The scientists these days tell us that some hundreds
of millions of years ago India was an island-continent, and over the course
of millions of years it approached and in a geological time frame "crashed"
into Tibet. Think of Tibet as a parked truck and the Indian suncontinent
as a small compact sedan. The catalysm, played out over eons, sort
of "dented" Tibet, but it
pleated northern India like an accordion. We have named the pleats the Himalaya mountains.
North of the Himalayas is a high plateau, the solid bedrock of Asia, but the southern aspect is more varied. First come the great mountains at the contact zone - the Everests and Makulus and Kanchenjungas. To the south is a zone named the Bhabar,
made up of the debris formed from the upthrust of the big mountains, and then another lower range of hills known as the Churias, the second pleat of the accordion. South of those the elevation declines rapidly to to a low alluvial floodplain called the Terai. More southerly than that is the river itself, the Ganges, and by then we've left the nation whose coins I will at some point describe. This accordioned region is today known as the kingdom of Nepal.
A central fact in the psychology of the region is that the mountains looked forbidding to the people of the plain, and incursions from India into Nepal are few and far between in the historical record, though those that did occur were NOT insignificant. But to the people who lived up there the Himalayas were just part of the scenery. They did not stop the Nepalese in their strength from invading Tibet, nor were they a barrier to the Tibetans when they were feeling their oats.
The center of culture in Nepal has always been in a Himalayan valley a little east of the center of the country, known after its chief city as Katmandu. In fact, most of Nepalese history as we know it has taken place in that valley. At one point three coin
issuing kingdoms lay there, getting on each other's nerves. The whole rest of the country didn't count in the annals, sparsely populated or not populated at all, and certainly not written about. The kings lived in the valley, and of course the annals only
talked about them. After all, they were the one who commissioned the scribes.
Not too much has been done in the way of archeology in Nepal, but it is known that there were pockets of neolithic culture. Little ground stone axes have been found, not many to be sure, but enough to establish the presence of people perhaps 3000 years ago.
As to who those people might have been, who knows? Here and there in Nepal are little groups of dark skinned, curly haired people who look a bit like the Dravidians of southern India. Maybe they were the original inhabitants. But people have been passing through Nepal for a long time, Tibetans, Mongols, Aryans, Turks, and so on, so that by now the gene pool is all mixed up.
The Nepalese themselves start their story around 500 BC, but it's all myths and legends involving the descent of gods and goddesses borrowed from the Hindu pantheon into the earthly realm and their matings and manufacture of humans and other aspects of the local environment. Local leaders arose and conducted the usual activities of leadership: building things and fighting. Southern Nepal, at least, was part of the domain of the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka in the third century BC. This is attested by stone inscriptions found in the valley of Katmandu. What happened after the breakup of the Mauryan empire is obscure, but it would appear that Nepal was not incorporated in the Kushan realm of the second and third centuries AD.
The Kushans were originally nomads who descended on India from the north. Several waves of nomads occupied northern India over the millennia, and the common pattern was to skirt Nepal and its mountains and to enter from the west through what is now Pakistan. Their activities would typically displace Indian locals, some of whom would flee to the sheltering Nepalese hills, bringing their culture with them, and what treasure they could carry.
The Kushans were rather benign as nomads go, building a high culture in the Ganges valley. They ran a tight ship for a while, and developed a strong economy, attested by their plentiful coins: large and well made pieces of copper and gold. Their
realm disintegrated in anarchy, their place taken in the fourth century AD by the native Gupta dynasty, the high point of which is considered by many the golden age of Hindu culture.
Nepal has always been separate but linked with the happenings of the Ganges valley. During the height of Gupta power a dynasty arose in the Katmandu valley as well. This line has left behind architecture, inscriptions on stone, corroborating records from Chinese visitors, and, of crucial interest to us numismatists, coins, the first such objects made in Nepal. The dynasty is known by a few names, but in OUR references the most commonly used name is Licchavi.
It would be useful at this point to detail the major references for Nepali coins. There are three at this time, and they disagree in their interpretation of what actually went on during the Licchavi period in political terms. The earliest work is "The Coinage of Nepal," by E.H. Walsh. It was originally published in 1908, reprinted in 1973 with a lengthy introduction by T.P. Verma, who finds himself in fundamental disagreement with Mr. Walsh regarding Licchavi political history. The second book is by Michael Mitchiner: "Oriental Coins and their Values, Volume 3, Non-Islamic States and Western Colonies," published in 1979. The third is "The Coinage of Nepal," by N.G. Rhodes, K. Gabrisch, and C. Valdettaro.
There is a refreshing tentativity to the proposals put forth by Walsh, his introductor Verma, and the Rhodes-Gabrisch-Valdettaro (RGB) team. They freely acknowledge the ambiguity of their evidence, and try to paint a logical picture, while admitting the certaintly of error in detail and the possibility that their theses are entirely false. Mitchiner, on the other hand, presents both his historical summary and his attributions of the coins as established fact. This is certainly not the case, so that whereas the other books are served well seasoned with skepticism, when reading Mitchiner's unqualified statements one should keep the salt shaker handy.
At any rate, the Licchavis flourished during the fifth through the eighth centuries AD, and had their capital in the general region of Katmandu. Their realm did not extend far in any direction. Certainly the western part of present day Nepal was not under their control, nor the southern fertile belt. Nepal is a site of pilgrimage for both Buddhists, containing as it does the birthplace of the Buddha, and Hindus, as various of the gods made appearances there from time to time.
In the mid-seventh century a king named Sivadeva reigned. Inscriptions carved in rock tell the tale that he enlarged the domain. At the same time, more or less, a gentleman by the name of Amsuvarman stepped into the historical record. Walsh was of the opinion that this latter personage founded a separate dynasty, the Thakuri, and ruled the west, though his palace was within walking distance from that of the Licchavi Sivadeva. Verma logically demolished Walsh's contention, and Mitchiner and RGB concur. According to the revised scenario Amsuvarman was chief minister to Sivadeva, and operated on his behalf. Mitchiner advances the thought further to the conclusion that Sivadeva was a puppet and his minister puppetmaster, but though this arrangement became the norm in later Nepalese history, it is by no means certain that it was true in that case.
Be that as it may, Amsuvarman issued coins in his own name, while there are none in the name of Sivadeva. It is considered probable that Amsuvarman issued the first Nepalese coins. Ambiguity attends this contention, because of the existance of coins that would appear to refer to two earlier Licchavi kings; Manadeva, ruling in the late fifth century, and Gunadeva, in the mid-sixth, about a century before the time of Amsuvarma. The "Sri Mananka" and "Sri Gunanka" coins bear a strong stylistic resemblance to the Amsuvarman coins, and match them in size and weight. RGV note that in certain hoards discovered in recent decades the Mananka are found along with Amsuvarman coins, in more or less the same state of wear. From these facts they have developed the hypothesis that the Mananka and Gunanka coins are commemoratives of a sort, perhaps indeed the first coins of Nepal, struck to honor the illustrious ancestors of the lord of the land, Sivadeva. And perhaps after this consecrational inauguration of the national currency the circulation coins were struck in the name of the minister, who was, after all, the one who took care of such things.
RGV are of the opinion that the Gunanka coins were struck later, probably after the end of the Amsuvarman period. In their catalog they are placed after another series with a legend containing the word "Vaisravana," which is the name of a god, and says nothing about when it might have been struck. They suggest that "Gunanka" might refer to the wife of king Manadeva, previously honored in coinage, but do not feel that idea to be very strong. They are more confident in their assertion that the coins were neither issued by or refer to the sixth century king Gunadeva.
The Amsuvarman coins are much less scarce than the Manaka, Gunaka, and Vaisravana coins.
There is genteel disagreement regarding the artistic derivation of these coins as well, with proponents of Kushan and Gupta prototypes contending, as well as a few late 19th century adherents of the idea that one of the Kushan successors, the Yuadheyas, had something to contribute as well. It seems to me, when I look at the coins, that I see Gupta AND Kushan motifs: seated goddess, elephants, horses, bulls, and that lion on the early coins reminds me of Scythian coppers. All of these models are several hundred years older than the Nepalese coins in question. Find evidence in Nepal indicates the likelihood
that none of these coins saw any kind of mass circulation anywhere in Nepal, so that their use as models would have been simply by way of an appreciation of the artistic merits of the prototypes. Close adherence to the designs of currently circulating coins so as to promote public acceptance would not have been a factor.
The metrology is ambiguous as well. The Guptas, fountainhead of culture of the era, did not coin in copper, while from Licchavi Nepal only coins in that metal are known. A simple fact explains this: there is no silver or gold in Nepal, and plenty of copper. As to the weights, the early coins are in the 13 gram range, coincident with a certain mid-period in the run of Kushan coins, but that period precedes the Nepalese issues by about three centuries. Any relation has to be adventitious, on the order of the appropriate decision maker saying: "make them of such a size and such a weight," and that order not in any way related to a need to adjust the coins to contemporary standards of circulation.
One metrological detail that is not in doubt is that the earliest coins are in this series the largest and heaviest, and that both weight and module declined during the two centuries or so of their issue.
Well, among the boons granted to Amsuvarman was the right to name his successor, and who would that be other than a son, Jishnugupta by name. Coins are known in his name, not as common as those of his father.
After Jishnugupta the temporal power of the Licchavis evaporated, and control passed in full to the hereditary prime ministers. Coins continued to be issued, but they ceased to bear any reference to living humans. From the mid-seventh century on only gods are mentioned.
The first of the divine citations are the aforementioned Vaisravana coins, probably issued early in the reign of Jishnugupta. After his death, c. 641 AD, a new type was briefly struck, bearing the legend "Vrisha" over a bull with a crescent over its head and a lotus on the reverse. These are scarce. Shortly after the legend was changed to "Pasupati," though the type remained more or less the same.
These "Pasupati" coins are the most common of the Licchavi series, continuing into the eighth century on a declining module and incorporating several types besides the bull. "Vrisha" is found again on a few later, smaller coins. RGV mention an ambiguous small silver coin at the end of their Licchavi section, but have nothing much to say about it, preferring to await further discoveries.
I have mentioned that certain of these Licchavi coins are scarce, but this should not be taken to imply that others are common. No Licchavi coins are anything like common. They NEVER turn up in Indian hoards, and in my four decades of involvement in numismatics I had held precisely three (or maybe four, such is the power of imagination over memory) in my hands. One must search far and wide for them, and when found they
are usually in very disappointing condition. In 2002, I believe, a single accumulation of a few hundred pieces landed on my desk. None have appeared anywhere since.
Mitchiner, telling a slightly different story of these coins, extends their issue as late as the ninth or even the fourteenth century (page 41, see what you think he means). That contention seems a bit of a stretch, and my tendency is to lean toward the assertion of RGV that the series ended in the eighth century. But I'm a generalist, knowing a little bit about everything, and nothing in depth.
After the Licchavis there is a general hiatus in coinage of several centuries, only a few ambiguous pieces tentatively attributed to that period, and then all of a sudden silver is everywhere.
Licchavi rule ended when an incursion of Tibetans overran the Katmandu valley in 755 AD. The Tibetans were not the most wonderful administrators, and found that their hegemony decayed over several decades until they were finally expelled in 879 AD, from which date proceeds the so-called Nepalese Era. The principle figure of the national restoration was one Raghadeva, who founded a dynasty that bears his name.
The records are spotty, but they indicate that the Raghava dynasty faded out of the picture during the course of the 11th century. The reins were taken up by the Thakuris, descendants of the 7th century minister to the Licchavis, Amsuvarman, who is assumed to have been the first to strike coins in Nepal.
The Thakuris ruled from the town of Nayakot. For about twenty years at the end of the 11th century the rule was split, with a branch doing business in Patan, but unity was restored early in the 12th.
The records seem to indicate that the old Licchavi copper coins remained in circulation, or at least were being used for accounts. At this time billon bull-and-horseman coins were being used in northern India, then undergoing assaults by Muslims, Kashmir was using thick copper coins, and Tibet was doing business with things other than metal discs. Mitchiner seems to be of the opinion that the Licchavi style coins inscribed with the name of the god Pasupati are issues of this period, but RGV disagree, calling them what they seem to be: Licchavi coins.
According to the chronicles, a king named Sivadeva, of the Thakuri line, introduced gold and silver coins. These were tiny things; the gold weighing just under 1 gram, bearing the legend "Srivasya" and named therefore srivaka, and the silver, carrying the image of a seated lion and possibly called damma or dam, weighing about 0.5g. A few copper coins, some reminiscent of Licchavi coins and others not, are associated with this period. All of these coins, regardless of metal, are extremely rare, and Walsh, writing in the 19th century, did not know of them.
At the end of the 13th century the Thakuri dynasty was replaced by the Mallas.
The 13-14th centuries were a tough time in Nepal, with famines, earthquakes, and invasions from India by Muslim and Hindu rulers. One of the invaders, Harisimha of Tirhut, just over the border in India, invaded and conquered the Katmandu valley in 1324, establishing himself in a new capital he named Bhatgaon. That same year he lost his home town the the Delhi sultan Muhammad ibn Tughlaq . Mitchiner shows (vol. 3, p.42) a few coins of this period, a brass "token" tanka (token because it should have been a silver coin) struck in 1324 by Muhammad at Tirhut, and a few coppers of the kingdom of
Champaran, which straddled both sides of the modern border during the 15th century, and look something like coins of the Chahamanas further south, and are also reminiscent of the coins of Kangra. Similar Delhi coins are common, but from Tirhut they must be extremely rare. I've never seen one, and I've never seen anything from Champaran either.
RGV seem to be of the opinion that there are more Nepalese coins of this period waiting to be discovered. As far as collecting is concerned, there's nothing much to do at this time.
When the Champaran ruler, Harisimha, invaded the Katmandu valley he retained the indigenous Malla rulers in Katmandu and Patan as viceroys, and when the invader regime decayed the two Malla families reemerged as rulers in their own right, with another branch picking up the pieces in Bhatgaon. Thus were born the three Malla Kingdoms, almost within shouting distance of each other. In the 16th century there arose several other small kingdoms outside the valley, of which the most notable were that of the Dolakas in the east and of the Gurkhas in the west.
Northern India was at this time in the grip of Muslims all the way to Assam. The major political units were the Delhi sultans and a related line in Bengal. Both had developed the habit of issuing fine silver coins midway between the American quarter and half dollar, called tanka, that weighed a bit more than 10 grams. These were handsome coins. Everyone liked them and
they circulated widely, to be specific, as far west as Iran and as far east as Burma. Naturally local powers, if they wanted to make some coinage, would want to produce something that looked familiar, so these coins were imitated on the periphery. One of the places where this practice was pursued was in the Katmandu valley.
But before considering these faux Muslim coins of the Mallas I should mention a short series of rare coins struck in the Dolakha kingdom in the mid-16th century. These have inscriptions entirely in Nagari, but are reminiscent of Islamic prototypes in their pattern, which includes a legend in a square, with subsidiary legends between the edges of the square and the rim. On Islamic coins this is typically where the names of the first four caliphs are found on one side, and often the date and mint on the other. On these Dolakha issues, however, there is naught save decorative dots and lines. One hardly ever sees these coins, which are listed in RGV but not in Walsh nor Mitchiner.
Now for the Malla coins. There is a "first coin," so to speak. This a well struck item with circular legends around a central medallion depicting on the obverse a trident, and on the reverse a thunderbolt, which in the iconography of the region is rendered as three circles arranged in a column, and indicating the enlightenment that comes in a flash to the fortunate and the adept. It was struck by Mahendra Malla of Katmandu, 1560-74, and is almost certainly a commemorative or presentation piece. RGV state that perhaps only three of these exist, all in Nepal, and also that fakes were placed in the market during the
1970s, so that if you see one, that is most likely what it is.
For collecting purposes the earliest Malla coins available are imitations of the silver tankas of the sultans of Bengal with pseudo-arabic inscriptions. The first representatives of this series, produced circa 1600, are anonymous, and are merely barbarous renderings of Bengal coins, some with a purposely mushy reverse, and others with fake "shroff" (money changer's) marks incorporated into the design. You might run into these coins on occasion, but a problem in attribution arises due to the fact that Nepal was not the only place that produced such imitations; Arakan, Burma, and perhaps other places are known to have made such things as well. So if your piece is not in RGV, and you don't know where it came from, what are you going to do? Keep wondering, that's what, though the subject has been discussed a number of times in the journal of the Oriental Numismatic Society.
From pseudo-Arabic only the coins progressed to the inclusion of Nepalese symbols such as lotus or conch shell, and from there to legends in Nagari. The types evolved into a format in which the pseudo-Arabic legend was presented upside down, with a central medallion expressing Nepalese sentiments. The earliest of these would be those of Siva Simha of Katmandu, c.
1578-1619, and the type was continued through several kings of Katmandu and Patan into the mid-17th century. There are also a number of anonymous issues. As a general "early Malla" type the pseudo-Arabic coins can be found at the specialist dealers, but to make a comprehensive collection of the RGV types is essentially impossible.
RGV write that they've seen a few quarter tankas of the pseudo-Arabic series, and also a couple of 1/32 tankas. These would all be extremely rare.
And then during this period the first of the tiny dams, or 1/128 tankas appeared. These tiny flakes of silver are a well known facet of Nepalese numismatics, having been issued for a couple of centuries, and always worth a mention when one is discussing the smallest coins in the world. The dams of the 17th century are noteworthy in that they carry designs on both sides, as opposed to later issues, which were uniface. They are known bearing the names of kings of all three "countries," as well as anonymous types. RGV even have listings for quarter dams, or 1/512 tanka, tiny square things, weighing about 0.1 gram.
Around 1640 there occurred a reform of the coinage in all three kingdoms. The tanka, which in Nepalese usage had varied from 10.4 grams down to about 8, was replaced with the "mohar" of 5.4 grams, more or less. At that time the main coin in India was the Mughal rupee of 11 grams, so these mohars were essentially half rupees, a little light to keep them inside the country. As to why they were given the same name as the contemporary Mughal gold coin, what else could that be but some kind of joke?
These mohar coins, and their various fractions, were issued in relatively large numbers. The intention was clearly to blanket the country and provide all the necessary circulation. At first the designs were continuations of the pseudo-arabic Bengal imitations, quickly superceded by coins that imitated Mughal types. From that point the designs became steadily less Islamic and more Hindu and Buddhist. A lot of them are quite nice looking, at least the mohars and quarters are, with many different designs incorporating circles, triangles, octagons, et cetera. A lot of them are dated as well, so that there is no doubt whatsoever regarding who made them, and when.
Dams of this period are all struck uniface. A number of hoards have entered the market over the last two decades, and many of these tiny coins can be found. Other fractions, quarters and smaller, are scarcer. There are a few oddball denominations in funny shapes: a square two mohar of Katmandu, 1661, a square Katmandu half mohar of the period 1680-87, a 3/4 mohar, square with a center hole, dated the equivalent of 1684, and an undated triangular quarter mohar struck between 1685 and 1705. These coins are priced in the usual four grades of preservation in the Standard Catalog, but the prices must be wholly apocryphal, as these particular coins are essentially unavailable.
The coinage pattern continued into the 18th century, with an evident tendency toward the predominance at Katmandu and Patan of a certain design incorporating the eight auspicious Buddhist symbols arranged within the petals of a lotus. Such a coin was a sure winner in Tibet, and the Nepalese exported large quantities of them northwards, along with a Bengal imitation type struck at Bhatgaon. But the export versions were quite base, as opposed to coins means for home consumption. They became known as "black tankas" in Tibet, and caused a great deal of annoyance, eventually leading to a war. These "black
tankas" were often cut in pieces in Tibet, though that practice was not followed in Nepal, where fractional coins were circulating.
Gold coins were struck in 1753 in denominations from mohar down to dam. These were issued by the great numismatic innovator Jaya Prakash Malla of Katmandu, who ruled from1735-46, and again from 1750-68. Jaya Prakash also struck tiny square quarter dams, or jawis, and these were cut into halves and quarters, the latter being certainly the smallest coins in the world. You don't see many of these, and you basically never see this early gold. Note that there was a gold coin struck some time between 750 and 1050 AD, so these are not the first Nepalese gold coins.
In this period the Katmandu issues far outnumber the coinage of the other two kingdoms, with that Patan being the scarcest.
There seems to be solid evidence of a tradition of the use of clay tokens in the Katmandu valley. RGV list a number of these which appear to have been issued during the 19th century, and I've found a few more that claim to be Malla issues. Mine appear to be part of a series of hexagonal pieces described by RGV as fakes made in Bhatgaon during the 1960s for sale to tourists. The general rule of thumb for the clay things is that if they look decent they're probably not good.
The nature of Nepalese politics changed in 1768 when the Gurkhas came charging out of their western home and conquered the three kingdoms of the Katmandu valley. The Gurkha dynasty has survived until the present.
Nepal today is considered to be a small country, easily so regarded when compared with the giants between which it is sandwiched: China and India. In the early 18th century it was considerably smaller, consisting for all intents and purposes of the Katmandu Valley with its three little kingdoms run by various members of the Malla family. In last month's article we glanced briefly at the varied coinage of these Mallas, with scant reference to the rest of the land, and this was not critical to our discussion in the sixteenth century and earlier. Hardly any coins in the "hinterland" before the 18th century.
Nepal is geographically divided between the mountainous north and the lowland south, the latter historically usually within the Indian sphere of influence, and politically controlled from further south. The north, outside of the centrally located Katmandu Valley, was considered "wilderness," a misnomer of course, because there were plenty of people living there, but the boonies to the effete cityfolk of the Valley.
It has been a fairly common occurrence throughout history that the "civilized" people would play their silly games of fashion and decadence while a storm brewed in the hinterland, eventually to break over their heads in a deluge of "barbarians." In mid-18th century Nepal such a situation prevailed in the Valley, while over in the west the Gurkhas were beginning to feel their oats. The Gurkha king at the time was named Prithvi Narayan, and he gazed upon the foolish dynastic squabbles in the Valley with cool calculation.
The Gurkhas claim that they came originally from Chitor in India, from which they were expelled by 'Ala ud-Din of Delhi in 1289. Eventually they took the Himalayan town of Nowakot. At some point in their story one of them was granted the title "Shah," or king, by one of the Delhi sultans, and by that title their dynasty has been known ever since. In the 17th century they advanced east as far as the town of Gurkha, about 40 miles from Katmandu, and from that time on they posed an active threat to the other political entities in the region.
In the 17th and 18th centuries one of the bigger sources of income for the Valley was the Tibet trade. A large part of this commerce involved the shipment of gold and silver bullion from Tibet to be exchanged in Nepal for coined silver. The silver coinage of Nepal proper varied in fineness from time to time, being baser when the king was short of funds, and finer when the public was getting fed up, but the product shipped to Tibet was always base. When the Tibetans would bring their Nepalese money back to Nepal to spend they found that a discount was always applied. Naturally this caused annoyance, but the situation continued for over a century.
The Gurkha king Prithvi Narayan began to encroach on the Malla monopoly of the Tibet trade. In 1744 he took over the western trade routes that passed through Nowakot (north and a trifle west of Katmandu) and Kyirong. Five years later he issued the first Gurkha coins, debased imitations of Malla coins. These are rare, probably more in the way of trials than a serious coinage.
On the Malla side, Jaya Prakash, king of Katmandu (and at the time of Patan as well), received a letter from the Dalai Lama in 1751 in which he complained, as had his predecessors, or the abusive trade relationship between the two countries. Given the pressure he was feeling from the Gurkhas, the Malla king seems to have decided that a rapprochement with his trading partner was in order, and he responded in 1753 with a series of fine silver coins, with some gold as well.
Nice try, but it was in vain, for in 1754 the Gurkhas, already in control of the western trade routes, took the eastern route through Kuti, completely cutting off the Valley from Tibet. Gurkha king Prithvi Narayan immediately began striking his own coins, in fine silver, exchanging them for gold in Tibet. In 1757 he forced a treaty on Katmandu mutually recognizing each other's coinage.
Despite some setbacks, the Gurkha king progressively extended his influence, gradually cutting the Valley off from the outside world. In 1763 the nobles of Patan made him king of that city, evidently in an attempt to get him to lift his blockade. But Prithvi Narayan continued the pressure until his final victory in 1768.
Once in control of the Valley, Prithvi Narayan issued orders devaluing the debased Malla coins and withdrawing them over time. The replacement of the old moneyz evidently took about three decades.
Prithvi Narayan's coins fall into two periods. The first, before his conquest of the Valley, consists of scarce coppers inscribed with his name in Arabic, which are listed as undated in the SCWC, but specimens illustrated in RGV are clearly dated. Prices in the SCWC are too low. A couple of mohars were issued dated 1749 and 1754, and these are also scarce. A limited mintage of mohars continued from 1756 until the conquest.
The second period commenced with the conquest in 1768. Coins imitate Malla types, more or less, all in fine silver and gold. Silver dams and mohars are faily common types, while other silver denominations and gold are scarce and rare. A notable innovation of the Gurkha coinage was yearly dating (in Saka era years, derived from the old Indo-Scythians,instead of the Newari Samvat dates used by the Mallas). During this period coinage in the names of queens, mostly quarter mohars (called "suki") were made in large quantity for general circulation. Queen coins have continued to be struck into the modern era, but now they are strictly palace or presentation issues. The modern queen coins are extremely popular in Nepal, and, despite the reasonable looking prices of some of these coins in the SCWC, are generally unobtainable in any market.
The general pattern of coinage continued under the next Gurkha king, Pratap Simha. This king resumed the practice of striking debased mohars for export to Tibet. The coins were sent out as mohars but taken back in trade at a two for one rate. The Tibetans became very sad. These "black tankas" are fairly common, and are the ones pictured in the SCWC cut up in pieces. Though listed in the Nepal section, they are Tibetan products. The base coins did not circulate in Nepal.
Pratap Simha's other coinage continued the practices of his predecessor. There were the copper paisas for the western region, rarely or never ever seen by collectors, and for the Valley plentiful silver dams, quarter mohars and mohars, the other silver denominations rare, gold coins very rare.
The next Nepalese king, Rana Bahadur, curtailed the shipment of debased coins to Tibet. This didn't bother Tibet, which had been plentifully supplied in the previous decade. Rana Bahadur continued the coinage practices noted above, and availabilities are similar.
The Nepalese king decided he wanted to formalize the inequitable bullion for billon trade with Tibet, a return, as he thought, to the good old days. In 1788 he decided he would send some military persuasion up north to make his dream come true. The Nepalese army found no resistance, and a treaty was drawn up, stinky for the Tibetans, juicy for the Nepalese. The Tibetans did not honor the onerous terms of the treaty, and in 1791 Rana Bahadur sent some more muscle.
The Tibetans were not unprepared. They had called in their formal suzerains, the Chinese. The Nepalese were vanquished, were required to send an annual tribute to Peking, and Tibet was lost, lock, stock, and tankas. The Sino-Tibetan series of coins was iniatiated in 1792, and that was the end of the Nepal - Tibet coinage ripoff scheme that had lined the pockets of the Nepalese over two centuries.
The Nepalese king, still feeling militant, moved his army south into northern India, where they caused damage, and were finally expelled by the British in 1815.
Rana Bahadur then took a wife of the wrong caste, which aroused such public indignation that he was forced out of office. He abdicated in 1799 and retired to Banares, leaving his minor son, Girvan Yuddha, as titular king, though power resided in regents, among whom several queens were powerful. It is thought that perhaps the abdication was somewhat precipitous, as a scarce Girvan Yuddha mohar was issued dated SE 1720 (1798), certainly to formalize the succession. Regular coinage was started later in 1799, with availability patterns similar to those of the Gurkha predecessors. Go find me some of those
coppers! The names of several different queens who had influence during the king's minority (several of these names might belong to the same person). You will find these coins listed in the SCWC under Rana Bahadur, but that of course
is not correct. They were his queens, sure enough, but he was being an ex-king in Banares.
Girvan Yuddha's gold is all rare, and there were some oddball fine silver denominations during his reign: 3/8, 3/4, 1½ and 3 mohars, all rare. The appearance of these odd coins coincided with the return of Rana Bahadur in 1804 to take up the role of puppet master. RGV opine that perhaps they were meant to counter a debasement in the silver coins that had occurred. If so, it was not successful, for debasement continued and got worse, and the fine silver issues ceased on the assassination of Rana Bahadur in 1807. Oddball gold coins continued fitfully, the last one dated 1814. Poor Girvan Yuddha didn't last much longer, passing from the scene in 1816.
For the rest of the 19th century the kingship was titular, power residing in the office of the prime minister. Under Rajendra Vikrama, 1816-47, the issue of provincial copper coins ceased. Sukis (quarter mohars) were struck two varieties: in the name of the king and in the name of the queen, and some thought was given to the general introduction of a two mohars coin, evidently in response to the inflation brought about by debasement. The double mohars were issued in small numbers throughout the reign, and are not too easy to find. The gold, as usual, is rare.
Rajendra Vikrama's reign ended abruptly with his expulsion from the country in 1846. His minor son Surendra was appointed puppet regent, with Jang Bahadur Rana as prime minister. When Rajendra tried to return the following year he was deposed and imprisoned, Surendra being formally enthroned, though still without power.
Jang Bahadur was interested in the outside world. He liked modern weapons and administrative procedures, and wanted to get closer to the source of these powerful new tools. He was also interested in the coinage, introducing a new gold coin, the tola, a bit heavier than the Indian tola, which was essentially a rupee. When he visited Europe in 1850 he took with him a set of
gold coins for presentation. One of these is listed in the SCWC as KM619, but there were several others, including one in the name of the crown prince, that remain unlisted. You can see these presentation issues in the British Museum.
Copper coinage was introduced on a large scale in the 1860s, and some of these new coins are not too difficult to find. A few rare machine struck pieces are known, probably made in Calcutta rather than in Katmandu.
Surendra died in 1881 and was succeeded by his six year old grandson, Prithvi Vira. Machinery was imported for the Katmandu mint, and by the end of the reign the new coins were in general circulation. Many of the copper and silver coin types in both the old and new styles are fairly easy to come by, but the gold, as usual, is hard to find. There are no queen coins for this reign. It is worth noting that a changeover in dating style was begun in 1888, with the Saka era replaced by the Vikrama Samvat. The change started on the coppers, but by the end of the reign in 1911 had become the general practice.
In 1902 a set of iron tokens was issued in odd denominations. There is some thought that they were made to pay workers at the palace. They encountered opposition in the market, however, and were discontinued, being rather scarce, though not unobtainable today.
The next king, Tribhuvana Vira, started his reign in the usual fashion as a minor. There are a few coins issued by the Queen Mother as regent, which, despite their low evaluations in the SCWC, are hard to find. It becomes possible for Tribhuvana Vira's reign to have hopes of assembling a date set of old style silver and copper, though the gold, as always, is rare. In the copper series you should be on the lookout for the two varieties of crossed kukris, the distinctive Gurkha knives. These are left kukri on top and right kukri on top, the latter being more common.
Decimalization began in the 1930s. The old mohar was abandoned in favor of a "rupee," close in weight, though not in fineness to the British Indian rupee. All of these coins are machine struck, but the quality of the copper coins is low. A few copper-nickel coins were struck late in the reign, including a few dated after Tribhuvana Vira's death. These are also rather crude, and not particularly available.
The next king, Jnanendra Vira, was a short timer who ruled for only a year. His coins, even the "common" rupee, are rare. There are collectors in Nepal, and they have most of them.
For Trivhuvana Vira (NOT TriBHUvana!), who succeeded in 1951, there is a short issue of portrait rupees and 50 paisa in copper-nickel, with accompanying gold presentation coins, none of which are ever seen in the market, and a series of anonymous minors in brass, bronze, and copper-nickel. Most of the latter are available as types, but the are difficult to find in top grades, and there are a bunch of tough dates. There were no anonymous rupees.
Mahendra Vira ascended the throne in 1955. Many and varied minors were struck, some of them extremely common and found in junk boxes. Quality is low, however, and high grades may be hard to find. Quarter, half, and full rupees were also issued, using modern versions of old dynastic types in copper-nickel. It is likely that there are scarce dates among the Mahendra Vira coins, but I don't know which ones they might be. The gold coins were for presentation and are rare. The queen coins were for use in the palace, and are also rare. A silver commemorative 10 rupee coin of 1968, part of the FAO
series, is common. Being a typical Katmandu mint product, it is rather extraordinarily crude for such a late date coin.
The current king, Virendra Vira, acceded in 1971. Varieties of minor coinage have continued to be released, and the workmanship of the mint has improved to some extent, though it must still be rated low on the quality scale.
A rather extensive program of commemorative issues has been a feature of this reign, with many types in base metals, silver, and gold. The former have been presented in denominations up to an outlandish 5000 rupees, while the gold, in the traditional Nepalese manner, has been denominated in ceremonial asarfis, as if to underline the indubitable fact that they are not meant for
circulation. Many of these commemoratives have been struck out of country on contract, and are ordinary high quality coins, but a fair number have been made in Katmandu. Noteworthy perhaps are the conservation series 25 and 50 rupees coins of 1974, for which the regular coins were made in Katmandu, and actually saw limited circulation, while the proofs come from London.
Many of the current Nepalese coins, including the commemoratives, are hard to find, not having been exported in any determined manner.
There was a time during the 18th century when the Gurkha kings, strongly feeling their oats, launched imperialist
ventures against their neighbors. In each case they were initially successful, but finally drew the attentions of the respective overlords, who took their toys away from them. These ventures are numismatically relevant.
The northern expedition into Tibet, culminating in the Chinese occupation of that land, has been discussed previously. There were also several incursions into various districts of northern India.
Our discussion of Nepalese coins has for the most part been confined, for practical purposes and for most of its history, to that of the Katmandu valley. The rulers of that pleasant vale nested in the Himalayas maintained a culture and monetary system distinct and separate from their neighbors, and indeed from the rest of the lands which make up the modern kingdom. For most of Nepalese history these other sectors, "the Nepalese Hills" as they are called, were independent of the kings of the Valley, if not necessarily sovereign statelets in their own rights. Some were though, and one of these peripheral lands, Gurkha, eventually produced a king, progenitor of the current ruling dynasty, who conquered the Katmandu valley in 1768, and who subsequently
consolidated his possessions into a realm that became the modern country.
The current state of knowledge is such that we have records of several coin types for which physical specimens do not exist. My main reference for this discussion is RGV.
The general pattern of provincial coin usage in Nepal and in contiguous regions of India was that Indian coinage would circulate in the south, fading out northward into the mountains, where it would be replaced by barter. Before the 19th century the coinages of the various native states, Moghuls, British, etc. were all rated individually, with no one coin serving as a standard At various times this or that rupee would be favored or prohibited in this or that jurisdiction. Thus, according to RGV, Fra Giuseppe da Ascoli, writing in 1707, reported that in a town named Benjory locally minted coppers called "torra" were the only legal coin, while in Sankry, some seven miles distant and under the jurisdiction of the same raja, only Mughal coins were used. Neither the towns nor the local coin have been identified, though Fra Giuseppe is assumed to be discussing an area south of Katmandu, just over the modern border in India.
There is an 18th century record of local copper coinage in the town of Tanahu, thirty odd miles west of Katmandu, but no specimens have been identified. RGV suggest that the mentioned coins may have been blank, unstamped dumps such as are known to have been made and circulated within the borders of modern Nepal, as well as in the region around the Indian town of Gorakpur. RGV have photos of such items, acquired in Katmandu, in their book, but one never sees these in the market for obvious reasons. Any local antique dealer, coming upon one of these in a batch of copper dumps, will more likely than not think it unattributable, and throw it in the scrap bucket. I have dealt with several multiple-kilogram lots of Indian copper dumps over more than a couple of decades. These have occasionally included coins of the far north of India, including Garwhal, and while coins worn almost flat are not uncommon, I have not come across an unstamped blank yet.
Copper was found near the town of Gulmi, about 90 miles west of Katmandu, and the raja of was granted a mint right in 1804. The coins to be made were described as "Gorakpuri." No coins are known that can be definitively attributed to this town. RGV opine that unstamped copper dumps were made, and provide a drawing (not a photograph) of a silver quarter mohar of Girvan Yuddha, 1799-1816, which has a line of degenerate Persian that might read "Made in Gulmi."
Late in the 18th century Gurkha conquests had extended past the current western border into the Indian state of Kumaon, whose capital was the town of Almora. Copper coins were struck during the period of Nepalese occupation. RGV list and illustrate (with photographs) several types, some clearly naming Rana Bahadur, 1777-99, and these seem not to be listed in the SCWC. The later Nepalese coppers of occupied Almora, bearing degenerate Arabic legends
and the "footprints of the Buddha," are listed in the SCWC under India - Independent Kingdoms - Gurkha Kingdom.
Nepalese incursions into Garwhal, north of Kumaon, resulted in a treaty in 1792, in which the local ruler, Parduman Shah, acknowledged Nepalese suzerainty. Outright annexation was averted when the Nepalese troops were recalled to deal with a crisis up north, in which Chinese troops threw the Nepalese out of Tibet, which they had invaded in the "coinage war," and
advanced as far as the gates of Katmandu.
The normal coinage of Garwhal had been copper "tacas," about the size of an American cent, and silver quarter rupees called timashas (three mashas). During the occupation these coins were struck in the name of Nepalese king Girvan Yuddha. In my experience the silver coins have been occasionally available, while the coppers are scarce. Though these coins carry their year of issue RGV mention that they have not seen Nepalese-Garwhal coppers with fully legible dates, and I note that the illustration provided in the SCWC is a drawing.
The farthest extent of the Nepalese western conquests was Sirmur, whose raja came to the aid of Parduman Shah of Garwhal in 1792 and was quickly defeated by the Gurkha forces. Sirmur was occupied in 1806. No coins are known to have been struck in Sirmur before the Nepalese occupation, but two coppers, a paisa and a half, were struck in the town of Nahan, dated AH 1227 (1812 AD) in the name of Girvan Yuddha of Nepal.
The western ventures were terminated by the British in 1815. Concerned by a southward incursion of Nepalese troops British forces were brought to bear, and in short order cleared out the western regions and then some, essentially establishing the modern borders of the kingdom. And that about wraps up this discussion of the coinage of Nepal.
Very briefly, king Virendra was killed by his (probably drug crazed) son and an uncle, Gnyanendra, who had briefly been king previously, was crowned. The king has been involved in a conflict with a group of insurgents in the hinterland who are described by us outsiders as "Maoists." I have no direct knowledge of their political orientation. The king holds the city in which he resides, but seems to have lost most of the country. The political situation is apparently a standoff for the moment.
Nepalese coins in the 21st century are high quality modern products, mostly available from specialists.