The Forgotten History of South Indian Currency System

Well, you may be astonished to see a gold currency coin (above) with a temple symbol with 4 languages inscribed (two of them are Tamil and Telugu)….

Yes, your guess is right!




This was the ‘South Indian’ currency (1808 – 1815) made of 2.97 gms of gold, and it’s called as ‘Pagoda’ in english, ‘Varahan’ in Tamil.

Now, before I go deep into the history, I really wanted to set the stage here.

What made me to write this article, and how I ended up writing this?

Whenever I stressed myself just for the sake of earning money, my inner voice always raises a question ‘Who the hell invented money in this world? I’m going to kill them if I come across’.

Well, I paused there and thought ‘Why don’t you find out who invented money?’.

Months and months of internet research, conversations with family members, stock market analysis, and BOOM…….I found an answer 🙂

Wait that didn’t end there, all that I came across were the currency system that existed in the West.

I felt something was missing in my mind puzzle, so I digged deeper to understand how my ancestors ‘South Indians’ dealt with the money system.

To my surprise, I came across a mind blowing history about the currency system that almost went forgotten.

Well, I really don’t want to get this history forgotten!

Here we go!

The Barter System using ‘Paddy’

Barter system (exchange of goods) were the only medium of transaction happened among our ancestors since 200 BC.

The ‘Sangam’ period, 200 BC to 400 BC, marks the barter system in south india. Paddy that is produced in abundance in South India was the common medium of exchange.

For example, 10 Kg of Paddy can be exchanged for a 10 kg of spices or 10 kgs of Fish; but 10 Kgs of Fish cannot be exchanged for 10 Kgs of Spices, we need Paddy to get anything.

Barter System using Paddy
Malabar Women pounding Paddy (Image Credit – mathrubhumi.com)
Ancient Loan System ‘Kuri Edirppai ‘

The world famous Tamil epic ‘Purananuru’ describes the rich land of Pandya Kingdom which had abundance of Paddy – every house of Pandya land had stocks and stocks of Paddy that a housewife got it exchanged for spices, grams, cattles and lot more.

Infact, we were dealing with a special loan during barter system called ‘Kuri edirppai ‘ where a person could get 20 kgs of Paddy upfront as a loan and start harvesting it, and pay back the same amount of Paddy that is gotten after a specified amount of time.

How was Paddy Measured to Exchange?

The following were the Paddy measurement units used in the ancient south india. The first one called ‘Nazhi’ is still in use in the rural areas to measure the rice that is to be cooked. I had personally seen my grandma and mom using ‘Nazhi’ since I was young.

Paddy Measurement Unit System (Image credit - tamilpaddycivilization.blogspot.com)
Paddy Measurement Units – Nazhi, Sangazhi, Thuni, Marrakkai (Image credit -tamilpaddycivilization.blogspot.com)

The Paddy measurement system of Kerala has similar units, so considering the kerala units as reference the following calculation were taken (this may not be so accurate)

1 Nazhi is almost 200gms, and 4 Naazhi = 1 Sangazhi, 10 Sangazhi = 1 Thuni, 7 Thuni = 1 Marakkai, 10 Marakkai = 1 Cartload (a bullock cart can draw in olden days).

Emergence of Coins

Since 114 BCE – 1450s CE, seeing our abundant natural resources Paddy, Cotton, Millets, Grams, Spices, Ivory, Steel; foreigners came running to buy and enjoy the enormous natural wealth.

Of course it’s true, India was the world’s richest country during this time!




History says that India almost drained all the gold from Rome by selling the inland goods, and in turn rome struggled to mine more gold.

Pepper and cotton were the main exports along with Steel, pearls etc.

Roman Gold Coins excavated from Pudukottai
Roman Gold Coins excavated from Pudukottai shows the proof of foreign trade that existed for centuries. Image source – Wikipedia

Trade flourished so much that we ‘South Indians’ started importing horses, wine, topaz, glass, coffee beans. Though we imported these, the exports from India were not equal to the imports.

That’s the reason they started compensating the difference with gold, silver and copper. And in order to identify the coins of particular country, the country’s stamp was stamped on the gold pieces.

‘Purananuru’ has a poem mentioning  the sale of pepper for 15 gold pieces in the ancient Madurai Market.

The Forgotten ‘South Indian’ Currencies

Fast forwarding to 18th century, the British East India Company took over almost all the trade that was happening in the country.

Before India was formed in 1947, there were three types of coins in circulation since 13th century. They were Pagodas or Varahan, Falam or Panam and Kasu

The coins ‘Pagoda’ or ‘Varahan’ were used exclusively for the foreign trade only. The coin is made of 1.2gms of gold.




That’s the reason for having 4 languages Persian, English, Tamil and Telugu. I was really astonished to see the ‘Tamil’ and ‘Telugu’ text inscription, it clearly tells that ‘South India’ was so strong economically in the history.

 

1 Varahan Gold Coin
1 Varahan Gold Coin ( Taken from numista.com)

The temple in the coin may represent Srivilliputhur temple in Tamilnadu , and the rear back holds the punch mark of ‘Lord Vishnu’ seated on lotus.

The coinage system was in existence since very long, and the representation of Vishnu may be due to impact of Vijayanagar Empire.

The calculation of Varahan or Pagodas were : 1 Varahan or Pagoda = 36 or 42 Fanam/ Panam, 1 Panam = 80 kasu / dubbu / dubbulu.

 

Half Pagoda or Varahan Silver Coin - Taken from numista.com
Half Pagoda or Half Varahan Silver Coin – Taken from numista.com

 

1 Fanam or Panam Coin dated back to 18th century ( Taken from numista.com)
1 Fanam or Panam Coin dated back to 18th century ( Taken from numista.com)

The coin ‘Panam’ was mainly used for inland transactions inside South India. Panam is made of 0.92gms of silver, and 1 Panam equals 42 kasu or dubbu

The words ‘Panam’ in Tamil as seen in the coin above is restated in English as ‘Fanam’, but both represent the same meaning. Many Tamil words may have been translated in to English during this period. For e.g. ‘Kasu’ to ‘Cash’

The coloqial words ‘Panam Kasu’ in Tamilnadu aren’t just words, they represent coins!

Copper Coin 'Kasu' or 'Dubbu' used during 18th Century ( Taken from numista.com)
Copper Coin ‘Kasu’ or ‘Dubbu’ used during 18th Century ( Taken from numista.com)

The copper coin ‘Kasu’ above were used in day-to-day transactions of common people in South India. The inscription in the coin says ‘Idhu 2.5 Kasu’ in Tamil, meaning it is 2.5 cash. 42 Kasu makes 1 Panam.

The words Panam, Kasu, Dubbu or Dubbulu are still in use in Telugu and Tamil. Many think that they are just colloqial words but it is definitely not. The Copper coin that is seen above is called as Kasu, dubbu or dubbulu – those are not just words, they were the real coins.

How our Economy fell down?

Inspite of having such a great economic currency system, we lost almost all the treasury and wealth during the foreign invasion.

Our economic system was SO much dependent on each community – Agriculturalists ploughed the land and grew healthy food, Kshatriyas had healthy food, maintained physical fitness and protected the country, the black smiths made strong weapons for Kshatriyas to fight, the merchants traded in metal for blacksmiths, and so on it goes… So when one community fails, the whole system fails.

When the trade generated too much wealth, the wealth wasn’t divided to the poor and the needy. The whole system failed just because of greed, jealousy, unequal division of accumulated wealth.  This lead to the economic classes Wealthy, Middle-class and Poor. The poor struggled to survive, and the economy was shaken.

References

Wikipedia.org

tamilpaddycivilization.blogspot.ae

www.numista.com – all image credits goes to numista

https://balajiviswanathan.quora.com

www.mathrubhumi.com

Prabha is a User Interface Designer (Software design) + Entrepreneur, and a passionate home organiser. She was a spendthrift until she came across the book 'Millionaire next door'. In fact, this (the book) was her turning point towards frugality and financial freedom. Read more

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7 comments

    Nice article. Just one comment. The coins posted here are just from one part of India, called Madras Presidency. So, these coins circulated mostly in south India (as rightly pointed out.) There were two other presidencies at that time, under the East India Company (Bengal Presidency and Bombay Presidency). They had their own coinage system which was very different from Madras Presidency.

    One correction that I would suggest is that the Half Pagoda silver coin posted here has a value ‘Arai Varagan’, meaning half pagoda and not varagan as mentioned in the article. I am also really happy that you have included my coin here (The one fanam coin). Thanks!

    Very happy to see your comment :). Thank you so much, Anantha Padmanabhan!

    You’re completely right. Yes, there were 2 more presidencies. Totally agreed! Will do a detailed research and will update my post accordingly.

    And regarding ‘Pagoda’ correction, its updated 🙂 !!!

    And thanks for your ‘Fanam’ coin. It really educates a lot of people like me on economy front.

    The Indian kingdoms were divided into four presidencies, by the East India Company under the ruling of their queen of England, queen Victoria, whose dynastic rulers from queen Elizabeth to latest queen Elizabeth III or iv, viz Calcutta Province, Bombay Province, Mysore Province and Madras Province(which also called as Madrassas).
    As far as of late 1960’s, in Nellore, i dealt with those old coins for buying every thing from petty shops to big shops. The coin denominations, i had damadi(less than a paisa)chinnadabbu, peddadubbu, ardhanna(three paisa),anna(six paisa), charanna( twentyfive paisa), cheyanna(fifty paisa), baraanna (seventyfive paisa), approximation values to paisa, then later on paisa, two paisa, three paisa, five paisa, ten paisa, twenty paisa, twentyfive paisa, fifty paisa, one rupee note, two rupee note, five rupee note, ten rupee, twenty rupee, fifty rupee, hundred rupee, later on, five hundred and thousand rupee notes, and lately new five hundred rupee and two thousand rupee notes. Abolished, old five hundred and thousand rupee notes.in Novomber 2016.
    Even the notes were devalued, twice or thrice in the 1960’s,1970’s etc., the coins lost its value(old) since 1970’s replaced by paisa for a while, stating expensive to mint them, based on their face value.

    Really nice to hear you have those precious coins in hand, and many thanks for your valuable comment!

    Very recently, I realized Numismatics is something linked to our ancestoral lifestyle. How ignorant was I thinking History is just a subject in schooling?

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