15 Interesting facts about Indian coins

Coins are integral part of our economic life. They are used in large numbers even in this age of increasing plastic money. Very few among us look at them carefully but the fact is that each and every coin has a separate tale to tell. We have gathered here some interesting facts about the Indian coins.

  • The earliest reference of coins in the Indian context can be found in the Vedas. Nishka was the term used for coins of metals.
  • Cowrie shells were used as medium of economic transactions for a long period of time by a large number of people in ancient India.
  • The reign of Gupta dynasty (4th century CE- mid 6th century CE) is considered as the golden age of Indian coinage due to the numerous findings of gold coins from that era.
  • Sher Shah Suri, a 16th century ruler of Afghan lineage introduced the Rupee. It was a silver currency.  At that moment one rupee was equal to four coins made of copper. The Indian currency is still called Rupee.
  • Rupya was made of silver which weighed almost 11.34 grams at that period. Even during the rule of British emperor the silver coins were circulated in large numbers in the Indian market.
  • In the year of 1862, many new coins were introduced in the Indian market which had depicted Queen Victoria’s image and name on the coin. Queen Victoria was the new Empress of India after the end of East India Company’s rule in 1858.
  • After the independence of India the first coin was issued in the year of 1950. The Government of India removed every sign of British colonial legacy from the coin except the English language and the Roman script.
  • In the year of 1938, Reserve Bank of India first issued the paper currency notes. In fact now-a-days, RBI is the only one who manages all of the currency. It is the Indian equivalent of the Federal Reserve of US.
  • In the year of 1957, the Indian coin got decimalized. In this system the rupee was divided into 100 naya paisa (or new). At 1964, the word ‘naya’ concept was dropped as by that time naya paisas had already grew old.
  • At the time of independence, there was the concept of annas in the Indian currency system. 16 annas were equal to one rupee. The annas were further divided into 12 pies or 4 paisas. Even there were ½ or ¼ paisas as well.
  • After independence, copper-nickel alloy was used to make coins. After that in 1964 aluminum was brought there to make coins. Even the coins made of stainless steel and nickel were introduced after 1988.
  • D. Udaya Kumar introduced the symbol of Indian rupees in the year of 2010. While creating the symbol, the Latin ‘R’ and the Devanagari symbol of ‘Ra’ was used shortly. Even the symbols were given two lines situated parallel to represent the national flag of India.
  • To commemorate special occasions RBI occasionally issued coins of special denomination such as 10, 50, 100 or even 1000. These are the special sets for collectors.
  • The first set of commemorative coins was issued in 1964 in honor of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of the Indian Republic.
  • Indian 5 Rupee coins were occasionally smuggled into Bangladesh. They were melted and used to make razors. This business greatly devalued the coins and harms the economy. Thus, the government had made it illegal to melt coins or destruction of currency notes.

The Punch-Marked Coins of Ancient India

South Asia is the cradle of human civilization for a very long period of time. The river basins of north and north western India have experienced human occupation since 5000 BCE. These people did not live isolated. They engaged in trade and commerce with people from other regions such as Central Asia and Arabian Peninsula. The earliest trading activities were conducted through barter. But with the advent of more complex economic transactions the coins became the medium of commercial exchange.

The earliest reference to coins in the context of south Asia can be found in the Vedas. However, the archaeological findings suggested that the earliest instances of coin circulation in India can be traced back to 6th-5th century BCE. These earliest coins are known as the famous ‘punch-marked’ coins.

The punch-marked coins were mainly made of silver. There were copper punch-marked coins too. These coins are mostly of rectangular shape, occasionally square or round. These coins have been found in large numbers in various places of northern India ranging from the Taxila-Gandhara region of north western India to middle Ganges valley.

The process of making these coins was quite interesting. The coins were cut from large metal sheets. Sometimes metal globules were also flattened to shape them as coins. Next, the symbols were inscribed on the coins using dies or punches. These coins did not show any great artistic or aesthetic excellence in their appearance. This was because they were the earliest attempts of coin minting in India. There shapes were also mostly irregular, but they showed excellence in maintaining the weight standard of the coins. The majority of the punch-marked coins made of silver weighed about 56 grains or 32 rattis. The weight-system of the punch-marked coins as well as all the other ancient Indian coins was based on the red and black seeds of a particular variety of tree called Abrus precatorius. The weight of these seeds was known as the rattis. The uniformity of the weight system was one of the main reasons behind the long usage of these coins over a vast area of South Asia.

These coins did not bear any inscriptions on them. Instead they carried symbols of geometric designs; natural bodies such as sun, moon, mountains; depictions of different animals and plants, etc. Some of them also carried human figures. These punch marks are not properly inscribed in all the coins and some of them have become illegible by now. The significance of all these symbols inscribed on the coins could not be ascertained by the numismatists with certainty.  They may have some political or religious importance.

The coins of this variety which were circulated in northern India were categorized into four main series by the numismatists. They divided the coins in different series based on their weight, the nature of the symbols inscribed, and their area of circulation. In the distant hilly terrains of Taxila-Gandhara, the punch-marked coins were a little heavier and carry a single symbol. In the Kosala region of middle Ganges valley, the coins were also of heavy weight nature but came with multiple punch-marked symbols. In the Avanti region of western India light weight single punch-marked coins were in use. Magadha, a powerful state in eastern India issued their own punch marked coins with a light weight standard carrying multiple symbols. With the political ascendancy of Magadha in the 3rd and 2nd century BCE, the Magadhan punch-marked coins became the most circulated coins in South Asia. It also shows the importance of studying the numismatic trends in grasping a proper understanding of ancient Indian history.