21 May 2019
Influenced by long-held religious beliefs, a variety of political regions and the presence of colonial powers, the coins of India provide a fascinating glimpse into the history of India, as Khursheed Dinshaw explains.
Indian coinage has a long and varied historical tradition, which can be broadly divided into ancient coinage – represented by:
- punch-marked coins from the fourth century AD to the first century AD
- medieval coinage represented by Arab, Sultanate and Mughal coins from the eleventh century to eighteenth century
- modern coins, which include the issues of European, English trading companies and Indian kingdoms and states from the eighteenth century onwards
Ancient Indian coins
The ancient coinage of India began with silver and copper currency, known as punch-marked coins. These coins were used across India by merchants, mainly as trade currency. The coins were weighted pieces of silver, stamped on only one side with several punches of different symbolic signs – such as animals, plans, the sun, moon and planets – the earliest of these are oval, flat or bent bar coins. The pieces were predominantly used by the Mauryan Empire who had control over most parts of northern and central India at that time.
By the middle of the fourth century the Gupta dynasty had taken control of most of the country and the first Gupta king, Samudra Gupta, issued gold and copper coins.
From the late seventh century, Muslim traders and missionaries began to visit India and Islamic coins from the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphores began to be used in the country. The first locally-made Islamic coins appeared during the eighth century. These were silver coins with Arabic inscriptions issued by a small Islamic settlement near Indus River. The coins of the Sultanate and Mughals from the ninth to seventeenth century were dominated by Islamic traditions, religious imagery, names of spiritual heads, medieval Quranic verses in beautiful calligraphy or coin legends.
Mahmud Ghazni (tenth and eleventh-century AD) coins bear legends in the Arabic Kufic and Sanskirt bagari scripts, while Laksmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity, was appropriately featured on the coins of Muhammad Ghori.
During the reign of the Mughal dynasty, hammered coins began to be created in a more systematic way. The Mughals introduced coins with one rupee as the main denomination, and this simple currency system was followed during the reign of all 28 Mughal kings who ruled India.
In addition to the symbolism, the coins of this period also featured various inscriptions, detailing the dates of the king’s reign; titles like Aalam GIr or the name of the king suffixed with the words ‘The Great’ and praise of the lord in the form of ‘Allah o Akbar’. Some coins even featured brief poems. The coin issued in the Dharvad region was called ‘Khurshid Sawad’ which translates as ‘difficult to see the sun’. This unusual title referred to the vast greenery in the area, which often blocked out the light of the sun.
Sher Shah Suri, founder of the Sur Empire in northern India, who ruled for just five years (1540-45) has been credited with the introduction of the first Rs 1 coin in silver. At the same time, the kings of Mysore, Rajasthan and Baroda also introduced hammered coins featuring the king’s name.
From the sixth to thirteenth centuries the Indian princely states, particularly the Southern states such as Mysore, Madurai, Madras and Travancore, produced coins of gods and goddesses such as:
- Ganesha, perhaps the most well-known god Hindu god, with an elephant’s head
- Shiva, in the form of Shivling, Hanuman, Ram, Sita and Lakshman, Lakshmi and Garuda, a mythical bird-like creature of Hindu mythology
The colourful characters seen on these coins reflected the Ramayana epic, and influential ancient Sandskrit epic that takes place in the south and deals with the duties of relationships.
Republic India coinage
The English, French and Portugese began to arrive in India in the early eighteenth century as trade routes opened. The Europeans sold their wares of horses and metals, while the spices, cotton and silk of India was shipped back to the west. Soon, many of these Europeans began to settle in India, but the growing strength of The East India Company eventually led to the British colonisation of the country in the 1820s, with other European parties losing their influence.
At first the presence of the British affected trade and the supply of goods, but the influence on education, social reform and culture soon followed. The country’s coins were also brought into line with the rest of the Empire.
In 1835 the British introduced machine-made coins to India, which had a cleaner and sharper finish and were easier to read. The practice started with silver and then copper, with the rupee – divided into 192 parts – used as the basic currency. From 1835 to 1947 the British issued coins in denominations of a rupee, half rupee, one and two annas and pie which was 192th part of a rupee.
In 1876, when India was predominantly under the reign of the British, a law was passed which meant coins for the areas under the Empire’s rule would be produced free of charge, with the kings of these areas providing the metal. India’s smallest coin was gold and, if seen with a magnifying glass, the figure of an animal or bird could be seen. This tiny coin weighed less than a milligram. Meanwhile, the biggest coin went up to round seventeen to eighteen grams, and were created to mark special occasions such as the queen’s visit to India.
Other silver coins of the princely states contained silver content that varied from sixty percent to 98 percent. Nickel, bronze, copper nickel and silver coins were in circulation. The machine-made coins featured a portrait of the Indian kings and British royalty, with the value of the coin shown on the reverse. A one rupee coin measured 30mm in diameter, a half rupee was 20mm, a quarter rupee 15mm while copper coins of smaller denominations were also introduced. In 1940, with the price of silver increasing, the British introduced copper nickel and nickel cions in denominations from an anna to a rupee.
On 15 August 1947 India attained its independence and Jawaharlal Nehru became the first prime minister. The new government was keen to introduce reforms to end the numerous systems in coinage, and the variety of weights and measures by adopting the decimal system. Yet it was not until 1950 that the British-produced coins were replaced by coinage in the name of Republic of India. The new coins featured the emblem of the Republic, showing three lions from the top of ancient Ashoka column at Sarnath, made for the Maruan king Ashoka in the third century BC. The Mauryan horse and bull designs appeared on the back of the lower denomination coins but the reverse of the nickel coins bore the design of two ears of wheat.
On 1 April 1957, a decimal coinage was introduced with 100 paisa equal to 1 rupee. The Ashoka lions design was retained by the backs of all denominations only bore the date and denomination. From 1960 a round nickel 50 paise was put into circulation and in 1962 a round nickel rupee with the same wheat ear design as per the pre-decimal issue was introduced.
Until 31 May 1964, the coin inscription bore ‘naye paise’, Hindi for ‘new paise’ but from 1 June 1964, a new set of coins in aluminium of 1, 2, 3 and 5 paise were introduced without the ‘naye’ in the inscription. In 1967 the 10 paise denomination was changed from cupro-nickel to brass and in 1971 to aluminium. The next year the nickel 25 and 50 paise and 1 rupee were converted to cupro-nickel and in 1984 to ferric steel/ stainless steel.
From 1964 onwards the government on India began issuing commemorative coins and coin sets. These featured personalities such as pioneering political leader Mahatma Gandhi, prime minister Nehru, statesman Sardar Patel, Indian revolutionary Subhash Chandra Bose and topics such as promoting the United Nations policy on food and agriculture, ‘food and shelter for all’ and International Youth Year.
Higher denominations of 20, 50, 75, 100 and 150 rupees are issued as commemorative, uncirculated or proof coins which are intended for coin collectors and provide the government with additional revenue. The mintage of the coins is usually limited, and is influenced by the number of orders received following the placement of advertisements in newspapers.
One particularly notable coin is the circulating Rs 2 denomination ‘Louis Braille’ coin issued in 2009 to celebrate the birth centenary of the famous Frenchman. The face of the coin contains the portrait of Braille in the centre with his name below in Braille and the years 1809 and 2009 in numberals. The design includes the Lion Capitol of Askhoka Pillar, the denominational value of 2, the word India and rupees in English.
On 30 June 2011, coins with a value of 25 paise or lower were discontinued, making 50 paise the lowest denomination circulating coin in India. Rs 1 and 2 coins are issued in stainless or ferric steel, Rs 5 in steel with brass finish and Rs 10 bi-metal coins are in circulation with various designs, pictures and subjects. Coins are minted at the four Indian government mints at Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Noida.
(images courtesy of Hemant Patil)
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