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.

Coins of Independent India

The year 1947 is considered as the most important year in the history of modern South Asia. This year witnessed the departure of the British from South Asia and the emergence of two nation states replacing the British Raj- India and Pakistan. Before independence, the Indian economy was completely dominated by the British. The coins and currency notes circulated in India also carried the image and the seal of the British monarch. However, with the coming of the independence the situation changed. The Indian economy came under the control of the Indian people. The Government of India replaced the authority of the British royalty and started circulating coins and currency notes bearing symbols reflecting indigenous tradition and culture.

India, though gained its independence in 1947, issued its first coins in the year of 1950. The first series of Indian coins were released on the occasion of the 3rd anniversary of Indian independence on 15th August, 1950. These coins replaced the image of the British monarch which was inscribed on the coins of the earlier regime. Instead, the image of the Sarnath capital of Mauryan emperor Asoka was inscribed on the obverse of the coins. The obverse also carried the inscription ‘the Government of India’. The reverse carried the image of a wheat plant. The denomination of the coin was also inscribed on the reverse. The Roman script was used for this purpose. These coins were made of an alloy of copper and nickel. Coins were issued in both Rupee and Pice denomination.

A major step was taken by the Indian government in 1957 in a view to reform the monetary system. The prevalent system of dividing a Rupee in 64 Pices was replaced by the decimal system. From 1957, the Rupee was to be divided into 100 Pices. 1 Pice became the smallest unit of Indian monetary system. The earlier denominations of .5 Pice or .25 Pice became obsolete. The new Pice came to be known as “naya Paise” or the new Pice. In these new Pices the ‘Government of India’ inscription was also shortened into simple ‘India’. It was a very important change. This change contributed in a large amount in modernizing the Indian monetary system, and in turn, the Indian economy. Only some beggars complained about this change as they had to meet only 64 people earlier to gather a Rupee. Now, they had to meet 100!

From 1964 onwards, coins of various denominations were being issued made of Aluminum-Magnesium alloy. The increasing cost of issuing Cupro-Nickel coins was the main reason behind this decision. This year also saw the issuing of the first series of memorial coins in India. The first memorial coins were dedicated to the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Till then, the government had issued coins in memory of several other leading public figures too. Most important among them is the father of the Indian nation, Mahatma Gandhi.

In 1968, a 10 Pice coin was issued by the Government of India made of an alloy of Aluminum-Bronze. These coins were of golden color. It led many illiterate and semi-literate people in India to believe that these coins were made of gold. They collected these coins in large numbers and melt them in search of gold. The government stopped the issuing of these coins to control the mass hysteria; and started issuing another series of coins in October, 1971 made of Aluminum-Magnesium alloy.

In 2010, the Government of India selected a design by D. Udaya Kumar as the official sign of the Indian currency. This sign is now used by all the government organizations, financial institutions, etc. to denote Rupee.

The Decline of Coins in the Early Medieval India

Have you ever thought of life without money? Can you imagine a society where no one uses coins and currency in economic transactions? Though it may sound weird, it was the case in India at a certain point of time. After the fall of the mighty Gupta dynasty in the mid-6th century CE, several smaller states came into existence in India. The big cities of the earlier age were all in decline. With them declined trade and commerce. The prosperous days of Indo-Roman trade were gone. Under these circumstances, the economy of India became more agrarian and land-centric.

Based on these evidences several scholars has argued that the period between the fall of the Gupta dynasty (mid-6th century CE) and the commencement of the Muslim Sultanate rule in Delhi in the 13th century was marked by the emergence of an Indian variety of feudalism. This same period is known among the historians of India as early medieval period. The scarcity of money, in the form of coins of course, was another major feature of this age.

So, how did the people buy goods or services in the absence of hard cash? The proponents of feudalism theory argued that the cowrie shells became the principal medium of exchange during this period. The cowrie shells had definite market value. They were used by merchants and ordinary people for small scale local transactions. Though long distance trading activities were in decline, some merchants still managed to export rice from the eastern part of India to Maldives. In exchange they brought cowrie shells from Maldives to use in the local market. The Indian Ocean trade was the main source of cowrie shells in the Indian market.

However, foreign merchants refused to accept cowrie shells in exchange of their products. Thus, the states were compelled to issue some debased and devalued copper and silver coins. Thus, there was not any absolute absence of coins. There were certainly some coins in circulation in the market. But these coins were no match with the coins of the Guptas. Gold coins became very rare in this period as they were not essential for an economy based on declining trade. The coins of this period also lacked the aesthetic quality and precision of the earlier period. They remained mere imitation of the earlier age.

Nevertheless, there are some scholars who countered the hypothesis of scarcity of coins in the early medieval India. John S. Deyell is one the champion of this counter-argument to the theory of shortage of coin. He suggested that the number of coins in circulation did not decline in this period. What was in decline was the value of the coins. As trade was in decline, people needed very little amount of hard cash for their sustenance. Moreover, the circulation of cowrie shells solved their problem of acquiring metal coins as there was a scarcity of silver supply in early medieval India. This shortage of silver came to known as the ‘Silver famine’. The opponent of the feudalism theory further argued that a human society could not exist completely abandoning trade and commerce. Salt and iron are two essential commodities for sustenance and they are not available everywhere. Thus, people had to engage in some sort of economic transaction to procure these products.

Well, now-a-days our economy is again leading towards a system where carrying and transacting via hard cash is becoming obscure day by day. Digital and plastic money is becoming more convenient. It is interesting to note that the idea of inventing the alternatives to hard cash is not at all new. People in the early medieval age, too, look for the alternatives and they found cowrie shells.