Coins don’t only jingle, they can also tell a tale or two!


During my schooling we did not have the benefit of present day multi-media and other aids, to widen our horizons. To fire our imagination, in the classrooms we had only maps on the walls and a big globe. No internet, no National Geographic, Discovery or History TV channels! Illustrations in the text books were about the only sources which helped us to visualise things, places and events.

Our Irish class teacher, Miss Peggy O’ Flynn however had a way of
arousing our curiosity in all directions. She urged us to collect stamps,
coins, picture post cards, match box labels and even small rocks. Every day we
were supposed to bring a sample of what we were able to collect. After the
lunch got over, one by one she looked at our exhibits and explained whether
that particular stamp depicted the ruler of the country, or the flora fauna of
the country or some historical or some national or international personality etc.
We were then asked to look up these items in the school library. With the help
of Children’s Encyclopaedias, we learnt a lot more about the subject of the
stamp, than what our text books taught us. Next day we had to submit a short
essay on that particular subject. 

The school also had a huge collection of rocks. They all had been
millions of years in the making. Some rocks came from river beds and were easy
to recognise: for they were smooth and generally oblong. We worship some of
these as ‘lingas’ ! Some rocks came from lava flows of
billions of years ago. Some stones of different coloured layers represented,
how over millions of years layers with different minerals had settled down over
each other! My continuing interest in geology, geography and history is thanks
to the way Miss O’ Flynn made us ask questions and seek their answers. 

At my teacher’s advice when I started collecting coins, I found at
home old coins lying in some drawers or in cupboards, but no one in particular
was collecting them. They had just been lying around for generations. I put all
of them in a box and took them to school. 

I had a copper Paisa with a hole in it. During the World War II
days, there was a shortage of copper and it was saved by minting the Paisa
coins with holes in them! Introduced in 1943 and discontinued in 1947, the
number of coins in circulation was very limited. Besides, with our penchant
for jugaad these coins with holes were very frequently used
as washers by mechanics. Today, these same copper one-paisa coins with a hole
are available as collectors’ items and can fetch fancy prices on Amazon,
Quickr, eBay etc. Come to think of it, my mother used to give me just two such
Paisa coins every day, for aloo
ki chat, 
at the school gate during break. 

It was exciting to know that one thick copper coin in my
collection was actually struck by Akbar. It was ‘half a Damri’; Dam and Damri
being coins of lowest values. Hence the Hindi expression – ‘Uske paas
to ek Damri bhi nahin hai’!

Those
days to identify stamps and coins, in our school we referred to heavy tomes of
Stanley Gibbon’s Stamp Catalogue or Stanley Gibbon’s Coin Catalogue in our
school library. But today on internet so much can be discovered. I found that
the Reserve Bank of India’s Coin Museum in Mumbai has a stupendous display of
coins from 1000 years ago to the present! 

About Mughal coinage, the RBI museum website states the following:

‘The most significant monetary
contribution of the Mughals was to bring about uniformity and consolidation of
the system of coinage throughout the Empire. The system lasted long after the
Mughal Empire was effectively no more. The system of tri-metalism (copper,
silver and gold) which came to characterise Mughal coinage was largely the
creation, not of the Mughals but of Sher Shah Suri (1540 to 1545 AD), an
Afghan, who ruled for a brief time in Delhi. Sher Shah issued a coin of silver
which was termed the Rupiya, ……. and was the precursor of the modern rupee. It
remained largely unchanged till the early 20thCentury. Together with
the silver Rupiya were issued gold coins called the Mohur, and copper coins
called Dam.

Where coin designs and minting techniques
were concerned, Mughal Coinage reflected originality and innovative skills.
Mughal coin designs came to maturity during the reign of the Grand Mughal,
Akbar. Innovations like ornamentation of the background of the die with floral
scrollwork were introduced. Jehangir took a personal interest in his coinage.
The surviving gigantic coins, are amongst the largest issued in the world. The
Zodiacal signs, portraits and literary verses and the excellent calligraphy
that came to characterise his coins took Mughal Coinage to new heights’.

Recently a friend sent me photos of both
sides of a gold coin. He did not know that I used to collect coins. He only
wanted to know if I could decipher the script and inform him the significance
of the coin. Was it just worth its weight in gold or it had some historical
significance, too. I in turn wanted to know, how he came across it!
Correspondence revealed that his father had bought a defunct mine in the
eastern coal belt.  There during excavations this coin had been
found. It was a family heirloom. His mother had passed it on to him. (See inset)

After one look at the photos of the gold
coin, instinctively two search words occurred to me –’Shah Alam’ and ‘East
India Company’. In a jiffy, Google led me to a coin auction website, which
described the coin in question as follows:

‘British India, Bengal Presidency, Gold
Mohur, 12.32g. Murshidabad, in the name of Shah Alam II (1759-1806) – RARE’.
……… Value Rs. 1 lakh!

The
story that this coin reveals is sad: 

In 1765, after having lost the Battle of Buxar, Shah Alam II
conceded defeat to the British. He was forced to transfer Diwani (all
revenue collection) rights of Bengal and Orissa to East India Company. The
Company was also exempted from tax. In return, Shah Alam II was to receive from
the East India Company, an annual tribute of 2.6 million rupees. And he was
allowed to mint coins in his own name! And this was one of those rare coins,
whose photo my friend wanted to me to decipher. 

Under the agreement between ‘Shah Alam II and East India Company,
the king conceded to disbanding his own revenue officials in Bengal, Bihar and
Orissa. Instead, Robert Clive the then governor of Bengal appointed English
traders and directors of East India Company, whom he described as ‘“the
high and mighty, the noblest of exalted nobles, the chief of illustrious
warriors, our faithful servants and sincere well-wishers, worthy of our royal
favours, the English Company”.

As
Willaim Dalrymple puts it: ‘The collecting of Mughal taxes was henceforth
subcontracted to a powerful multinational corporation – whose
revenue-collecting operations were protected by its own private army.’
 

Dalrymple in his recent podcast: ‘The East India Company: The
original corporate raiders’ says: ‘For a century, the East India
Company conquered, subjugated and plundered vast tracts of South Asia. The
lessons of its brutal reign have never been more relevant
 

One of the very first
Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for
plunder: “loot”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word was
rarely heard outside the plains of north 
India until the late 18th century, when it
suddenly became a common term across Britain. There are more Mughal artefacts
stacked in a private house in the Welsh countryside than are on display at any
one place in India – even the National Museum in Delhi. The riches include 
hookahs of
burnished gold inlaid with empurpled ebony; superbly inscribed spinels and
jewelled daggers; gleaming rubies the colour of pigeon’s blood and scatterings
of lizard-green emeralds. There are talwars set with yellow topaz, ornaments of
jade and ivory; silken hangings, statues of Hindu gods and coats of elephant
armour.’
 

This is a sordid page in our history, that an 18th century
coin revealed to me!

I also learnt
that the Indian term ‘loot’, became
a part of the English language in late 18th century and also
found a place in Oxford English Dictionary, thanks to that master plunderer
Robert Clive!

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