Losing loose change in Nepal

Shri Mananka, circa 5th Century AD. The obverse shows a lion while the reverse a seated goddess. Photo: OLDCOINSTAMPNOTE

On the walkway leading to the Pashupatinath Temple, vendors sit on cold stone slabs with stacks of glittering red and yellow coins before them. Some devotees stop by to buy bunches of the Re1 or Rs 2 coins for a little more than their value to offer to the gods inside.

The transaction happens quickly. One side produces paper cash and the other hands over the metal coins in exchange. Chances are, some of the coins will find their way back to the vendors again, to be ‘recycled’.

With lower currency denominations nearly worthless, one of the few places in Nepal where coins are still used are temples like Pashupatinath. These days, one does not pay in coins but for coins — the medium of exchange has become the object of trade itself.

Bibash Shrestha, a shopkeeper in Kirtipur, cannot recall the last time he handled a coin in his store. “There is rarely any loose change to return,” he remarks. “Before we used to give out candies to make up for the difference, now even they are worth more than Re1 or Rs2.”

Coins are still integral in Hindu and Buddhist puja, marriages and other rituals. During the Hindu chaurasi puja, for instance, bundles of gold coins are handed out to attendees at the end. And when building a house, coins need to be ceremonially placed on the foundation.

But coins bear clues to Nepal’s historical and economic past, and carry great anthropological significance. Govinda Neupane, a student of archaeology, remarks that in the digital world of today, coins are the new kinds of intangible heritage.

He says: “Coins are the witnesses that justify our history, they have archaeological and historical value. They provide a window to understanding our past and present, and function as markers to specific historical periods.”

Indeed, letters and markings on coins inform us about the king or queen at the time of their minting. The alloys of copper, silver or gold used tell us about the state of the economy of that time and place. The figures on the coin reveal the religious beliefs and influences of the period.

As for metal coins, the oldest excavated in Nepal are punch-marked ones from the 5th century BCE from Kapilvastu in Lumbini. Currently in display at the National Numismatics Museum in Chhauni, there coins are originally from what is now India and have various symbols ‘punched’ on them. These coins prove that trade had moved beyond the barter system in the region.

Historian Satyamohan Joshi writes in his book नेपाली राष्ट्रिय मुद्रा (National Currencies of Nepal) that coinage in Nepal can be divided into three eras starting in the 5th century AD during the Lichhavi, Malla and Shah dynasties in the Valley.

The earliest coins found in Kathmandu was issued by the first Lichhavi king, Mandev (pictured above). Minted during his reign from 464AD to 505AD, the obverse has a lion with its paw raised and ‘Sri Mananka’ written above it, while the reverse shows a figure of a goddess seated on lotus with ‘Bhogini’ inscribed on it. The script used is Brahmi, the forerunner of almost all writing systems found in South Asia. The current writing system of Nepal, the Devnagari, is a descendant of Brahmi.

The figure of the goddess recalls influence of the ancient Indo-Greek kingdom from the 1st century BCE. All Lichhavi coins are made of copper and have on them the king’s name, the figure of a god or goddess, with flowers, vajratrisulkalas, the sun, the moon, or animals such as the bull, lion, cow and elephant. There is consistency in their shapes and sizes, and are handmade, but there is no date inscribed on them.

Lichhav kings Gunakamdev and Anshuvarma have similar coins to their predecessors, while coins issued by King Jisnugupta (635 - ?) show a bull on one side, and a vajra or a trisul on the reverse. Satyamohan Joshi takes this as proof of the king’s devotion to both Shiva and the Buddha.

Suman Basnet, an avid collector of Nepali coins for the past 20 years, says that in addition to the metal used, the different symbols and depictions are in themselves records of history and the attitudes of people.

“These coins are concrete evidence of how people lived in those specific times and places,” he says. “I wanted to delve deep into our history through something concrete and ubiquitous as coins. These coins could have been handled by farmers, merchants, kings, men women and children in the past.”

Indeed, the pre-Lichhavi period and the 800 years between Lichhavi and Malla rule in Kathmandu’s history are less well-known largely because there are no coins from those eras. After the Lichhavi period, the oldest coins and Nepal’s first ever silver ones, were issued by King Indra Dev of Dolakha in 1545AD.

Then in 1566 King Mahendra Malla, who built Kathmandu’s Taleju Temple two years previously, issued silver coins in the Valley. Various historical sources mention that he presented a swan and a hawk to the Mughal Emperor Akbar in Delhi (some say it was Humayun) who in turn granted Mahendra Malla permission to mint silver coins of 6 masa (~5.8 grams) in his name. These coins are also known as Mahendra malli and according to historian Balchandra Sharma, the practice of calling silver coins Mohar began with them.

While both the Lichhavi and the Malla coins show cross-cultural influences — Indo-Greek, Mughal and Tibetan, among others, for example — the medieval designs of Malla coins are much more elaborate, with tantric and Vajrayani motifs, and do not depict figures of deities. The coins themselves are either square or circular. Even animals (other than the lion) are absent, and more importantly, the name of the ruler with the year is inscribed legibly, written in Ranjana, Persian or Arabic alphabets.

Mohar from Pratap Malla's reign. Photo: HERITAGE AUCTIONS

Several stamped clay and leather 'tokens' with illegible writings on them have been discovered from these times as well, but not enough research has been done regarding their purpose and use as media of exchange, and historians are cautious to call them 'coins' literally. In fact, while coins have been metallic historically, some of the earliest-known tokens of exchange were kaudis, essentially small shells used as circulation currency in Ancient India before metallurgy became widespread.

Malla coins contain a confluence of Hindu and Buddhist symbols. Geometry is prominent and each coin is decorated with various artifacts (kalasvajratrisul, clubs and astamangal) in triangles, squares, hexagons and octagons. The symbols and letters represented the kings’ names, their queens and family members. They also etched on the metal their interests, their lofty aspirations, with their various epithets.

Satyamohan Joshi writes that these aesthetic choices were intended to attract the public’s imagination and devotion towards the rulers and their families. The smallest silver coin in the world is in fact a Malla coin — called Jawa in Newari, or Fukkadam — minted during the reign of Jaya Prakash Malla, the last king of Kathmandu, and weighing 0.004 grams.

The Malla period ended with Prithvi Narayan Shah’s annexation of the three kingdoms of the Valley. Historian Dinesh Raj Panta says that before Prithvi Narayan, there is hardly any concrete evidence of Shah coins. But after his conquest of the Valley, unified Nepal’s first king began to issue silver mohar in his own name.

The first one with Prithvi Narayan Shah’s name inscribed on it had a trisul on the obverse surrounded by ‘Sri Sri Prithvi Narayan Shahdev’ written within gaps made by a swastik on a square. The sun and the moon sat on each top corner and at the bottom was inscribed the date in the Saka calendar: 1692 (1770AD).

On the reverse is a wheel at the centre divided in three sections, on which is written ‘Sri Sri Bhawani’. There is a khadga at the centre of this wheel decorated by dots in a bell-like arrangement. Around the edge are letters श्री, श्री, श्री, गो, र, ष, ना and थ (‘Sri Sri Sri Gorakhnath) after the patron deity of the Shah dynasty.

The Shah coinage also saw rise in the use of gold, which had begun sporadically in the medieval period. Despite the rare metal, each Shah king or queen has issued at least a couple Nisar gold coins (named after the commemorative medallions the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan issued at his court in the 17th century) in their name, although for special occasions only.

As Nepal had no silver mines, the metal had to be imported from Tibet. As per the 1556 treaty Mahendra Malla signed with Tibet, the coins minted in Nepal would be used there as well, allowing Kathmandu Valley’s trade, art and culture to spread and flourish.

The full value of Nepali coins in Tibet was set at a single denomination of 15 karma. But when people needed smaller denominations, the coin could be cut into two-third, half and one-third along its petalled design. These were called chotang in Tibet, meaning ‘cut Mohar’ and a few examples dating to the times of Jaya Prakash Malla and Pratap Singh Shah can be found at the National Numismatic Museum.

Jaya Prakash Malla had hoped to alleviate the crisis brought by Prithvi Narayan’s blockade of the Valley by minting low quality coins mixed with copper to export to Tibet. When the Shah king wanted to revert to using pure silver coins, the Tibetans asked to have all the older coins replaced as well. The war of annexation had just ended and this would have added further financial burden to the new ruler. The dispute went unresolved, which was in turn inherited by Prithvi Narayan's descendants after his death. Tibet by then had begun to send low quality rock salt to Nepal in retaliation.

The Nepali delegation sent to Tibet to resolve these trade issues was rejected, giving the Gorkhali kingdom a pretext to raid rich monasteries north of the border, and in 1788 to invade Tibet itself.

The first invasion ended with Gorkhali victory, and Tibet agreed to pay war reparations to Kathmandu and a further Rs50,001 in annual tribute. But after the first year, Tibet stopped paying it and the war continued.

During the second invasion, China’s Qing emperor came to the aid of Tibet and chased the Gorkhali forces back over the mountains as far south as Nuwakot, only 30km northwest of Kathmandu. The Sino-Nepal war ended in 1792 with Gorkhali defeat. A treaty was signed at Bhetrawati near Nuwakot Palace, and Nepal started paying a tribute to China in 1792, 1794, 1795, 1823, 1842 and 1865.

Following the war, Nepal was no longer able to export its coins to Tibet. A mint was established in Lhasa to supply coins to Tibet which affected the amount of silver coming to Nepal and its economy. The Gorkhalis were also waging a costly war against the East India Company in newly-conquered areas of Garhwal and Kumaon.

After the Anglo-Gorkha war, rulers in Kathmandu tried to compensate for the shortage of silver coins by prohibiting the import of British coins and turning the East India Company coins into Nepali ones, but even then the supply was not enough.

In fact, ‘Company’ coins because so valuable that some elderly women in remote parts of Nepal can still be found wearing garlands made of East India Company silver coins.

Later in early 19th century, the second Rana prime minister, Ranoddip Singh brought water-powered machines to help artists and craftsmen mint consistent-looking coins more efficiently.  These machines would flatten the metal and etch designs on both sides.

Ranoddip’s nephew and successor Bhim Shamsher then brought coal-powered machines to mint coins. This gift of industrialisation would mint around 12,000 alloy coins daily in Dharara Taksar in Kathmandu. Today, the mint has shifted to Babermahal and only makes commemorative coins.

The designs of Shah coins have been more or less the same since 1770, with similar symbols and motifs. However, when democracy was established, silver-alloy coins were issued that showed King Tribhuvan wearing a Dhaka topi as opposed to a crown against a five-pointed star.

‘This design, in light of the end of the Rana rule, was meant to signify that the king was no different from a commoner,’ Satyamohan Joshi explains in his book. Tribhuvan’s successors Mahendra, Birendra and Gyanendra were similarly depicted.

When monarchy was formally abolished by the Constituent Assembly in 2008, the figures of the kings were replaced by the डाँफे (Impeyan pheasant) and the cow. Only Re1 and Rs2 were in circulation, and even those are now falling out of use.

“In the digital age where all our transactions are invisible in the internet, it is important that focus be given to the cultural, religious, social and political significance of coins,” says Suman Basnet.

He compares this changing attitude towards physical money and especially coins to postage stamps: “Perhaps this is what progress looks like, but as we move to a cash-less society, there is a possibility that we lose connection with our heritage and our past. This calls attention to the fact that it is important now more than ever that we retain and remember our history.”

The Nepal Numismatic Society holds meetings regularly in Thapathali, and there are more and more younger attendees, meaning that coin-collecting is still popular. “Traditionally, it had been the elderly and the tourists who collected coins,” says Basnet. “But there are a few young people who show great promise.”

Says Govinda Neupane: “Coins bring several different avenues of our society together. We can study economics, language, history through coins, and we should preserve them for our future generations to look back and develop their own analyses and understanding.”

Ashish Dhakal