Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The March of Money: Part I

A Bengali babu - a civil servant - by the name of Kishenkant Bose visited Bhutan in 1815. His comments in relation to coinage in the country are perhaps among the first references to the existence of minting in Bhutan - many years prior to his visit. What he writes is not very flattering though - he traces our minting history to acts of aggression and plunder. He records as follows:

"There was formerly no mint in Bhutan, but when the Bhuteas carried away the late Raja of Cooch Behar**, they got hold of the dies, with which they still stamp the Narainy rupees…….”

He further reports; “….. there are mints at Paro, Tongsa and Tagna*. Most of the metal working in Bhutan, including the minting of coins, was carried out by slaves, often Muslims, captured from the Cooch Behar area.”

Selectively quoted from:
Oriental Numismatic Society
Information Sheet No.16
The Coinage of Bhutan
By Nicholas Rhodes
January, 1977
* Tagna is most likely Dagana.
** The Maharaja of Cooch Behar that the Bhutanese abducted would have to be either Bijendra Narayan (1772 – 1774) or Maharaja Rajendra Narayan (1770 – 1772).

This firmly establishes that by 1815, Bhutan already had at least three mints – one each at Paro, Trongsa and Dagana. In addition to these three mints, it is also recorded that more of them were pressed into service in later years. The report also names exact locations of the mints – Sisina in Thimphu and Enduchhoeling in Trongsa.

Bhutan apparently sent silver to mints in Cooch Behar to be struck into coins – and coming worst off it, at occasions. On 17th January, 1785 Bhutan’s Deb Raja wrote to the Governor General of India seeking help in recovering silver worth Rs.5,000.00 that was sent to Cooch Behar to be struck into coins, but was never returned.

Records show that the Bhutanese did a very poor job of minting coins. Their design was poor, the weight was inconsistent and the silver content nothing much of value. Thus, finally in 1928, the second King gave up and ordered the coins to be struck at the Calcutta Mint. Since then all our coins have been struck in India, and in later years, in various other countries.

Going by available records, it appears that the Bhutanese people were in possession of a medley of coins - struck independently by the 6 most powerful regional chieftains of the time - Trongsa Penlop, Paro Penlop, Daga Penlop, Thimphu Dzongpen, Puna Dzongpen, and Wangdue Dzongpen. Not to forget the coins struck by a number of Druk Desis and Deb Rajas through the centuries. To add to the madding numbers, coins from the following 6 independent nation states were also freely available:

British India
Cooch Behar
French India

Cooch Behar and Assam are listed as independent countries since they became part of the Indian Union only in 1950.

Notwithstanding the fact that a huge variety of coins were available in the country, Bhutanese rarely used coins for trade or to pay off debts or dues - they treasured them as items of value. High ranking officials passed them around as items of gift, rather than anything of monetary value. The Bhutanese had no use for money during those early times since they bartered for everything they needed. Coins minted in Bhutan as well as most of those minted in Cooch Behar were of hammered coinage. The history of milled coinage in the country begins with the minting of the silver 1/2 Rupee that came to be known as the Thala or the Tickchung and the copper Paise. The 1/2 Rupee silver coin was denominated "Jatam Ched" and the copper Paise coin was named "Zangtam". They were designed and minted at the Calcutta Mint in 1928.

The practice of the use of money for payment for goods and services came into being only towards early 1960’s. Bhutan issued its first paper currency in 1974. Until then, monetary transections were all done in coins – Thalas and Tickchungs – by the sack loads, literally!

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