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Indian Currency: Through the Ages

The Indian currency has had a long journey through the times to its current form. It is a journey of struggle, exploration and wealth which can be traced back to the ancient India of the 6th Century BC.  India was one of the first issuers of coins, along with the Chinese. 

The first ancient Indian coins were by the Mahajanapadas (republic kingdoms).  These were punch-marked and were known as Puranas, Karshapanas or Pana. Made with silver, these coins were irregularly shaped and often had markings. For example, the Saurashtra coins had markings of a humped bull; the Dakshin Panchala had a marking of a Swastika symbol etc.

The practice of using the portraits of deities began with the Indo-Greeks, and the reign of Maurya’s saw the advent of punch-marked coins of silver gold and copper. 

The major currency during the period were gold coins (suvarṇarūpa), silver coins (rūpyarūpa), copper coins (tāmrarūpa) and lead coins (sīsarūpa).

The Gupta period saw the most number of gold coins being minted, true to the name of ‘golden period.’ Islamic calligraphy replaced the Indian designs in 12th century AD with the arrival of the Turkish Sultans. The new currencies were the silver or gold Tankas, or the low valued Jittals.

While the Delhi sultanate also made attempts to unify the monetary system, the Mughal empire from 1526 AD established a consolidated system throughout the empire.

 The Mughal currency remained in popularity till 1770 AD, until the British gained permission to mint their own coins from Mughal emperor Farrukh Siyar.  The British gold coins were termed as Carolina, the silver coins as Angelina, the copper coins as cupperoon and the tin coins as tinny.

Shortage of silver during the first world war paved the way for paper currency along with the advent of institutions like  Bank of Hindostan, General Bank of Bengal and Bihar, Bank of Bengal etc. 

The first note issued by the Bank of Bengal of Two Hundred and Fifty Sicca Rupees note, September 3, 1812

In 1835, the Coinage Act led to a uniform coinage throughout the country and with the end of the Mughal empire in 1858, the images on the coins were replaced by portraits of the Monarchs of Great Britain, prominently Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V. 

After the revolt of 1857, King George V declared rupee as the official currency of India. 

The Evolution of Rupee

The story of rupee in itself is one that is vast and spread across centuries. The word “rupee” is derived from a Sanskrit word “rūpya”, which means “wrought silver”, and maybe also something stamped with an image or a coin. The first known usage of the word in Indian text was rūpya which was used by Panini, where he intended the meaning to be ‘beautiful’ or ‘stamped.

Chanakya, the prime minister of the first Maurya emperor, Chandragupta Maurya, also mentions silver coins as rūpyarūpa. Rupa means ‘form’ and together the word gave the meaning wrought silver form. 

The next known usage of the term was from the time of Sher Shah Suri, where the silver coins were named as rupiya. These coins continued to be in use during the Mughal period, Maratha era as well as British Raj. 

Shortage of silver during the first world war paved the way for paper currency along with the advent of institutions like  Bank of Hindostan, General Bank of Bengal and Bihar, Bank of Bengal etc. The coinage act of 1835 standardised the currency and soon British Royalty began to make their appearance on the currency, prominently Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V.

The Reserve Bank of India which got established in 1935, was given the power to issue money for the government of India. The bank released its first-ever note in 1935, a five rupee note with the picture of King George VI on it.

During British rule, and later through the first decade of independence one rupee was subdivided into 16 annas. Further, each anna is subdivided to 4 paisas.

1 rupee = 16 annas

1 anna = 4 paisas

1 rupee = 64 paisas

Indian Currency After Independence

 Post Independence, the national emblem- Lion capitol of Sarnath replaced the British monarchs in the currency notes. The anna series was the first coinage of the Republic of India and featured the emblem. 

The Indian Coinage Act was amended in 1955 to facilitate the decimal system for coinage. While the rupee remained unchanged in name and value, anna was removed and one rupee became equivalent to 100 naya paisa. In 1964, the term nay paisa was dropped in favour of just paisa. 

1 rupee = 100 naya paisa

1 rupee= 100 paisa

The smiling Mahatma we see as a part of the Indian rupee today was introduced in 1996. While it might appear to be a caricature, the picture was actually taken by an unknown photographer in 1946 while he standing next to Lord Frederick William Pethick-Lawrence.

In November 2001, to show progress through agriculture, Rs 5 notes with the depiction of farm mechanisation process were issued.  

June 1996, saw the issue of Rs 10  notes which depict the fauna of India on its backside to symbolise the biodiversity of the country. Prior to this, the ten-rupee note used to feature a peacock on its backside.

Rs 20 notes with the picture of Palm trees from the Mount Harriet and Port Blair lighthouse as viewed from Megapode Resort, PortBlair were issued in August 2001. Previously, the notes used to feature a Buddhist wheel on its flip side.

In March 1997, Rs 50 notes with Indian parliament in the backside were issued. In June of the following year, Rs 100  notes with the Himalayas in the backside also began circulation.

In October 1997, the Rs 500  notes featuring Dandi March on the flip side came into being. In November 2000, Rs 1000 was issued with a representation of the economy of India in the backside. This picture included Grain Harvesting i.e. agricultural sector, oil rig; manufacturing sector, Space Satellite dish; Science & research, Metallurgy; Mines & Minerals and a Girl working on a computer; Inclusive Technology.

These two notes are no longer in circulation. RBI introduced new 500 and 2000 rupee notes on 8 November 2016. The new 2,000 rupees banknote comes with a magenta base colour, featuring the portrait of Mahatma Gandhi as well as the Ashoka Pillar Emblem on the front while a picture of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is shown on the back, depicting the country’s first venture into interplanetary space. Meanwhile, the new 500 rupees banknote has a stone grey base colour with an image of the Red Fort along with the Indian flag printed on the back. 

In addition to this, ₹- a new rupee symbol, created by D. Udaya Kumar was officially adopted by the country. Prior to this, the currency was depicted using Rs or Re depending on singular or plural respectively. The first series of coins with the symbol incorporated into them began circulation in 2011. The rupee symbol was derived from the combination of the Devanagiri consonant “र” (ra) and the Latin capital letter “R” without its vertical bar. The two vertical bars are meant to symbolise the tricolour flag and also depict an equality sign to symbolise the nation’s desire to remove economic disparity. 

Devika S

Devika S is a copywriter at Next Education India Pvt Ltd. She has completed her Masters in English from the University of Hyderabad. Being a language enthusiast, Devika is well-versed in the Chinese language. She is a passionate reader and ardent listener of a wide variety of music.


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