Early last year, daily wage labourers stumbled upon the proverbial pot of gold while digging a pond under a government minimum-wage scheme in Assam. One can only imagine their surprise when their shovels turned over a large cache of priceless coins belonging to Assam’s erstwhile Ahom Dynasty.
The discovery was not as random as it may have seemed to the stunned labourers. They were excavating a pond in Charaideo, the site of the first city established by Siukapha, a Tai prince who founded the Ahom Dynasty in the 13th century, after he rode in across the Patkai Mountains that separate North-East India and Burma.
When Siukapha (r. 1228–1268) arrived in Assam, the region was thickly forested and inhabited by local kingdoms like the Sooteas, Borahis and Kacharis. But it looked deceptively remote. The truth is, for millennia, an interconnected web of routes collectively known as the ‘Southern Silk Route’ fanned out across North East India and facilitated the movement of people, commodities and ideas. It was a long way from Mong Mao, in present-day Ruili on the Myanmar-China border, but the Tai-Ahoms adapted quickly to their new homeland and ruled Assam for 600 years.
The Ahom Dynasty governed the region from 1228 CE till it was annexed by the British in 1826 CE, and co-existed with the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526 CE) and Mughals (1526-1857 CE). The Ahoms practiced a culturally inclusive policy, built a prosperous kingdom and had a highly organised administrative set-up, which at its height governed a vast area in the Brahmaputra Valley.
The Ahoms left an indelible imprint on Assam’s history and culture. While much has been written about the dynasty and its rule, a study of Ahom coins offers invaluable insights into the lesser-known aspects of their rule. It tells us stories of the rulers and intrigues, trade and commerce, religion and geopolitics. Here’s a glimpse into the life and times of the Ahoms.
Cowries, Coins & Early Legends
How ironic that a simple sea shell should have been the most widely used unit of currency in ancient, medieval and pre-colonial Assam. Found in abundance in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, the cowrie, known as kori in Assam, was harvested from the Cypraea moneta and Cypraea annulus, both species of snails, in the waters off the Maldives.
Cowrie money arrived in the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam from the coastal areas of Bengal. Kori derives from kauri (kaudi) as it was called in the Indo-Gangetic plains, which again has its origins in the Sanskrit word karpada, as mentioned in the Rigveda.
Interestingly, Nicholas G Rhodes and S K Bose mention in their book Coinage of Assam: Pre-Ahom Period (2003) that even the Chinese character in the alphabet for money, called ‘bao’ (pronounced ‘pao’), is derived from the character for a cowrie.
There is no consensus among historians as to when the Ahom kings replaced cowrie money with metal coins. There is a reference in one of the Ahom Buranjis (chronicles) that the first Ahom ruler, Siukapha (r. 1228 – 68 CE), while laying the foundation of his capital city of Che-rai-doi or Charaideo, placed a vessel full of silver at the foot of a tree as an offering to the Tai gods. While some historians believe this constitutes the first issuance and usage of Ahom coinage, it is more likely that, given the socio-economic conditions of Upper Assam at the time, what King Siukapha had offered was not coins but silver bullion or ingots.
Earliest Ahom Coins
Some historians believe that the earliest Ahom coins were issued by King Sutyinpha or Jayadhwaj Singha (r. 1648 – 1663 C.E.), the 20th Ahom king, in 1648 CE. This is based on the types of coins recovered from various hoards, with the following inscriptions:
1. Sri Sri Ha/ri Hara Chara/na Paraya/nasya Sri Sri Sva/rga Naraya/nasya Sake/ 1570 (gold mohur)
2. Sri Sri Ha/ri Hara Chara/na Paraya/nasya Sri Sri Sva/rga Narayana/ Devasya Sake/ 1570 (gold mohur)
The name of the issuing authority, referred to as ‘Svarga Narayana’ corresponds to the year 1570 Saka (1648 CE) and marks the accession of King Sutyinpha or Jayadhwaj Singha. Therefore, historians believe, these coins must have been issued by King Sutyinpha.
An equally interesting fact is that these coins tell us about the adoption of ‘Sanskritised’ Hindu traditions by the Ahoms. When the Ahoms migrated to the Brahmaputra Valley in the 13th century, they worshipped spirits (Ban Phi). But these Ahom coins have an invocation of Hindu gods Vishnu (Hari Hara) and Indra (Hari Harendra), in both Sanskrit and the Assamese script.
It was under King Sutyinpha that the dominions of the kingdom were expanded towards the Karotaya River in North Bengal. King Sutyinpha adopted the Sanskritised name ‘Jayadhwaj’ (Victorious Flag) probably to symbolise his victory and influence over the Brahmaputra Valley. He also set the trend for Ahom kings to adopt Hindu symbols to denote their kingdom, along with their traditional Ahom ones.
Coins & Trade
Early Ahom coins also reveal the attempts of the Assamese kings to develop trade and commerce with China and Tibet. Anup Mitra in his book Coins of Ahom Kingdom (2001) refers to an octagonal silver rupee dated 1648 CE, bearing a single Chinese character on either side. It reads as ‘Zang Bao’, roughly corresponding to the meaning ‘currency/ valuable of Tibet’, where ‘Zang’ refers to Tibet. This coin could reflect an attempt by Ahom king King Sutyinpha to explore opportunities for Assam-Tibet trade.
But the attempt to establish direct trade between Assam and Tibet hit a roadblock, thanks to the ruler of Kathmandu, Pratap Malla (r. 1641-74 CE), who forced a treaty on Tibet to acquire the exclusive rights for transit Tibet-India trade, in 1652 CE. From then on, Nepal would be the intermediary for trade between the Tibetans and the Ahoms.
Barring a few exceptions, coins were regularly minted after the reign of King Sutyinpha until the very end of the Ahom Kingdom in 1826 CE. Silver, the most-preferred metal, was sourced either from the mines of Yunnan and Burma or trade with Bengal through the various branches of the Southern Silk Route.
But it appears that the use of the humble cowrie as currency continued for at least a century after the introduction of coins. In the 1660s, Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb decided to wrest back the territory lost to the Ahoms and sent his famous General, Mir Jumla, to Assam with a huge army. Shihabuddin Talish, who accompanied Mir Jumla as the royal chronicler during this invasion of 1661-63 CE, states in his Tarikh-i-Asham that the local currency consisted of both cowries and gold coins stamped with the King’s seal.
Gold was supplied to the royal mint, located in the capital, by the sonowals / soniathakurs, who belonged to the Kachari, Bihiya, Koch and Keot tribal groups. They washed gold from the rivers of Assam during the months of Bohag (mid-April to mid-May) and Kati (mid-October to mid-November). Each tribal group was required to supply one and a half tolas (1 tola = 11.6638 grams) of gold to the royal mint.
Shapes, Structures & Mints
Ahom coins were octagonal in shape and there are various theories that attempt to explain this. The Yoginitantra, a 16th century CE tantric text, contains the following shloka:
Astakonancha Soumaram yatra Dikkarabasini Tasmin bishanti ye loka gyanadgyantohopi ba Tehopi Debyah prosadena Siddhim gachhanti nanyatha.
‘It is the eight-angled Saumara (a pitha or a sacred place) where the goddess Dikkaravasini (Tamresvari) resides. Men who enter there, knowingly or unknowingly, attain success/ salvation through the blessings of the Goddess, without fail’
One perspective suggests that the Brahmin priests in the court of King Susenghpha or Pratap Singha (r. 1603-41) persuaded him to mint octagonal coins by referring to the above shloka, which calls the land of Saumara or Assam ‘eight-sided with the blessings of the Goddess Shakti’. A more plausible reason could be the Tai-Ahom belief that the earth was made up of eight cones and supported by eight pillars. Interestingly, most Ahom-era temples are also octagonal in shape.
A more practical explanation is that the octagonal form helped prevent rotational errors on both sides when striking the die during the minting process. The anvil die was the lower die, while the hammer die was the upper die. Die-cutting was so fine that linguistic mistakes were rare in these coins.
Here’s a bit of trivia: The Ahoms had a penchant for minting silver coins and these coins had a very high silver content, which ranged between 94.1 per cent and 98 per cent, respectively. This was higher than that 92.5 per cent used in British coins!
The Ahom mint or the Rajshal was supervised by the Sonari Bordoloi or Sonadhar Barua, with Muslim artists belonging to the akharkatia khel (calligraphers’ guild) and khanikar khel (miners’ guild) employed as die-cutters.
Denominations & the ‘Assamese Nur Jahan’
The principal denominations of Ahom coins were: Rupee (Rajmohuree, or 1,280 cowries), Half Rupee (Adhuli), Quarter Rupee (Siki), Two Annas (Admahia), One Anna (Charatiya) and Half Anna (Tiniratiya). Both gold and silver coins were minted in these denominations by various rulers.
The silver Adhuli was introduced by King Siupungmung or Chakradhwaj Singha (r. 1663-70 CE). It was this king who famously rejected Aurangzeb’s overlordship and announced that death was preferable to a life of insubordination. He told his officers to prepare for war and this culminated in the famous Ahom victory at the Battle of Saraighat (1671 CE).
But among the most interesting Ahom coins ever struck are those minted by Queen Phuleshwari or Pramatheshwari (r. 1724-31 CE), famously referred to as the ‘Assamese Nur Jahan’ for the power and influence she wielded. In 1722, CE, the then Ahom ruler, King Siutanpha or Siva Singha (r. 1714-44 CE), transferred royal executive powers to his queen Phuleshwari, to get around an astrological prediction that his reign would end shortly.
Queen Phuleshwari assumed the title of ‘Bar Raja’ or ‘Chief King’ and ruled on behalf of her husband. She patronised women’s education and built the Gaurisagar tank (in Sivasagar District of Assam) along with temples dedicated to Shiva, Devi (Shakti) and Vinshnu on its banks. She got the Shakuntala translated into Assamese verse, and Durga Puja came to be celebrated with much vibrancy in the court due to her patronage of Saktaism. Queen Phuleshwari introduced silver Rajmohurees with legends in the Persian and Arabic scripts.
The Ahom kingdom reached its greatest height under King Siurempha or Rajeswara Singha (r. 1751-69 CE). Under him, trade and commerce flourished, and this made the kingdom extremely wealthy. King Siurempha not only issued the gold one-eighth and one-sixteenth Mohurs, he also introduced the silver Admahia and Charatiya denominations. Moreover, he minted gold and silver denominations in the Nagari script, Arabic script, and Persian and Urdu languages. He presided over the golden period of the Ahoms, with peace and prosperity all around.
Decline & Fall of the Ahom Kingdom
The Moamoria Rebellion, an uprising by the followers of the Moamoria sect, greatly weakened the Ahom kingdom in the late 18th century CE. The uprising began during the reign of King Siunyeopha or Lakshmi Singha (r. 1769-80 CE) and continued sporadically for the next two decades, destroying the very foundations of the Ahom monarchy.
King Siunyeopha’s son and successor, Siuhitpangpha (r. 1780-95 CE) or Gaurinath Singha, was an opium addict and an ineffective ruler. The royal treasury was depleted and, for the first time, a large number of coins was minted to develop a standing army modelled on European lines. The king introduced both the gold Mohur and the silver Rupee in the one thirty-second denominations (Tiniratiya).
During the reign of the young Purandar Singha (r. 1818-19 CE), his father Brajanath Singha, the actual power behind the throne, introduced two copper coins – Two Pana and One Pana (equal to 80 cowries), corresponding to the silver Admahia and Charatiya, respectively. This period saw the beginning of the Burmese invasions and the use of copper also points to the pathetic state of the Ahom kingdom’s finances.
Brajanath Singha’s coins are unique because of the presence of Vaishnavite incantations on them. In fact, his Two Pana copper coin had both Sanskritic and Persian legends on the obverse and reverse sides, respectively. No coins are found to have been issued in the name of Purandar Singha to date. The last known Ahom coins were issued by Jogeswar Singha, a Burmese puppet, in 1821 CE.
Purandar Singha ruled twice, and following the annexation by the British of his restored dominions in Upper Assam, during his second stint (r. 1833-1838 CE), the Ahom Rajmohuree coins were finally demonetised on 1st January 1840. In 1845 CE, on the orders of the British East India Company, the official receipt of Narayanee and Rajmohuree rupees into the Assamese treasuries was finally terminated, and only British-Indian currency was circulated in the state.
Ahom coinage represents fine specimens of money and it attained a very high degree of finesse and accuracy, especially in a region labelled a ‘frontier’ for most of history. Though coins were initially used as tokens of value gifted by monarchs to their favoured officials and subjects, they emerged as currency with the gradual opening up of the kingdom to outsiders from the mid-18th century, for both trade and commerce and the raising of armies to fight enemies.
Both the National Museum in Delhi and the Assam State Museum in Guwahati have on display a good collection of Ahom coins, whereas the largest private collection is in the Jora Villa Museum in Jorhat, in Assam. Sadly, an appalling lack of awareness has led countless coins to be melted and converted into jewellery by the people over time.
A significant number of priceless Ahom coins has been purchased by collectors outside Assam, through middlemen, and many are sold in online auctions on reputed e-commerce platforms. With every successful bid on these portals, a national treasure vanishes forever, consigning a slice of history to obscurity.
– ABOUT AUTHOR
Dr. Ambuj Thakur teaches history at Assam Royal Global University, Guwahati.