Friday, May 28, 2021

Bhutan’s Early History: Separating Fact From Myth - VI

Coining Journey of Bhutan: Setting the Record Right

In a doctoral dissertation submitted by one Mrs. Smriti Das, it is recorded that Gongzim Ugyen Dorji, on behalf of the Royal Government of Bhutan, wrote two letters to the Political Officer of British India Government in Sikkim: one on August 10, 1909 and another on September 18, 1909. The letters requested the British Indian Government for an increase in their annual subsidy to Bhutan, on the grounds that the Indian government was making lot more profit from Bhutan’s Duars, than the subsidy of Rs.50,000.00 they were paying Bhutan annually.

Of interest to me is the second letter which, in addition to seeking an increase in the annual subsidy, goes on to categorically mention something in the tone of:

“…. to allow Bhutan to mint coins in the British mint in Calcutta – free of charge, and that necessary silver would be provided by the Bhutanese state.”

During the entire reign of Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck, no machine-milled coins were ever issued. Only in 1928 during the reign of his son the 2nd Druk Gyalpo, our first milled silver Thalas appeared. Thus, it is clear that the British India Government had not agreed to mint our silver coins in their mint in Calcutta.

However, sometime in 1910 and thereafter, there appeared few beautifully hammered coins engraved entirely with Bhutanese motifs. After this period, Koch alphabets ceased to appear on our coins. Right from the beginning of our coinage until towards the later part of 1800’s, our coins were hammered with Koch alphabets. All that changed during the time of Choetse Poenlop Jigme Namgyel. He can be credited for introducing Bhutanese motifs in the design of our coins - perhaps during 1870's.

It is now clear that the first machine cut coin dies were indeed supplied by the Government of India mint in Calcutta, sometime in and around 1910, as requested. But it is also clear that the coins of that period was not minted in any modern minting facility, as assumed by some. Looking at the coins of that period: 1910 – 1927, it is evident that the coins would have been continued to be manually hammered, but using the machine cut dies.

The following are most likely two of the coins that would have been hammered from the dies requested for in the letter of Gongzim Ugyen Dorji dated 18th September, 1909:

As can be seen, the detailing is precise and uniform, and the quality of engraving is uncluttered – far, far superior to anything that can be achieved from hand-cut dies. However, the coins are neither reeded nor rimmed - and it is clear that they have been hand-trimmed and perhaps even filed, after they were struck. Generally it is noticed that a large majority of the machine-milled coins of the world are reeded and has a raised rim. A coin’s rim is the up-raised flat part of the coin that completely encircles the perimeter on the front and back of the coin. The thin space that runs around the circumference of the coin is referred to as the edge of the coin. The edge is most often reeded and runs around the entire circumference of the coin. For an example take a look at our Thala which has a rim as well as a reeded edge:

On the other hand our Zangtrum is unreeded and has a plain edge. But it has a raised rim:

In his article "Coinage of Bhutan", Nicholas G. Rhodes wrote:

‘In 1906, Ugyen Wangchuck, accompanied by about three hundred retainers, travelled to Calcutta, where he visited many places of interest, including the Mint. He took a lively interest in everything he saw, and returned to Bhutan with many ideas for the development of the country. In particular, he must have considered the possibility of improving the standard of the coinage, and in 1909, Gongzim Ugyen Dorji, presumably on the King’s instructions, asked the Government of India for permission to have a Bhutanese coin die prepared in Calcutta. The request was agreed to, and the Calcutta mint was instructed to supply dies from a design supplied from Bhutan'.

This is yet another proof that our coins of 1910 and thereafter were struck from machine engraved coin dies.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

A Most Rare Find!

When one is passionate and dogged in the pursuit of one’s aspirations, it appears that things will eventually fall into place. In trying to put together a book on the coining journey of Bhutan, I have been through thousands of hours of search and research. Thankfully, not all of them have been in vain – in fact some of them have been providential – as if it were preordained. I have stumbled on the most unexpected encounters and discoveries - as if some unseen hand was guiding them my way.

There are many hundreds - perhaps even thousands of coins that are still missing from my collection. But it is not my endeavor to get them all – it is impossible. I just want to be able to include as many verities as possible.

Coins are one thing – but dies are another. They are even more rare and extremely difficult to come by, if at all. Through the writings of a coin historian, I managed to track down and photograph half a die – a reverse die or the hammer die – belonging to Desi Kitshelpa Dorji Namgyel. What I needed was a complete set of dies – both the obverse, as well as the reverse dies - to go into the book so that readers can get to see how coin dies look.

Few months’ back, I came by the information of the existence of a set of coin dies with someone not far from Thimphu. Even more fortuitous, the brother of the person in whose possession the dies were supposed to be happened to be a long time friend of mine. After doggedly chasing the friend for months to introduce me to his brother, he finally relented and, subsequently, yesterday I managed to photograph the set of dies that are presented in the following. I am clueless as to whom the dies belong to - the current owner of the dies do not either. The only thing I can tell you without hesitation is that the die is a fine work of art – the engraving is so exquisite that it is unbelievable that the dies were hand cut during late 1700’s or early 1800’s. It is in mint condition, as you can see below:

A set of 2 coin dies: The hammer die and the anvil die, accompanied by a gold-washed Maartrum. The complex cascading of colors in the background is provided by the myriad of hues of the dharshings (colored prayer flags) that stand guard over the Chorten in front of the Dechenphodrang Lhakhang in Thimphu.

As is clearly evident, the hammer die has seen many thousands of hammerings – the severely battered butt end of the punch is proof of it. But amazingly the die’s faces are in mint condition – there are no signs of any wear or tear on them.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Bodeful Times

Once again the annual Cordyceps collection season is here. Although so far no COVID-19 cases have been reported from the villages that engage in the annual harvests, we still need to be vigilant.

I do not know if it is a cause for worry – but I am a little unnerved by a sudden and overwhelming interest in, of all things, silver coins! In recent times, the whole country is abuzz with talk of Betangs – or more accurately – Boetrums. These are Tibetan silver coins that are most often confused for ours – even by the National Museum in Paro. I prefer to call them by the name “Boetrum” which is a combination of two words:

Boe    = Tibet

Trum = Coin

These coins are also known by other names, depending upon their period of coinage, such as: Tangka, Kong-par Tangka, Gaden Tangka, Srang etc. They look like these:

Something is fueling demand for these coins. Amazingly it appears that the entire country is being combed for these coins. Even a villager in one of the remote villages in Tangmachhu, Lhuentse tells me that the entire village is aware of the hunt for these coins. In Thimphu, Paro, Punakha and Wangdue, everybody seems to be talking about the demand for these coins. Someone from Taang in Bumthang asked me about the matter.

Some have opined that there is a newfound demand for them in China or Tibet China – I am not sure which. Regardless of whether the persons seeking to buy these coins are Bhutanese or non-Bhutanese, I would still be worried – because I wouldn’t be surprised if our northern borders end up being used as the exit points for these coins.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Bhutan’s Early History: Separating Fact From Myth – V

Coining Journey Of Bhutan: Setting the Record Right

Few days back I met up with Ms. Pema Choden Wangchuk – Curator at the Royal Textile Academy. I had gone to deliver some images that she had lost when the Academy’s server crashed. The images were from my assignment with them that resulted in the editing and production of their catalogue titled 'THAGZO: Textile Weaves of Bhutan'. In the course of our conversations, I gave her following advise, since she loves research work:

“Don’t trust even the primary sources because they too cannot be trusted to give you the truth all the time. In the course of my research, I have come across primary sources who would rather further their own agenda, than give out the truth. It is important that we cross-check every fact, revalidate every narrative”.

But it turns out that I had failed to practice what I preached. Just a few days back I found out that I have myself been a casualty of faulty history that I had failed to recheck and revalidate.

For years I have been bewildered with something that remained inexplicable – related to our earliest milled coins. Bhutan’s record keeping culture is so poor that there is not much information that can be had within the country. Thus we end up having to glean through outside records, to learn of events that happened inside the country. Not to say that outside sources are without faults.

Going by the information circulating among the community of world numismatists, it is recorded that for the first time ever, Bhutan issued our earliest milled coins in 1928 – all three of them - in the year of the Earth-Dragon (Sa Druk Lo):

One Silver Thala

Two sizes of Bronze coins called Zangtrums

It was noticed that there was a problem with the obverse of the silver Thala – the word ‘Druk’ was rendered wrongly - as follows:

The word should have been engraved as follows:

However, for me what was baffling was this:

Why were the two Zangtrum coins flawless, while the silver Thala was flawed? How does this happen? Particularly when it was the same engraver (A P Spencer) who engraved the coins' dies, minted in the same mint (India government mint, Calcutta), and struck at the same time and year of mintage (1928)?

For years I was dumb founded - something was amiss. It is simply impossible that the same engraver could have produced two differently rendered dies of the exact same obverse, in the same year. There has to be an explanation to this oddity.

And there indeed was an explanation – provided by Charles K. Panish, an American coin expert on South Asian coins. In his article titled ‘Early Coinage of Bhutan’ which I recently came across, he writes as follows:

In 1928 Bhutan initiated plans for a reformed national currency, which was tied to the Indian rupee. The first issue of this coinage was in 1929 when 20,000 gyatam or silver half-rupees were minted at Calcutta for Bhutan. These weighed 5.83 grams and were .917 fine, matching exactly the Indian half-rupee. These coins were dated in the Tibetan calendar "earth-dragon year" corresponding to A.D. 1928. The next year 30,000 more of these coins were issued without a change in date. In 1931 a second denomination appeared. This was the zangtong or copper pice, of which 10,000 were minted at Calcutta. These pice also were dated in the "earth-dragon year."

NOTE: In the above, ‘gyatam’ would be Jatrum and ‘zangtong’ would be Zangtrum.

Finally the mystery was cleared for me. It turns out that the Zantrums were NOT minted in 1928 as recorded elsewhere, but in the year 1931. Thus it is now acceptable to me that the obverse of the silver Thala of 1928 and Bronze Zangtrums of 1931 are NOT, and, NEED NOT be the same!

Obviously the mint in Calcutta used the obverse die of 1929 to strike the Zangtrums of 1931. The date of mintage – Sa Druk Lo is ofcourse wrong – but these wrongs have continued to be committed in all of the coins from 1929, 1931, 1950, 1951, 1954 and all the way to the most recent Thalas. You may notice that all the cupronickel Thalas have the year marked as Chaag Taag Lo on the reverse of the coins. It was in the year of the Iron-Tiger (1950) that the first cupronickel Thalas were struck. For some strange reason, they never changed the reverse die or the obverse die, to depict the correct year of mintage and correctly render wordings on the obverse – Bhutanese authorities also did not seem to notice or object to the faulty years of the later coinages, including the disjointed "ba-ra-tah-dra".

Some among the readers may be interested to know that there was some quantity of cupronickel Thala stamped with the date “Sa Druk Lo”, in 1950. It was a mistake that the mint noticed --- and hastily corrected - but not before some of them were released to the public. These coins are now very, very, very rare. If you have one, hold on it for dear life!

Friday, May 21, 2021

Unsafe Northern Regions

Well, this doesn’t really come as a surprise – in my thinking, the regions in the extreme north and east of our country were always at risk. The recent report of active COVID-19 cases in Merak proves it.

Merak village

I had already warned last year that there is a need to watch the northern and eastern borders bordering Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh. I gave my reasons in the following:

Detection of COVID-19 cases in the community in Merak should not be considered paranormal but the government should be concerned, particularly for the fact that the village is a closely knit cluster and transmission can be rapid and total. The emergence of cases in Merak should cause us to be wary and give us a reason for surveillance in the following northbound communities that have traditional links with Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh:

Merak and Sakten in Trashigang

Dhur in Bumthang

Roelmateng/Khoma in Lhuntse

Laya and villages in Lunana in Gasa

Tobrang in Trashi Yangtse

Lingzhi, Mitsayue, Chebitsa and Gongyuel in Thimphu

Sephu in Wangdue

Perhaps even in the villages in the north of Haa and Paro.

The alluring khandrums in Phari is, if anything, incidental - trade in Yartsa Guenboop across the north is perhaps the most compelling reason for prohibited journeys into Tibet China. Followed by smuggling of gold, sandalwood, US$ cash and counterfeit currencies are likely other reasons. During my trip to the Chundugung/Gonzola areas, some Haaps tried to sell me the nonsense that they were headed into Tibet to carry back jandoms and carpets and cakes of jari. I have to be a prize dullard to believe that they would scale frigid high mountain passes to carry back such high volume, low value merchandize.

Strangely, in Koortoe areas, I was told by a pony driver whom I had hired during my trip to Singye Dzong – that they go into Tibet over the ridge north of Tshokar lake in Singye Dzong – for smuggling color TV’s and cheap footwear and solar powered items of daily use.

We cannot let our guards down in the knowledge that our northern borders are patrolled to prevent incursions by the Tibetans and the Moenpas of Tawang. I am more worried about the incorrigible Bhutanese slithering into Tibet and Tawang/Arunachal Pradesh to sell/buy/trade – in the process pickup a free merchandize we do not need – COVID-19 virus.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

What Happened to the Cupronickel Thalas of 1950 & 1954?

As a young trainee in Tencholing, Wangduephodrang in 1961, Pem Tshering, a long time civil servant – now superannuated, remembers receiving 12 pieces of one Rupee British Raj silver coins a month: 10 pieces as monthly stipend and 2 pieces as Sha-thue - meat compensation.

One Rupee silver coin of the British Raj. It is important to differentiate this coin as that belonging to the British Raj since earlier to the British Raj, it was the East India Company (EIC) who issued colonial India's silver Rupee coins

This has got to be among the earliest records of use of money in Bhutan – for payment as remuneration. He recounts that these one Rupee silver coins were so high in value that he needed to have them converted to Maartums – in order to be able to make his purchases. He would get 16 Maartums for 1 of these silver coins.

What baffles me is that Pem Tshering is adamant that the Maartums he got in exchange for the silver Rupee coins were of the following variety:

The Maartum minted in Calcutta India government mint in 1955. Another lot was earlier minted in 1951 but the detailing is not as good as the one depicted here.

Why were they paid in these Maartums that were issued in 1951 and 1955? Why not in Tikchungs or cupronickel Thalas that were issued during the same years – and in much larger quantities? What happened to them? It cannot be that they were melted down for conversion into jewelry since extremely high temperatures are needed to be able to melt them. On the other hand, I know that Tikchungs were paid out by the donkey loads – even in the extreme northern regions of the country – to pay the salaries of the RBA personnel manning the northern borders.

The cupronickel Thala minted at the government of India mint in Calcutta, in 1950, using the flawed obverse die of the original silver coin of 1928.

The earliest of the milled coins were in silver and bronze (1928/1929) which are now extremely, extremely difficult to obtain.

First milled coin of Bhutan: Silver Thala of 1928 with the flawed obverse

Bhutan's second milled coin: Silver Thala of 1929 with the corrected obverse but flawed reverse

The Zangtrum of 1928: A perfectly engraved and minted coin. If this coin is perfectly rendered, how did it happen that the silver Thala of 1928 milled the same time, came out faulty?

All of the above coins also disappeared from the face of the earth – but I have a theory on what happened to them, which I will recount in my upcoming book on the coinages of Bhutan. Sadly, the book is currently in suspended animation – due to lousy historical records that are forever in conflict with other available records.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Bhutan’s Early History: Separating Fact From Myth – IV

Coining Journey of Bhutan: Setting The Record Right

The late Mr. Nicholas Rhodes is accepted as the world’s most respected authority on coinage in Bhutan. Most writers and historians draw references from his work on the subject. However, he did not get it right when he said that there was no minting beyond Trongsa. The following proves that there was.

One other record that is being set straight by the letter of Jakar Poenlop Tsuendru Gyeltshen is that Trongsa Poenlop Jigme Namgyel did not have a mint of his own in 1863. In all likelihood, Jigme Namgyel’s coins date back to late 1860’s or early 1870’s. This is because there is a record that says that Jigme Namgyel carried away moneyers and coin dies from Cooch Behar in the 1860’s. If that were to be true, it would have had to have happened after 1865 – following the Great Duars war in which he was the principal player.

Retyped original letter authored by Trongsa Poenlop Tsuendru Gyelshen addressed to Trongsa Chila Jigme Namgyel

English translation of the letter


3.25 Saangs                 = 1 KG

91/2 sachets of copper = 47.5 Saangs or 14.62 KGs


Tsuendru Gyeltshen was the son of Trongsa Poenlop Tshoki Dorji and a descendent of Dorji Lingpa. He would have been the title holder of the lineage – but he died in the Duars war of 1865 when he accompanied Trongsa Poenlop Jigme Namgyel. He had no heir - thus, perhaps for the first time in history, the title of the lineage passed on to a lady – Yeshi, Tsuendru Gyeltshen’s sister.

When Trongsa Poenlop Tshoki Dorji passed on the seat of Trongsa Poenlop to Jigme Namgyel for three years, in keeping with a promise made to him for saving his life in Punakha, Tsunedru Gyeltshen was installed as Jakar Dzongpoen in the interim. At the end of the three years beginning 1853, Jigme Namgyel was supposed to surrender the seat of Trongsa Poenlop to Tsuendru Gyeltshen. Unfortunately Jigme Namgyel reneged on his words and refused to relinquish the post. A long drawn war broke out between them. Finally the central government in Punakha intervened and a compromise was reached in which Tsuendru Gyeltshen was promoted to the rank of Jakar Poenlop and the entire Central and Eastern regions of the country collectively known as Sharchok Khorlo Tsipgye was divided into two and came to be ruled equally by the two Poenlops of Trongsa and Jakar.

In later years, Poenlop Tsuendru Gyeltshen and Poenlop Jigme Namgyel buried their differences and became very good friends – to the point that when war was declared by the British on Bhutan that came to be known as the Great Duars War, Tshendru Gyeltshen accompanied Jigme Namgyel to fight the British. He never returned – he was killed in the course of the war.

With the death of Jakar Poenlop Tsuendru Gyeltshen, all the Sharchog Kholo Tsipgye once again reverted back to the rule of Trongsa Poenlop.

NOTE III: The accepted norm is that the term ‘Chila’ would be reserved for a ruler who is a learned Lam. According to convention, Jigme Namgyel should have been addressed as ‘Chotse Poenlop’.