The Leningrad Scorpio. The Lahore Capricorn. The Agra Aquarius. No, these aren’t the titles of vintage spy novels. These references appear in a 1931 article by the British numismatist RB Whitehead titled The Portrait Medals and Zodiacal Coins of the Emperor Jahangir, an account of an unusual series of astrology-themed coins issued by the Mughal emperor Jahangir (1569-1627). They constitute only the second known example of zodiac currency in world history. The first, Whitehead fleetingly acknowledges, “is an issue of Antoninus Pius from the mint of Alexandria [144/145 CE].”
About the 17th century Jahangiri coins, there arise many questions. Why were they issued? And what meaning did the Mughal emperor wish to imbue them with? As rare and remarkable as they are simply as objects, these understudied coins also present an opportunity to understand how a badshah might claim to exert his influence upon not just his earthly realm, but also the heavens above it.
“...it has been the rule that on one side of gold coins my name has been engraved, and on the other side the name of the minting place, the month and the regnal year…it occurred to me that instead of the month, a figure of the constellation representing the month should be depicted…for every month in which a coin was minted one side would bear a picture of the constellation in which the sun rose. This method is peculiarly my own and has never been used before.”— Jahangirnama, Nur-ud-din Muhammad Jahangir (translated by Wheeler M Thackston)
Produced between 1618 and 1625 in gold and silver, Jahangir’s mohurs encompass the 12 zodiac signs haloed by the sun. Whitehead’s comprehensive study of the coins yields a wealth of detail about them. In terms of weight and size, they were the same as the ordinary currency in circulation during the late Jahangiri period. For the most part, the gold mohurs were minted at Agra and the silver ones at Ahmedabad, though roughly 25 were struck at Ajmer, Urdu (Camp), Fatehpur, Kashmir and Lahore. At these last two sites, a few coins also feature the empress Noor Jahan’s name. As was the convention with Islamic coins, the imagery was accompanied by a legend, in the Mughals’ case in the form of Persian couplet praising the king.
In the catalogue Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the entry on the New York museum’s collection of 10 such coins reiterates their distinctiveness: “These coins are quite unusual in the context of both Indian and Islamic numismatics because those issued by Muslim rulers tend to have no figural decoration, and no other Indian coins have astrological imagery.” The entry states that minor differences in the coins suggest that different dies (metal pieces engraved with the desired designs) were used to mint them.
Whitehead provides a fascinating picture of the coins by inventorying these singular items in collections around the world and tracing their history through records and commentaries over centuries. Though no source lists a definitive number of different representations, Whitehead does give his readers an overview based on his consultation of existing material. He describes a range of coins, making special note of the iconography of particularly striking pieces or unique imagery from each of the mints. Examples of the latter include the gold Gemini of Ajmer (“Twins facing each other and embracing”) and Scorpio of Lahore (“tail to the left”) (both of which were held by St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum at the time of Whitehead’s writing, thus the moniker Leningrad Scorpio), and the Fatehpur Aquarius (“a curious little figure sitting to the right of the water-bag and pouring water from a jar down his back”). Among the Noor Jahan coins, it’s intriguing to see the progression of her title – within two years, she goes from being called “badshah begum” on a Cancer from Kashmir to simply “badshah” on a silver Capricorn from Lahore. Indeed, decades later, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, French merchant and visitor to Shah Jahan’s court, erroneously credited her with issuing the entire series.
Then there are the more typical (or rather non-unique) coins from the major mints. Of Ahmedabad’s silver mohurs, Whitehead writes that they “are limited to the first five signs of the zodiac”. He summarises their features, all flanked by or spangled with stars – Aries is “the fat-tailed sheep”, Taurus “the charging bull”, the Gemini twins “are chubby children in a crouching attitude”, the Cancer crab is adorned with “two large star ornaments [on] each side of the lower field” and Leo is “always to the left…sown with stars”. As for the gold Agra mohurs, Whitehead focuses on enumerating the whereabouts of 243 of them in Indian and Western museums, commercial and private collections. One of the earliest international locations of Jahangir’s zodiac mohurs is revealed by their illustrations in the pages of a 1684 book titled Nummotheca atque Rariora Becceleriana (Coins and Rare Trinkets) by a German historian, philologist and educator called Rudolf Capell. According to Whitehead, Capell reported that the coins (erroneously ascribed to Nurmahal, wife of “Gehan Guje, a great Mogul” due to Tavernier’s misinformation) had been brought from India to Hamburg in “a box lined with purple silk”. In a way, the exotic adventures of the great Mughal’s money complemented the journeys of the constellations they depicted.
In a catalogue accompanying the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1997 exhibition Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art, its curator Stefano Carboni attributes the zodiacal iconography (mintaqat al-burūj) in Arab contexts to Greek astronomers. He dates its appearance in Islamic art, along with other celestial symbols, to the 12th century CE. It stands to reason that, as the keeper of 10 Jahangiri zodiac coins, the Met included them in this exhibition as well. With just a few words, Carboni adds immensely to our understanding of them: “...all coins minted for the Mughal emperor with the signs of the Zodiac also depict the sun in the background, evidently as a substitute for the image of the ruler himself rather than as an astrological presence.”
The Mughals drew on motifs of the sun and moon in their imperial iconography to emphasise their proximity to divinity and sainthood. In her essay Solar Symbolism of the Mughal Throne, historian Anna Malecka describes the Mughal concept of the king as being synonymous with the sun, in an amalgam of various Turco-Mongol, Hindu, Jain and Safavid practices. Catherine B Asher, Professor of Art History at the University of Minnesota, in her essay A Ray from the Sun: Mughal Ideology and the Visual Construction of the Divine, gives an account of the philosophy of light permeating the empire’s model of monarchy. She cites Akbar’s advisor Abul Fazl, an adherent of the Sufi Suhrawardi order’s theory of illumination: “Royalty is a light emanating from God, a ray from the sun…” Asher goes on to note that in Akbari painting, the emperor was portrayed with an imperial standard with floral patterns “with a central medallion known as a shamsa, that is, sun motif, a reminder that Akbar is imbued with God’s light [nūr e ilahi].” But the sun isn’t the only celestial object to have caught the Mughals’ eye – the moon too reflected the glorious light of the godly ruler, as Yael R Rice, Associate Professor of Art & the History of Art and of Asian Languages and Civilizations at Amherst College, points out in her essay Moonlight Empire: Lunar Imagery in Mughal India. She shows how nimbate portraits of Jahangir and Dara Shikoh as well as architecture (including the moon-finialled Taj Mahal) strategically deployed the crescent moon in a syncretic context of moon worship traditions.
Jahangir was hardly the first Mughal to turn to the zodiac for inspiration – his grandfather Humayun’s tents and pavilions were decorated with zodiac patterns, according to Malecka. Jahangir’s father, Akbar, possessed a shield bordered by the symbols. Akbar even commissioned a manuscript comprising pictures of the 12 signs, writes Rice. For these powerful men who lorded over vast territories, what was the allure of astral symbolism?
As a dynasty, the Mughals were deeply interested in astrology and the occult arts. One example of this interest is discussed by Eva Orthmann, Professor of Iranian Studies at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, in her essay Circular Motions: Private Pleasure and Public Prognostication in the Nativities of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The Mughals used nativities or birth charts of emperors to emphasise their kingliness by distinguishing themselves from their predecessors and establishing that their greatness was written in the stars. Orthmann also alludes to a painting of Jahangir’s birth in which astrologers crowd around the newborn prince, as though validating his majesty to come.
Rice sums up the significance of celestial designs in Mughal aesthetics: “…the sun and the moon occupied an especially important place in the Mughal political economy as the regulators of the temporal cycle and, therefore, of kingship…the Mughal emperors and their progeny were themselves sun- and moon-like, and therefore deserving of comparable adulation…” In Jahangir’s zodiac coins too, apart from the main star cast, solar and lunar metaphors surface in the inscriptions. Whitehead records that a gold Aries from Urdu (Camp) declared: Bad rawān tā ki buvad mihr wa māh/ Sikka i Urdu i Jahangir Shāh (Current be, so long as the sun and moon exist/ The stamp of the Camp of Jahangir Shah). With the sun and moon being so central to Mughal propaganda, it is no surprise that the constellations through which they moved might also have been meant to communicate a similar notion of omnipotent sovereignty with the imprimatur of the stars.
In his book The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship & Sainthood in Islam, A Azfar Moin, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Texas-Austin, argues that the Mughals advanced a mode of sacred kingship, positioning the king as both the temporal and spiritual leader of his people (a famous example being Akbar’s founding of the din-i ilahi faith). The accentuation of the emperor’s authority through cosmic iconography might be interpreted as part of an established regime of imperial self-fashioning. In an email interview, Moin agreed: “This [the issuing of coins] was a very important medium for the expression of sacred kingship, we see kings trying to differentiate themselves from their predecessors (near or far) and their dynasties from rival ones. In many ways, the coins were a place of creative expression.”
Moin surmises that Jahangir’s zodiac coins have two functions. One has to do with their public articulation of the emperor’s persona and “his place in the cosmos”. To explain the second function, he cites a section in Whitehead’s essay recapitulating an assertion by the historian of Mughal numismatics SH Hodivala – that the coins were minted at sites where Jahangir was in residence. Moin elaborated, “They are an extension of the king’s self…this coinage had something to do with the presence of the sovereign. They were a part of Jahangir’s presence.” In his book, Moin states that Jahangir’s ritual art – most notably his paintings featuring miracles, dreams and allegories – represented a visual manifestation of sacred kingship, “both a record of and a medium for the emperor’s miraculous self”. Can these seemingly whimsical zodiac coins be viewed through the same lens? Moin thought so: “I suspect, like Jahangir’s dream paintings, these coins had a bit of the emperor’s magical or miraculous self in them. In this sense, these coins were produced as ritual acts. In all of them, the central ‘divine’ presence is the sun…which had become central to Mughal rituals of kingship since Akbar.”
Was there a specific political context in or background to which Jahangir was responding when he decided to issue these coins? Moin speculates that “the context was not political as much as it was ‘ritual’. My hunch is that these coins circulated among the emperor’s inner circle and murids rather than the general population, much like his portraits were taken as relics by his courtly disciples. Which would make them collector’s items even then and create a high demand for them. If so, it would explain why there were forgeries made, why there were such rumours about them, and why Noor Jahan too could appear on these coins as an extension of the emperor’s body to his courtiers.”
Based on most recent auctions, a Jahangiri zodiac coin is worth more than a crore. But this money’s true value is as a window into the symbolic universe of the Mughal court. Full of coded messages and international travel, the story of Jahangir’s zodiac mohurs could well be the stuff of spy novels. Furthermore, it presents an opportunity to appreciate that while the stars may not actually tell us about our collective future, they can shed a light on our shared past.
Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.