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 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.

The Indo-Greek Coins

South Asia, and more precisely the modern state of India has experienced the incursion of several tribes throughout its history. Many of the famous military generals of the world had made their mark in the territories of South Asia. The Greek military genius Alexander also attacked north western India albeit without much success. The invasion of Alexander took place in the year of 326 BCE. However, he succeeded in establishing several Greek colonies. He left some of his military generals and soldiers to occupy and rule his Indian and Central Asian conquests. These Greek generals came to be known as Indo-Greeks in the history. They ruled roughly during the period between mid-3rd century BCE when Diodotus I established an independent kingdom to early 1st century BCE when they were overwhelmed by the Parthians and the Shakas.

Their rule extended over a vast part of central Asia and north western South Asia. It included the modern areas of Afghanistan, north western part of Pakistan, the Indian provinces of Kashmir and Punjab. There were several dynasties and over 40 rulers of the Indo-Greek lineage who ruled over this extended time period. And surprisingly the main sources of information about the rule of these numerous kings are the numismatic evidences.

The Indo-Greek coins inaugurated a new phase in the history of South Asian coinage. These coins carried elaborate details about their issuing authority. The name, the issuing year of the coin and a portrait of the reigning monarch was die-struck very precisely on the metal pieces.

We can identify elaborate measures of coin circulation in the Indo-Greek territory. The coins circulated in the north of the Hindu Kush Mountains were mainly made of gold, silver, copper and nickel. They were struck according to Attic weight standard. The obverse of the coins carried the portrait of the issuing monarch. The reverse of the coin was marked by the depiction of Greek gods and goddesses. The name of the monarch and his royal titles were also mentioned in the reverse in Greek.

The coins which were circulated in the south of the Hindu Kush bear more Indian touch. They were mostly made of silver and copper. Most of these coins are of round shape, while some of them are square. These coins were struck according to Indian weight standard. They bear the royal portrait on the obverse. But their reverse was marked by Indian religious symbols rather than Greek. These type of coins also carried bilingual and bi-script inscriptions using the Greek and Prakrit languages; and Greek and Kharosthi or Brahmi scripts.

The Indo-Greek coins have been found in large numbers in the modern Afghanistan. The largest number of coins was discovered from Gardez. This hoard is known as the Mir Zakah hoard. It yielded 13,083 coins. Among these large number of coins 2,757 were Indo-Greek coins. Other major finds are the hoard found at Khisht Tepe near Qunduz and the coins found during excavations at the city of Ai-Khanoum.

The Indo-Greek coins are very important source of ancient Indian history. Out of 42 Indo-Greek kings who ruled, about 34 kings are known only through their coins. Coins of such kings as Menander depicted them slowly progressing from their teenage to old age, which also indicated their long reigns. The high standard of coinage set by the Indo-Greeks worked as a model for several other Indian dynasties for a very long period of time. The representation of Indian religious figures and symbols in the Indo-Greek coins has a greater significance for the cultural history of South Asia. This illustrated the syncretism of the Indo-Greek rulers. A sort of cultural and religious fusion between India and Greece can be traced from these coins.