Except for the closed club of numismatics-fanatics, the journey of currencies throughout history is rather overlooked by the general reader. Yet, the inestimable value of the study of currencies remains inseparable from a study of history. There is a direct connection between the rise and fall of empires with the fate of their currencies. The insanity-fueled despotism of Muhammad bin Tughlaq presents the most eminent proof of this truth in Indian history: a central reason for the chaotic breakup of his empire was his psychotic experiments with currency.
Unlike paper-wealth-tigers of the contemporary world, currencies historically had real value: from the era of the classical civilisations of India, Greece, and Rome up to the excesses of the post-industrialized world. In fact, much of the reconstruction of the history of the Gupta Empire owes to the extensive and deep study of its coins. Gold and silver coins of the Guptas were variously known as Dinara, Suvarna, and Rupaka (from which the word Rupee is derived). Like in every other realm of Sanatana civilization and culture, the Guptas set the gold standard in coins and currencies as well, but that is a topic for another day. With the fall of the Gupta Empire, the monetary stability and standardization that they had so firmly established took different trajectories in different regions of Bharatavarsha.
From the earliest times, Hindu currencies were variously known as Karshapana, Suvarna, Purana, Dharana, Nishka, Vimshopaka, Rati, and Dinari. Among these, the most enduring currency was the Dramma.
Dramma is derived from the Greek currency Drachma, which originated roughly in the 6th Century BCE. Ever since, it has travelled throughout the world. However, it is perhaps only in India that it acquired a highly creative expression and usage for more than 1400 years.
This is the story of the Dramma’s journey in India.
The literal meaning of Drachma is “to grasp.” Its original value was equal to a handful of arrows. With Athens emerging as a major commercial centre in the 5th Century BCE, the Athenian Drachma became its undisputed currency. In its original form, it was a silver coin weighing 67.5 grains or 4.3 grams. However, its journey from Greece to Bharatavarsha during the course of history eventually transformed it to roughly to 84 grains or 5.92 grams.
The (ancient) Persian and Arab currency, Dirham comes from Drachma.
In India, the Dramma acquired a life of its own as it travelled over both space and time. It was a widely recognized unit of currency in all major and minor empires throughout the country. It also underwent many minor name-changes, its value fluctuated, and its destiny underwent major changes as we shall see.
We notice the earliest mention of Dramma on some copper coins minted by the Yaudheya kings of the 3rd Century CE.
Coins were typically named after their issuers, i.e., kings. This was an ancient political custom stamping the absolute supremacy of the Chakravartin or Samrat or monarch over the territories he had conquered. Non-recognition of his currency meant instant punitive, military action against say, a rebellious chieftain or enemy.
Thus, apart from the coins of the Gupta regime, we can begin with the example of the 8th century Krishnaraja-Rupaka (Rupee) named after the Kalachuri King, Krishnaraja who ruled in the 6th century.
And then we can travel back to the 9th and 10th Century C.E. to Madhya Pradesh where we find the brilliant Srimad Adivaraha-Dramma of the Pratihara King, Mihira Bhoja I who ruled from 836-85 CE.
To trace the history of this brilliant coin, we need to visit the decrepit village named Siron Khurd near Lalitpur in Jhansi. The original name of this village was Siyadoni, once a flourishing commercial town under Pratihara rule. In 1887, an inscription was found here which mentions the Adivaraha-Dramma. This was how the Adivaraha-Dramma looked: a silver coin whose obverse is engraved with a beautiful carving of Adivaraha Swami and the reverse has text summarizing the glory of Mahavishnu’s Varaha Avatara. The other interesting fact is that Srimad-Adivaraha was one of the honorifics given to Mihira Bhoja I. To his eternal credit, Mihira Bhoja gave nightmares to the early Arab invaders who described him as a “fearsome infidel with a large army and fine cavalry.” The Siyadoni inscription was engraved by his son, Mahendrapala I in 901 CE.
For about two centuries, the Adivaraha-Dramma was not only the staple currency of the Pratiharas but the entire region roughly encompassing Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, the foothills of Himalayas, Rajasthan and parts of Gujarat.
When we travel down to Karnata-Desha in the same period, we spot a magnificent inscription in Soraba. Magnificent for its virtue, and moving for the values that Hindus of that era lived by. Dated 991 CE, the inscription speaks of a loyal citizen named Katega. The king of that region, Kakkala Deva had remained childless for several years. As the ancient Hindu dictum went, a childless king leaves behind an orphaned kingdom: defenceless and vulnerable to invasion and anarchy. And so, Katega took a solemn vow to cut off his head and offer it to the Mother Goddess Gundadabbe so that his king might be blessed with a son. Lo and behold, a son and successor to the kingdom was born. Then Katega stoically walked up to the soldiers, narrated his oath to them and offered his head. The inscription describes how he reached Svarga by this virtuous act. The overwhelmed king Kakkala Deva personally visited his village and immediately granted 24 hera-drammas in Katega’s honour.
Three centuries later, we can travel from Karnata-Desha to Konkana. We notice a stone inscription dated 1260 CE in Uran, now part of Navi Mumbai. Engraved by the Shilahara King Someshwara, it grants 162 Paruttha-dramma coins. This is the fixed income generated from a garden in Konthalesthan in Chadiche village given to Uttareshvara Mahadeva of Shri-Sthanak (Thana). The highly interesting fact lies in the name itself: Paruttha-dramma. These coins resembled the ancient Parthian Drammas (the Parthian Empire was an ancient Iranian Empire from 247 BC to 224 AD). Today, the Parthian region roughly corresponds to the Khorasan belt.
This apart, other types of Drammas which were found in the Konkana region in the early 20th Century were the coins of a variation of the Sassanian type of Dirhams. These coins were known as Gadhia Paisa or donkey-money in Konkana.
Thirty years later, we can travel along the coast and reach Gujarat in 1290-6 CE even as the Islamic barbarian Ala-ud-din Khalji is busy preparing for a savage invasion south of the Vindhyas. Here, we see Sarangadeva of the Viradhavala (Vaghela) dynasty giving Vishalapriya-Drammas for various purposes such as payment to horse-dealers, oil-makers, customs-officers, and making grants to temples, for Naivedyas, and to pupils of Gurukulas. The Vishalapriya-Dramma was the coinage issued by his ancestor, Visahala-Deva.
Clearly, the remarkable feature of all this is the fact that these currencies retained their names even after the original issuer and his dynasty had disappeared from the scene centuries ago.
In the final leg of our journey, we travel down to Kondavidu in the Andhra-Desa. Here we see a grant made by Nadindla Goparasa Ayyangaru (Iyengar) in 1520 CE so that the Vijayanagara Chief Minister Saluva Timma and his wife Lakshmamma can earn punya. Among other things, the grant provides for the following:
One Damma on every bag of the following items produced in the region: onions, turmeric, fenugreek, cumin, mustard, new gunny bags, green ginger, lime fruits and coconut.
Two Dammas on every bag of the following items: jaggery, cleaned cotton, ghee, castor oil, dry ginger, iron and steel chisels.
Three Dammas on every bag of mango jelly; four Dammas on every bag of sugar, arecanuts, cotton-thread, and betel leaves.
Six Dammas on every bag of long pepper, pepper, sandal, cloves, nutmeg, mace, lead, tin and copper.
With the comprehensive destruction of Hindu political power in Northern India, and with the advent of the Mughals, the fortunes of Dramma underwent a sea change. In the Mughal period, the word Dramma had become corrupted as Daam, the popular Hindi word which today exclusively means “price,” and not a unit of currency. In Akbar’s reign, Daam had degraded in value and instead of silver, he issued Daam-s in copper coins: forty Daam-s was equal to one silver Rupiya.
We have other interesting sidelights as well. For example, for over seven centuries, the Karnata-Desha (Kannada-speaking region) had different Drammas such as Gara-Dramma, Daaya-Dramma,Hera-Dramma and Belliya-Dramma (silver Dramma) even in the late 16th century as we have already seen. The Tamil equivalent was the Diramam.
Almost in direct proportion to its decline, the Kannada and Telugu words, “Dammadi” over time, generally meant only a coin. The term was in vogue even in Kannada cinema of the early 1970s.
And then, with the value and use of the Dramma gradually on the verge of extinction, Dammadi became the smallest unit of currency.
Now, it only exists on printed paper and electronic media as a historical artifact.
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