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.

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