Shivrai: Maratha Copper Coins

The Marathas were a loose group of warrior people residing in the western India. They became politically powerful in the late 17th century under the leadership of Shivaji. Throughout the 18th century, they increased their power at the expense of the Mughals. By the end of the 18th century, they were the most powerful people in the whole of the Indian subcontinent. It was only the vast resources and the superior military forces of the English East India Company which was successful in subduing the Marathas.

The Maratha economy was mainly agrarian. The Maratha coins also lacked high degree of sophistication. The various Maratha kingdoms never issued a uniform series of coin. The currency system was very loosely controlled by the state. The state restrained its duty to the collection of revenues and never beyond it. In this field, the Marathas were much inferior to their contemporary adversaries such as the Mughals or the English who were always keen to maintain proper currency system across the empire.

Even in some cases, the Marathas used the coins issued by the Mughals. During the 18th century, the most common coin in use across the Maratha territory was actually a Mughal currency- the silver Sicca.

However, a notable exception in this field is Shivrai. Shivrai is a copper coin of very low value. It was used extensively by the common folks across western India. The earliest examples of Shivrai came from the reign of Shivaji. It was continued to be used by the people up to late-19th century. Even the English East India Company who became the dominant political force after the Third Anglo-Maratha wars continued to issue Shivrai coins.

The Shivrai coins were mainly round in shape. The obverse of the coins carried the inscription ‘Sri Raja Shiv’ in Devanagari script. The reverse also carried a devanagari inscription- Chhatrapati in honor of the reigning Maratha monarch. The weight of these coins was not uniform. They were valued at 1/74th to 1/79th of a Rupee-the standard unit of currency in the Indian subcontinent.

In 1674, Shivaji’s coronation took place. To assert his rule as a sovereign ruler he minted coins in his own name. The gold coins were known as Shivrai Hon. But they were few in number. Although, Shivrai- the copper coins of low value- were minted in large number for the convenience of the common folk.

After the reign of Shivaji came to an end with his death in 1880, Maratha rule became weak for the next forty years. But the Marathas regained their political prominence under the Peshwas from 1720 onwards. With that we encountered a new series of Maratha copper coins. These new Shivrai coins issued under the Peshwa rule came to be known as Dudandi Shivrai. These new coins, too, carried those same inscriptions in the Devanagari script.

The next series of Shivrai coins were minted when English East India Company subdued the power of the Marathas during the first quarter of the 19th century. These fresh coins were circulated by the Company authority. The Company Shivrai coins carried some additional features. The year of minting in the Fasli era was inscribed on those coins.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, the Shivrai coins increasingly became obsolete. They were replaced by newly circulated Company coins whose value was determined as 1/64th of a Rupee. The standard procedure of dividing the Rupee into 64 divisions continued until independent Indian government introduced the decimal system in 1957.

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.

A Short History of Indian Coins

The earliest references to coins in the Indian context have been found in the Vedas. Though Vedas are primarily religious texts, they are not solely concerned about Yoga, spirituality or after-life. Rather there are numerous references to ‘nishka’ and ‘nishka-griva’ which are believed to be earliest specimens of Indian coinage.

Another breakthrough in the Indian coinage can be traced back to 6th century BCE. Several small states emerged in the northern India during this period. The trading activities grew rapidly. We came across several terms such as the nishka, karshapana, shatamana, vimshatika which were coins of different weight and value. Interestingly, the weight-system of the coins was based on the red and black seeds of a particular variety of tree called Abrus precatorius. The coins of this age were mainly made of silver and copper. They are known among the numismatists as punch-marked coins. Punch-marked coins did not show any great instance of artistic expertise.

But the coins of the next age which was circulated in India were destined to be the best examples of artistic expertise. They were issued by the Indo-Greek kings of north western India. These coins were found in large numbers in various places of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. These coins are significant because they carry detail information about the issuing monarch, the year of issue and sometimes even an image of the reigning king. Coins were mainly made of silver, copper, nickel and lead.

The reign of the Gupta dynasty is described by some historians and scholars as the ‘Golden age’ age. And this is quite evident from their coins. Numismatists have found number of gold coins of this dynasty. These coins are also rich in details of their issuing authority. The gold coins of the Guptas were known as dinaras. The writings on these coins were in Sanskrit. These coins depicted the reigning monarch in different poses.

Apart from the coins another major medium of exchange xxx in the early Indian market was the cowrie shell. Cowrie shells were used in large numbers by the ordinary masses for small scale economic transactions. It is said that the cowrie shells carried definite value in the market just as the coins.

With the fall of the Gupta dynasty in mid-6th century CE there was a marked decline in commercial activities in Northern India. This period is also significant in the history of Indian coinage because the decline of monetary system. The decline of coinage can be noted in their number, their appearance, and value.

However, the situation changed with the invasion of the Turks in 11th and 12th century CE. Vast areas of northern India came under the rule of the Sultans. Trade and commerce with West Asia was again flourishing. The various dynasties of the Delhi sultans issued silver and copper coins. The inscriptions on the coins were mainly in Perso-Arabic script. Interestingly the coins did not bear any image of the issuing monarch. The reason was the prohibition of idolatry in Islam.

Muhammad binTughlaq, one of the sultans of 14th century was famous for his monetary reforms. He circulated bronze and copper coins and token paper currency. However, his measures failed miserably as his subjects resorted to wholesome forgery of the currency notes. Ultimately he had to withdraw the currency notes.

The Great Moguls of 16th and 17th century issued coins closely resembling other Central Asian dynasties. Sher Shah, a ruler for a very short period of time in the mid-16th century was a bitter enemy of the Mughals. He is also remembered for his introduction of a kind of silver coin namely rupee. Interestingly, in India money is still known as rupiya.

The Moguls were succeeded by the East India Company’s colonial rule. The Company rule brought the monetary system of India in direct connection with the global economic system. However, the name of the Indian currency continued to be rupee under the Company rule.