabhadra and the Mysore Plateau), the Eastern Deccan (consisting of roughly the present state of Andhra Pradesh with areas of fertile coastal plains), the Central Deccan (marked by the present state of Telangana and its hilly plateau region) and the Western Deccan (represented by the state of Maharashtra and its hilly ghāts alongside strategic passes).

The above Deccan sub-regional classification has been adopted in this study as we consider it a convenient means of describing the distinct characteristics of different coins found in different localities. Above all, it allows us to highlight the differences and particularities that can be assessed further to discuss the nature of the regime that formed in these various Deccan sub-regions.

Explanations of the early historical period in the plains of the Ganges have given us chronological parameters that do not apply perfectly to other regions of the subcontinent. Thus, it is necessary to move away from an epicenter located in the valley of the Ganges and to recognize that these historico-cultural changes have always remained uneven throughout the subcontinent, through different spatial units. With this recognition in mind, we observe that the spatial and temporal parameters of the Deccan suggest different definitions of the first historical phase in this region. BD Chattopadhyaya has consistently articulated such a definition while elaborating on the transition to the early Deccan historical period. He writes:

The change cannot be seen either in terms of the gradual evolution of the megalithic culture nor in terms of the overall impact of northern India because at the beginning of the historical phase the Deccan absorbed some elements which are unique and non-indigenous north and south. To understand the historical spatial composition of the Deccan, it is important to locate the nuclear areas of the Sātavāhanas and examine how they were related to the “localities” of the pre-Sātavāhana phase.

This understanding of the early historical Deccan period is appropriate for the subject we propose to highlight in this chapter. It allows us to look at how the criterion of “history” emerges in the different “localities” of the Deccan, which anyway were part of specific geographical sub-regions.

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Criteria used to understand the transition to the first historical phase in India generally include common clues such as the emergence of urban centers, coinage and writing scripts, and other essential material changes signified by pottery, metal technology, etc. In the Deccan, excavated materials belonging to the Megalithic and early historical phases are not always clearly distinct from each other. They have been found to co-exist in some places and often overlap. In specific sub-regions and localities, this lack of clarity often leads to problems in dating these two cultural phases – the Megalithic and the early historical cultures – and the material remains of these phases are then placed during the same periodic period. The matter is further complicated when the early historical phases are called ‘Sātavāhana’. We note that in certain sub-regions of the Deccan, material remains such as the coins that we propose to highlight in this chapter have been found at stratigraphic levels prior to the rise of the Sātavāhanas in the Deccan. The question that then arises is whether the existence of these currencies should rather be located in the megalithic period, generally understood as a pre-urban phase of human evolution.

This process of transition, and the ambiguities raised by the material evidence, have already been articulated by Sudarshan Seneviratne. In his broader concerns to understand the processes of state formation in Andhra and Kalinga, Seneviratne used the theory of “secondary state formation” to formulate the processes that led to the transition from the Megalithic in the first historical phase. He first emphasized the internal processes of change emanating from the megalithic society, then the external influences, mainly defined by the presence of Mauryan in certain parts of the Deccan (as evidenced by the presence of the Aśokan inscriptions) which led to the formation of the primitive state in these regions.

Seneviratne writes: “The process of secondary state formation in Kalinga and Andhra is the result of the combination of indigenous forces with the consequences resulting from a period of political subordination to the ‘metropolitan states’ of the Mauryas and Sātavāhanas “. This analysis highlights a critical feature, namely the creation of a “hierarchical” society, already present during the megalithic phases, which was a precursor to the rise of a stratified, class-based state society when a ruling class controlling the means of production emerged. Thus, this explanation of the transition has helped us understand the nature of power visible in local politics even before the rise of the Sātavāhanas.

This excerpt from ‘Seeking History Through Her Source: South of the Vindhyas’, edited by Aloka Parasher Sen has been published with permission from Orient Blackswan.