When Madras demonetised

November 18, 2016 02:43 pm | Updated December 02, 2016 04:18 pm IST - Chennai

The first Madras Mint stood to the west of Parade Square,Fort St. George

The first Madras Mint stood to the west of Parade Square,Fort St. George

The year was 1735 and George Morton Pitt, the dynamic Governor of Madras, was a worried man. He had inherited a problem of counterfeit and competing currencies from previous administrations, but the matter could no longer be brushed aside. A solution had to be found, and quickly at that.

The grant for Madras in 1639 came with permission for setting up a mint. In the early years, the East India Company minted coins that bore the Vijayanagar emblem of the boar (varaha), which is why priests at weddings refer to all gifts as ‘varahan’ even today! Then came the three-swami pagoda, so called because it bore the image of Vishnu with two consorts. The mint that produced these also made lesser coins, all with names that are still familiar to us — fanam (36 to the pagoda), kasu/cash (80 per fanam) and duddu (10 of these made a cash). The facility stood inside Fort St. George, to the west of Parade Square. These were, however, not the only coins that circulated. There were besides, the Tevanapatam, Allumbrum (Alamparai), Alamgir (issued by the Company on behalf of Aurangzeb), St. Thomas, Trivilore, Negapatam and Pulicat pagodas. The Nawab’s treasury accepted payments only if made in another variety — the Arni pagoda.

Besides this mint, there were also what were known as Country Mints, located at Poonamallee, San Thome, Covelong (Kovalam), Pulicat, Arni, Aalamparai, Thiruvallur and elsewhere. All of these were outside the geographical bounds of Madras and produced the same coins as the Company Mint, but with varying grades of purity, leading to major confusions in exchange. An entire community of expert moneychangers — the Sarafs or Shroffs — settled here to handle the business of converting money, for a fee. But the continued circulation of the country-made coins caused a devaluation of the pagoda, thereby sharply affecting trade. During the time of Pitt’s predecessor James Macrae, counterfeit coins began coming in from China. These were not of gold at all, but of some alloy and were identical to the Negapatam pagoda.

Pitt and his council worked out a solution. The Company would introduce what it called the MM pagoda, so called because of a security feature — the letter flanking Vishnu instead of his consorts. The merchants were forced to bring in all the coins they had, melt and get them re-struck as MM pagodas! This was done, with considerable grumbling from the populace. Unforeseen complications arose — a consignment of gold did not come, delaying the making of coins and forcing the company to melt its reserve gold to make good the shortage. Nobody informed the Nawab’s treasury about the change and the officers refused to accept anything other than the Arni pagoda. The Shroffs got into the act — they simply took over the MM pagodas, had them melted at the country mints and re-coined as Arni pagodas!

Thus, as Madras historian HD Love wrote, the MM pagodas spent all their lives in the fire. The idea was given up by 1736.

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