Cowries, damris, dhelas, other old Indian coins

| Updated: 29 April, 2024 6:38 pm IST

Many inaccurate images and lists of old Indian coins and shells are being shared on social media. Since no references are included, errors and misunderstandings become facts over time. Nobody dares to question an image if it seems remotely plausible. People add their embellishments and images. I usually research the history of Bombay (not Mumbai) pre-1995 through my Facebook group “Bombay, I Remember.” Sometimes, we discuss the old coins used in Bombay. Having heard of some of the old coinage first-hand from my elders, I became fed up with the inaccurate information and decided to do my research, as listed here.

Time and Place

Most older Indians know the recent post-Independence coin sets:

  • Rupees, Annas, Pice until 1957
  • Rupees, Naye Paise (later Paise) after 1957

I was a child in 1957, but I remember the pre-decimal coins, as the 4 Anna and 8 Anna coins continued to be in circulation for a few more years until they reached a bank and were recycled. People still called them “4 Annas” and “8 Annas” even when they were holding a decimal 25 Paise or 50 Paise coin.

The inaccurate lists of old coins don’t mention that they were not all part of a single set all over India during a specific time frame. Before Independence, many Princely States had their coins, but there were occasional overlaps with other states or with the coins of British India. Most of those lists omit the “Dam” (pronounced “daam”) coin, which also became a word for “price”, e.g. “Kitna daam hain?” (What is the price?).

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Example: Cutch State

The coins in Cutch State from 1819 to 1947 were: 1 Kori = 2 Adhio = 4 Payalo = 8 Dhabbu = 16 Dhingla = 24 Dokda = 48 Trambiya = 96 Babukiya. The Kori was a copper coin, not a shell (cowrie). It was replaced by the Rupee after Independence.

Example: Travancore State

  • 1 Travancore Rupee = 7 Fanams
  • 1 Fanam = 4 Chuckrams
  • 1 Chuckram = 16 Cash

Emergence of Modern Coinage

Before Sher Shah Suri (1540 – 1566), there were numerous units of coinage, which can be looked up elsewhere. His reign was the first to define a silver Rupee (in 1542) as an exact weight of 176 grains. Shah Alam II  (1760 – 1806) was the Mughal emperor under whom Indian coinage began to take a uniform look. The Mughal Empire, which covered most of modern India, began to have standardised units of currency. The vassal states, such as Baroda, issued coins showing Shah Alam as the emperor. The first British Indian Rupee weighing 179 2/3 troy grains was minted in Calcutta in 1757. It was equal to the weight of a Bengal Sicca. The word “sicca” was also used as a generic word for coins in Gujarat.

Mohur

Akbar’s reign had a gold Mohur. The Mohur was worth between 560 to 680 Dams. The East India Company issued Mohurs, also called Ashrafis. The last Mohur minted in British India in 1918 was worth 15 Rupees.

Falcon Gold Mohur of Akbar, 1600.

Attribution: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. CC BY-SA 3.0

Mohurs, East India Company, 1835

Attribution: Photographer: Heath Warwick, Source: Museums Victoria. Copyright Museums Victoria / CC BY (Licensed as Attribution 4.0 International)

Rupee

The Rupee is mentioned in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a third-century masterpiece. It was also known as a Taka (Tanka) since Muhammad Bin Tughluq’s time in the 14th century.

First Rupee of Sher Shah Suri.

Attribution: Drnsreedhar at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II allowed the East India Company to mint coins. After the Nawab of Bengal lost the Battle of Plassey, the company could issue its coins at will. In 1835, the likeness of King William IV appeared on the coins.

Rupee, Bombay Presidency, India, 1823-1824

Attribution: Photographer: Heath Warwick. Source: Museums Victoria. Copyright Museums Victoria / CC BY (Licensed as Attribution 4.0 International)

Dam

Akbar’s reign had a gold Mohur, a Dam (daam), Rupee, and other values. The Dam was the smallest unit then and had been in place since its introduction by Sher Shah Suri.

Copper Dam of Sher Shah Suri

Attribution: Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0 Adithya Harish Pergade

Dhela

A Dhela was issued by the Mughals and the Sikh Empire. It was worth 1/2 Paisa or 1/4 Anna.

Dhela from the Sikh Empire, 1839.

Damri

A Damri was an Akbar-era coin worth 1/8th Dam or 1/320th Rupee.

Damri (1592-1600)

Cowrie

A cowrie/kaudi is the shell of a tiny sea snail, which was used as currency in many parts of the world. In India, it was used until the East India Company banned it in 1805, but it persisted in pockets until 1830. The cowries used in India were collected from the Maldives, so one could not go to the nearest beach in India to “make money”.  One Rupee was the equivalent of 2,560 Cowries/Kaudi. Damaged cowries were known as Footi Kaudi. An unbroken cowrie was called a Sabit Kaudi. I have not found a credible conversion rate, as seen in some inaccurate lists. Wikipedia mentions that in the mid-nineteenth century, one Pie was worth 12 Cowries. A recent YouTube video creator says that 1 Damri was worth 10 Cowries.

Cowrie

Paisa/Pice/Falus

The Paisa’s origin dates to the reign of the Chaulukyas (9th-10th centuries). During the reign of Shah Alam II (1760-1806), it was known as a Falus. During British rule, the Paisa was known as a Pice. It was the equivalent of 1/4 Anna, so there were 64 Pice to the Rupee. The modern, decimal Paisa post-1957 is 1/100th of a Rupee.

Falus from Golconda, 1626-1672

An oddity that needs further investigation is that later Falus coins bear a Devanagari and Persian inscription of “Pai”. It’s possible that the older word became an informal term for the Pai.

Shah Alam II Falus/Pai, 1796-1806.

British India Coins

The coins were:

  • Rupee = 16 Annas = 64 Pice = 256 Pies
  • Anna = 4 Pice = 12 Pies
  • Pice (Paisa) = 3 Pies
  • Pie (last coins minted in 1942; demonetised in 1947)

Independent India Coins

The Dominion of India (1947-1950) retained the British India coins. The Republic of India used the old denominations until decimalisation in 1957 but replaced the King’s image with the Lion Capital of Ashoka. The decimal coins of India were:

  • Rupee = 100 Naye Paise (until 1 June 1964)
  • Rupee = 100 Paise (after 1 June 1964)

The Inaccurate Lists

A typical unresearched list looks something like this:

  • 3 Footi Kaudi = 1 Kaudi
  • 10 Kaudi = 1 Damdi
  • 2 Damdi = 1.5 Pie
  • 1.5 Pie = 1 Dhela
  • 2 Dhela = 1 Paisa
  • 3 Paise = 1 Taka
  • 2 Taka = 1 Anna
  • 2 Annas = Doanni
  • 4 Annas = Chawanni
  • 8 Annas = Athanni
  • 16 Annas = 1 Rupee
  • 1 Rupee = 20 Taka = 40 Dam = 320 Damri

I’m sure you can see some anomalies there.

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Where’s the Shareable Meme?

By now, you’re probably expecting me to provide a table of the coins and their conversion rates, but I have to disappoint you. The coins differed from place to place and had different conversion rates at different times. Some of the units went out of use centuries ago. I cannot put my name on such a table.

Ash Nallawalla is the author of Accidental SEO Manager. He consults in SEO for companies in Australia and the United States. He speaks at major SEO conferences.

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