The Little Kingdoms of the North (200 BCE – 200 CE)
This is the story of history's forgotten kingdoms, whose history has been painstakingly stitched together through secondary accounts like the epics, the Puranas, Greek historical records and the odd inscription, all backed by a huge numismatic database.
They range in time from the 4th century BCE to the 5th century CE, and they survived the vicissitudes of time, defeats by foreign conquerors and displacement from their homelands to keep clan and kingdom together. These little-known polities claimed descent from venerable sages like Vishwamitra and epic heroes like Yudhisthira. They ended up lending their clan names to the geography of India and yet we know precious little about them. We often do not know from where they came and where they vanished, into in the hoary annals of the Early History of India. This is their story.
Between the Mahajanapada of Gandhara and the Ganga Valley lay a number of small city-states, republics and confederations that made up the socio-political milieu of the early centuries BCE. A number of these states were also welded together into the mighty empires of the Nandas (circa 343-321 BCE) and the Mauryas (4th to 2nd century BCE) in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and in northern India, in general.Their history is not usually accounted for in the more well-known contemporary sources, yet there are hints of their existence in some of the epic literature like the Mahabharata and in the Puranas. More surprisingly, we know about them from the Greek accounts of Alexander’s historians and the ones who followed them, like Megasthenes (circa 350-circa 290 BCE).
A few of these kingdoms and principalities are also sometimes a part of the epigraphical record, often as secondary mentions and not in epigraphs of their own. The single largest database of these ‘small’ players, though, is numismatic. We have a large number of coins belonging to these states and many of them are known merely from their coinage.When the first of these coins was found and catalogued, they were given the very dubious title of ‘Tribal Coins’, suggesting that a tribe in its primitive form was able to mint coins of such standard and artistic persuasion! Other numismatists created further categories and since many coins merely mentioned their city/capital city, these came to be known as the ‘Coins of the City-States’. Many coins also used the words gana/jana/janapadasa, and these were usually grouped together as the ‘Coins of the Republics/Republican States’.
A fourth grouping also exists, where there is a very clear dynastic mention, with or without the mention of a specific ruler. These coins make up the ‘Monarchical’ or ‘Dynastic’ series. What is most interesting is that almost all these date to between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE, all across north-western India, northern India and central India. In many ways, they appear to parallel what we have seen in the Deccan during the same period, although far more prolifically.Examples of these coins include the following: the 16 ‘Tribes’ as delineated by Devendra Handa (renowned numismatist and author of Tribal Coins of Ancient India – 2007); and the little-known janapadas and the even ‘littler’ city-states and obscure dynasties and monarchies. The categories often overlap and a state may fall into one or all of the above.
The Yaudheyas: The most prominent of these dynasties are the Yaudheyas, mentioned by Greek historians. They claim to be descendants of Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandava heroes. They are the most enduring of these little-known kingdoms. They find their earliest historical mention among Greek historians and are well known to us from the time of the Indo-Greek king Menander (160-130 BCE), and are mentioned as bitter opponents by Alexander’s historians. The Yaudheyas are related to their contemporaries, the Malwas, Trigartas and Sibis, all of whom are mentioned by Greek historians. They are referred to in the Puranas as “the Kshatriyas who reined in the Kushanas”.
They migrated from the north-west (around the Beas) and occupied northern Rajasthan and Punjab, and are known to have been there during the reign of Kshatrapa ruler Rudradaman (130-150 CE). In his Junagadh inscription, Rudradaman mentions how he defeated the Yaudheyas even though they had twice defeated Satavahana ruler Satakarni in the past. Thus, the Yaudheyas gently drifted south and east from the Beas region, where we first hear about them in the 4th century BCE, to Rajasthan in the time of Rudradaman. They minted exquisite, round, silver and copper coins with legends in Brahmi and Kharosthi.
Interestingly, they worshipped Karthikeya, the God of War, and he is prominent on their coins in his single-headed and six-headed forms, often shown holding a spear and with his vahana, the cockerel. Oddly enough, we think of Karthikeya as a South Indian deity these days. The reverse of the coins usually shows a river goddess. Some of their coins also show a deer with a temple in front of it. The legend most commonly reads ‘Yaudheya Ganasaya Jayah’. This appears to point towards a republican form of government. The Yaudheyas were ultimately subjugated by Samudra Gupta in the 4th century CE.
The Malwas: The next in order of importance are the Malwas or Malavas. Known to Alexander’s historians as the Malloi (in the 4th century BCE), they were impeccable foes and were driven southwards from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in modern Pakistan. They became a ‘ganarajya’ between 200 BCE and 350 CE, and are located in the geographical region named after them (Malwa) in modern Madhya Pradesh, where we find their coins.
The Mahabharata puts them in the lower Punjab, the Puranas associate them with Avanti and Saurashtra, and thus we can see a gradual movement from the NWFP to Punjab, to Rajasthan, and then to Central India (ie, the Malwa plateau in Madhya Pradesh). They made cast copper coins with legends in the Brahmi script and in the Prakrit language. Multiple denominations are known to us. The most common legends are Malavana, Malvanam Jaya and Malavana Ganasya Jaya. Along with coins, we also have a lead seal with the legend ‘Malavajanapada’ found at Rairh in Rajasthan.
The Audumbaras: The Audumbaras are perhaps next in order of importance, based on the availability of data. They are mentioned by the grammarian Panini in his Mahabhasya (4th century BCE), by Ptolemy, the geographer (2nd century CE), as the ‘Odomboerae’. And they are also known to us from the ancient Indian texts, the Puranas, Harivamsa and Brihatsamhita.
Their coins are found from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE. Their name comes from the fig tree, the audumbar. This tree is related to the birth legend of the Sage Vishwamitra, whose mother is said to have embraced a fig tree to conceive him. Not surprisingly, Audumbara coins often depict Vishwamitra on them.
The Audumbaras can be comfortably located between the Beas and the upper Sutlej and Ravi, from their coin finds. They issued both cast and die-struck coins in copper and silver. Most were bi-scriptual, ie, they had legends in both Kharosthi and Brahmi. Common motifs included the bull, a temple with a trident with an axe on it, a figure of Vishwamitra, and symbols like the tree-in-railing. They were seriously influenced by Indo-Greek coinage in size and weight.
We know of a number of Audumbara kings: Sivadasa, Rudradasa, Dharaghosha and Mahadeva. These names show a very clear Shaivaite association. The trident with axe, also called the Trident-Battleaxe, appears to have been their standard.
The Kunindas: The ‘Coins of the Tribes’ cannot be referred to without referring to the coins of the Kunindas. Ptolemy (2nd century CE) calls them the ‘Kulindine’ and they appear to have flourished between the 2nd century BCE and the 4th century CE. Their coins have been found in the sub-Himalayan regions of Himachal and Kumaon, and also in adjoining parts of Punjab.
The Kunindas minted some of the most beautiful coins of Northern India. Their silver coins followed the Indo-Greek Drachm standard of 4.2g. Both die-struck and cast coins are known. They are bi-scriptual, the obverse usually has a deer and a goddess, arched hill and the Brahmi legend ‘Rajnah Kunindasya Amoghabhutisya Maharajasya’ (Kingdom of the Kunindas, Maharaja Amoghabhuti), and the reverse bears a swastika, nandipada, a standard, arched hill, tree-in-railing and the same legend in Kharosthi.
They are the only state known to have issued a large amount of silver coinage. There are also coins attributed to another king called Chitreshvara. These coins have an image of Shiva carrying a trident upon them. During the excavations at the site of Sanghol in Punjab, more than 40 terracotta coin moulds were found alongside a furnace on a brick platform. This suggests that there was a mint here.
The Sibis: If we talk about the Malwas, we have to talk about their neighbours, the Sibis. Alexander’s historians call them the ‘Siboi’ and mention them as being present alongside the Malloi in the NWFP. The Mahabharata also groups them with the Yaudheyas, Rajanyas and Trigartas. They too moved south-east or were pushed in that direction after their defeat at the hands of the Greeks.
Their coins are mainly found in southern Rajasthan and are dateable to the period between the 2nd century BCE and the middle of the 1st century CE. They are round and made of copper, and bear the legends ‘Sibi Janapadasa’ and ‘Majhamikaya Sibi Janapadasa’. Majhamikaya is Madhyamika, the capital city of the Sibis, and it is usually identified with the city of Nagar in Southern Rajasthan, where excavations have yielded a number of these coins. Their coins are rare.
The Vrishnnis: Among all the ‘Tribal States’, the ones with the rarest and most enigmatic coins are the Vrishnnis. The Shatapatha and Aitareya Brahamnas connect them with the Punjab-Haryana region and the Mahabharata tells us an interesting tale. Apparently, hard-pressed by Jarasandha (father-in-law of Kansa and king of Magadha in the Mahabharata), the Vrishnnis shifted from Dwarka to Mathura. How they ended up in Haryana is anyone's guess.
They also find mention in the Puranas, where they are called a tribe. To date, only three Vrishnni silver coins are known to us. They have a spoked wheel on one side, with the Kharosthi legend ‘Vrishnni Rajanna Ganasa Tratarasa’ (Vrishnni, the republican nation of saviours), and on the obverse is a unique standard emerging from a railing. The standard has an elephant's head on the left and a lion's head and forepaws on the right, with a nandipada/trishul above. Around this standard is the Brahmi legend ‘Vrishni Rajanya Ganasya Tratarasya’. A number of seals and sealings bearing the same device have been found at Sunet in Punjab.
The Kulutas: Other similar states include the Kulutas, Rajanyas and the Trigartas. The Kulutas are known from the Kulu Valley of Kangra in Himachal Pradesh. The Kulu region is supposedly named after them and they were neighbours of the Audumbaras, according to the Mahabharata. Their die-struck, bilingual copper coins are dated to the 1st/2nd century BCE and were issued in the names of numerous kings like Aryamitra, Satyamitra, Vijaymitra and Virayasas.
All these rulers, except for Virayasas, issued square coins. The legend commonly reads (in Brahmi) ‘Rajna Kolutasya’ (followed by the king's name). The Kharosthi legend merely reads ‘Ranya’. A number of their coins were excavated from the Taxila Sirkap Mound Excavations from the early Kushana levels.
The Rajanyas: The Rajanyas find mention in the Mahabharata, and the works of Panini (4th century BCE) and Patanjali (2nd century CE). They are tentatively dated to between the 1st and 2nd century BCE and are located in Rajasthan based on coin find-spots. They issued round, die-struck copper coins with Kharosthi and Brahmi legends. The early coins have Kharosthi legends while the later ones have Brahmi legends. The coins depict Goddess Laxmi with the legend ‘Rajanya Janapadasa’ on the obverse and a bull facing left in a circle with rays on the reverse.
The Trigartas: The Trigartas lived in the region around Jallandhar, ie, between the Ravi and the Sutlej rivers. They are closely associated with the Yaudheyas in the Mahabharata. They also find mention in the Ashtadhyayi of Panini and in the Dasakumaracharita written in the Pallava court by the author Dandin (although this is subject to debate)
The Vemakis: Other similar states include the Vemakis and the Arjunayanas. The Vemakis are known from their round, silver coins reported from Ambala and Chandigarh in Punjab. They too find mention in the Mahabharata. Their coins are typically bi-scriptual with a bull facing a spoked wheel on the obverse and an elephant facing a Trident-Battleaxe on the reverse. The kings mentioned are Rudravarman, Bhavavarman and Shivaghosha, and the Vemakis appear to have ruled in the 1st century BCE/CE period.
The Arjunayanas: The Arjunayanas are mentioned alongside the Yaudheyas by Panini and also in the Allahabad Prashasthi of Samudra Gupta. Their coins are reported from the Agra-Mathura region. The coins are silver and copper with Brahmi legends. The most common variant has a bull facing a hill on the obverse with the legend ‘Arjunayanam’ and a lion crouched on its hind legs with a curled tail on its reverse with the legend ‘Arjunayanam Jayaha’. Two kings are known, Dharmarudrasa and Bhadramasa.
Coins of the City-StatesAs we move into Central and Eastern-Central India, we also have a number of Coins of the City-States. These include unifacial and bifacial coins, with the names of the cities. Examples include Tripuri (modern Tewar in Madhya Pradesh), Mathura, Kausambhi and Suktimati. In many cases, these coins belong to hyperlocal dynasties like the Maghas, Mitras, Bhadras and Savitriputras. Simple unifacial coins bearing the legend ‘Tripuri’ have been excavated by well-known archaeologist M G Dixit. Round, cast coins of Kausambhi (spelt ‘Kosabi’ on the coin in Brahmi), with a bull facing a standard at left are also known from the region surrounding the site of Kausambhi and are dated to the 1st century BCE.
Kausambhi excavations have also revealed the coins of a dynasty called the Maghas but these are post-Kushana rulers (1st to 4th century CE). The coins of the Mitra dynasty can be dated to the period between the 2nd and 1st century BCE, and are found in the region around Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh. Many scholars have tried to associate these Mitras with the Sunga rulers, whose names carried the suffix ‘Mitra' but this is difficult to pin down. Many Mitra coins are also found in the region of Eran in Madhya Pradesh, adjacent to Vidisha.
Kings include Narayanmitra, Bhanumitra, Vajimitra. A small number of tiny, round, copper coins with the legend ‘Vedisha’ or square, die-struck coins with ‘Vidisasa’ are also known to us and palaeographically can be assigned to the 1st century BCE/CE period.
If Vidisha has coins, so does Eran. Coins bearing the legend ‘Erikachhca' are known from the region and are dated to the 2nd century BCE. There are also some spectacular coins of a city named ‘Suktimati’ (capital of the Mahajanapada of Chedis), which feature a horse on the obverse and a standing elephant on the reverse. The coins are very beautiful and ornate, with multiple devices on both faces but they are rare and the site of the city has yet to be determined conclusively.
The most interesting dynastic coins from this region are the coins of the Panchalas. With the demise of the Mauryan Empire, the Panchala kingdom, once a Mahajanapada in its own right, regained its independence. There is an entire series of die-struck coins of the Panchala rulers, with a square die bearing two lines. The top line usually bears three auspicious symbols while the lower line bears the name of the ruler in Brahmi. The reverse usually bears a tree-in railing with variations.
This janapada, which had been originally absorbed into Magadha, now boasts a series of rulers: Vangapala, Rudragupta, Yajnabala, Dhruvamitra, Vishnumitra, Suryamitra, Bhanumitra, Jayamitra, Indramitra, Bhumimitra, Agnimitra, Bhadraghosha and Phalgunimitra. Sadly, we know nothing about these rulers with the exceptions of their coins, which can be palaeographically assigned to the period between the mid-2nd century BCE and the early 2nd century CE. What is constant are the three symbols of the Panchala dynasty.
The only other really noteworthy coins are those attributed to Ujjain. These usually have an image of Mahakaal (a form of Shiva worshipped in Ujjain to this day) on the obverse and the famous Ujjain symbol (a cross whose arms end in small circles) on the reverse. Attributing a coin to Ujjain merely due to the presence of the Ujjain symbol is not enough as the symbol is seen on the coins of many distant dynasties across time and space. There are a number of variants in this too.Along with these are numerous other coins, some with names, some without, which are generally lumped together in the period between the 1st century BCE and the 2nd century CE, and are reminders of an age of turmoil between the empires. What we can add to the understanding of the scenario is that there were a large number of smaller polities, some of which were forced to move and resettle with the coming of Alexander and his invasion of the NWFP. Others were unaffected and did not move.
Many a state became a power in its own right, very much as it had been in the earliest days of state formation. Clans and tribes became republics and kingdoms. As the mighty empires coalesced, they often became vassals, as in the case of the Nanda and Mauryan Empires. Some of them were tenacious enough to last from the 4th century BCE to the 5th century CE, till Samudra Gupta made them a part of his empire by conquest.
Interestingly, many of these fledgling states find mention in the Mahabharata, forcing us to conclude one of two things: either these city-states and small republics predate the epic or they were interpolated later.
Our final lesson is that there are myriad sources of history and had it not been for numismatics, there would have been no solid evidence for the existence of these polities, their rulers, the cities of the times, the religious affiliations and their economic systems. No doubt, numismatics has played an enormous role in filling the blanks between the Mauryas and the Kushanas in Northern, North-Western and Central India.
This article is part of our 'The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material - archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.
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