A COMPLEX COIN HISTORY
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 the large country, as Khursheed Dinshaw explains in this coin guide
Indian coinage has a long and varied historical tradition, which can be broadly it is divided into ancient coinage, represented by punch-marked coins from the 4th century BC to the 1st century AD; medieval coinage which is represented by Arab, Sultanate and Mughal coins from the 11th century AD to 18th century AD
(as explained in detail on page 24); and modern coins, which include the issues of European, English trading companies and Indian kingdoms and states from 18th century onwards.
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 weighed pieces of silver, stamped on only one side with several punches of different symbolic signs – such as animals, plants, the sun, the 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 4th century the Gupta dynasty had taken control over much of the country and the first Gupta king, Samudra Gupta, issued gold and copper coins.
From the late 7th 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 8th 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 ninth to 17th century AD were dominated by Islamic traditions, religious imagery, names of spiritual heads, medieval Quranic verses in beautiful calligraphy or coin legends. Mahmud Ghazni (10th and 11th century AD) coins bear legends in the Arabic Kufic and Sanskrit nagari scripts, while Lakshmi, 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, the founder of the Sur Empire in northern India who ruled for just five years from 1540 to 1545, 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 the 13th century the Indian princely states, particularly the Southern states like Mysore, Madurai, Madras and Travancore, produced coins of Gods and Goddesses such as Ganesha, perhaps the most well known
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, an influential ancient Sanskrit epic which takes place in the South and deals with the duties of relationships.
Republic India Coinage
The English, French and Portuguese began to arrive in India in the early 18th century as the 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.
This 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, 1/4th 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.
The size of the coins varied as per the value of the metal. India’s smallest coin was gold and, if seen with a magnifying glass, a figure of an animal or a bird could be seen. This tiny coin weighed less than a milligram. Meanwhile, the biggest coins went up to around 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 was 15mm, while copper coins of smaller denominations were also issued. In 1940, with the price of silver increasing, the British introduced copper nickel and nickel coins in denominations from an anna to a rupee.
On 15 August, 1947, India attained its independence and Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of India.
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 Mauryan king Ashoka in the 3rd 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 but 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 cupronickel and in 1984 to ferric steel / stainless steel.
From 1964 onwards the government of 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 bi-centenary of the famous Frenchmen who invented the . The face of the coin contains the portrait of Braille in the centre with his name below in Braille language and the years 1809 and 2009 in numerals. The design includes the Lion Capitol of Ashoka 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.