The search for a two-thousand-year-old city

by Hartosh Singh Bal

Lost to history, a number of cities of classical antiquity once existed along the banks of the river Narmada in central India. Many of these cities date back to the 3rd century BC, to the time of the emperor Ashoka, who united the subcontinent into an empire whose extent was never again to be matched in the history of India. The emperor ruled from Patliputra (modern day Patna) in the heart of Magadh in the Indo-Gangetic plain but the spread of his empire made it inevitable that there would be other centers of administration. It was carved into four provinces, after Magadh the most important of these was Avanti with its capital Ujjain. Along the highway connecting the two capitals a number of cities came up and prospered, including some on the banks of the Narmada.

A coup by a Brahmin commander-in-chief who in all likelihood could not tolerate the ascendance of Buddhism brought down the Mauryan Empire. In the aftermath Patliputra could no longer exercise control over the unwieldy empire, the cities soon went their own way. One of the most important of these was Mahismati. Despite several references that crop up in classical Sanskrit literature, today it is difficult to pin down its exact location. This has given rise to a host of claimants along the Narmada, residents of modern day towns such as Mandla and Maheshwar still wage a fevered battle – leaving nothing aside, myths, fanciful notions, borrowings from questionable sources, notions that historians of repute would never touch.

ScreenHunter_12 Feb. 06 10.47There remains one authentic source for delving into the history of these cities. Coins dating back as far as the third century BC have been recovered in such abundance from the Narmada valley that the subject now forms a separate field of study. Borrowing symbols used on coins once struck at the Ujjain mint, we can guess at the existence of cities such as Bhagila, Kurara and Madavika only through the markings on their coins.

The coins do not differ much in size from the modern coin, though square shapes seemed to have been preferred. They are often crowded with symbols. A single square coin, no larger than the modern 25paisa coin, could accommodate as many as five symbols on each face. Some of these symbols were in use across the subcontinent, such as the swastika; others such as the Ujjain symbol resembling the iron cross demarcated a region.

The village of Nadner may well be settled over the remains of one such city. An old fort wall surrounds the village and on its outskirts large earthen mounds overlook the river. Brick shards stick out from the eroded mudbanks of the mounds. Along the path leading to the top of the mounds each footstep dislodges broken pieces of pottery. The son of the village headman who is showing me around doesn’t even bother to look down, for him these shards are a commonplace.

Lentil grows atop the mounds which have been encroached upon by the local farmers. The Archaeological Survey after a season of excavation here a few years ago, has covered up the site and left. He tells me that each monsoon he and his friends walk around here looking for coins washed up by the rains. It is the same each time the farmers plough their fields. Scampering along the slopes of the mounds the boy shows me a huge stone tablet projecting out of the earth, he points to another toppled over on its side that has slid down the slope. The script at least to my eyes is illegible.

We are on our own as we walk along the mound. The river flows slowly, the water reflects the blue of the sky, wisps of clouds drift by, nothing is hurried, not even the wind blowing through the lentil fields. I can almost imagine the city walls; inside the citizenry would have gone about its business, outside on the river, boats would have travelled down this navigable stretch. Would this have been one of the cities Kalidas knew in his youth? No one really knows. The digs were inconclusive, some artifacts and coins were recovered. The Archaeological Survey has too much of the past on its hands, it can only do so much.

The boy asks if we can return to the village. We walk back in silence. Others then insist on showing me around the village. We walk to the main entrance to the village, two stone pillars stand guard by the stairs that lead down from the fort rampart. Huts have come up outside the fort walls. We descend the stairs, turn to the right and come to halt outside a shack selling tea and biscuits. They point to some statues that have surfaced recently, half-buried in the earth they stand like a fresh crop from the soil, ready for some collector to harvest.

I cannot help but stare, among the headless torsos and decayed forms a Buddha seems complete down to the waist. Implanted in the earth, it is exquisite. Sandalwood and paste have been anointed on the forehead, but even the transformation into a village deity cannot take away the serenity sculpted into its form.

On the outskirts of the village headed back to the nearest city, I am waived down by a man who I think is looking for a ride into town. He introduces himself as Akhilesh, he has seen me walking around the mound. For Rs 100 he offers me two Mauryan coins and a few beads. I hesitate, to pay is to encourage the trade, but the trade goes on with or without me. If nothing else I can return a debt I have already incurred to a man who had just a few days earlier opened my eyes to the coins of the Narmada.

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Ajay Jaiswal had asked me to meet me at home, next to his hotel, the Ajanta. It seemed an unlikely combination, the antiquities and the hotel. He turned out to be a stout man, expected in the owner of such a hotel, and a PhD in journalism, which was not.

The hotel, he told me, is a family business that pays the bills. His real interest lies elsewhere. He comes from a family of collectors and the passion runs in his blood, both his maternal and paternal grandfathers were collectors and he has inherited the collections.

He has 25,000 coins in his collection, 200 coins from the Mauryan era alone, it is probably the largest such private collection in the country, hidden in this remote town by the Narmada. He tells me everything that I now know about city states and Mauryan coinage. He pulls out a magnifying glass and makes me peer at an album he had set to one side. The marking come alive, these he tells me are 1/8 the size of coins currently believed to be the smallest in the world.

I take out the two coins I have purchased from Nadner, he takes a look at them. One of them is a cast copper coin from the first or second century BC, quite commonly found here. The other is from the city state of Kurara, now lost to us.

As I glance through Ajay’s collection he makes me stop and stare at a particular coin. He asks if I notice anything in particular about it, I can’t see what he was trying to point out. Then he shows me where the gold plating has eroded revealing the inferior metal lying below. It is a counterfeit medieval coin, one of the many in his collection.

It is a subject of particular fascination for him, and for the moment it catches my fancy. Counterfeit coinage dates back to least 400 BC on the subcontinent, in fact it would have followed closely the introduction of actual coinage. Ajay points me to the Arthashastra, the compendium of ancient Indian statecraft that dates to the first century AD. It prescribes an office of the Examiner of Coins who could impose a cash penalty for circulating counterfeit coin, the penalty for actually depositing counterfeit currency in the treasury was death.

Today in some cases a counterfeit coin of that era is worth far more than the original. With no official around to impose a penalty for inauthenticity, the very objects that set a measure on value in a society become open to other forms of estimation. The idea of the original and the counterfeit and the precedence that we grant to one over the other then seems to be a measure of time. And if this fact is so subject to change even when the authentic can be testified to by an examiner, why do we remain so sure of judging fakes? Who is to say what will eventually come to pass in time? And does it not seem appropriate today to let both Mandla and Maheshwar lay claim to Mahishmati?

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