Revisiting Sikh History: Tales from the Mints
The modern history of the Sikhs is marked by struggle and strife, relentless battles with conquerors, savage wars with the Mughals, internal power struggles, and the rise and fall of the Sikh Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1801-39). This dramatic era finally came to a close with the victory of the British East India Company in the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1848-49.
This period, of roughly 150 years, saw powerful Sikh warriors and generals, local chieftains and a Maharaja shape the Punjab region and the politics of the land in pre-Independent India, each ruler leaving a distinctive mark on the currency of his time.
Here’s a glimpse into that era, from the coins of the first Sikh kingdom, to a coin that was struck to taunt an Afghan Emperor, to an ‘eco’ coin that sensitised people to the environment, and a coin struck by a Maharaja who adored his queen so much that he risked the ire of the Akal Takht, the chief religious authority of the Sikh community.
Sikh Coins of Banda Singh Bahadur (1710)
The first-ever Sikh coins are credited to the great Sikh warrior and commander of the Khalsa army, Baba Banda Singh Bahadur. There is precious little information available on these coins, like a fleeting mention in historic texts such as Tazakirates-Salatin-i-Chaghtai authored in the 18th century by Hadi Kamavan Khan.
Up until then, Mughal coins were in use during the reign of the ten Sikh Gurus (1469-1708 CE). But just before his death, the tenth and last Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh, who was in exile in Nanded (in present-day Maharashtra), sent Banda Singh Bahadur to Punjab to offer resistance to the Mughal force in Punjab. There, Banda Singh rallied Sikh volunteers to form an army, and with them established a large but temporary kingdom between the Sutlej and Yamuna Rivers. He captured many important cities in the region including the Mughal provincial capital of Sirhind in 1710.
Banda Singh proceeded to issue coins of this first Sikh kingdom in 1710 CE. They were inscribed in the prevalent Persian language but, unlike other kingdoms in which the bust or name of the king along with the period of his reign was mentioned, these Sikh coins bore the name of the Sikh Gurus and the Almighty. The coins followed the indigenous Bikrami (Vikram Samvat) and Nanakshahi Samvat (base year 1469, the birth year of the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak) calendars to mark dates.
Since the territories in Banda Singh’s ‘kingdom’ kept changing due to continuous warfare with the Mughals, there was no specific mint that struck these coins. They were, however, issued till 1713 CE, after which the war with the Mughals intensified.
Banda Singh Bahadur was finally defeated by the Mughals in the Battle of Gurdas Nangal in 1715 CE and his kingdom was confiscated. The great warrior and his followers were captured and executed. It is surmised that almost all the coins he struck were destroyed by the Mughals, and only a precious few survived.
Dal Khalsa & The Mysterious Coin (1761)
After Banda Singh Bahadur’s death, the Mughals followed a policy of organised persecution of the Sikhs. As a result, many Sikhs formed small groups and went into exile in the Shivalik foothills. Then, in the 1730s, the community formed the Dal Khalsa to offer organised resistance first to the Mughals and then the Afghans, who under their Emperor Ahmad Shah Abdali had been regularly raiding Punjab since 1747 CE.
The Dal Khalsa grew in strength and, in 1761 CE, captured the city of Lahore from the Afghans. The supreme leader of the Dal Khalsa, Baba Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, was declared ‘king’ and was awarded the title of ‘Sultan-ul-Qaum’ (King of the Nation).
It was then that a mysterious coin relating to this period appears. Bearing a date that corresponds to 1761 CE, the coin is said to have been issued by the Sikhs to commemorate their victory over Lahore but, unlike those issued by Banda Singh, this one bore the name of the ‘king’, i.e. ‘Jassa Singh Ahluwalia’, rather than the name of a Sikh Guru. This has led Sikh historians like Giani Kartar Singh Kalaswalia, who has authored the book Tegh Khalsa, to believe that the coin was not issued by the Dal Khalsa but was a conspiracy by an Afghan officer to rouse the anger of the Afghan Emperor, who might then be prompted to mount another attack on the Sikhs.
Misl Period: Coins of the Sikh Confederacy
Predictably enraged, Afghan Emperor Ahmad Shah Abdali swore revenge and, in 1762 CE, attacked and destroyed the Harmandir Sahib, later known as the Golden Temple. Infuriated, the Sikhs retaliated and, by 1764 CE, most Afghan cities in the subcontinent, including their provincial capital Sirhind, were captured. If the coin was a fraud, it didn’t pay off!
The territories recaptured from the Afghans were divided among the 11 Sikh Misls or sovereign states, each one headed by a Sardar or chief. The Misls together established a mint in Lahore in 1765 CE and replaced it with one in Amritsar in 1775 CE. These mints churned out various important coins:
Gobindshahi Sikka (1765): C J Rodgers, a British educator in Amritsar and a numismatics enthusiast, carried out a detailed study of Sikh coins and published an article titled On The Coins of the Sikhs in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1881. According to him, the first Misl-period coin, made of silver, was issued in 1765 CE It was inscribed in Persian in the name of Guru Gobind Singh, just like Banda Singh Bahadur’s coins. These coins were known as ‘Gobind Shahi’ coins and were issued from the Lahore mint up to 1775 CE.
Temporary Multan Mint(1772): Although the Sikhs had captured most of Punjab by now, the important fortress of Multan was still in the control of the Durrani Empire of the Afghans. In 1772 CE, the Bhangi Misl, under its leader Jhanda Singh, captured the fort. However, due to the ruthless nature of the Afghans and their tactics to protect their last reserve in Punjab, Bhangi forces had to retreat from the city in 1779 CE. It was during the intervening period – 1772 to 1779 – that the Sikhs established a temporary mint in Multan, where coins similar to the ones at Lahore were minted. Multan was finally captured by the Sikhs during the reign of Ranjit Singh.
Nanakshahi Sikka (1775): In 1775 CE, the Sikh mint was transferred to Amritsar (in the present-day Katra Hari Singh Bhangi market) and the Bhangi Misl, which controlled a major part of city, was tasked with running it. The coins produced here were known as ‘Nanakshahi’ coins (in the name of the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak) and were similar to the early Sikh coins.
Misl’s Gold Mohur (1786): In the following decades, the Sikh currency was made more systematic and the highest denomination was represented by gold mohurs, while coins of smaller denominations were made of silver and copper.
Leaf Mint-Mark Coin (1788): The 1780s brought terrible drought and famine to India, including Punjab. Amritsar-based numismatist, Prateek Sehdev, and his father Dev Dard own a collection of Sikh coins in their private museum, which reveals an interesting innovation in Sikh coins. According to Sehdev, many in Punjab considered the devastating famines of the 1780s a message from the Almighty to stop exploiting the environment. Sikh bodies, therefore, urged people to take care of the environment and, in 1788 CE, the Amritsar mint introduced a ‘leaf’ motif on its coins, which remained in circulation throughout Sikh rule in Punjab, that is, till the end of the Sikh Empire in 1849.
Dawn of the Sikh Empire: Coins of Ranjit Singh
After the death of Baba Jassa Singh Ahluwalia in 1783 CE, the Sikh Misls and their commitment to the Dal Khalsa collapsed and they began to constantly feud with each other in an attempt to acquire each other’s territory. Not long after, the young Misldar, or chief of the Sukerchakia Misl, rose to power and decided to reunite all the Misls into a confederacy.
This young chieftain, who couldn’t bear to see his homeland divided into small rival states, was the future ‘Lion of Punjab’ or Maharaja, Ranjit Singh. It was a mission that began with his occupation of Lahore in 1799 CE. After this triumph in Lahore, Ranjit Singh issued various coins, which reflect his ideology and the political climate during his reign:
Decorated Leaf Mint-Mark Coin (1801): After winning Lahore, to accelerate his mission, Ranjit Singh officially proclaimed himself ‘Maharaja of Punjab’ in 1801 CE. That same year, he stopped using the Sikh Misl mint in Amritsar and switched to a new one for his new empire in Lahore, in the area where the present Pakistan Mint is located. Ranjit Singh marked the occasion by issuing decorative designs on the customary leaf of the Nanakshahi coins.
‘Kangha’ Symbol Coin (1802): In 1802 CE, Ranjit Singh took control of Amritsar city, which included the holy shrine of the Harmandir Sahib. He commemorated this victory by inscribing the religious symbol of ‘Kangha’, meaning a ‘small wooden comb’ (one of the five ‘Ks’ of the Khalsa) on the Sikh coins, in addition to a small twig with leaves on its other side. These coins were presented to the Akal Takht Sahib in Amritsar by Ranjit Singh, and it became customary for the Lahore Durbar to send them the first coin of a newly minted series.
Bershahi Symbol Coins (1804): In 1804 CE, the ‘Kangha’ symbol was replaced with the ber (jujube fruit) symbol, a reference to the holy Dukh Bhanjani Beri, the legendary tree located on the banks of the Harmandir Sahib’s Sarovar (tank).
Moranshahi Coins (1805): While Ranjit Singh was growing politically, in 1802 CE, he fell in love and married a Kashmiri-origin Muslim nautch (dancing) girl called Moran, who was thus named because her dance moves resembled those of the peacock. Ranjit Singh loved his wife so much that, in 1805 CE, he introduced a new series of coins known as ‘Moranshahi’ coins, which had a small peacock feather inscribed on them, symbolically representing his queen. However, the Akal Takht considered it blasphemous and refused to recognise these coins.
Revised Bershahi Coins (1805): Ranjit Singh thus discontinued the Moranshahi coins and transferred the Sikh mint back to Amritsar from Lahore. The Bershahi coins were revived, now with a bigger and more decorated ‘ber’ symbol.
Sikh Empire’s Gold Mohur (1821): Since the 1820s, the Sikh currency acquired further uniformity with the issuing of sets of gold, silver and copper coins, just like during the Misl period. The gold mohurs thus produced were known as ‘Butkis’ and were also used as an offering to religious institutions.
Double Gold Mohurs With Bail (1827): In 1827 CE, Sikh mohurs with double the amount of gold than before were released. Due to their considerable value, these coins were given as rewards and were meant to be worn as necklaces, and a locket bail was thus attached to them.
Frozen Series Coins (1828 onwards): Numismatist Prateek Sehdev says that in 1828 CE, a respected astrologer had advised Ranjit Singh to stop issuing new coins, claiming it was inauspicious, which is why new coins struck after that were known as the ‘frozen series’ – the year mentioned on them was frozen at Bikrami 1885. Since this was economically unfeasible, the ‘actual’ year of issue was also mentioned alongside, thus making it a ‘double year’ series.
Devanagari ‘Ram’ Coins (1837): Although the Sikh Empire was established in the name of Sikhism, in practice it was quite secular. During the last years of Ranjit Singh’s reign, in 1837 CE, coins bearing the word ‘Ram’ inscribed in the Devanagari script were issued. On same side, a small ‘Kangha’ was also inscribed.
Additional Mints During Ranjit Singh’s Reign
After he unified the Misls, Ranjit Singh’s army captured areas like Multan (1818), Kashmir (1819) and Peshawar (1834), which were not ruled by the Sikh Misls but were strategic locations. But the Lahore Durbar preferred not to introduce Amritsar’s coins in these newly won areas as they were not politically linked to the empire's core. Instead, they set up a mint in each of the places they had acquired.
Kashmir Mint’s ‘Har’ Symbol Coins (1820): After setting up the Multan mint in 1818 CE, the Sikhs captured Kashmir in 1819 CE by defeating the Afghan army in the Battle of Shopian. In 1820 CE, General Hari Singh Nalwa was made its governor and he set up a Sikh mint in Srinagar. The coins issued here had ‘Har’ in the Gurmukhi script inscribed on one side, and a wheat pod or a flower bud on the other. Many argue that ‘Har’ was the initial of the general’s name and it reflected his high stature in the empire, due to which he issued coins in his name. Others argue that ‘Har’ meant ‘Almighty’ as it is referred to in Indian culture.
Kashmir Mint’s ‘Swastika’ Symbol Coins (1822): In 1821 CE, Hari Singh Nalwa was replaced by General Diwan Moti Ram as the new governor of Kashmir. Soon after, ‘Swastika’ symbol coins were issued mainly to please the Kashmiri Pandit community, which not only helped the Sikhs establish their rule in the Valley but have enjoyed warm relations with them ever since.
Kashmir Mint’s ‘Ram’ Symbol Coins (1825): In 1825 CE, the ‘Swastika’ symbol was replaced by the inscription of ‘Ram’ (God) in the Persian script.
Peshawar Mint’s Decorated Leaf Mint-Mark Coin (1834): Although the Sikhs had won Peshawar many times, stable rule was established in the region only in 1834 CE. Hari Singh Nalwa, who had earlier served in Kashmir, was made the governor here, and he commemorated this victory by issuing decorated leaf mint-mark coins in the Gorkhatri area of Peshawar, as they were already in use in some regions of the empire. The coins remained in use till Nalwa’s death in 1837 CE.
Later Coins of the Sikh Empire
After Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839 CE, his eldest son Kharak Singh ascended the throne. But during his reign, the empire began to crumble. This prompted the British to step in and seize control. The instability that followed is evident from the fact that in just four years after Ranjit Singh’s death, four Emperors and one regent occupied Lahore’s throne. The coins issued by Ranjit Singh’s successors before the British occupation are of historic importance:
Religious ‘Om’ Symbol Coins (1840): While Kharak Singh was alive, his son Nau Nihal Singh succeeded him as Emperor. He continued the secular policy of his grandfather and issued coins which had both Hinduism’s ‘Om’ symbol in the Devanagari script along with a ‘Kangha’ symbol of the Khalsa.
Derajat Mint’s Coins (1841): In 1840 CE, both Kharak Singh and Nau Nihal Singh died under mysterious circumstances, which promoted Kharak Singh’s widow Chand Kaur to take over as regent. But within months, she was deposed by Kharak Singh’s half-brother Sher Singh, temporarily shifted the mint to the Derajat region (present-day Salt Range in Pakistan). He issued coins with the decorated customary leaf on one side, and his name inscribed on the other. However, just like the Moranshahi coins, religious institutions refused to accept them as they weren't in the name of the Guru or the Almighty but in the name of the Emperor.
‘Nishan Sahib’ Symbol Coins (1845): After Sher Singh’s assassination in 1843 CE, his infant half-brother Duleep Singh was seated on the throne. In 1845 CE, the symbol of the Nishan Sahib, the religious and political flag of the Sikhs, was introduced on coins to represent Sikh unity despite the political storms that swept through the Empire.
Double-Flag ‘Nishan Sahib’ Symbol Coins (1846): Despite efforts to quell the political turbulence of the Lahore Durbar, things did not improve, and in 1845 CE, the East India Company declared the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845-46) against the Sikh Empire, which ended in a decisive victory for the British. Although the loss meant the influence of the English seeped into Punjab’s politics, the colonial rulers allowed the Sikhs to keep control of their religious city, Amritsar, and issue coins from there. The Sikhs considered this a moral victory and introduced another ‘victory’ flag above the already present Nishan Sahib symbol on their coins. These coins are therefore called Double-Flag Nishan Sahib Symbol Coins.
Pind Dadan Khan Mint’s Coins (1847-48): Although the British had permitted the Sikhs to run the Amritsar mint, many suspected that they were interfering in its working. Annoyed, many close associates of the Lahore Durbar established an independent mint in Pind Dadan Khan (in present-day Jhelum district, Pakistan), where a parallel currency was issued till 1848 CE, when the mint was confiscated by Company officials.
Religious ‘Sat’ & ‘Shiv’ Symbol Coins (1847-48): In 1847 CE, the Amritsar mint produced a few more coins on which religious words like ‘Sat’ (abbreviated ‘Satnam’) and ‘Shiv’ were inscribed in Gurmukhi. However, the ‘Shiv’ inscription had a few spelling errors!
Last ‘Ram’ Symbol Coins (1849): Early in 1849 CE, a ‘Ram’ symbol coin inscribed in Gurmukhi was issued, although this too had a minor spelling error. The coin was released during the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-49), but soon after, the war ended in a victory for the British.
In the summer of 1849, the British gained absolute control over the Sikh Empire and issued the currency of the British-administrated Bengal Presidency after closing down all the Sikh mints. It also closed a glorious chapter in Sikh currency, which continues to remain a priceless souvenir to this day.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aashish Kochhar is a history enthusiast from Amritsar who studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.