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The Story of The Rupee

The story of the rupee has the fascination of which legends are made of. It has survived ups and downs through more than four centuries.

The word rupee comes from the hindi/urdu word rupaiya which is derived from the Sanskrit word rupya or rupika, meaning coinage or wrought silver.

The earliest Indian coins were cut and chipped to desired weights. Sometimes pre-weighed metals were melted and poured on a flat surface to take its own shape. Metals were mostly silver but occasionally copper and other contemporary metals were used. These pieces were then punched-marked with symbols and designs but there were no inscriptions so the coins cannot be ascribed to any particular king or dynasty. There are more than a 100 different symbols and occur in a maddening array of permutations and combinations. These are called punch-marked coins and are perhaps the earliest known coins in the world (c 700 BC-c200 BC). The silver required for minting these coins was mined from modern day Afghanistan and Kangra in Himachal Pradesh. Hoards of these coins were found in Central Asia, Bactria, and in South India. This shows the extent of the Indian empires and spread of culture with a well developed fiscal and monetary administration.

The advent of Green adventurers and their assimilation into the Indian cultural society around 200 BC gave rise to India-Greek dynasties and the coinage system was overhauled to show the profile of the then rulers and their names in Green and in Indian languages—khrosthi and brahmi. These coins are known as India-Greek and are quite different from Greek coins.

Coins of various dynasties, empires and regions continued till the advent of the Islamic Sultanates (11th century AD). Islamic law strictly forbade the portrayal of any living being in art or on the face of coins. Profile or rulers was replaced by the kalima (la ilahi il Allah…). The reverse side of the coins bore the name of the king, year of mintage and place of issue. The coins issued were all of unequal weight “minted mass” i.e. silver coins were weighed and not counted in any financial transaction during this period.

The Silver Inspiration of a Royal Afghan:

The monetary coinage system was remodeled by Farid-ud-din Sher Shah Suri (1538-1545). The birth of the rupee is credited to the Afghan ruler for which he was known as the “Prince of Indian Coinage.” A man of vision, he also built the Grand Trunk Road transversing a vast sub-continent from the Khyber Pass to the Bay of Bengal. During his reign he standardized the metal used for coins. The weight of the copper paise was fixed at 19.5 gm to 20.9 gm. Similarly the weight of the silver rupee was fixed for the first time. He standardized it as equal to one tola of silver which is equivalent to 178 grains according to the indigenous system of weights or 10.8 gm to 11.5 gm. Hence was born the first rupee of a fixed weight and it continued to be issued and used until the British came to India. Though Sher Shah Suri reigned for just five years the rupee anna system lived for four and a half centuries.

A Fine Art in Akbar’s Golden Age:

The first Moghuls, Babur and Humayun, circulated shahrukhis, each weighing 72 gm of silver. So did the young Akbar during the first three years of his reign. But then came the ‘indianisation’ of Akbar who greatly appreciated Indian culture and philosophy. His reign saw a renaissance era when Indian arts and ideas flourished with renewed vitality. Akbar’s long reign of almost half a century from 1556-1605 was a golden age and it is reflected in the coinage of the period. He adopted the Sher Shah Suri rupee and started the striking of coins at all important cities. His master minter, Abdus Samad, introduced the fine art of Persian calligraphy on coins since Islam forbade portraits.

Other emperors like Jehangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb also issued silver rupee coins and by the 17th century the rupee was so highly valued that people traded in it as they do in dollars today.

After Aurangzeb died in 1707, the Moghul empire began to disintegrate specially during the reign of Shah Alam (1759-1806). Many local rulers struck their own rupees of varying purity causing great confusion among merchants and the populace.

Reflecting the Grandeur of Princely States of India:

Mirrored in a wide variety of Indian rupee specimens is the great diversity of Princely States through four historical categories: 1) States dating back to medieval times like those ruled by Rajputana chieftains or the Maharanas of Mewar, Alwar, Jaipur, Jodhupur, Bikaner, Tonk, Jaisalmer, Bharatpur. 2) States that originated during the Moghul provincial government whose governors became independent princes like the Nizam of Hyderabad or the Nawab of Oudh, Bawda, Bhopal. 3) States claimed by military adventures and chiefs such as Indore, Gwalior or Mysore under Hyder Ali. Also Punjab States like Faridkot, Nabha, Jind, Patiala, Malukotia. 4) States created by the British with rulers like the Wodiyars of Mysore (post Tipu Sultan) or the rulers of Jammu & Kashmir. The result is that the historical variety of Indian rupees is perhaps without parallel anywhere in the world.

The British Indian Rupee:

The Danes, Dutch, French, Portuguese and British all came to Indian as trading companies thus proving that politics and economics are two sides of the same coin. Their attempts to introduce their own coinage ended in economic chaos. Finally the rupee was adopted by the French who issued coins initially in the name of the Moghuls. Anonymous designs followed and slowly they adopted French national symbols. The Portuguese issued coins only in European designs. The Dutch and Danes issued only anonymous coins for a short period of time. The first to adopt the rupee in 1672 were the British through the British East India Company. They issued coins initially in the names of local rulers form the Bengal, Madras and Bombay Presidencies. The British started machine minting coins and technology helped them fix the weight of the silver rupee at 11.21 to 11.66 gm. This weight difference is attributed to the various machine minted coins of the Presidencies and the contemporary regulations. More than a century and a half passed before the Company began to put a portrait of their ruler, King William IV (1835), on the rupee coin. In the same year when a uniform colonial currency of East India Company was introduced for entire India, the weight of the then silver rupee was fixed at 11.66 gm with a fineness of .917%. The British mints were located in Calcutta, Murshidabad, Patna, Farukhabad, Dacca, Bombay, Surat, Madras, Pondicherry…

After two decades came India’s First War of Independence. Had the war been successful no other British monarch would have featured on the rupee. In 1862 Queen Victoria became the first monarch to adorn coins of all denominations. Curiously there was no date mark on any coins from 1863 to 1873.

Rupee Highlights of Post Victorian Monarchs:

Edward VII was the next monarch to appear on coins from 1903-1906. George V, crowned in 1910, was the first monarch to visit India. A massive coronation durbar was commemorated by tokens and medals similar to the rupee. Bank notes of one rupee and two rupee denominations began to appear. Edward VIII who married for love was never crowned but koris were struck in his name by the romantic ruler of Kutch for local circulation only. George VI reigned from 1936 to1947 when India won her independence. Critical rupee changes resulted in the rupee due to the steep rise in the price of silver owing to World War II and inflation. The fineness of the silver rupee was reduced by .500 from 1940-1947.

As silver coins were being melted down, nickel coins were introduced and the first nickel rupee was introduced in1946. The last silver rupee was struck in 1945 after which the rupee was struck in nickel and then in cupronickel. The last British Indian rupee issued in 1947 was minted of nickel. After over a century the silver rupee with its characteristic thunk when dropped passed into history.

After Independence the nickel rupee of 11.66 gm showing the profile of the Ashoka Lion instead of the British monarch continued to be minted till 1957. Indian currency was decimilized in 1957. In 1962 the first Indian rupee of 10 gm was issued. This was followed by a copper nickel rupee of 8 gm in 1975. The first commemorative rupee coin was issued in 1964 on Pt, Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1969 silver coins on Mahatma Gandhi were issued. Silver was used now only for commemorative coins of Rs. 10 and over.

Thus a long era of silver coinage popularized by the Sultans of Delhi, systemized by Sher Shah Suri and standardized by the British, came to an end.

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