by Abdullah Beydoun
India is a country with a rich history, steeped in tradition. Despite the conservative tones underlying their culture, currency in India has proved exceptionally malleable, with innovations and impositions creating a climate of constant change in India’s monetary system over the last several hundred years.
India’s role in global trade, as a conduit between the Western Mediterranean civilizations and the Eastern Chinese empires, along with its occupation by the British and later independence have shaped its history and traditions, not just socially, but monetarily. This article highlights some of the most important periods and events in the history of Indian currency. We’ll highlight how the history of India intertwines with the history of its money, and how the country continues to seek fiscal stability through clever monetary policies following its independence.
Ancient Indians Issued the First Coins
Without advanced minting capabilities, each Republic Kingdom, called a Mahajanpada in the ancient Sanskrit language, produced its own coins by preparing small, irregularly shaped bits of silver and marking them with unique symbols. Depictions of flowers, wheels, swastikas, and various animals are all recognizable on these ancient coins. Despite their irregular shapes, the weight of the coins was standardized across the kingdoms of India.
Punch Marked Coins were Instituted by the Mauryas
Punch-marked coins presented a significant innovation in Indian coinage – coins could now be made using a process similar to minting that produced designs with an elevated surface instead of creating depressed markings like in the previous method. The Mauryas made coins of silver, gold, copper, or lead, and they adopted the Greek practice of engraving portraits of kings onto coins, producing currency that carried the likeness of Indo-Greek Kushan kings.
Rupees Removed by Turkish Sultans of Delhi
By the 12th century AD, things had changed dramatically in India, and the royal designs put forth by the Indian kings had been replaced by Islamic calligraphy at the behest of the Turkish Sultans who now controlled Delhi. The punch-marked rupees that had been characteristic of ancient India were replaced by Tanka and Jittals that were minted from gold, silver, and copper.
Rupees were Restored by the Mughal Empire
The Mughal Empire played a huge role in India’s monetary history, unifying the country under one currency and monetary system for the first time in 1526 AD. The rupee was back in full force when Sher Shah Suri defeated Humayun and followed up with the issuance of a robust, 178g silver coin called a rupiya, which was divided into 40 copper pieces (paisa) during the entire Mughal era. Subsequent dynasties followed the Mughal era, but India was never again divided in terms of its currency or monetary policy.
When the British East India Company began doing business in the 1600s, Mughal currency was near the height of its popularity. By 1717 AD, the Mughal Emperor allowed the British to coin their own Mughal money at the mint in Bombay. These coins were distinct from their traditional counterparts and given special names – Carolina for the gold coins, Angelina for silver, cupperoons for copper coins, and the tin coins were known as “tinny”. By 1835, the Coinage Act was imposed to create uniformity in coinage throughout India.
Paper Money was Introduced by the British in the 19th Century
The Mughal Empire ended in 1858 and gave way to a period of British imperial control, with two serious consequences for Indian monetary policy. First, the British crown imposed itself on Indian coinage, adding the faces of King George IV and Queen Victoria to the now-standardized Indian rupee. Second, the first series of paper note was introduced to India by the British – they included portraits of Queen Victoria and were available in denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100, and 1000 rupees.
Early 1900s a Transitional Period for Indian Currency
Events between 1900 and 1950 played a critical role in the development of Indian currency:
- 1914 – Smaller denomination notes were issued due to metal shortages caused by World War I
- 1923 – The Queen Victoria notes were replaced with notes bearing the likeness of King George V, who was Emperor of India from 1910 until his death.
- 1935 – The Reserve Bank of India was set up and empowered to issue Government of India notes, which it did, starting with the 5-rupee note bearing King George VI’s portrait in 1938. It also printed a 10,000-rupee note that was later discontinued.
- 1942 – Metal shortages caused by World War II again forced India to print small-denomination paper notes to compensate for coin shortages.
- 1947 – India gained independence from the British and became a republic by 1950. The first banknote it printed was a 1-rupee note, bearing the symbol of the Lion capital at Sarnath, which remains the official symbol of its currency today.
Indian Currency Today
Today, India maintains control over its own currency production and policy. Most recently, it has released the Mahatma Gandhi series of bank notes, immortalizing India’s most famous political activist and folk hero who famously protested British oppression. This is a suitable image that pays homage to the efforts that restored India’s control of its own lands and currency.
Indian currency has undergone numerous changes in over two millennia of known history. The designs and images reflected on Indian currency today reflect a society with a distinct character, rich wildlife, proud institutions, productive and beautiful lands, and a thriving economy. We hope that this glimpse into the rich history of currency in India inspires you to add a few rupees to your collection, or to further appreciate the ones you’ve already got.