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The Sakra Sites and Their Enigmatic Coins.

IN THE MARDAN DISTRICT OF NORTHWESTERN Pakistan, in a picturesque valley of the Sakra (or Sikri) peak, is a natural limestone cave temple known as the Kashmir Smast (figures 1 and 2). (1) From at least a century ago, the inhabitants of nearby villages started becoming aware of the unusual quantities of valuable artefacts that emerged from the cave and its adjacent peaks and valleys. It is no surprise, then, that in the oral tales, the Kashmir Smast cave temple became the seat of the "Sikri King", a tyrannical potentate who invaded his neighbouring kingdoms. The spoils of his conquests, it is said, were hoarded within the great cave. However, he eventually suffered divine retribution, and his kingdom was entirely wiped out. (2)

The Chinese monk Xuanzang's 7th-century travel narrative--supported by local epigraphic evidence--reveals that this "treasure chamber" was associated with the goddess Bhima. The mountain was known as Sri Minjaparvata. (3) The 190-metre-deep cave temple that lay within was the Maha Guha, the most prominent of a collection of shrines in the Sakra and adjacent Pajja peaks.

The site has been known to colonial administrators and archaeologists since 1839, when it was first recorded by General M.A. Court who introduced it as "Cashmeer Ghar" a cave of "immeasurable depth", "situated in the territories of Baboozeis". (4) In 1888, H.A. Deane, a Political Officer of Dir and Swat also visited the site and recovered several wooden objects, which are now housed at the British Museum, London. With the exception of a few cursory surveys, however, the site was largely neglected. But, in the late 1990s, excavations and informal finds began yielding thousands of small enigmatic copper coins--many previously unknown--clustered mostly around the cave and associated sites. These coins are the subject of this essay and of my upcoming monograph.

Minting "From Below"

The numismatic evidence tells us that the sacred complex was inaugurated during the late Kushan period (3rd or 4th century AD) and, remarkably, continued operating into the 12th century. (5) In this respect, the Sakra sites are unique in the monetary history of South and Central Asia in late antiquity. No other sites in the region have to date yielded such a diversity of base metal currency over such a long period of time.

Over 300 distinct varieties of previously unpublished copper coins have been identified. A typological study of these coins suggests they circulated over a period of 700 years in the environs of the Sakra peak. The specimens feature legends in 4th- to 6th-century Brahmi, Pahlavi, Bactrian, Sarada and Arabic, and original iconography, stylistic elements and tamghas--symbols designating a dynasty, region or city. These coins are generally struck on small, thin and brittle flans, varying in weight between 0.5 and 1.1 gram. They are occasionally derived from common 2-4-gram silver or billon drachms circulating throughout the Peshawar and Kabul valleys, or feature entirely novel portraiture or iconography with little or no resemblance to commonly circulating coins of the period.

What, specifically, makes these coins so important? First, they make little sense according to conventional understandings of currency. They neither conform to a uniform fabric rendering them reliable economic instruments, nor serve as particularly effective tools of political propaganda. The weight varies considerably from specimen to specimen; many contain no reference to any political authority. Second, the religious iconography is remarkably eclectic, at times truly experimental, deploying a diverse range of sacred and political imagery (the repertoire ranging from Indo-Greek numismatic portraits to Iranian and Indian sigillographic motifs). Essentially, these are products of local die-engravers within a sacred complex, generally disconnected from either the monetary traditions or artistic conventions of the great kingdoms of their time. The Sakra case thereby overturns the notion of local minting practices being dictated by centres of political power hosting precious-metal coinage production facilities. For Sakra coins, we require a new paradigm to understand the relationship between centre and periphery, "official" mint and temple mint.

This is a new type of story of minting "from below"; the development of a local, vernacular, generally votive coinage within a vast Iranian-Indian numismatic cosmopolis. I have argued elsewhere that the small copper coins found in the Sakra region served primarily as votive currency, and also may have facilitated petty transactions within a cluster of sacred sites in the highlands en route from Gandhara to Udyana, modern-day Swat. (6) As such, the coins provide a window onto what was likely an ecclesiastical administration exercising varying degrees of autonomy throughout its existence. The evidence in fact points to the presence of multiple workshops within the Sakra sites, which even simultaneously may have pursued diverse modes of interaction with the larger polities governing Gandhara and their official mints.

By focusing our attention on iconography--on absences, innovations and continuities across centuries--we can witness the process of transculturation and of artistic experimentation at work. We see firsthand the way in which multiple iconographic sources were mobilized to produce new renditions of familiar divinities or symbols of charismatic authority; for instance, how a 2nd-century BC depiction of Pallas Athena could be reimagined in a 10th-century Hindu Shahi numismatic context, alongside Vaishnava and Shaiva iconography. Or, how the image of Justin I from a Byzantine gold solidus could be juxtaposed with a trishula, becoming part of a repertoire of an 8th-century three-quarter-facing portraiture. Such issues displace our notions of civilizational boundaries and frontiers, as well as our conception of geographical and temporal numismatic circulation zones. The manner in which numismatic material, sculpture and other forms of glyptic art were combined emphasizes what Finbarr Barry Flood refers to as the inherent "mobility of premodern subject and objects". (7) More so than the transregionally oriented precious-metal currencies, the local coinage provides a lens to view the movement and exchange of iconography and motifs. Unlike state-operated mints, the local base-metal workshops become sites of more uninhibited innovation, as they were not constrained to produce currency that would ensure long-distance stability, or extol a ruling household residing miles away.

Navigating Religious Iconography

Religious motifs comprise the largest subset of the Sakra numismatic iconographic assemblage, and accordingly, present a particular range of challenges. As alluded to above, the native coinage features Hellenistic, Shaiva, Vaishnava, Middle Iranian, Zoroastrian and Islamic devices and iconography. Some legends, too, are devotional in nature. (8) Over the course of time, the iconographic range evolves. For instance, Ardoksho/Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance, ubiquitously features on coins of the Kidara period (4th- 5th century), but disappears soon after. And, in both the Kidara and Alkhan eras, we find Indian devotional images including vajra (thunderbolt), various forms of purnaghata (overflowing pot), ribboned club, shankha (conch), mirror, chakra (discus), as well as Iranian farr (kingly glory and charisma) related iconography including the ram, boar's head and sacred birds; in addition to other motifs like the Pegasus and Herakles' knot.

This iconographic melange is not altogether unexpected. Composite iconography, drawing from Greek, Iranian and Indian sources, was a defining feature of Gandharan numismatic and sculptural traditions since the Indo-Greek period, particularly after the 2nd century BC (figures 3-9). In Gandhara, Hindu iconography developed in three phases. In the early pre-Kushan phases, Hindu praxis and worship was not generally a public affair. There are no recorded temples at this stage, and the majority of sculpture was Buddhist, although Indo-Greek, Indo-Parthian and IndoScythian iconography features some prototypical elements of later representations of Hindu divinities. Formalization of Hindu iconography began in the third phase, starting in the 4th-5th century AD. This process corresponded with the canonization of cultic ritual and detailed descriptions of divinities in the Puranas, the emergence of specifically Hindu shrines and temples in Gandhara, and the eventual decline of Buddhism. When the Alkhan Huns adopted the Brahmanical faith, Vaishnava and Shaiva emblems became commonplace on coinage. In sculptural arts, Shiva and Vishnu, avatars, and deities within the Shakti tradition took forms which later become canonical (for example Vishnu's association with a lotus, mace, conch and chakra). (9)

In this developmental schema, there are two points to note for our purposes. First, since the prolific native currency in the Sakra region was introduced in the 4th century under Kidara suzerainty, we cannot with any certainty attribute a name for the deities on the coins. That is, we cannot be sure whether the deity is Durga or Lakshmi or the goddesses Nana or Ardoksho, popular in post-Kushan domains. Clearly, the identity of each image would have become more distinct with time. By the late-Alkhan era, for example, Shiva would have been associated with the trident. Second, even after the 5th century, new Iranian elements were constantly being introduced into Gandharan sculpture, whether Buddhist or Hindu. For example, the only known image of Varaha from Gandhara (found at Bannu) (figure r) features the cosmic boar with a band tied around his head, from which emerge two streamers, a distinctively Iranian symbol of sacred kingship that the region had employed on the headdresses of bodhisatvas for a few centuries already. Likewise, by the 6th century representations of Vishnu from Kashmir feature a type of headdress adapted from triple-leaf Sasanian turreted crowns. (10)

Against this backdrop, the religious iconography can be roughly placed into three categories: deliberate devotional, artistic and formulaic. Categorizing the eclectic sacred iconography of the Sakra issues into these groups is a prerequisite to any conclusions regarding the religious associations of the site or religious proclivities of pilgrims on the basis of the numismatic evidence.

"Deliberate devotional" designates a case where a religious symbol has been deliberately introduced on a coin with its sacred meaning intact. A clear example is the introduction of Vaishnava and Shaiva motifs on coins from the Alkhan period.

In the second category are "artistic imitations". The numismatic evidence suggests that the Sakra die-engravers occasionally borrowed iconography which was circulating and which may not have had any connection with the religious associations of the sacred complex. Consider the Sakra IndoGreek imitations, the most ubiquitous of which are the Menander I imitations. I have recorded several dozen specimens of local copper coins imitating drachms of the Indo-Greek king Menander from the 2nd century BC (figure 10)--the very same Menander who became the protagonist of the Buddhist text, Questions of Milinda. Following their prototypes, these native coins feature a bust of the Indo-Greek ruler on the obverse, and Pallas Athena standing on the reverse; however the Greek and Kharoshti legends are retrograde, mostly reduced to dashes (figure 11). Since the prototype was uttered at least 400 years earlier than the Sakra imitations, we can assume that the die-engravers simply appreciated the aesthetics of earlier Indo-Greek currency found in Gandhara. (Alternatively, like Roman denarii in south India, Menander drachms could have assumed a special ritual significance. An original Menander drachm was incidentally found within the Kashmir Smast, described as having been "deliberately burned".)

The third category, "formulaic imitations", includes coins with motifs like the Sasanian fire altar which became formulaic markers of currency, often having lost their religious significance. The Sakra coins from the 4th to 8th centuries picture a range of often experimental fire-altar types on the reverse (figures 12-15). Even with fire altars however, we have to exercise some caution in interpreting their presence. While most are derived from Sasanian, Kidara and Alkhan types, it is even conceivable that some altars depicted may refer to fire ceremonies in the Vedic rather than Mazdaean tradition. Yet another phenomenon appears to be at play in the deliberate hybridity of the Alkhan fire altar reverse, where the flames extend from all sides of the altar, in the manner of Adur's flame halo. Adur, or holy fire, is identified as the son of Ahura Mazda in the Avesta, and appears as an anthropomorphic image on late-Sasanian silver drachms, encircled by a very similar halo of fire.

Later specimens featuring Islamic formulae are more challenging to classify in this regard. Such coins could have been issued in acknowledgement of Ghaznavid sovereignty over Gandhara. Alternatively, Islamic formulae may have been introduced as formulaic markers of currency at a time when the circulation spheres of Ghaznavid coinage encompassed Gandhara. (11)

The coins suggest that boundaries of religious iconography were porous at the local level--certainly within the minting workshops, and by extension for the consumer. With the array of deliberate devotional images, we should consider whether ritual practices may also have blurred confessional boundaries. Flood refers to a "pietistic cosmopolitanism" which characterized many frontier societies specifically in South Asia. A compelling example is that of Muslim pilgrims paying respect at the Somnath temple prior to embarking on the hajj as late as the 14th century. (12)

It should therefore be self-evident that the native Sakra issues have immense potential for historians of visual culture and religion. Specific representations bridging Iranian, Turkic, Indian and Hellenistic worlds can be invaluable in tracing the development and transmission of iconography from South to Central Asia and Iran.

A curious example is an Alkhan-period coin, featuring on the obverse a bird resembling a duck, holding ribbons and a pearl necklace in its beak--both symbols of farr (figure 17). An Alkhan dynastic symbol conveniently appears on the upper left field, situating this coin in the 5th or early 6th century. On the reverse is a Brahmi legend reading "jayati dharma". The bird, ribbons and necklace motif is fairly well known, and exists in multiple manifestations in paintings, on silk textiles, and on metalwork primarily from Central Asia and beyond into China, generally of the 7th and 8th centuries. Most famously it is depicted on the 7th-century 'Ambassadors' painting" at Afrasiab (Samarkand), as a repeating motif on the caftan of a standing delegate. Another well-known representation is from the wall paintings at Kizil, a Buddhist cave temple complex on the edges of the Taklamakan desert. Further into China, the device was known as the zeniao or "gnawing bird", and popularly used in T'ang-period fabrics. The image is generally identified as having Iranian, specifically Sasanian, origins; perhaps connected to a reference in Zoroastrian literature where farr leaves Yima, the first of the human race, in the shape of a falcon and dove. (13)

What is remarkable is that the presence of the Alkhan dynastic symbol makes the Sakra coin the earliest known datable appearance of this motif. In fact, there are no known Sasanian representations of this form of farr-transmission. While this coin has no numismatic precedent, a similar image (without the pearl necklace) is found in a Gandharan stele (figure 16). Could this perhaps be a localized interpretation of farr-transmission or investiture, combining an Indian hamsa, a goose or swan, with an Iranian bird representing farr? In this case, it is difficult to determine whether the individual elements in this composite motif retained their Iranian meaning tied to sacred kingship, or whether the new image was endowed with a particular regional meaning. When approaching such iconography, it is important to note that iconographic assimilation--that is, borrowing an image from one culture and assimilating it into another--does not necessarily indicate syncretism. In other words, we should consider that in this case--or with the appearance of Pegasus or Iranian investiture imagery in Sakra coins--we may be witnessing new representations of local religious concepts. (14) Regardless of the precise meaning, this coin undoubtedly provides a piece of evidence pointing to a Gandharan origin for this image, from where it entered into Central Asia and China's popular iconographic vocabulary.


The coinage of the Kashmir Smast also raises a plethora of additional questions which will only be answered with further contextualized data and collaboration between philologists, historians of religion and art, archaeologists and numismatists.

For example, in a 2006 article, I had attributed a particular coin to the early Kidarite period, based on the presence of Brahmi aksharas (characters) and specific royal iconography (figure 19). (15) It seemed that the Iranian female bust on the reverse was a queen consort, based on numismatic parallels. However, soon after, I came across several gold pendants from the region featuring variations of this portrait. In these pendants, we can clearly see the figure holding a lotus flower and in one instance a cornucopia, which rests on the left shoulder (figure 18). The identity of this figure, who probably represents a female deity associated with Lakshmi, remains a matter of speculation. The image may indeed have been based on sculptural representations of Ardoksho/ Lakshmi. However, the deity is depicted without the headdress or hairstyle typically associated with Ardoksho/Lakshmi. And, most surprisingly, the image is rendered according to the conventions of Sasanian numismatic portraiture.

Whether as a study of religious iconography, "imitations", or local minting practices, the scholarly potential of the Sakra coinage is undoubtedly vast. These coins suggest a distinct and unusual practice of producing coins as sacramental objects, departing from other known traditions like the later Ramatankas that emerged under the Hoysalas in the 13th century. We are provided with glimpses into the workings of a local sacred complex, which appears to have adapted to regional political and confessional transitions over seven centuries. Moreover, unlike most coins found in Gandhara and the Kabul region, the Sakra finds have a known (albeit imperfect) provenance. Since they often drew from circulating currency, they can in turn provide a lens by which to interpret the sacred, political and monetary history of the broader region.


All images are by the author.


(1) The mountains are also referred to as the Shamozai or Babozai mountains, within the Sinawar range. Smast means "cave" in Pushtu. The Gazetteer of the Peshawar District (1897-1898) states that "the name [Kashmir Smast] may be derived from the fact that the gorge here is fairly and picturesquely wooded, and this may have suggested Kashmir". In a similar vein, Gopal Das, in 1878, claimed that the name was due to the fact that the cool air of the valley was reminiscent of Kashmir (Munshi Gopal Das, Tarikh-i Peshawar, Lahore: Koh-i Nur Press, 1878, pp. 58-59). Another explanation is that, according to legend, the network of caves was so vast that the lower excesses of the cave stretched from Gandhara to the kingdom of Kashmir. Gazetteer of the Peshawar District (189-7-1898'), Lahore: Government of Punjab, 1898, p. 32; H.B.W. Garrick, "30. Ismasghar", in Report of a Tour through Behar, Central India, Peshawar and Yusufzai 1881-82, Report 19, Archaeological Survey of India, Calcutta: Government of India, 1885, pp. 111-16; Muhammad Waliullah Khan, Gandhara, Islamabad: Lok Virsa, 1989, p. 279.

(2) Interviews conducted by the author at Rustam, Babozai and Sangaho, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, May 2015.

(3) Harry Falk, "A Copper Plate Donation Record and Some Seals from the Kashmir Smast", Beitrdge Zur Allgemeiner Und Vergleichenden Archaologie, 23, 2003, p. 1.

(4) M.A. Court, 'Article III: Collection of Facts Which May Be Useful for the Comprehension of Alexander the Great's Exploits on the Western Banks of the Indus", Journal of the Asiatic Society, 8,1840, p. 312.

(5) Waleed Ziad, "Treasures of the Kashmir Smast", Journal of the Oriental Numismatic Society, 187, Spring 2006, pp. 14-33.

(6) Waleed Ziad, In the Treasure Room of the Sakra King: The Native Coinage of Northern Gandhara (ca. 550-1100 CE), manuscript submitted for publication to the American Numismatic Society.

(7) Finbarr Barry Flood, Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval "Hindu-Muslim" Encounter, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009, p. 1.

(8) Klaus Vondrovec, Coinage of the Iranian Huns and Their Successors from Bactria to Gandhara (4th-8th century CE), Vol. II, Vienna: Verlag der Osterreichischen Akademie derWissenschaften, 2014, p. 703; Ziad, "Treasures of the Kashmir Smast".

(9) Abdus Samad, "Emergence of Hinduism in Gandhara: An Analysis in Material Culture", PhD dissertation, Freien Universitat, 2010, pp. 76,127-32; John Siudmak, The Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Ancient Kashmir and Its Influences, Leiden: Brill, 2013, pp. 14-16,78.

(10) Farid Khan, "Recent Discoveries from the North-West Frontier Pakistan", South Asian Studies, 8,1992, p. 67; Siudmak, The Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Ancient Kashmir, pp. 121-22.

(11) Waleed Ziad, "'Islamic' Coins from a Hindu Temple: Reconsidering Ghaznavid Policy towards Hindu Sacred Sites through New Numismatic Evidence from Gandhara", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 59(4), 2016, pp. 618-59.

(12) Flood, Objects of Translation, p. 43.

(13) Matteo Compared, 'Ancient Iranian Decorative Textiles", The Silk Road, 13,2015, p. 38.

(14) Fabrizio Sinisi, "The Deities on the Kushano-Sasanian Coins", Electrum, 22,2015, p. 214.

(15) Ziad, "Treasures of the Kashmir Smast", pp. 16-17.

Caption: 1 Kashmir Smast on the map of northwestern Pakistan.

Caption: 2 View of the Sakra valley within which Kashmir Smast is located.

Caption: 3-9 Examples of Shaiva, Vaishnava, Middle Iranian and Islamic iconography on native Sakra copper coins. (3) Eight-spoked chakra, 13.2 x 11.9 mm / 0.55 g. (4) Swastika turning right, 11.5 x 10.8 mm / 0.82 g. (5) Forepart of composite creature representing farr facing left, 19.1 mm / 3.20 g. (6) Fire altar, 11.5 x 11.0 mm / 0.85 g. (7) Ardoksho or Nana, 11.2 mm / 0.75 g. (8) Adur, the sacred flame, 11.3 mm / 0.82 g. (9) The word "Allah" within a circle, 15.0 mm / 0.95 g.

Caption: 10a and b Menander i drachm (2nd century BC) prototype: Obv. bust wearing crested helmet, Greek legend; Rev. Athena standing, monogram to right, Kharoshti legend.

Caption: 11a and b Sakra copper derivative: Obv. bust wearing crested helmet, Greek legend reduced to dashes; Rev. Athena standing, monogram to right, Kharoshti legend reduced to dashes.

Caption: 12-15 Examples of fire-altar types featured on the reverse of Sakra native copper issues. (12) Kidarite, c. 4th-5th century AD, 10.6 x 10.2 mm/0.72g. (13) Kidarite, c. 4th-5th century AD, 12.9 mm/0.82g. (14) Alkhan, c. 5th century AD, 12.2 x 12.0 mm / 0.52 g. (15) Turk Shahi, c. early 8th century AD, 12.1 mm/0.50 g.

Caption: 16 A Gandharan stele depicting a duck or goose holding a ribbon--a symbol of farr.

Caption: 17 Alkhan native Sakra copper issue featuring the bird as a bestower of farr, 1.30 x1.22 mm/ 0.84 g.

Caption: 18 Gold pendant from the Sakra region (c. 40 mm): female bust with hair tied back and large hoop earrings, holding flower in right hand, and cornucopia over shoulder in left hand.

Caption: 19a andb Sakra native copper issue--early Kidarite, 4th century AD, 11.9 X11 mm/0.59 g. Obv. bearded male bust wearing flat crown, surmounted by globe; Rev. female bust with hair tied back, and large hoop earring, holding flower at right.

Caption: T Male dancer (?), Hund, 7th-8th century AD. Private collection

Hund and neighbouring Shahbaz Garhi are small villages to the east of Islamabad toward the Kashmir border. Now just a modest cluster of farms, the region was, in fact, visited by traders and conquerors, lying as it does on the banks of the Indus. Alexander's city of Embolima was probably at this spot. A 3rd-century BC Ashokan inscription is known from Shahbaz Garhi.

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Author:Ziad, Waleed
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Jun 1, 2019
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