Short Essay on the Currency & Medium of Exchange in Vedic India


Niska and hiranyapinda, perhaps, were two types I of metallic medium of exchange prevalent in Vedic India. Rigvedic niskas and hiranyapindas, in this period, stood as a link between the money and currency stages of the development of the economy.

The later Vedic Samhitas and the Brahmanas refer to satamana and panda as the two other denominations of metallic medium of ex­change. The Vedic metallic medium of exchange was perhaps minted by the state. But later on, it seems that private business took the initiative and began to mint coins for meeting the day-to-day requirements.

Under the rule of the Nandas, standard weight of their coinage was determined and later, the Mauryan government established its control over the system of currency. When the state itself took up the responsibility of minting coins, individualis­tic features, through symbols, also became evident on the coins.


The silver and copper karsapana or silver punch-marked coins were standard curren­cy during the Mauryan period. These coins were divided into different denominations. With the fall of the Mauryan Empire, there was scarcity of silver to support a large-scale currency system. Conse­quently, the descendants of Asoka had to issue copper punch-marked coins, but the silver punch- marked coins continued to remain in circulation.

During the post-Mauryan period, the trade routes came under the control of more than one state and different powers issued their own coin, which testifies to a developed monetary economy and possibly also the gainful nature of trade.

Most states of the post-Mauryan period adopted a sys­tem of monometallic currency in copper, which was designed on familiar forms of karsapana and had on it a number of old symbols to make it easily acceptable in various markets. Foreign rulers like the Indo-Greeks, the Indo-Scythians and the Indo-Parathions issued silver and copper coins bearing common legends, to fill the gap in the monetary system.

The Satavahanas issued different types of coins with a view to meet the demand of interstate com­merce. They issued their copper coins with the Ujjain symbol bearing a ship, which were especially suitable for commercial transaction in the Avanti region.


The standard coinage of the Satavahanas, predominantly of lead, was of great economic significance because in the absence of silver in the South, lead was the only alternative with which the Satavahanas maintained the monetary balance be­tween the two currency systems of copper in the North and of silver in the West.

The Kushanas were the first Indian rulers to issue gold coins, on the Roman pattern. The gold coins of the Kushanas indicate new developments in Indo-European commerce. Perhaps the inter­national market situation forced the Kushanas to issue gold coins, which were intended to bring some amount of uniformity between the currency systems of the Kushanas and the Romans.

Such coins of the Kushanas were readily acceptable to the merchants of different countries, because of their symbols and legends as well as intrinsic value. The silver coins of the Indo-Greeks and Sakas were also in conformity with the interna­tional market situation. But the Roman gold and silver coins of the foreign merchants were ac­cepted only as bullion in India.

By the sixth century B.C. there was tremendous rise in the volume of trade in India, which required organised production and quick distribution. This was possible only through an efficient system of financing. Thus there arose a class oisresthins who controlled the financing of trade on individual as well as partnership basis.


These sresthins, while working as a joint stock company, contributed to business both with money and commodities. They made commodity investments with the individual traders. The trade and craft guilds also arose out of the necessity of financing trade and industry. These guilds acted as custodians of commercial conventions and customs. Sreni was a general term for guilds including mercantile corporations.

The specific term for traders’ corporation was perhaps rtigama; and puga represented interests of dif­ferent traders, crafts, and professions of a locality. The guilds acted as modern banks and received deposits of public money on regular interest and lent out money to the people.

The sartha type guilds were mobile corporations for the transit (caravan) trade. Such a company of traders was led by a leader called the sarthavaha. The sarthas were of various types such as, organised by in­dividual traders, contractual traders who shared profits as per their share capital, and destination caravans, etc. who shared profits on the basis of their investment in stock in trade.

Guilds known as srenis or sanghas played a large part in the conduct of crafts and trades, and even the growing centralisation of the Mauryan government had to respect their constitutions and privileges. Gautama, who is counted among the earliest writers on polity, declares that traders and artisans, among others, had the authority to lay down rules for their respective classes.


Greek evidence and the Jatakas show that occupations were generally hereditary, and the Jatakas men­tion ‘the eighteen guilds’, several instances of in­dustries localised in particular towns and villages, of separate crafts each having apramukha (presi­dent) or (alderman) presiding over it, and of a judge from among themselves settling dis­putes among the guilds.

We hear also of sarthavaha (caravan leaders) whose directions were obeyed by caravans along the trade routes. Of the sanghas described by Kautilya headed by mukhyas, some adopted vartta (agriculture, cattle- rearing, and trade) as their profession. He also wants the customs and regulations of srenis to be ascertained and recorded in official registers.

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