Where does the word Rupee come from?

History Contributor
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₹ This probably is the most used symbol in India since 2010. Every Indian, other than children, knows its meaning. It’s printed and embossed on currency notes and coins, billions of them.

Designed by a young academic and designer Uday Kumar Dharmalingam, the symbol represents the Indian Rupee.

But how many of us have pondered over obvious questions such as, where does this word Rupee come from, or, when did it first originate as a universally circulated currency?

Its origin

If we do, we will see Rupee comes from the Rupaya, which was the first standardised Indian ‘coinage untainted by any element of debasement’, to quote noted historian Irfan Habib, established by Sher Shah Suri, as late as the 1540s. And the Rupaya we will soon see is yet another wonderful example of India’s syncretic civilisation, where Muslim rulers improved upon an existing system.

The history of currency in India is ancient. There’s enough evidence to date currency in India to the Mahajanapadas, the oligarchic republics of northern India during the 6th century BCE. Since then every kingdom has had various currencies in circulation at various times.

But nothing really stuck, as the saying goes. Every empire – the Mauryas, the Sakas and the Palas, the Guptas, the Cholas, and later even the Delhi Sultanate — had its own coins, widely varying in metals, shapes, sizes and weights. Out of these, a gold coin issued by Muiz al-Din Muhammad bin Sam, popularly known as Muhammad Ghuri, and identified to be the founder of Islamic rule in India, curiously issued a gold coin, which had ‘goddess Lakshmi on one the obverse and the name of the ruler in Nagari characters on the reverse,’ points out renowned historian Simon Digby.

Failure to establish uniform currency

This bright example of syncretic culture notwithstanding, the Delhi Sultanate didn’t succeed in establishing in a uniform and pure currency. All sorts of currencies remained in circulation: the older Tanka, the Sikandari, Muzaffari, Mahmudis, the Hun and many others.

It was Sher Shah Suri, a Pashtun Afghan born in Sasaram, in present-day Bihar, India, who for the first time introduced a tri-metallic coin-system and attempted to standardise it with a view to protect them from debasement.

Sher Shah had captured the throne of Delhi driving out Mughal emperor Humayun, and ruled between 1540 and 1545. He issued a silver coin, weighing 178 grains, i.e. 11.53 grams, along with gold and copper coins, naming it Rupaya, and dividing it into 40 copper coins, named Paisa!

It is also interesting that in naming the silver coin he resurrected the name of the Mauryan-period silver coin Rupyarupa, a combination of two words: Rupya, meaning silver, and Rupa form. Thus came into existence the Rupaya.

During Akbar’s reign

However, it was, the Akbar the Great who, a decade later, firmly established the system, strictly ensuring that alloy in coins never rose to more than four percent. His successors continued minting Rupaya as the principal currency of the empire. Although Muhrs or Ashrafis were also issued, these were primarily meant for hording, and made of pure gold, without alloy.

Emperor Aurangzeb (Reigning between 1659-1707) slightly raised the weight of the Rupaya to 180 grains. Over a hundred years Rupaya had become the most widely circulated currency of India. While Akbar issued Rupaya from 14 mints, his great grandson increased the number to 40, and the silver Rupaya became the basic currency.

The Rupaya in time became so popular that in the initial days after colonizing India the British East India Company’s effort to introduce Pound Sterling here had no takers. And the mighty colonial power finally yielded before that power of the Rupaya, known by that time as the Rupee.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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