The Bayana Hoard of Gupta Coins

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    As far as finding treasures go, it was perhaps the greatest windfall.

    On 17th February 1946, Maharaja Brijendra Singh of Bharatpur, a descendant of the famous Jat empire builder, Raja Surajmal was on a hunting expedition in the villages of Nagla Chela, within his kingdom. After the hunt, once the Maharaja and his retinue departed, three local village children began searching the area for empty cartridges. For them, these were prized collectibles. While on their ‘hunt’ along a small embankment, in the field of a poor farmer, they plucked out a small shrub and discovered a copper pot buried under. The pot contained more than 2000 Gupta era gold coins. This chance discovery, by three small children in a small nondescript village, would create a sensation in the world of numismatics. What they had found was the now famous ‘Bayana Hoard’, the largest known treasure of ancient Indian gold coins ever found in India!

    What is most incredible is that this hoard had been lying undiscovered for 1500 years. The pot had been buried sometime in the early years of the reign of Emperor Skandagupta who ruled between 455 to 467 CE. We know this, as none of the coins of his successors have been found in the hoard.

    The story goes, that the children took the pot home to their parents and a part of it was distributed among the villagers. Sadly, around 300 gold coins were melted before the Bharatpur state police arrived on the scene and took possession of the surviving 1821 coins. The villagers were made to pay a penalty of Rs 12,680 for melting the coins without permission.

    Maharaja Brijinder Singh who took a personal interest in the hoard, invited Dr AS Altekar, the Chairman of the Numismatic Society of India to visit Bharatpur in May 1947 to catalogue the coins. This monumental work ‘The Catalogue of the Gupta Gold Coins in the Bayana Hoard’ is the only and the most comprehensive work on this treasure. In March 1951, Maharaja presented this Catalogue, along with the Copper pot and around 209 coins to President of India Dr Rajendra Prasad, to be displayed in the National Museum Delhi. Apart from a few pieces at the Bharatpur Museum (78 coins), the CSMVS Museum, Mumbai (20 coins) and the Patna University (18 coins), the remaining hoard was passed on to the Government of Rajasthan, where it remains till this day.

    This is not the only Gupta coin hoard found, there have been around 17 such discoveries in the last 200 years. Most of the discoveries have been in Bengal, UP and Bihar. In fact, the latest one was discovered just 5 years back, in 2013, during a highway construction in Murshidabad, West Bengal. The Bayana hoard, however, remains the most significant. They are a window into the grandeur of the Gupta’s, great patrons of the arts, under whom a large part of India saw a ‘golden age’.

    Somewhere around the 4th century CE the Guptas rose out of small principality in Eastern Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, and built an empire that lasted for more than two centuries. A king named Gupta was the progenitor. His grandson, Chandragupta I (319-350 CE) was the paramount ruler, who extended his kingdom far and wide. His son Samudragupta (reign. c. 330-375 CE) made extensive conquests and made his influence felt over the rulers of Southern region (Dakshinapatha) as well as rulers beyond his frontiers in the north-west. His son Chandragupta II extended still further the boundaries of his empire up to Kashmir in the west and Odisha in the east. Chandra Gupta II’s son Kumara Gupta I (415-450 CE) performed two Ashwamedha Yajna or horse sacrifice, to ‘declare’ his power and added to the empire, a greater part of central India, Gujarat and Saurashtra.

    Towards the end of Kumaragupta’s reign, there were setbacks. The Hunas were conducting raids into the kingdom and over the next two decades, the Gupta kings were busy warding off this threat. While Skandagupta (455-467 CE) managed to defeat the Hunas, by the time he succeeded, the vast Gupta empire had begun to crumble. By the time of Budhagupta (496-500 CE), the western part of the empire was lost; after him, the Guptas remained confined to Bihar, Bengal and some parts of Odisha. Ultimately fading into oblivion.

    Given the significance of the Guptas in Indian history, the discovery and recovery of the large Bayana Gupta Hoard, was the most sensational numismatics discovery of the time. It is still spoken of, in wonder.

    Broadly, the Bayana coins fell into different categories. They are catalogued as lyrist type, the elephant-rider type, the lion-trampler type, the rhinoceros-slayer type and the ashvamedha type. All these are priceless.

    1. The King and Queen type: The coin depicts the marriage of Chandragupta I to the Lichchavi princess Kumaradevi on the obverse. The reverse of the coin has a seated goddess Durga. The coin portrays Chandra Gupta I. The coin, however, was issued by his son Samudragupta.

    2. The Lyrist type of coin of Samudragupta: Is very beautiful and unique. On this coin, the king is shown seated, at ease, on a high-backed couch, playing a string instrument - probably a simple lyre or lute. The fact that the king wanted to publicize an image of himself as a musician is remarkable and also a window into the values the Gupta state held dear. Samudragupta is known to have been a great patron of the arts and was indeed an accomplished musician and poet.

    3. The lion-slayer type of Chandragupta II: This is based on the tiger-slayer type of coin issued by Samudragupta. Also Kumaragupta issues coins of similar fashion. The reverse of the coin has Goddess sitting on a lion and diadem in her hand.

    4. Rhinoceros-slayer type of Kumaragupta: The obverse of the coin has the king on horseback holding a sword in his right hand attacking the rhinoceros. The reverse has the Goddess Ganga standing on a makara (mythical crocodile). She holds a lotus in her right hand. The coin is of high artistic quality, notice how the rhinoceros is depicted with scaly skin.

    5. Elephant-rider type of Kumaragupta: The obverse of the coin depicts the king sitting on an elephant holding a staff in his right hand, while an attendant is seated behind him. The reverse of the coin has Goddess Lakshmi standing facing the left holding out her right hand, as if to pet the peacock.

    6. Karttikeya type of Kumaragupta: The obverse of the coin has the King standing with his right hand stretched out and a peacock to left. The reverse of the coin has Karttikeya seated on a peacock.

    7. Chhatra type of Skandagupta: The obverse of the coin has king standing on the left, sacrificing at a fire altar, as an attendant stands on the right, holding up a parasol over the king. The reverse of the coin has Goddess Lakshmi standing holding a diadem. The Chhatra or the Royal Parasol type of Skandagupta coin is extremely rare. Only one specimen of this type was known from the Bayana hoard.

    Most of the Bayana hoard coins are currently with the Rajasthan State government, CSMVS Museum, Mumbai and also at the National Museum, New Delhi. One can spot all the Gupta gold coins at the Numismatic gallery of the National Museum.


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