How Coins Reflect Sovereignty
A humble one paisa has historical significance
In all likelihood, most millennials will see stamps and coins only in philatelic and numismatic museums. What the internet and courier services have done to stamps, postcards, inland letters, and aerogrammes, digital payment systems like Google Pay, Phone Pe, and UPI have done for coins of various denominations, including the humble Paisa.
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has explicitly stated that the copper-nickel series of Re 1 and 50 paise coins will no longer be reissued by any bank. While these coins will retain their ‘face value,’ the fifty paise coin will only be legal tender for transactions not exceeding ten rupees, and the one-rupee coin will have an upper transaction limit of a thousand rupees.
Older generations may recall using one, two, three, five, ten, twenty, twenty-five, and fifty paise coins. Many Bollywood songs featured the term ‘paisa’ in their lyrics. However, due to the double-digit inflation that marked the first six decades of India’s independence, the ‘paisa’ lost its value, so much so that when, on 30 June 2011, all coins with denominations of 25 paise and below were officially demonetised, it did not even make it to the first page of newspapers. Nevertheless, the Indian Rupee (INR), with its new symbol ₹ (a combination of the Devanagari letter र (ra) and the Latin capital letter R without its vertical bar, continues to be defined in terms of a hundred ‘paise’.
Etymologically, the term ‘Rupee’ comes from Rupaya or Rupa, and the first reference can be traced to the ‘Astadhyayi’ by Panini, from the Panchnad (Punjab) province, dating back to the 6th-4th century BCE. Initially, a Rupaya was equivalent to 5,275 ‘phootie cowries’, which were small sea shells. Over time, various denominations emerged, including ‘damri’, ‘pie’, ‘dhela’, ‘paisa’, ‘taka’, ‘anna’, ‘dowanni’, ‘chawanni’, ‘athanni’, and finally a ‘rupaya’.
‘Phootie cowrie’ held immense historical significance as one of the world’s oldest mediums of exchange, and its value derived from its natural scarcity. One cowrie or chowrie was made of three ‘phootie cowries’: ek phooti cowrie bhi nahin doonga (will not give you anything whatsoever).
‘Damri’, ‘pie’, ‘dhela’, ‘paisa’, ‘taka’, ‘anna’, ‘dowani’, ‘chawanni’, ‘athani’ and ‘rupaya’ were actually minted coins. The first of these was crafted in brass, featuring images of Hindu deities some 2,400 years ago. During the Buddhist era, they bore images of the Buddha. A rupaya was composed of 64 paise, and every four 4 paise constituted one anna. This led to the popular saying, ‘solah anne sach’ (as true as sixteen annas to a rupee). Notably, one paisa itself was made of 3 pies: pie pie ka hisab loonga (will hold you to account for each pie (penny); between the paisa and the pie was a ‘dhela’, equal to 1.5 pie: dhele ka kaam nahin karti hamari bahu (our daughter-in-law doesn’t do work equal to a dhela), as an old misogynist proverb goes. A dhela was made of two damris: chamri jaye par damri na jaaye (a miser will save his damri (money) even at the cost of extreme physical discomfort). Each damri constituted ten cowries.
In the Himalayan region and Bengal, the term ‘Taka’, derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Tankha’, was used for a silver rupee. Taka is now the currency of Bangladesh. In Pakistan before 1971, the currency note carried the legend Rupee and Taka. The two had equivalent value.
The minting of coins and the printing of currency notes have always been symbols of sovereignty. Therefore, the history of coinage in India intertwines with the transfer of power from the Janapadas of Panchnad to various rulers, including the Greeks, Mauryas, Guptas, Kushans, Kalingas, Satvahanas, Turks, Afghans, Moghuls, the East India Company (EIC), the British Crown, and eventually, the Indian Republic. (This list is illustrative, not exhaustive)
The geographical reach of a currency also indicated the extent of sovereign power. As the Sikhs, under Ranjeet Singh, and the Marathas took control of large parts of India, the Moghul currency waned, and Nanak Shahi coins became prominent in the North. The Marathas introduced three types of Rupees, known as the Hali Sicca, Ankushi, and Chandori rupees in the territories under their dominion.
Each of the three Presidencies of the EIC had its unique coinage and monetary system. In December 1672, the EIC established a mint in Bombay, where they minted European-style gold, silver, copper, and tin coins. The gold coin was called the Carolina, the silver coin was known as the Anglina, the copper coin as the Cooperon, and the tin coin was referred to as the Tinny.
Additionally, the Bombay Mint issued Persian-style coins bearing the names of English monarchs, such as James II and William III, and Queen Mary. The Madras Presidency coinage was influenced by the Vijayanagar paradigm, featuring gold pagodas with depictions of Lord Venkateshwara and his two wives. The Bengal Presidency was the last to introduce its own coinage. After the EIC’s victory over the Nawab of Bengal in 1757, they issued a Mughal-style rupee coin known as the Sicca Rupee of Bengal Presidency, especially after acquiring the Diwani of Bengal from Emperor Shah Alam II in 1765.
After 1835, the EIC began issuing coins exclusively under a Royal charter, and after 1858, the British government in India directly minted these coins. With the Royal Titles Act of 1876, Queen Victoria adopted the title “Empress of India”, leading to changes in coin inscriptions from ‘Victoria Queen’ to ‘Victoria Empress’ in 1877. Notably, Queen Victoria was not the first woman to have her name imprinted on Indian coins; that distinction goes to Razia Sultan, who had coins struck in her name over 650 years ago, in 1237-38.
When India gained independence, one rupee constituted sixteen annas and 64 paise. In 1955, the Indian Coinage Act was amended to facilitate the adoption of a metric system for coinage. As of 1 April 1957, the anna, pice, and dhela denominations were demonetised. The rupee retained its value and nomenclature but was divided into 100 ‘paise’, called the Naya Paisa. The denominations in circulation included 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 20, 25, 50 (Naya) paisa, and one rupee. Pre-decimal coins of one, half, and quarter rupees remained in circulation after decimalisation, as the rupee retained its pre-decimal value.
A decade later, starting on 30 September 1968, all anna coins and British Indian (pre-decimalisation) rupee coins were demonetised. The term ‘Naya’ was dropped, and a 20-paisa coin was minted in 1968. The 1, 2, and 3-paisa coins were gradually phased out during the 1970s. In 1982, an experimental 2-rupee coin was introduced to replace 2-rupee notes. Currently, the four government mints located across India, in Kolkata, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Noida, exclusively produce coins in denominations of Re 1, Rs 2, Rs 5, Rs 10, and Rs 20. Keep an eye out for them, as well as any 50-paisa coins that may still be in circulation, and consider preserving them in a frame.
In a decade from now, their value may exceed their weight in gold!
(Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Until recently, he was Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration)