Historical Background

Sri Lanka - Commemoratives

Commemorative coins and stamps are issued to celebrate some event of significance be it national or international. The issue of stamps are more common than the issue of coins which is restricted to more important events. The reason for this is due to the fact that coins need longer period of time for the planning and minting, unlike the printing of stamps which can be done in a much shorter time.

The first ever commemoratives issued in Sri Lanka was the 1957 Buddha Jayanthi coins of denomination Rupees Five and Rupee One. This was considered an universal event and half million pieces; crown size Rs.5 in sterling silver, along with 2 million pieces of Rs.1 in cupro-nickel were minted for general circulation. In addition to this 700 sets of four coin each and 400 sets of two coin each in proof condition were minted. 600 four coin sets were sold to three well established coin dealers in United Kingdom at the rate of 200 per dealer and the balance brought for sale in Sri Lanka. The 4-coin set was sold at Rs17.50 which was above face value of Rs12 due to the fact that minting of proof coins is very costly. The normal coin is minted at a rate of order 100,000 per die at a high speed, whereas in the case of proof coins a die is used to mint of order 1000 coins and the die is washed with soap and water after every two or three coins are struck to maintain the peak of perfection of the coin and through out the process the product is not touched with bare hands.

It was almost after a lapse of eleven years the second commemorative coin was minted for the World Food Congress held in 1968. In this instance half million pieces of Rs.2 denomination were minted but no proof coins. Eight years later in August 1976, two coins of the denomination of Rs.5 One million pieces, and Rs.2 two million pieces, along with 500 sets of proof coins were minted to commemorate the 5th Summit Conference of Non Aligned Nations held in Colombo.

Commonly known as the J.R. coin of Rs.1 commemorating the installation of the First Executive President with the effigy of His Excellency late J.R.Jayawardena was minted early in February 1978, this also happens to be the first local coin with the effigy of a commoner. In this instance one million pieces were ordered however it being a rush job and a date line set for the issue the Royal mint had to resort to the use of special tool method and minted 2,600 pieces which were brought on the 2nd of February 1978 for issue on the 4th of February. Forty proof replicas in gold were also struck, and only gifted to cabinet and high officials. The balance order followed up, with an additional million ordered by Governor Hurbert Tennekoon on his visit to the mint about a month later. The first 2600 from a different die are very rare and the "straight shoulder" variety is a much sort after by coin collectors.

Late in 1978 the Royal Mint minted 20,000 sets of proof coin consisting the Commemorative J.R.coin, standard Rs.1, 50 cents, 25 cents, 10 cents, 5 cents, 2 cents and 1 cent coins bearing the date 1978 and name Sri Lanka and the emblem with the chakara and also the like number of sets with the date 1971 bearing the name Lanka the emblem with the crown. This handsome set proved a historic record of the last legal tender coinage of Ceylon, one of the pioneers of decimal currency system, for the rupee and its sub division were declared legal tender back in 1872.

Thereafter commemorative coins were minted in quick succession and the quantity was one million or over. In 1981 to mark fifty years of Universal Adult Franchise 2 Million coins of denomination of Rs.5 were minted and on the same year 5 Million pieces of Rs.2 were minted in connection with the Mahaweli Development Scheme. In both these instances no proof coins were minted. The Bank took this opportunity to try out how well a Rs.2 will be accepted by the general public so as it could do away with the rupee two note which was becoming expensive to maintain a note of this low denomination. 40 million more Mahaweli coins were minted before adopting a standard Rs.2 coin in 1984.

Commemorating the International year of Shelter and Housing in 1987, 2 Million coins of a square Rs.10 was minted. Late President Premadasa took 20,000 pieces to Africa on his visit to Egypt and Kenya. At the time shelter and housing was a big issue in the third world countries. Two Hundred proof coins were minted but not available to public.

When a reasonable quantity of commemorative coins are minted it gave an opportunity to possess or at least see the special coin. However proof coins should be restricted to reasonable quantity due to high cost of minting. The Royal Mint once advised CBSL to restrict minting of proof coins to around 5000 to meet the need of ardent numismatics.

In recent years commemorative coins were minted at a rate, but sometimes only a few hundred proof coins hardly enough to go round the interested collectors. For instance the coin issued in connection with the establishment of employment Provident Fund was so little that I am ashamed to tell that I worked from almost the inception at the Central Bank till the end of my carrier and am still to see one of these coins.

Once again the rumpus has arisen over the issue of commemorative coins. The dust has hardly fallen after the issue of one hundred proof coins to commemorate the establishment of the Employee Provident Fund, which were not available to the public.

The most recent issue the bicentennial year of the Sri Lanka Customs Department where the quantity minted was hardly enough to go round within the four walls of the customs department leave aside the hungry public outside. I think I am not far from wrong, the Government missed a golden opportunity of showing the world, that Sri Lanka was so advanced two hundred years ago to have customs service while most countries were existing on barter system. A coin of this caliber could have attracted world wide interest and be a boom to the tourist industry.

I feel certain the Central Bank may be planning the issue of another coin shortly or some government department may make such a request. Then if the occasion is worth, make the best of it by minting a sufficient limited quantity of proof coin, and also a fairly reasonable quantity of circulation coins, enough to go round and give publicity to the occasion you celebrate.

Retd. Senior Asst. Superintendent
Department of Currency
Central Bank of Sri Lanka.

2009 September.