The Persian couplet on the obverse (front) of this coin might be not mean much to most, but look closely at the friendly-looking lion and he can tell you something about this coin without you needing to learn Persian. The sun behind him shows he is Leo from the Zodiac: he tells us that the coin was made in the time of year when people with the star sign of Leo are born. He also reminds us that the symbols of the Zodiac - an everyday sight to us as we scan our horoscopes today -were also meaningful shorthand for people in medieval India, the generation before the Taj Mahal was built.
To a reader of Persian the obverse of this coin can tell more: it declares who made it, where and when. It reads:
Zar/ Zinat Agrah Dad/ Sikkah/ 1028 Az Jahangir Shah/ Akbar Shah
The money of Agra gave ornaments to gold/ by Jahangir Shah, Shah Akbar (‘s son), 1028
It was stuck by Jahangir (“World-Grasper”), the ruler of Mughal India, in AH 1029 (in the Christian calendar, 1618/19), at Agra, the then capital of the Empire.
The Mughals, who first invaded India in 1525 were a Muslim people descended from Ghengiz Khan. During the fifty-year rule of Akbar, Jahangir’s father, who he proudly emphasises on this coin, they created a vast empire which stretched across the Indian sub-continent as far to the west as Afghanistan, and as far south as the Godavari river. The Mughals, despite being continually involved in military campaigns to expand and protect their empire, also created a courtly culture where art, literature, science and architecture flourished. This extended to beautiful and innovative coin design.
Departing from the usual tradition of Islamic coins only showing text, in 1617 Jahangir (1605-1627), chose the signs of the Zodiac to represent the months of the year (since the Mughals then used solar, rather than lunar months as we do, each sign of the Zodiac related directly to one of their months). Writing in his autobiography, Jahangir records how he directed the mints:
At this time it entered my mind that in place of the month they should substitute the figure of the constellation which belonged to that month; for instance, in the month of Farwardin the figure of a ram, and in Ardibihisht the figure of a bull. Similarly, in each month that a coin was struck, the figure of the constellation was to be on one face, as if the sun were emerging from it. This usage is my own, and has never been practised until now'.
The coins are just as he directed - see how the sun emerges from behind Leo. With both the year (in words) and the month (as a picture) indicated on the coins we can say very precisely when each coin was produced. All twelve signs of the Zodiac can be found between 1617 and 1624.
As well as an interest in coin design, Jahangir and his wife Nur Jahan, ("Light of the World") had many other artistic interests. They particularly encouraged painting, especially miniatures, portraiture and scientific studies of birds, flowers, and animals. They also created fine gardens, and established the tradition of building in marble. Such architectural innovation reached its height under Jahangir’s son and successor, Shah Jahan (1628-58), who built at the Taj Mahal at Agra as the tomb of his favourite wife.
It is likely that their beautiful imagery made the coins valued for display by contemporaries- the coin of Pisces above has been mounted with loops for wearing as a medallion or on the sash of a turban. They are also prized greatly by collectors today. They are extremely rare. Not only were they few in number since each design was only produced only for one month, but after the death of Jahangir his successor withdrew them from circulation, establishing the death penalty for their use. Many were melted down.
Jahangir may have been unique among the Mughals for showing the signs of the Zodiac on coins, but they had been previously used by other cultures. This drachma, struck in Alexandria, Egypt under the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161), also shows Leo and the sun, this time with a bust of the Roman sun god Helios.