Sunday, February 15, 2004

Heads and tales of Sikh history
Roopinder Singh

Sikh Coinage: Symbol of Sikh Sovereignty
by Surinder Singh. Manohar, New Delhi. Rs 995. Pages 283.

Sikh Coinage: Symbol of Sikh SovereigntyMANY myths abound about the Sikh coins, which remained in circulation from 1710 to 1856. Which was the first Sikh coin? How come Sikh rulers did strike coins not in their own name, but in the name of the Gurus and the Almighty? Was there a coin in the name of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s courtesan, Moran? Why did Patiala not have independent coins?

"The study of Sikh coinage, both the historians and the numismatists say, has suffered due to a lack of proper historical evidence and its proper use in numismatic investigations," says the author, after which he goes on to enumerate a number of errors, misperceptions and distortions. This sets the tone of the book, which has years of research behind it, and challenges many a convention and belief.

The first Sikh coins came with the establishment of a Sikh kingdom by Banda Bahadur and his associates, within a few years of Guru Gobind Singh’s passing away.

Coinage and sovereignty are intrinsically interrelated and for the Sikhs, the author contends, the Gurus remained de jure sovereigns, while the de facto rule rested with individuals. He points out Sikh rulers and their kingdoms changed, but the coins were always stuck in the name of the Gurus, not individual rulers, and the legends on these coins have always been similar to those on the first Sikh coins.

The legend on the seal of the first Sikh coins was:


"Deg Tegh Fateh O Nusrat Baidarang,


Yaft Uz Nanak Guru Gobind Singh."

The author’s translation: "The kettle to feed, the sword to defend and the resultant victory have been achieved with the spontaneous help received from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh."

The legend on the coins issued subsequently states:


Sikkah zad bar har do Alam. Teg-i-Nanak wahib Ast,

fateh Gobind Shah-i-Shahan-Fazal Saacha Sahib ast.


Zarb ba-aman-ud-dahr, maswarat Shahr-zinut

A ltakht Khalsa Mubarak bakht

"The coin has been struck in both the worlds herein and hereafter under the guarantee of Guru Nanak’s sword. Victory of Guru Gobind Singh, King of Kings, has been achieved with the grace of Sacha Sahib, the Akal Purakh, God Almighty." The legend on the reverse means: "Minted at refuge of the world with perfect peace, where the auspicious throne of the Khalsa is established." The legend mentioned here is on the coins minted in the second year, following which, the word Gobind was changed to Gobind Singh.

Coins were minted even in mobile mints, which the riders carried with them. Of course, when the Sikhs reigned, in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s time, over Lahore, it retained its status as an important mint. The author contradicts assertions made by some historians and maintains that neither Jassa Singh Ahluwalia nor Hari Singh Nalwa ever struck a coin in their names.

Surinder Singh rubbishes the contention that the leaf motifs on the coins issued in the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh are peacock feathers that symbolise his favourite courtesan, Moran (literally peacock). He links the leaf motifs on Sikh coins with fertility. He says that such motifs are seen on coins minted after the 1783 "chalisa famine" which followed three consecutive failures of the monsoon. Sikh rulers and even landlords kept the free kitchen, langar, going. Subsequently, the Sikhs included the leaf motifs on the coins as thanksgiving. His explanation is logical.

Surinder has based his work on empirical evidence, and his first-hand knowledge of coins of the Sikhs is quite evident. He shows that various historians have not been very diligent in studying the numismatic aspects of Sikh history, and as often happens when someone takes a position that is at variance with the conventional thinking, the author states his case quite forcefully. He, however, does take pains to point out contra views and examine them in establishing his views.

Examining Sikh coinage of the Lahore Darbar, he points out that Patiala state minted Durrani currency, issued in the name of Ahmed Shah Durrani, except for what he calls the "nazarana coins". He also looks at various religious tokens, which are geneits freshness and reliance on first-hand evidence. Since what Surinder Singh states may raise established hackles, he could have been more diplomatic. Perhaps we will see more of that in his forthcoming studies.