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Animals on Indian Coins

Started by mitresh, December 22, 2015, 11:28:22 AM

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Since time immemorial, mankind has been fascinated by natural elements around him, especially the flora and fauna. Man saw and worshipped what was wonderful or what was terrifying. Fire, earth, thunder, lightning, sun, water, sea, moon, eclipse etc. were associated with divinity and worshipped. Ancient Indians believed in the cycle of life, the importance of maintaining harmony and the delicate balance of nature. Plants and animals were thus revered, protected, nurtured even worshipped in accordance with them being considered as integral and equal partners, and the belief of their right of co-existence, with man. From this belief emerged the concept of Ahimsa or non-violence prohibiting harm to any living being as propagated in the teachings, and re-inforced in the scriptures, of the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Vegetarianism, seen by many as a modern fad, was thus ingrained and embedded in the DNA of ancient Indians who avoided killing animals for meat.

Origin of animal worship
In the due course of time and evolution of man, animals started being worshipped for their individual traits, attributes and characteristics as perceived by man in his imagination. The lion symbolized power, the bull strength, the boar ferocity, the elephant wisdom, the horse nobility, and so on. Seals of the Indus Valley civilization (circa 3000 BC) show many animals, including some mythical, such as the unicorn, while the Great Indian epic Ramayana is replete with animals who play an important role, such as Jambavan (bear), Hanuman (monkey) etc. The Buddhist 'Jataka Tales' and 'Stories of the Panchtantra'  featuring animals with their underlying moral endings have  entertained young and old for centuries. The Greek 'Aesop's Fables' similarly involve talking plants and animals with morals underlying each story. The tribal 'Adivasi' (Aborigine) region of India, covering Bastar (MP), Chhatisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa etc., is well known for its rituals involving animal worship and sacrifice. Emotion and devotion thus emerge as a central underlying theme in ancient storytelling, practice and customs.

Symbolism of the lion
People, clans and places were named after animals, with the lion being the most popular. The constellation of the Zodiac "Leo" was named after this majestic beast that evokes respect, power and awe amongst humans. The two well known martial clans in India, the Rajputs and Sikhs, use 'Singh' (lion) as their family name. The Ahom rulers of Assam used 'Simha' (lion) as their suffix. Farid Khan, the Afghan founder of the Delhi Sultanate's Suri dynasty in the 15th century AD, became famous as Sher Shah Suri after his bare handed duel with a 'Sher' (lion) in Bengal. The most celebrated footballer of our modern generation, Lionel Messi, is named after the majestic King of Beasts as Lionel means Lion-like while the given name of the famous Hollywood actor, Leonardo de Caprio of 'Titanic' movie fame, means 'bold lion'. Tiger Woods, the famous golfer, is another example of a celebrity adopting an animal name. Numerous paintings and sculptors show kings, maharajas and princes hunting lions while battle scenes usually feature a king on an elephant or horseback. The Narsimha (half man, half lion) avatar of Vishnu is a popular and recurring art motif in temple architecture. The 'lion-slayer' type gold coins of the Gupta kings show them engaged in various animated battle scenes with the lion, indicating the King's strength, prowess and valour.

Symbolism of the elephant
India has been synonymous with and known for its elephants since antiquity. Elephants were especially trained for battle and used in the 3rd century BC by Chandragupta Maurya in his battle against the Greek, Seleucus Nikator. The Greeks were so enamoured and fascinated with this huge and grand animal that it graced their coins, with a few rulers also adopting elephant headgear on their portrait coins to signify their conquest of Indian territories. The elephant is still very much an integral part of the Indian psyche and can be seen in major cities strolling down the road as well as being found in the jungles. The famous 'Guruvayur' temple of Kerala conducts an annual festival with richly decorated and caparisoned elephants. No auspicious ceremony of the Hindus is complete without invoking the blessings of Ganesha, the Elephant God. Buddhists also hold the elephant in high esteem as the birth of Buddha is associated with the dream of a white elephant by his mother.

Symbolism of the bull
The Zebu or Brahma bull is also closely associated with India. Numerous shrines and temples across India are devoted to Shiva, the entrance to which usually features the seated Nandi-Bull facing the temple interior towards his master, Shiva, in devotion. The bull is also a common sight in rural India, used both as a medium of transportation as well as to plough the land. The bull symbolically evokes an image of raw power, aggression and virility. Phrases like 'bull-necked', 'bull-headed', 'take the bull by horns', 'strong as a bull/an ox' show the strength and power associated with this animal. Matadors fighting bulls in Spain or the 'Run of the bulls' ceremony in Spain, Thailand and India show the close relationship between man and the bull. It is no wonder therefore that bulls feature so prominently and consistently on Indian coins. In fact in certain cultures of the Far East, potions and pills made of a bull's private parts are supposedly an aphrodisiac!

Symbolism of the horse
There is something about a horse that appeals to the human mind and senses as graceful and noble. A wild stallion galloping with its mane flowing in the wind conjures an image of fantasy, passion, freedom and desire. A great victory or quest for supreme glory as the 'Maharajadhiraj' (King of Kings) was usually solemnized by conducting a horse-sacrifice known as 'Asva-medha' in ancient times. The horse of Maharana Pratap, 'Chetak', is immortalized in the ballads of Rajput folklore while Bucephalus, the horse of the world-conquering Greek king Alexander 'The Great', was the most famous horse of antiquity with cities named after him. Polo and other equestrian sports have evolved around horses. The 'Surya-devta' or Sun God is usually shown atop a horse-drawn chariot blazing his way across the horizon, while the collective consciousness of the Hindus immediately recalls the discourse given by Krishna, standing astride a horse-chariot, to Arjuna on the battlefield of Mahabharata that became their religious edict 'The Geeta'.

Man-animal interdependence
All the above examples reveal the close association between man and animals where the latter were revered for their beauty, strength, loyalty, wisdom, grace, power etc. Each animal was therefore symbolically associated with a deity to prevent its wanton killing by man, thereby upsetting the delicate balance of nature. This was the first attempt at animal conservation by considering them as sacred beings essential for the survival of man and to maintain the balance of nature's food chain without interference by man. Ancient Indians foresaw the damaging effect of slaying animals for sport or entertainment. They knew if rats were exterminated, snakes would proliferate and if snakes were destroyed, rats would have an impact on human health (plague) and survival (destruction of food crops). Associating an animal with a deity ensured man would think twice before killing it as the animal would evoke a strong symbolism with the concerned deity. The rat-snake interdependence in the food chain was crystallized by association with the deities Ganesha and Shiva respectively where, similar to a rat being subordinate to a snake in the food chain, Ganesha as the son of Shiva was subordinate to his father. Snakes were protected and worshipped with a festival 'Nag-panchmi' dedicated to it. Rats abound at the Karni-Mata temple in Rajasthan where they are not killed and, unbelievably but true, none of the devotees - including small children and infants - get bitten or catch plague. Certain animals were however preferred and chosen over others as the Vahanas or vehicles of the deities for their specific qualities. So, while Shiva as 'Pasupatinath' (Lord of Beasts) was readily identified by Nandi-Bull, Durga was known by her lion-vehicle and Lakhsmi by an elephant. Deities riding these wild, exotic and powerful beasts signalled the God's total control and domination as also their destructive ability. Animals therefore became synonymous with the powers, duties, mystery, magic and myth of their deities.

Animals as dynastic crests
Various dynasties and kings of India adopted different animals as their dynastic 'lacchana' (emblems). The Kadamba dynasty chose the lion as its signature emblem while the insignia of the mighty Chola Empire was a tiger. The Gangas of Talkad opted for an elephant whereas the Vijayanagara kings adopted a boar. The Maharajas of Mysore chose Ganda-bherunda, a two-headed mythical eagle. These emblems were printed on flags that were hoisted at the time of different religious functions and were also displayed prominently on temples, forts and palaces. The armies went to war with flags bearing these emblems. Coins of different denominations were minted by the rulers in keeping with their dynastic crests. The Republic of India adopted the tiger as its national animal, which also features prominently on the coins issued by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), while the Government of India chose the Ashokan 'lion-pillar', featuring four roaring lions seated back to back, as the national emblem of India.

Modern symbolism
Animals continue to fascinate and influence human consciousness in modern times. 'Bulls and bears' are commonly used terms to signify the vagaries of market movements on the Stock Exchange. The Australian and South African cricket teams are popularly referred as 'Kangaroos' and 'Springboks' (a type of deer) respectively. A bull is the mascot of the US basketball team, the Chicago Bulls, while the British Rugby team is called the British Lions. A 'teddy bear' is a favourite present of choice by lovers around Valentines Day while young and old alike love the toy's cute, cuddly and huggable image. Walt Disney created a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry using Mickey Mouse as its famous iconic symbol while many animation movies and cartoons are based on animal characters, such as Tom and Jerry (cat and mouse), the Lion King (lion), Bambi (deer), Dumbo (elephant), etc. Who can forget the lovable Mowgli and his animal friends Bagheera (panther) and Baloo (bear) and encounters with Sher Khan (lion) and Kaa (snake) in the famous animation 'The Jungle Book'?. Animal Planet and National Geographic (Wild) are dedicated TV channels showcasing animals round the clock. Dogs are trained as police sniffer dogs to hunt for drugs and nab criminals. The two biggest political parties of the USA, Democrats and Republicans, are represented by a Donkey and Elephant respectively while closer to home, ex-Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party's election symbol is also the elephant. It is not an unusual sight in many Indian cities to see cows squatting in the middle of the road oblivious to the traffic chaos around or a street performer regaling locals and tourists alike with performances using snakes, monkeys, bears or parrots. Many adopt dogs and cats as pets and treat them as an integral part of their family. Caring for animals teaches man love, compassion, mercy, empathy and patience. The association between man and animal is as ancient as life and civilization on our planet and it continues to shape and evolve in modern times.

The selection of coins highlighted below shows how animals were represented on the coins from the 6th century BC to the present and how these were interwoven within the social fabric and soul of Indian art and culture using numismatics as the expression medium.

Vidarbha Janapada, 600-400 BC, silver, 1.74 g, ABCC type, elephant, taurine within square border, 2 treskelis with dotted borders

Baktrian Kingdom, Demetrious I 'Aniketos' (Invincible), 185 BC, bronze tri-chalkon, 9.82 g, 27.4 mm, Merv mint

Mauryan Empire, 300-200 BC, Kaushambi region, cast copper, ½ kakani, 3.02 g, elephant / Chaitya (stupa)

Post-Maurya, Taxila, civic coinage, 185-168 BC, bronze 1½ karshapana, 26 mm, 12.21 g, Elephant / Lion

Indo-Greek Kingdom, Apollodotus I, 174-165 BC, silver drachm, 15 mm, 2.41 g, elephant/zebu bull

Andhra Dynasty or Satavahanas, 100 BC, potin, 3.23 g, Junnar lion / Ujjaini symbol

Tribal Republic, Kuninda Kingdom, 200-100 BC, King Amogabhuti, silver drachm, 2.1 g, 19 mm, deer

Gupta Empire, Kumara Gupta I, 550 AD, Gold Dinar, 8.16 g, horseman / peacock

Hindu Shahi Dynasty, Kabul and Gandhara, 900 AD, billon drachm, Samanata Deva, 19 mm, 3.32 g, bull / horseman

Chola Empire, Raja Raja I, 1000 AD, gold ⅛ kahavanu, 0.47 g, bow, tiger, 2 vertical fish

Pandya Dynasty, Arcot, 1325-1362 AD, Koneri Rayan, copper jital, 17 mm, 3.9 g, Brahma bull

Vishnukundina Empire, 500-600 AD, copper, 7.63 g, roaring lion

Western Gangas, 1100-1200 AD, gold, Gajpati Pagoda, 3.79 g, caparisoned elephant

Vijayanagar Empire, Tirumalaraya, 1569-1572 AD, copper double kasu, 15 mm, 3.8 g, charging boar

Mysore, Tipu Sultan, 1795 AD, copper paisa 11.37 g, Nagar mint, elephant

Tripura, Kishor Manikya Deva with Maharani Kanchan Prabha, 1927 AD, silver rupee, 11.64 g

Princely State, Indore, Shivaji Rao Holkar, 1891 AD, copper, ¼ anna, bull
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