As the rupee tumbles, Anand Venkateswaran stumbles upon some of the most outlandish currencies to ever change hands.
Over the past many weeks, the rupee has fallen like rain — suddenly, intermittently, heavily, annoyingly. While everyone with a wallet is plunged into gloom, many stooped to wordplay to ease the burden. Sample this: What law does Indian currency abide by? The Slide Rule. What’s at the bottom of the Mariana Trench? The Indian rupee. Or how about this little classic going viral: Which is the only time the rupee goes up? During a toss.
Sad, definitely. Yes, the situation too. However, there’s hope. Economic stability, they say, is round the corner. So are hyperspace travel and personal force fields. Until then, we take refuge in Einstein’s theory of Relativity. Here’s a look at some currencies that defy imagination. Rupee, feel better.
Mark, my word!
It was a few years after World War I. In those days, it was called only “World War” or “The Great War”. They had no idea there was going to be a sequel. Anyway, Germany lost the war and now had to pay for the damages the Allies had suffered. So, in 1921, Germany Inc. paid up two billion goldmarks. And then keeled over. By 1923, the value of the mark was 4.2 trillion to the USD. There was so much money printed, not worth the paper it was printed on. Legend has it that a loaf of bread cost two billion marks. They carried the money in wheelbarrows. Even today, they still plod around in wheelbarrows, but the ones today are heavily branded.
Hairy days in Harare
Food output had fallen 45%, manufacturing by 29%, and unemployment was at 80%. And all this was barely five years ago in Zimbabwe, which was experiencing a phenomenon called ‘hyperinflation’. Economically, this means that inflation is so steep that is causes large scale hyperventilation. Here’s what it looked like. Imagine a time lapse image of a coin rolling, rolling away from you. It looks somewhat like this - 100,000,000,000,000. It was also Zimbabwe’s highest value currency in 2009. A 100-trillion dollar note. And with it, you couldn’t even buy a bus ticket. No, there’s no ‘bounce back’ story. Call back in a decade.
What if you found out money had a soul? Would you be more careful with it? African tribes in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Conakry used a curious form of currency from the 1880s well into the 1940s and in some areas, until the 1980s. We'll get to the ‘soul’ part in a bit. Twisted iron wire, shaped like a T on one end and like a flattened hoof on the other, these ‘Kissi’ pennies were used in bundles of 20 to buy oranges, bananas, cows and virgin brides (200 bundles, in case you were wondering). If a penny broke, it could be fixed only by the local ‘witch doctor’, also the smith, who joined the metal and ‘reincarnated’ the ‘escaped’ ‘soul’. For a ‘small’ but fixed ‘fee’. The occult opens up single quotes like nothing else.
Tughlaq on a roll
Here’s a lesson in alchemy - a silver or gold coin is not a silver or gold coin if it’s made of copper. That was the easy way. Muhammad bin Tughlaq, Sultan of Delhi and most of the rest of India from 1325 to 1351 (this is history. The ‘from and to’ dates are mandatory), learned it the hard way. A bit of a numismatist, he introduced copper and brass coins and announced they were the same value as gold ones (See, the embossing says ‘gold’ and ‘silver’, he beamed). His subjects rose to the occasion and promptly produced vast quantities of counterfeit coins, sucking his treasury dry and burying the top brass in, well, brass.
I don’t ‘won’ this money
North Korea, the land of Kim Jong-un and random, sweeping decisions. Some fun facts about the North Korean won. Such fun, in fact, that punning would be redundant. 1. The won was valued at 2.16 to the USD, because February 16 is Jong-il’s birthday. 2. The won was revalued in 2009 for the first time in 50 years. During this process, the old notes were completely worthless for an entire week. 3. In the 1970s, There was a form of exchangeable currency called ‘Pakkundon’. This had two forms, one for visitors from ‘Red’ or communist countries and another for visitors from capitalist countries.
Illustrations: Satwik Gade