Tale of the Silver Rupee used in Lanka (Ceylon)

The modern monetary unit termed the 'rupee' is of Indian origin and was first used in India during the reign of Emperor Sher Shah (1540 - 1545) to distinguish an entirely new monetary unit named 'rupaiya' (Sanskrit rouppya) that was introduced to the Mughal Empire. The coin was of silver and is said to have originally weighed 175 grains troy. The new monetary unit was readily accepted arid its passage from its first appearance within the Mughal Empire to the end of the British rule in India and in Ceylon has left a deep impression. The Portuguese during the period 1726 to about 1869 also introduced a similar termed monetary unit called the 'rupia'. The Portuguese coin did not find much favor though some of them had found their way to Ceylon.

The Indian rupee has subsequently been issued by many Indian States by many Indian Indian Chiefs in various weights and values. The Bengal Regulation No. XXXV of 1793 mentions that there had been some 27 varieties of the Indian rupee. Though these coins in all instances had an indication of the name of the reigning Mughal Emperor at its time of issue, there was a great degree of confusion mainly to the foreign rulers.

When the stewardship of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa was handed over to the British i.e. the East India Company in 1765, the Company introduced a new rupee coin in 1773 to defuse the confusion that prevailed. This new rupee coin was called the `sicca' rupee and was expected to be current in the Bengal Presidency. The sicca rupee had a weight of 180 grains with a silver content of 176 grains troy and 4 grains was an alloy, which specifications remained unaltered till 1935 and by which time had been increased to 192 grains.

The obverse side of the sicca rupee had a legend in Persian to the effect 'Emperor Shah Alam, defender of Mohammed's faith, shadow of grace of Allah, has struck this coin to be current in the seven climes'. Though the sicca rupee had been minted on many occasions at Dacca and Calcutta, the reverse impressions never varied and it was declared that it was 'minted at Murshidabad (capital city) the 19th year of the auspicious accession'. The reason for the appearance of a constant unaltered reverse impression is that money changers and minor government officials like tax collectors would allow a discount always on older coins minted elsewhere than the capital city.

Meanwhile, the sicca rupee was in 1825, valued in Ceylon by an Order in Council at 2 shillings and 1 penny which was an over valuation by 4%. The comparison taken to determine the over valuation was the representative capacity of British silver and the prevailing price of silver in the market. This anomalous situation was rectified in 1833 by a Minute of the British Governor who fixed the value of a sicca rupee at 2 shillings.

The East India Company used the rupee issued by the Nawab of Surat in the presidency of Bombay and this coin was generally referred to as the 'Bombay rupee' or more popularly as the 'surat rupee'. At first the surat rupee weighed 179 grains but was later raised to 180 grains with a silver content of 160 grains troy. On one side of the surat rupee the legend 'the auspicious coin of the heroic monarch Shah Alam 1215' was inscribed, while on the other 'the 45th year of his auspicious accession'. The value of the surat rupee was reckoned at 1 shilling 11' pence and this valuation was considered as an over valuation in Ceylon. Therefore, in 1833 it was reduced to 1 shilling 10 pence. This coin was not a legal tender coin but was issued to the Civil and Military establishments in Ceylon under' the Minute of the Governor dated December 14th, 1833. To ensure that the surat rupee does not flow out of Ceylon to India, the Governor issued a Minute dated September 16th, 1836, declaring that the rupee will be put into circulation at 2 shillings. This move overrated the surat rupee by 7%.

In the Presidency of Madras, the Company adopted the rupee of the Nawab of Carnatic which was originally minted at Arcot and later at Madras, Dacca and Chittagong. This rupee was called the 'arcot rupee' and though at first it was lighter in weight1 was later raised to 180 grains with a silver content of 165 grains troy in 1818. The inscriptions on the two faces bore 'the auspicious coins of the heroic monarch Azizuddin Mohammed Alamgir' and 'struck at Arcot on tbe 20th year of his auspicious accession'. The arcot rupee however did not receive the full impression as the dies were always larger than the blanks.

In Ceylon the arcot rupee was equated to 12 fanams and was counted as one rix-dollar by the British1 though before the British occupation the nominal value was 30 stuivers and the real value was 48 stuivers or even more. The value of this rupee in 1803 and 1822 was 1 rix-dollar, 18 pices and a shillings 3 1/2 pence or 1 rix-dollar, 3 fanams and 2 5/7 pices respectively. The rate of exchange; of the arcot rupee in terms of the fanam in 1819 was 15 33/49 fanams. In 1833 the intrinsic value was rated at 1 shilling 10 3/8 pice and were issued to Civil and Military establishments by a Minute of at 1 shilling and 10 pence. By a Minute of the Governor dated September 26th 1836, it was again rated at 2 shillings as a measure to curb its flow to India.

The East India Company in 1835 decided to replace all silver rupee coins used in all three Presidencies of India with a uniform rupee of the Company. The new rupee did away completely with all its previous relation-ships to the Mughal Empire and had instead on the obverse the head and name of the reigning British sovereign and on the reverse the denomination in English and in Persian along with the name of the Company in English. This rupee was referred to as the 'Company rupee' and was 180 grains in weight with a silver content of 165 grains troy and 11/12 fineness. The coins were minted in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras mints of the Company and did cover the reigns of William IV to Victoria i.e. from 1835 to 1849. Though these coins had several issues they all bore the year as either 1835 or 1840. They have been classified into two major groups, viz. group one with a continuous obverse legend and the other with a divided obverse legend.

The rupee coin was again minted in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras from 1862 onwards not under the East India Company but directly as a British Government issue and they were termed 'Regal' issues. They were of .917 fine silver with a weight of 11.6600 grams. The Persian characters and the name of the East India Company were dropped from the reverse side of the coin. Along with several issues for general day to-day use, issues of proof condition coins were also made from 1862 to 1939. Issues of rupee coins from 1939 onwards up to 1945 had a reduced silver content of .550 fineness. It is interesting to note that the rupee coin dated 1911 was rejected by the public in India as the elephant on the Order of the Indian Empire worn on the king's robe resembled a pig, an animal considered unclean. These coins were nicknamed the 'pig' rupee and were withdrawn from circulation.

In Ceylon the rupee coin was readily accepted but there were doubts about the legality of the issue itself and this was permanently cleared by an Order in Council and Proclamation dated June 18th 1869, which declared the Company's rupee and its sub-divisions the only legal currency in the Island. The Order in Council dated February 6th 1892, rescinded the Order in Council and Proclamation of 1869 and declared inter alia that the British India silver rupee of a standard weight of 180 grains and 916.6 fineness shall be the standard coin of Ceylon and the rupee be good for payment of any amount.

The silver rupee was never struck in Ceylon though it was well accepted as a monetary unit for the discharge of all contracts. The term rupee was destined to remain in Ceylon and has been the principal unit of our century old decimal currency system influencing not only coins but notes as well.

Source: 1. Ceylon Currency British Period - B.W.Fernando
        2. Obituary of the Silver Rupee   - Amaendu Sen

Currency Museum Circular No 8,
Currency Department,
Central Bank of Ceylon.
1984 March, 26th.