A gold coin of the Gupta king Samudragupta depicting a  4th century horse sacrifice ceremony

The early Hindu rulers of India respected the traditional ceremonies passed down to them orally by means of the vedas and the purānas. The Guptas were exemplars of these traditions and it is widely thought that Indian culture and art reached its apogee under their patronage.

Attractive as it is, this coin can only be fully appreciated when the rationale behind its choice of subject is understood. On the face of it, the design is simple enough: the obverse depicts a magnificent stallion tethered to a sacrificial pole (yūpa) from which streamers are flying, the reverse, the chief queen (māhisi) standing facing a large golden sacrificial 'needle' (sūchi) holding a fly whisk (chauri) and a towel. One obvious question is why such a highly cultured people would hold something as seemingly barbaric as a public horse sacrifice (or aśvamedhaas it was known), especially one in which the chief queen played a pivotal role?

The answer is indicated by the Sanskrit inscriptions on the obverse: 

"rājādhirājahprithivīmavijityādivam  jayatyāhṛitavājimedhah" 

(the king of kings who has first performed the horse sacrifice wins heaven after conquering the earth), and on the reverse: 


(because of great victories one may perform theaśvamedha). These indicate that just being a king was not enough; the right to perform a horse sacrifice had to be earned, and that its performance led to enhanced status in this world and the next.

The qualification for sponsoring anaśvamedha was being achakravartin  (literally 'wheel turner' or pivotal leader). This status was achieved if, upon accession, a ruler demonstrated his potency by conquering his enemies in neighbouring kingdoms. There was a formal way of doing this known as adigvijaya  (conquest of the four quarters of the world). Its aim was not necessarily to gain more territory, but to establish himself as first in the order of precedence amongst local rulers and make other states tributary to his kingdom.

The legendary king Rāma, the epitome of Indian kingship, held anaśvamedha upon his return to Ayodhya, and there are also detailed descriptions of the ceremony in the other major Indian epic, the Mahābhārata. Following the digvijaya  a fine horse, bearing certain characteristics, would be selected for the yajῆa (sacrifice). It was then released and allowed to run free, followed and guarded by its sponsors. If it roamed into the territory of an enemy its passage had to be facilitated by the military defeat of this rival, until after a year it was guided back to the capital for the three-day culmination of the yajῆa. On the first day the yūpa was constructed of prescribed woods, decorated and consecrated. The second day saw the arrival of the queens, the chief of which would bathe and decorate the horse. In some accounts the queen then stayed with the horse over night, but it is generally agreed that her role was pivotal to the success of the ceremony. On the third day the queens themselves ceremonially killed the horse, culminating in the chief queen executing the coup de grace with the sūchi, as specified in the sacred sutras.

So it is now apparent that this coin depicts all the elements essential to a successful aśvamedha together with a description of who could perform the sacrifice and the benefits to its sponsor. It is open to conjecture as to why such coins were produced, but it is known that such ceremonies were accompanied by much gifting of gold coins to the officiating brāhmans  (Hindu priests).  It could be that they were special commemorative issues, struck with the dual purpose of marking this pivotal event in the life of a Hindu king and serving as largesse.

This coin is to be offered in Spinks'  coin auction on 25th June. Lot 270