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!