Sabse Bada Rupaiya
March 27, 2007 11:47 PM   Subscribe

The Problem of the Rupee. Starting off as a silver-based unit of currency by the 15th century ruler, Sher Shah Suri, the Rupee (wiki) has had a long and chequered history encompassing most of Asian and East-African colonial history. Issued by the British, the French, the Dutch, the Japanese, the Portuguese, the Germans and even the Danish, the rupee as a brand-name existed far beyond India, Pakistan, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka Seychelles or the Mauritius. (more inside)
posted by the cydonian (15 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
That was just the hors d'ouevre. Here are the hidden delights:-

a) Rupees issued by extinct states:
i) The erstwhile Princely State of Hyderabad, of course, colourful, penta-lingual notes with Charminar motifs. (I mean, really, is that cool or what? Did your hometown issue its own currency? Mine apparently did!)

ii) Kashmir, with its carpet-like, seemingly stretchable notes,

iii) Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose's Azad Hind Bank was in the act, with a mono-lingual description.

b) Overseas Indian Rupees:
i) Burma, for a while, had its currency issued by the Reserve Bank of India, resulting in such cultural curiousities as stately, European notes printed in English, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Gujarathi _and_ Burmese, and notes that barely had a rubber stamp distinguishing them for their sovereignity.

ii) Pakistan, too for a while, had 'borrowed' RBI-issued notes for its own internal circulation.

iii) Until the '60's, the RBI-issued rupee was legal tender in most of the Gulf states, with absolutely no localized markings, as was the case for Pakistan and Burma.

c) Cultural curiosities:
i) French Roupies in Tamil depicting the Bayon and a Khmer Apsara,
ii) French Roupies with spelling mistakes in the Telugu translation ('ruupaayiilu' instead of 'ruupaayalu')
iii) Coins with couplets, a long-lasting Indian tradition
iv) Mauritian rupees in English, Hindi and (surprisingly for me) Tamil with a clear Swiss-franc/Euro influence,
v) Rupees from Zanzibar in English, Gujarathi, Urdu and no other language.
vi) Because he was a past RBI Governor, you can see the signature of India's current Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, on notes dating back to the eighties.
vii) The fifteen languages on a contemporary Indian rupee

Now, if you feel bewildered by all these links, and just want to click one link, look up the Wikipedia and be done with it. Stopping there, however, would be boring.

i) The main link is a fascinating book written by Dr BR Ambedkar, the Chairman of India's Constitution Drafting Committee, and a social reformer.
ii) The title is from a recent Bollywood song, "The Rupee is bigger than everything else".
posted by the cydonian at 11:49 PM on March 27, 2007

Right, so the British link was foo-bared. This is where I wanted to point to. Or this. Doesn't matter, really, just wanted to quickly mention an obvious point.
posted by the cydonian at 11:52 PM on March 27, 2007

Don't forget! Rupees are an important currency in at least one fantasy realm.
posted by JHarris at 12:04 AM on March 28, 2007

It's a secret to everybody.
posted by kid ichorous at 12:07 AM on March 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

(Sorry, Cydonian. You put this phenomenal post together and all we can think of are Octorocks.)
posted by kid ichorous at 12:09 AM on March 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

This is fantastic stuff. Thanks. :)
posted by dominik at 12:12 AM on March 28, 2007

...Since I was beaten to the Legend of Zelda reference, I'll just say this was cool.
posted by Many bubbles at 12:25 AM on March 28, 2007

All I know is that the rupee notes I have are dirty. Not something you'd want to put in your mouth.
posted by liquorice at 12:27 AM on March 28, 2007

Haha, well, I did read about the Zelda reference in the Wikipedia article, and yup, while I remember playing some Legends of Zelda game as a kid, the reference didn't click with me like, say, those French Rupoies did.

I'm just trying to imagine a Zanzibar-ian trader, or a Bahraini peasant looking at these brightly coloured paper with _weird_ letters on them, scratching their heads and thinking, "Those white men, what will they come up with next?!" The rupee, after all, was an instrument of the British Raj, even if the languages on its notes were entirely Indic, and languages with which I am intimately familiar.

Meanwhile, the... ummm, geocities site I linked to? It is, ummm, down. Sorry folks, shoulda known better. :-| This page, though, has all the notes I was linking to, except perhaps the Kashmir notes. (Most of the rupees, as opposed to pice, in the specialized issues section are from Hyderabad).
posted by the cydonian at 1:20 AM on March 28, 2007

Fascinating post. I had no idea that there ever existed a Danish East India Company; or that the Govt of Pakistan used Indian rupees early on; or that Ambedkar issued his own currency.

Questions: are the notes from Hyderabad still issued and presently recognized as legal tender? If the root for rupee is the Sanskrit word for silver, what is the root for the word paisa (1/100th of a rupee, but also generically means 'money')? Does it share the same root as the word peso in the Spanish-speaking world? Or did one come from the other?

Thanks much for this excellent post. I can truly concur now keh sabse bada hai rupaiya!
posted by Azaadistani at 3:43 AM on March 28, 2007

I thought the problem with the rupee was that they're torn, taped, and stapled beyond recognition.
posted by DenOfSizer at 4:06 AM on March 28, 2007

Azaadistani: Heheh, well, I was surprised by the Danish involvement in East India trade as well. Clearly, nobody expects the Danish Inquisition! :-D

Actually, it was Subhash Chandra Bose's Provisional Government of Free India, the Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind that issued these notes. Ambedkar merely wrote a treatise on the rupee. :-) I'm truly struck by the fact that they issued these notes only in English, and not, say, in Urdu, which was the lingua franca for the government-in-exile. Were they in a hurry to print out those notes?

Paisa: well, the American Heritage dictionary seems to say thus:-
[Hindi paisā, from Sanskrit *padā[mdot]śaḥ, quarter part : padam, foot, quarter (of a verse) + a[mdot]śaḥ, portion.]
Or in short, paisa is (Hindi/Urdu) vernacular for a 'quarter'. Which, of course, makes immense sense, when you realize that the _original_ paisa was one-quarter of an anna. Paisa as one-hundredth of a rupee, or the new, 'naya' paisa, is a very recent currency unit.

An interesting sidenote: Old-timers in Hyderabad still say 'chaar anna' for the 25 paisé coin, or aat-anna ('eight annas) for the 50 paisé coin for this very reason. Now, four annas is actually _24_ paisé, and eight annas is _48_ paisé, but close enough.

The péso, on the other hand, came from an entirely different root:-
[Spanish, from Latin pēnsum, something weighed, from neuter past participle of pendere, to weigh.]
Which brings us to another interesting fact that I found out only today. Pakistan, I understand, has stopped issuing paisé altogether since 1994 (wikipedia). While on a macro scale, I can imagine why the State Bank of Pakistan would take such a measure, but having grown up more on paisé than rupee notes , I'm a tad bewildered. I mean, how else would a school-kid buy ice-cream from a roadside vendor? :-)

You know, it's rather interesting about the Hyderabadi notes. Nope, the Hyderabadi notes aren't legal tender anymore; the then issuing bank, the State Bank of Hyderabad, is now part of the huge State Bank agglomeration that has one of the world's largest number of branches, and uses the Indian Rupee exclusively in its transactions. The mints and printing presses that used to issue Hyderabadi currency now issue Indian rupees and paisé.

However, even as recently as 10 years back, search the old mohallas in Hyderabad hard enough, and you could still find people trying to slip in an old Nizami coin or two when you collected change. Should know; that's how I got my first Hyderabadi coin. :-)

The truly fascinating bit, however, is the very fact that the Hyderabadi Rupee is indeed celebrated in the first place. You step into contemporary banks in downtown Hyderabad, say the UTI Bank at Lakdi-ka-pool, and you'll be greeted by huge murals depicting all those colourful notes you see in these links.

You must understand:- the Hyderabadi Rupee was the currency of a vanquished regime. If there's any region that the Indian Union clearly and unambigiously annexed through military conquest, it is Hyderabad. In other princely states that acceded to the Indian Union even peacefully, in say Junagadh, Mysore or Travancore, the old notes are part of a memory that's fast dying out, or gently scrubbed out for obvious political reasons. In Hyderabad, on the other hand, we seem to be rather fond of our intra-national identity. But that's a topic for a later Mefi post! :-)
posted by the cydonian at 7:37 AM on March 28, 2007

Interesting post the cydonian. "Historically, the rupee, derived from the Sanskrit word raupya, which means silver, was a silver coin. This had severe consequences in the nineteenth century, when the strongest economies in the world were on the gold standard. The discovery of vast quantities of silver in the U.S. and various European colonies resulted in a decline in the relative value of silver to gold. Suddenly the standard currency of India could not buy as much from the outside world. This event was known as 'the fall of the rupee.' " More about the history of the rupee.

The rupee notes always seemed beautiful to me, the fun coin increments too, paisa. Love the donut shaped one paise coin. The scalloped edged 10 paise coin. The six sided 20 paise.

Strange about the 25 paise coin.
posted by nickyskye at 9:59 AM on March 28, 2007

Cydonian: The State Bank of Pk stopped issues paise because they had become obsolete. You could no longer purchase anything for under a rupee, really. Even in the late 1980s, the least expensive kulfi out there was at least 50 paisa to a rupee ... inflation killed the paisa.

And yes, of course, I meant Bose, not Ambedkar.

What has happened to the family of the Nizam now? Are they at all involved in politics?
posted by Azaadistani at 10:43 AM on March 28, 2007

I thought the problem with the rupee was that they're torn, taped, and stapled beyond recognition.

I second that emotion. I remember marveling on first arrival in India in '99 how the banks - the banks - would staple stacks of 100-rupee notes together through the watermark, how you'd get fifties that'd been stapled and torn off stacks so many times there was a coin-sized hole where the watermark used to be, and of course ten-rupee notes so filthy they'd be confiscated by customs in most countries as foreign flora.

Also the nationwide change shortage. But that's another story.

Anyway, fun post, cydonian. Thanks!
posted by gompa at 11:33 AM on March 28, 2007

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