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Repeated invasions ravage Sri Lanka
By Bob Reis
March 20, 2017

Problems I’ve noticed with the collecting of early Sri Lankan / Ceylonese coins:

• Who can read them?

• Long, multisyllabic names, consonant clusters containing “h.” How do you really pronounce Bandhiraviresangharam? The eye, at least my eye, tends to shrink from such words, the mind to ignore them, so that all of the history devolves into king Bhuvasomething was attacked by prince Rattaccidhisomething and retired to Thannuvhasomeplace, the capital Anuradhsomeplace was destroyed.

• The collectors in India, millions of them, pretty much all say “that’s not India.”

• There’s not really any serious collector base there. A country that doesn’t collect its own coins tends not to have much of a market.

• What we call “ethnic division” between the Sinhala and the Tamils is the current status of what has been about 2,000 years of mostly violent conflict between two groups of people who speak different languages and to some extent can distinguish each other at sight. That age-old animus might be considered in some ways to extend to the collectors, or maybe not, I don’t know.

The collecting of Sri Lankan coins is not a mass phenomenon.

We had just gotten done with the first half of the Polunarruwa dynasty, the Ceylonese or Sri Lankan rulers who made those nice looking nickel-sized copper coins that are generally common enough that dealers can run promotions on them: “Kings of Kandy,” “Octopus Man.” Actually they weren’t the kings of “Kandy,” those came later, but a whole lot easier than “kings of what did you say?”

The Polunarruwa ruling class, always factional, took to rebellion and murder in the reign of Queen Lilivati, who ruled 1197-1211 with two interregnums. The anarchy invited outside interference, three different invasions occurred during the queen’s reigns. The last, by an adventurer from Kalinga on the east coast of India named Magha, produced extensive destruction of infrastructure and theft of assets. The Polunarruwa state retired to the south to endure almost another century. The north was substantially wrecked, to be gradually reconstituted as a Tamil zone, giving the island the distinctive biethnic look it has today, with Tamils concentrated in the north and Sinhalese dominating in the rest.


The coinage of the 13th century is, like the politics, divided. In the south the Polunarruwa rulers continued their characteristic coins from their new capital, Dambadeniya, into the 14th century, the government itself continuing, without the coinage, into the 16th century, harrassed by invasions from the mainland and by conflict with the by then entrenched Tamils in the north. The capital was moved several times. The kingdom ended in 1521, when three sons of the last king went to war against him, prevailed, killed him, and divided the land. The biggest chunk, most of the east coast, had the town of Kandy, in the central mountains, as its capital, and became the dominant political force in the south. Those are the “kings of Kandy.”

Meanwhile, up in the north, the Jaffna peninsula was dominated by Tamils. Go online and look at a map. The peninsula sort of hangs by a thread from the rest of the island, easy to see how the modern Tamils held out so long against the Sinhala army. Harder to see how the Tamils dominated, even for short periods, any part of the rest of the island, but they did.

The Tamils were continually reinforced (or invaded, depending how you look at it) from the mainland. In 1284 a Pandyan (Tamil) general, Aryachakravarti, came over and established a regime in the town of Jaffna, which became a stable kingdom that lasted for four centuries. The traditional history has the Jaffna kingdom founded by Magha of Kalinga, but most of what Magha did was destroy things, so it comes out differently depending on how you look at it. But the Aryachakravarti government was administrative as well as military, with buildings and culture and trade and so forth. It lasted until the end of the 16th century.

Coinage. All of it was copper and “octopus man” related, based on Chola types from the mainland. The southern coins continued the Polunarruwa style until 1310, after which the kings continued but the coinage ceased. Most of the later coins are as common as the earlier ones and look substantially the same, just different royal names mostly. In the north some of the coins look quite Chola, while others have the octopus man on one side and a bull on the other. Northern coins are not common. There must have been gold, but it seems likely that it was either old stuff, or from the mainland (Pandyan, then the fairly common Vijayanagar issues). Apparently there wasn’t any silver in circulation at that time.

And then came the Europeans, specifically the Portuguese.

First contact was 1505. The Portuguese were nosing around for spices mostly, though gold, ivory, gems, interesting wood, other luxury products were also of interest. They landed on the western coast, which belonged to one of the Polunarruwa successor kingdoms, the one with its capital at a town called Kotte. The encounter was hostile. The Kotte king failed to prevail, and the Portuguese secured a spot for settlement and a trade treaty. That spot is now called Colombo.

From that point they took part in local politics, gradually expanding their influence, mostly by military means, until they controlled most the coast except in the east, including the Tamil Jaffne kingdom in the north. The Portuguese were never able to conquer the Kandy kingdom, however. Kandy and the Dutch eventually discovered each other, and formed an alliance that eliminated the Portuguese administration by 1660.

The Portuguese had a habit of striking colonial coins, and made some for use in Sri Lanka. They are of copper and silver, most struck at Colombo, though in the last Portuguese decade coins made in Goa in southern India were used. They are fairly rare, by and large.

There were also the larins. Larins were silver coins, originally made on the Iranian coast, roughly equivalent to the Iranian shahi, but shaped like a bobby pin. The thought has been that they were made that way to be clipped to the fold of a turban, but there is no spring to the metal, to “open” them takes strength, then they don’t close again easily. Maybe instead of clipping to the turban they were just supposed to be tucked in a fold, but then why double them? Nobody has adequately explained them, but there they are.

The center of larin production was Bijapur in east central India, rather far from the coast, with others made in various places from Ottoman Anatolia and Arabia to the Maldives. And Sri Lanka too. Any larins that got to Sri Lanka were bent into a fishhook shape. The native Lankan-made pieces typically had pseudo-Arabic legends or just lines, often arranged in a diamond lattice, and were products of private rather than government initiative.

Larins in general are not uncommon. Most are from Bijapur, Lankan specimens are somewhat harder to find.

And now the Dutch. The Portuguese got their start in the colonial empire business before they found themselves united by dynastic family affairs with Spain and it was political jealousy on the part of Spain for the overseas success of Portugal that got them started on their colonial enterprises. Among the European possessions of Spain were what were collectively known as the “Low Countries,” now Belgium and The Netherlands. The Netherlands turned Protestant pretty early, which brought them into conflict with Spain, which waged decades of relentless but ultimately unsuccessful war on the what they considered heretics.

The Spanish did not win, and the Dutch, with help from England, grew in power, to the extent that they were able to start harassing the colonies, mainly the Portuguese ones, all over the world, from the 1580s or so. The Dutch were particularly successful in Asia, so that by the mid-17th century the Portuguese had been largely kicked out of their Asian holdings.

Sri Lanka went like this: the king of Kandy, stalemated in the conflict with Portugal and learning of the Dutch and finding that they were enemies of the Portuguese, enlisted their aid against the arrogant Iberians. The agreement called on the Dutch to surrender any coastal territories seized to Kandy. What they were supposed to get were trade concessions, the major product conceived as cinnamon. Cleverly, whoever drew up the treaty of cooperation used different wording in the two languages. The Dutch kept some of the territories they liberated from the Portuguese. Arguing did no good. The Europeans had better weapons.

Over a number of decades the Dutch expanded their territorial control until they controlled all of what the Portuguese used to have and more. The Kandy kings found themselves reduced to a degree of puppetry. The Dutch were all about money. They did plantations, slavery, theft, murder, in addition to normal trade where both sides feel like they got something.”So money was needed.

Dutch colonial enterprises were run by a chartered corporation rather than directly by the government. We numismatists see the emblem of that corporation all the time: VOC. The agents of the VOC, in armed occupation of formerly Portuguese towns, took over the Portuguese money and countermarked it. Generally, when we see a government countermark on a coin we are seeing a receipt for a fee that has been paid, though often the records of that tax are not commonly available for our reading pleasure.

The countermarks are usually the VOC monogram and an additional letter indicating the town of application. The extra letters are “G” for Galle, “I” for Jaffna, “C” for Colombo, and “R” for we’re not sure. The coins are Portuguese Sri Lanka and India silver and other foreign coins, most commonly silver abbasis of Safavid Iran. The time frame for the countermarks was more or less 1655-1660.

Starting around 1660 and continuing until 1720 thick, dumpy copper coins were issued. The denominations were 2 and 1 stuiver, halves, quarters and eighths. Same utility design on both sides, no date. The 1 stuiver is not common but not rare, the others are at least scarce. They are pretty crude, circulated for a long time, often come out of the ground with corrosion.

From around 1720 to the 1780s the coinage was mostly metropolitan Dutch. The home mints in The Netherlands were striking small quantities of their regular gold and silver coinage with the VOC mark and shipping those along with regular precious metal coins to the colonies, and enormous quantities of VOC marked copper duits, and Sri Lanka got its share. Small copper coins of the Dutch colony of Negapatnam in southern India were also shipped over.

A new series of coins was begun in 1783. They were struck in four towns: Colombo, Galle, Jaffne, and Trincomalee. All had the VOC monogram and the initial of the town, and an indication of value, but there were differences.

In Colombo they struck bar coinage, similar to the “bonks” they were making in Indonesia from Japanese copper. Rare, popular, beware of fakes. There were also some rare tin coins, and even rarer silver rupees. Galle struck 2-stuiver coins, thick and heavy. The Jaffne coins have a Tamil denomination, “1/2 fanam.” All of these coins are uncommon to rare, but with the exception of the bars, which are auction items, I’ve found the coins of this series to be not particularly popular.

The Dutch period ended in 1795, when the British took over.

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