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Coinage in Bhutan Rhodes, N. G. (Nicholas G.) Nov 30, 1999

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Nicholas Rhodes'"
In Thimphu, and elsewhere in Western Bhutan, it is still
possible to find many examples of the old copper coins,
known as Matam, Chetam and Zangtam. Old silver coins can
also be found, although less frequently. Very little, however,
has been written about the background to these coins - who
made them, where and when, and how they were used. The
purpose of this article is to set out what I know about these
old Bhutanese coins, not only to present the information
more widely, but also in the hope that there will be people in
Bhutan who will be encouraged to provide additional evidence
from oral tradition, written records, or from any other
sources. Elderly people may still be alive who remember such
coins being struck, but unless their memories are recorded
soon, the information will be lost forever.
Before the 1950s, there were no urban communities in
Bhutan, and coins only played a small part in the economy of
the country, serving mainly as a store of value, and as
ceremonial gifts or donations. Silver coins, usually foreign
coins, also served as the raw material from which jewellery
and "pan" boxes were made. Day to day life mainly involved
subsistence farming, supplemented by barter. Taxes were
paid either in kind or in services, and land rent was paid as a
share of the produce, again in kind.
Some insight into how coins were used in the old days can be
obtained from Karma Ura's books, The Hero with a Thousand
Nicholas Rhodes holds an MA in mathematics from Trinity College,
Cambridge. He is an Actuary by profession, and works for an
international reinsurance company in the United States. On the
academic side he is an 'independent scholar', and is recognized
internationally as the leading expert on the coinage of the whole
Himalayan region and of North East India.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Eyes and The Ballad of Pemi Tshewang Tashi. For example,
Pemi Tshewang Tashi gave a silver coin, called
norzangphubchen, to Aum Jayshing Jaymo as a thank you for
the hospitality given1. Then in 1944, Dasho Shingkar Lam
offered a silver coin to His Majesty, when he was first
registered as a tozep, and noted that previously the
customary gift on such an occasion had been three copper
coins2. In 1947, when the King was travelling to Ha, at
several points villagers greeted His Majesty with the
customary gift of a basket of rice with three hard-boiled eggs,
and they received a coin in exchange3. Only in 1952 were
moves taken to increase the role of money in general, and
coins in particular, when senior courtiers and secretaries
began to be paid in cash, rather than in kind4-
Coins in Bhutan before 1800
The earliest references in Bhutan that mention coins date
from the time of the Shabdung Ngawang Namgyal. In about
1619, the Shabdung went to Chapchha to preach, and
received presents from the Raja of Cooch Behar, including
silver and gold coins. At the same time, he was offered "lots
of silver coins" by the local people5- On his return from
Chapchha, the Shabdung began the construction of a new
monastery called Cheri Dorji-dhen. In this monastery he
placed a double storied silver stupa, containing the ashes of
his father, which had been made from the silver coins
brought from Chapchha.
In another account, relating to the period about 1640-43,
there is a lengthy description of gifts received by Shabdung,
including "several thousand ma-tang coins" collected as
brgya-'bul (hundred offerings), from districts between Rtse-rag
dum-bu and the palace of the Rgya-chu-bar Raja, and from
the district of Dar-dkar (now Dagana) as far as the place
called Bye-ma in India6. The use of the term Ma-tang is
interesting, and will be explained below.
 Coinage in Bhutan
When Tenzin Rabgye was enthroned as the 4th Druk Desi in
1680, he apparently received presents of 1000 gold and 1000
silver coins from the Raja of Ladakh, and 700 gold coins and
1000 silver coins from the Raja of Cooch Behar7. These
presents were distributed to the general public, including one
silver coin to each family8. The terms used to describe the
coins in these accounts were 'ngul-tam and gser-tam for the
silver and gold coins respectively9.
On the enthronement of the 8th Druk Desi in 1707, the gift of
one silver coin was given to each of the monks and to the
general public of Bhutan10. Similarly the 13th Desi, Sherab
Wangchuck (1744-63), distributed gifts of one silver coin (ma-
tam) to each citizen eight times during his reign. This made
him very popular in the country11. Furthermore, in 1747, on
the occasion of the coronation of the second Shabdung, Jigs-
med grags-pa (1725-61), gifts were described in detail and
valued in Ma-tam. For instance, gifts presented to the Gyalse
Rinpoche Mi-pham 'brug-sgra rnam-rgyal included images,
coins, horses, clothing, brocades, etc., the total value of
which was listed at 2,290 Ma-tam12. This passage is
particularly interesting, as it indicates that the Ma-tam was
used at this time, not only as the name of a coin, but also as
a common unit of value.
The first outside reference to coins in Bhutan is in a letter
from the Deb Raja to the Governor General of India, dated
17th January 1785. In it the Deb Raja requests help in
recovering Rs.5000 of silver that had been sent to Cooch
Behar some years before, to be struck into coin, and which
had not yet been returned13. This letter shows that in the
late eighteenth century, the Deb Raja occasionally sent
surplus silver to Cooch Behar to be struck into coin, as there
was no mint in Bhutan itself. A parallel can be found in the
relationship between Tibet and Nepal, when until about 1753,
the Tibetan government sent silver to Nepal to be struck into
coin for circulation in Tibet14. This use of coins struck in
Cooch Behar is confirmed by the earliest European visitors to
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Bhutan. When Turner visited Bhutan in 1783, he noted
"The narainee is a base silver coin, struck in Cooch
Behar, of the value of about ten-pence, or one third of a
rupee. The commodiousness of this small piece, the
profits that the people of Bootan derive from their
commerce with Cooch Behar, and some local prejudices
against the establishment of a mint, have given the
narrainee in these regions, as well as in those where it
is struck, a common currency, though both countries
are perfectly independent of each other, and totally
different in their language and manner. The name of
the coin is derived from the Hindoo mythology; Narrain
being no other than the favourite god Krishna."15
and Samuel Davis, who accompanied Turner, observed in his
diary :-
"That the absence of money in a society excludes, in a
proportionate degree, depravity of morals and vices of
various kinds, is in some measure exemplified in
Boutan, where there is no other coin than the Beyhar
rupee, which finds its way into the country in so scanty
a portion, as to leave the natives possest almost of the
same advantages as those to whom money is wholly
The pattern of coin use in Bhutan prior to 1800 seems,
therefore, clear. Silver coins from Cooch Behar reached
Bhutan in three different ways, first as gifts from the Raja of
Cooch Behar to Bhutanese dignitaries, secondly through the
course of trade, and thirdly in exchange for silver bullion sent
by the Bhutanese to the Cooch Behar mint. Once in Bhutan,
the coins were occasionally used as ceremonial donations to
the public, who probably kept them as a store of value, and
then, at least during the nineteenth century, such pieces
would  be   required,   when  appropriate,   as   customary  gifts.
 Coinage in Bhutan
However, the coins also circulated as currency, although to a
limited extent.
The Coinage of Cooch Behar
Since Cooch Behar coins circulated in Bhutan prior to about
1800, it is worth describing that coinage in some detail17.
The first king of Cooch Behar to strike coins was Nara
Narayan (c 1555-1587), who issued a large number of fine
silver rupee sized coins. Although all the coins are dated
1477 Saka (=1555AD), this date merely represents the
accession year and the coins could have been struck at any
time during the reign. Indeed, from other evidence it is likely
that the rupees were struck from about 1562 until the last
years of the reign in 1587. During the reign of this king, a
British traveller, Ralph Fitch, visited Cooch Behar in 1583,
and commented on the profitable trade that was carried on
between Cooch Behar and Tibet. It is probable that this trade
passed through Bhutan, and some of the first Cooch Behar
silver coins may have reached Bhutan as early as the
sixteenth century.
During the reign of Nara Narayan's successor, Lakshmi
Narayan (1587-1627), the Portuguese travellers, Cacella and
Cabral, passed through Cooch Behar on their way to Bhutan
in 1626, where they met the Shabdung Ngawang Namgyal18.
No eference to coins is made in their account of either
country, but fine silver rupees were struck during the reign of
Lakshmi Narayan, and I have seen several specimens in old
accumulations of coins in Bhutan.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Rupee of Lakshmi Narayana (1587-1627)
Obv.   Sri Srima/t Lakshmi Naraya/nasya Sake/ 1509
Rev.   Sri Sri/ Shiva Char ana/ Kamala Madhu/karasya
(Coin) of the twice exalted Lakshmi Narayana,
in the Saka year 1509 ( =1587AD).   A bee on the
lotus at the feet of the twice exalted Shiva.
Only a few coins are known of the next ruler, Vira Narayan,
but his successor, Prana Narayan (1633-66), struck large
numbers of half rupees, and a few full rupees. During this
period relations between Cooch Behar and Bhutan were
cordial, and indeed when Cooch Behar was occupied by
Moghul forces from 1661-63, Prana Narayan sought refuge in
Bhutan. From then on, the half rupee, or Narayani Rupee,
became the coin commonly struck in Cooch Behar, the name
"Narayani" presumably being given because that word was
written, as part of the King's name, on all the coins.
Interestingly, when these rupees and half rupees of Cooch
Behar are looked at by Bhutanese, one letter stands out as
being immediately recognisable, the "Ma" at the top right of
the obverse. This is almost certainly the reason why coins
were known as Ma-tam in Bhutan, and indeed some of the
earliest coins to be struck in Bhutan do show a clear Ma in
Bhutanese script in this position on the die.
Rupee of Prana Narayana (1633-66)
Obv.      Sri  Srima/t Prana  Naraya/nasya   Sake/   130
(=1640AD)   Note the letter Ma at top right.
Rev.   Sri Sri/ Shiva Char ana/ Kamala Madhu/karasya
 Coinage in Bhutan
Cooch Behar continued to strike large numbers of Narayani
Rupees until the British ordered the closure of the mint in
about 1780. Throughout this period of about one hundred
and fifty years, the Narayani rupee hardly changed in fabric
or design, and the reason for its popularity was its
consistency of weight, about 4.7g, and silver content, about
80% fine. Indeed, as most rulers had names ending in
"...ndra", the only distinguishing feature was the initial letter
of the king's name, which was often off the flan. Even after
the closure of the mint, the Narayani rupees continued to be
the most popular circulating medium in the areas of North
Bengal that surrounded Cooch Behar itself, and in particular
along the Duars south of Bhutan, as far east as Guwahati. It
was only in the middle of the nineteenth century that the
Narayani rupee was finally replaced by British Indian coins.
Devendra Narayana (1763-65)
Rajendra Narayana
These Narayani rupees, a couple of which are illustrated
above, can be commonly found today among old Bhutanese
silver coins. The coins of Rajendra Narayana are the only
ones to have a "x" to the right of the letter ndra on the
The First Coins Struck in Bhutan
Exactly when coins were first struck in Bhutan is not certain,
but it was certainly before 1815. Kishenkant Bose, a Bengali
civil servant, visited Bhutan in that year, and commented
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
"there was formerly no mint in Bhutan, but when the
Bhuteas carried away the late Raja of Cooch Behar,
they got hold of the dies, with which they still stamp the
Narainy rupees. Every new Deb Raja puts a mark upon
the rupees of his coinage, and alters the weight. The
Dherma Raja also coins rupees, and besides them no
one else is permitted to put their mark upon the rupees,
but there are mints at Paro, Tongsa and Tagna." 19-
It is clear from this account that coins had been struck in
Bhutan for several years before 1815, and that they were
close copies of the Narayani Rupee of Cooch Behar, with only
very minor modifications of the original design distinguishing
the early Bhutanese productions from the Cooch Behar
originals. This indeed agrees with the designs found on early
Bhutanese coins, which have many minor varieties of the
basic Cooch Behar type.
Kishenkant Bose also describes several instances of how
coins were used at that time. Taxes were payable to the Deb
Raja by most of the local Penlops and Dzongpens in cash, as
well as in goods, with the cash element ranging from Rs.800
to Rs.4,000 per annum. His total income from these sources
amounted to over Rs.l 2,000, and only the Punakha
Dzongpen did not have to pay a cash element. Fines were, in
some cases, payable in cash, with that for murder amounting
to Rs.126. He implies that coins had corrupted the officials,
and states that "as officials always found an excuse for
extracting money from anyone who appeared to have become
affluent, people were afraid to wear fine clothes, or to drink
and eat too well".
 Coinage in Bhutan
It is difficult to determine precisely which varieties of coin
were seen by Kishenkant Bose, but the pieces illustrated
above are possible candidates. These pieces differ from the
Cooch Behar originals in having a small hook, or numeral "1"
in the centre of the prominent letter cha on the reverse, there
is a clear Bhutanese letter Ma on the obverse and there are a
number of small errors in the calligraphy. For example the
central line on the reverse extends to the right of the vertical
line on nos.5 and 6, although that does not occur on the
prototype. No.5 is an exceptionally large piece, struck with
the same dies as were used for the normal "Narainy" rupees,
but of the full weight of a British Indian rupee, 11.5g. Bose's
comment that each Deb Raja "alters the weight" may refer to
the silver content, rather than the weight of the coins, as
most known early specimens are of a rather consistent weight
standard of about 4.5g. As regards the taking of the dies from
Cooch Behar, this is a nice story, repeated in 1838 by
Pemberton, which may or may not be literally true, but dies
were certainly being made in Bhutan before Kishenkant
Bose's visit, and what is more likely, is that the Bhutanese
kidnapped some of the metalworkers who struck coins at the
Cooch Behar mint, and put them to work in Bhutan.
As regards Bhutanese sources for the early nineteenth
century, it is recorded that Desi Chhoki Gyaltshen (1823-31)
distributed gifts of one silver coin to each citizen of the
country four times during his reign20, repeating the
ceremonies recorded during the previous century21.
Significant numbers of coins were probably struck on these
occasions, perhaps using silver obtained from India or Tibet,
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
as it is unlikely that the Treasury would have contained
sufficient stocks for such generosity.
British Indian Accounts of Bhutanese Coins in the mid-
nineteenth century
The Bhutanese Penlops continued to strike coins in the years
after 1815, but the alloy became even more debased. Captain
R.B.Pemberton, who visited Bhutan in 1838, described the
currency as follows:-
The coin which circulated in the country is almost
entirely confined to a silver one called "Deba", nominally
of the value of the company's half-rupee. A prejudice
appears to have at one time existed against the
introduction of mints or any modification of systematic
coinage; but when by the invasion of Coos Beyhar, the
Bootan Government had obtained possession of the dies
which were used by the Rajahs of that province in their
coinage of the Narainee Rupee, the practice was
introduced into the hills, and being found profitable,
gradually extended from Poonakha and Tassisudon to
the castles of the Soobahs, where the Deb rupee is now
coined; but as the degree of purity of the metal is
entirely dependent on the personal honesty of the
Soobah, so great a variety is found in the standard
value of the coin, that it is altogether rejected by the
inhabitants of the plains and Dooars, in which the latter
Narainee Rupees still circulate extensively; they are
daily, however, becoming more scarce, for the Booteahs
whenever they can obtain them, carry them into the
hills, re-melt and alloy them, and in the deteriorated
form of the Deba rupee, they are again circulated in the
Pemberton's account differs in a few particulars from that of
Bose, in that he notes that the silver alloy is significantly
lower than that of the Narainee Rupee, and that as a result,
the "Deba Rupee" is not accepted in the plains.   Fortunately,
 Coinage in Bhutan
some correspondence has survived in the National Archives of
India, giving a few further details of the Deba Rupees. When
Captain Pemberton was in Bhutan, he tried to settle some of
the outstanding issues between the two governments, one of
which centred around the payment of rent for certain land in
the Dooars. In earlier years, Bhutan had paid rent to the
Assam Raja, but since India had annexed Assam after the
first Burma War of 1821, the tribute had lapsed. During
Pemberton's visit, the Deb and Dharma Rajas accepted the
requirement to pay tribute, but only in Deba Rupees, as the
Narainee Rupees in which the tribute had been demanded,
were not available23.
Soon afterwards, a consignment of Deba Rupees reached
Calcutta from Capt. Jenkins, in Assam. Apparently the
Bhutanese had tried to pay certain dues using these coins. A
number of pieces were sent to H.J.Princep, Secretary to the
Government of Bengal in the Political Department, who
arranged for 1044 of them to be melted and analysed. The
result of this analysis was that three ingots were produced
that were 80, 83 & 85 dwts. worse than standard, or between
56.25% and 58.33% fine24. This compares with an analysis
done at the Calcutta Mint in 1832 of some "Narayuny"
rupees, said to be "current in Rungpoor". On this occasion,
the coins proved to be between 79.2% and 86.7% fine25.
These latter coins were probably sent to Calcutta by the
Collector of Rangpur, as examples of the Narainee Rupees
that circulated in his territory, to determine the value at
which they might be accepted for the payment of taxes. It is
interesting that the only one to be illustrated in the 1834
publication, is an early Bhutanese coin (of type no.l). It is
reasonable to assume, therefore, that this Bhutanese coin
was actually retrieved from circulation in the plains before
1832, and that it was about 80% fine, a much better
standard than was being used in 1839.
The outcome of the analysis of Deba Rupees undertaken in
Calcutta was that Captain Jenkins was permitted to exercise
his    discretion    about    accepting    Deba    Rupees    into    the
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Government Treasury at a rate of 60 rupees per 100 tola
weight, but it is not clear whether he did exercise his
authority in this regard. In 1841, an agreement was reached
with Bhutan, whereby the East India Company paid
Rs. 10,000 per annum to Bhutan in respect of the
management of the Kamrup Duars26- This would have
removed much of the excuse used by the Bhutanese for
having to pay tribute in Deba Rupees. Furthermore, as
correspondence in the papers of the Company regarding the
fineness of Deba Rupees seems to have ceased, it is likely
that, from 1841, the Bhutanese coins ceased to be sent,
officially at least, to the plains. This is consistent with the
numismatic evidence that the silver content of the coins
struck in Bhutan reduced rapidly in the years around 1840.
After 1840, there was no external pressure on whoever in
Bhutan was striking coins, to maintain a standard silver
The next mention of coins that I have found, is a clause in the
1865 Treaty of Sinchula, under which the Bhutanese could
demand the extradition from British territory of Bhutanese
subject accused of "counterfeiting current coin, or knowingly
uttering false coin". The existence of this clause implies that
in 1865, the right to strike coins was a jealously guarded
privilege, vested only in those powerful enough to demand it,
although it is equally likely that this clause was merely added
to mirror a similar clause that was demanded by the British,
to allow them to extradite anyone in Bhutan who was
counterfeiting Indian coins.
The coins that it is reasonable to attribute to this period from
about 1820 to 1870, or even later, fall into two main groups.
The first group has a dot to the right of the letter ndra and
the second group has a cross. Typical specimens of the first
group are illustrated below:-
 Coinage in Bhutan
/ff^Thv ,^HT?x
Most of the coins of this group have a letter Sa on the
obverse, and of those that don't, nos.12 and 13 above are
struck with the same reverse die, proving that they were
struck in the same mint at the same time. The silver content
of the coins is very variable, and ranges from apparently fine
silver, through pieces that are made of base metal with a
silver wash, to the majority of specimens that make no effort
to disguise the fact that they are copper or brass coins. In
both silver and base metal, the coins with Sa are the most
common of all Bhutanese coins, and are found in large
numbers, struck from innumerable different dies. The
common features are the horizontal lines, the prominent
letters ndra na ( ) on the obverse, and the va chara
( ) in the centre of the reverse.   The parts of the legend
above and below the horizontal lines, and on the left and right
extremities of the design vary, and often depart from the
original prototype in a more or less illiterate manner, and
even parts of the common features of the design are
occasionally engraved in mirror image. Nos.15 to 17 are
typical of the base metal varieties that can be easily found. A
few specimens of No. 12 are found in copper, struck to twice
the normal weight standard, i.e. 9g compared with 3.5-4.5g.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
The precise significance of the letter Sa is unknown, but it
must have something to do with "land". Many old personal
seals of Bhutanese officials have the letter Sa, so it was
probably intended to distinguish coins issued by one of the
most important issuing authorities, possibly the Desi, or one
of the Dzongpens. The rare coins with the legend dBang,
meaning "power", are only found in copper and are of light
weight, so they were probably struck late in the period. It is
possible that this variety was struck by the Wangdiophodrang
Dzonpen, who was particularly powerful in the late 1870's.
A selection of coins of the second group, with the cross, are
illustrated above. No. 18 is a rare example of a double weight
base silver specimen (c9.5g), and no. 19 is the basic type that
is very commonly found, in alloys ranging from relatively fine
silver, to debased with a silver wash and then to pure copper
or brass. None of them are ever found with the letter Sa, but
rare varieties have a branch, a swastika or the letter Ma.
These rare varieties are only in base metal with a silver wash.
In other ways the coins are similar in standard to the coins of
the first group, with a similar pattern of debasement and
corruption of the legends beyond the common features in the
centre of the flan. Again, many of these coins must have
been struck by one of the most powerful penlops, but they
were not necessarily all struck in the same mint.
 Coinage in Bhutan
In 1870, there was another correspondence between the Deb
Raja and the British. On this occasion, the Deb Raja sent
samples of the Bhutanese coin to Colonel Haughton, then
stationed at Cooch Behar, and asked the British to provide
him with a die, so that further examples could be struck. The
Company refused to supply such a die, on two grounds;
firstly providing Bhutan with the means of coining in
imitation of Koch coins would result in base money finding its
way into British territories and secondly they assumed that
the reason for requesting dies might be because of a shortage
of small change. In order to solve that problem, British
offered to make the payments due to Bhutan in any
denominations the Bhutanese wished. In this way, rather
than supplying the means to strike coins, they hoped that
British Indian coins would begin to circulate in Bhutan, in
preference to the debased local coins.
A few specimens of copper Bhutanese coins, common copper
and brass pieces of the groups described above, were given to
the British Museum during the last century, including some
by Colonel Haughton himself. So, it may be assumed that
these particular pieces were collected around the 1870's,
while Haughton was in Cooch Behar.
Bhutanese Evidence for Coins in the Nineteenth Century
The only evidence that I have managed to collect from local
sources about coins in nineteenth century Bhutan, is limited
to a very few personal memories, and family traditions. In all
probability there is much more evidence available in the
country, and I hope that there will be some people reading
this article, who may be prompted to record knowledge that
they have of local traditions of minting.
The general consensus of opinion seems to be that coins were
only struck in the central and western areas of Bhutan, up to
Tongsa, but not in Bumtang. Although, at times, coins were
used further to the east, these were Indian or Tibetan coins.
Another common factor seems to be that most of the metal
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
working in Bhutan, including the minting of coins, was
carried out by slaves, often Muslims, captured from the
Cooch Behar area. Some of these slaves lived near to copper
mines, where they both mined the copper, and struck coins.
Presumably, they worked for local landlords, who were
powerful enough to control the mines. It is likely that such
owners of mines paid taxes in copper or coin to the local
Penlops, and later to the King. The existence of old copper
mines can therefore be an indication of where mints may
have been located, as can a tradition of paying taxes in metal.
A particularly detailed account of coin striking was given to
me by Dasho Karma Gayleg, from accounts passed down in
family tradition. In the 1860's, Tongsa Penlop Jigme Namgyal
apparently captured some Muslim metal workers from Cooch
Behar, and brought them as slaves to Bhutan. They were set
to work making coins at Yudrong Choling, in the forest just
opposite the winter palace of the Tongsa Penlop, 47 km south
of Tongsa. Jigme Namgyal had inherited the property from
his father-in-law, Tongsa Penlop Ugyen Phuntso. Apparently
the Cooch Beharis settled in the area and married local girls,
and there are still (1998) about sixty families in the area that
claim descent from the original slaves. After 1881, when
Jigme Namgyal died, coins continued to be struck by the
Cooch Behari slaves, under the direction of his son Ugyen
Wangchuck, then Tongsa Penlop, who later became the first
King of Bhutan.    At this time, it was the son of the original
 Coinage in Bhutan
mint master who was in charge, and he improved the artistic
quality of the coins considerably, and introduced Bhutanese
emblems into the designs. He struck not only copper coins
(Ma-tam), but also coins of similar design in silver (Norzang
phubchen). Dasho Karma Gayleg has preserved in his family
treasure, examples of some of the silver coins struck during
the time of Ugyen Wangchuck, some of which were struck
while he was Tongsa Penlop, and some that were struck after
he became King. These particular types, examples of which
illustrated above, are rather scarce, but they are very
distinctive varieties. Nos.20 to 24 are found in both base
silver and copper, and some examples of no.24 are also found
struck in brass. Varieties of no.25 are also known in fine
silver, and these were probably struck after Ugyen
Wangchuck became King in 190727-
Two other areas where coins are reputed to have been struck
are at Sisina, in the Thimphu Valley, just north of the
confluence, and at one or more locations south of
Wangdiphodrang. One die has survived as a family heirloom
in the possession of Mr.Kuenga Tshering (currently working
in Central Statistical Organisation), who is descended from
Alo Dorji, the Thimphu Dzongpen in the early  1880's. A
rubbing of the die is shown above28, and should a coin be
found that was struck from this reverse die, the design of
coins struck in the Thimphu area could perhaps be identified.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Accounts of coins struck in Paro or in the south of Bhutan
are less specific, but it seems to be generally accepted that
minting was widespread in Western Bhutan. In particular,
those Penlops or Dzongpens in the middle to late nineteenth
century, who gained any significant power in the area west of
Tongsa, almost certainly had coins struck for them. It is also
likely that each such ruler would choose designs that were
acceptable to the public at large, but which also allowed him
to recognise the products of his own mints. I illustrate above,
as no.30, a coin with the inscription Dar-Sa, which may mean
"the land of Da(ga)", implying that it was struck by the Daga
Penlop. In addition, a number of illegal minting operations
took place, which struck substandard, light coins for profit,
and judging by the number of such inferior coins that are
found today, such forgery was widespread.
I illustrate above, as nos.31 and 32, a rubbing of a pair of
dies29 and a drawing of a coin actually struck by the dies.
This shows how the dies were much larger than the flan used,
so only a small proportion of the full design actually appears
on the coins struck.   The workmanship of this die is so poor
 Coinage in Bhutan
that it is reasonable to assume that it was used to strike
forgeries in an "unofficial" mint.
Late nineteenth century local rulers who almost certainly
issued coins are the Penlops of Paro, Daga and Tongsa, and
the Dzongpens of Thimphu, Wangdiphodrang and Punakha.
It is also probable that there was a mint under the direct
control of the Desi or the Shabdung. I illustrate a few
examples of coins that were probably struck during the late
nineteenth century, but late varieties of some of the types
described earlier may have continued in production. It can
be seen that nos.33-35 must have been struck in the same
mint, as they represent a die-linked group; the varieties with
the swastika and double dorji are very rare, and are only
struck with a very limited number of dies, whereas the types
with the fishes on the reverse in place of the letter Cha are
very plentiful, and are struck with a large number of dies,
with many minor variations in details of the design.
Nos.36 and 37 are examples of rather scarce varieties with a
tree in the design, and no.38 is a variety that happens to be
found struck with the same reverse die as no.37. It is
interesting to speculate whether the tree on no.20 above, or
any of the other varieties that have this symbol, were struck
by the same issuing authority or in the same mint?
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
A further selection of rather crude coins is illustrated above.
These pieces probably date from the late nineteenth century,
and form a heavily die-linked group that must have originated
from a single mint. Most have a very distinctive reverse die,
with little "ears" on the letter Cha. On no.42, the reverse die
has had several additional lines engraved on it. No.44 is
struck from the same obverse die as no.40, but it has been
heavily reengraved, which is not clear from the drawing.
No.41 seems to be struck from two reverse dies, which is
unusual. One remarkable feature of this group is the
weights, with specimens ranging from 1.3g to 4.9g, although I
have no reason to believe that more than one denomination
was intended.
The three pieces illustrated above are probably struck in the
late nineteenth or early twentienth century. All three are of
relatively fine style, and it is reasonable to assume that they
were official issues, but I have no idea as who may have been
responsible for their issue.
 Coinage in Bhutan
After Ugyen Wangchuck became King in 1907, only two other
individuals were powerful enough to have retained the right to
strike coins officially, the Paro Penlop, and Gongzim Ugyen
Dorji, in Ha and Kalimpong. The Paro Penlop, Tsering Penjor
who retained the position from 1918 to 1949 was a very
artistic man, and it is reasonable to assume that the coins he
was responsible for would have had imaginative designs. I
illustrate above, as nos.48 to 50, some varieties that may
have been struck in a mint under his control, although I have
not been able to find any direct evidence of this.
As regards the Dorji family, I was told by Ashi Tashi Dorji that
when she was young, she saw an old minting machine in
Bhutan House in Kalimpong, but she never remembers it
being used. However, I illustrate above as nos.51 and 52, two
coins that may have been struck using such a machine.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
It is very likely that controls were not rigorously exercised,
and that several "unofficial" mints still operated. I illustrate
above a group of coins that are rather common, are heavily
die-linked, and are often found in uncirculated condition.
Furthermore, the dies that were used to strike no.57 were
also used to produce a silver coin weighing 8g, by using as a
flan a Tibetan coin struck by the Chinese in Lhasa in 1910.
It is therefore reasonable to assume that some or all of this
group of coins was struck after 1910, but I have no
suggestions as to where these particular coins may have been
struck, or under whose authority.
The use of Foreign Coins in Bhutan
Apart from the Cooch Behar coins that have already been
described, other foreign coins were also used in Bhutan at
various times. Foreign coins had the advantage of being
readily accepted for foreign trade, whereas the Bhutanese
coins were of irregular fineness, and were only useful within
the country.
Between 1755 and 1763 there was a French outpost at
Goalpara, which was set up primarily to trade with Assam,
but it is possible that some transactions also took place with
Bhutan30. As evidence of this trade, some French Indian
rupees from the Arkot mint can still be found in Bhutan,
although not in large quantities, see no.59 below. I have seen
specimens ranging in date from about 1748 to 177331, after
which period the British were able to assert their supremacy
 Coinage in Bhutan
in the region, and the French were forced to cease their
trading activities in northern Bengal. However, their coins
were prized in Bhutan, presumably because of their fine silver
content, although many would have been melted down over
the years.
I have been told that octagonal Assamese rupees can
occasionally be found in Eastern Bhutan. These were
common currency in the area south and east of Bhutan until
the Burmese war of 1821, and could have found their way to
eastern Bhutan, although I have never found any in Bhutan
itself. A typical example of such a coin, dated 1785, is
illustrated above as no.60. Again, these Assamese rupees are
of fine silver content, and many may have been melted down
for use in jewellery.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, debased silver
coins were struck in large numbers in Lhasa, and some of
these found their way to Bhutan, particularly to the
Bumthang area where, known as betam, they formed the
main coin in circulation until well into the reign of the second
King.   A typical example datable to about 1895, is illustrated
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
above as no. 61. These coins, which average about 50% fine,
were generally not worth melting for bullion, but could readily
be used for trade with Tibet. Also, it is possible that some of
them may have been melted down by Ugyen Wangchuck,
when he was Tongsa Penlop, and converted into his own
silver coins at his mint at Yudrong Choling. Unfortunately,
because of the varying quality of these coins, and hence the
different values given to them by the shroffs in Kalimpong
and Lhasa, the Bhutanese could have been easily cheated.
For example in about 1930, Sonam Tshering, an attendant of
Shabdrung Jigme Dorji, was granted 2000 Betam as death
compensation by the second King. Later he discovered that
half of them were not of full value, and when he had the
temerity later to ask the King for good pieces, the King replied
"I did not mint them, the Tibetans did. If they do not want
them, so be it"32. On the other hand, this variation in value
did present trading opportunities to those who were
knowledgeable, and around 1955, Dasho Shingkar Lam was
able to buy betams at two rupees each in Guwahati, and sell
them at four rupees each in Kalimpong33. Partly because of
this uncertain value, large numbers of these betam can still
be found in Bhutan, some still in the possession of old
families, but others are for sale in the market.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, British Indian
rupees certainly found their way to Bhutan, where there were
known as Gor-mo, or "round coins". They provided a popular
and readily convertible currency, of a reliable standard, and
known fineness. These rupees found their way to Bhutan,
both through trade, and as the "compensation" paid by the
British for the annexation of three hundred square miles of
Dooars land in 1865. This compensation, which was always
paid in silver rupees, was initially set at Rs.50,000, but was
increased to Rs. 100,000 in 191034. Such silver rupees were
readily acceptable, both in India and in Tibet, and can still be
found in large numbers in Bhutan, although many of them
have been melted down to make silver jewellery or pan boxes,
particularly since 1947, when their silver content became
worth more than their face value.    Indian rupees are still in
 Coinage in Bhutan
everyday   use,   and   they   are   accepted   on   a   par   with   the
Bhutanese ngultrum.
After the Chinese tried to assert their supremacy over the
Government of Tibet, and the Dalai Lama fled to India in
1910, the Chinese attempted to persuade the Bhutanese to
use Chinese rupees35. These were silver coins, struck in
Szechuan Province, to the same standard as, and using a
design copied from, the British Indian rupees, but bearing the
bust of the Chinese Emperor as no. 62. The coins were
widely used in Eastern Tibet36 at the time, but the Bhutanese,
under pressure from the British, officially refused to allow
them to circulate in Bhutan. However, some of these rupees
can be found in Bhutan, particularly from sources in the
east, where they are also called Gormo. Whether they were
used in Bhutan as early as 1910, or whether they were only
imported in more recent years, is not certain. Certainly,
many Chinese silver coins of various types, can be found in
eastern Bhutan, and although Tibetan refugees must have
brought most of them after 1950, they are accepted locally
with a standard value. Most common are the dollars of Yuan
Shih K'ai, some of which were struck in the mid-1950s
specifically for use in Tibet, and in both Tibet and Bhutan
they are known as Da-yuan.
Machine struck Bhutanese Coins
In 1906, Ugyen Wangchuck, accompanied by about three
hundred  retainers,   travelled  to   Calcutta,   where   he  visited
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
many places of interest, including the Mint. He took a lively
interest in everything he saw, and returned to Bhutan with
many ideas for the development of the country. In particular,
he must have considered the possibility of improving the
standard of the coinage, and in 1909, Gongzim Ugyen Dorji,
presumably on the King's instructions, asked the Government
of India for permission to have a Bhutanese coin die prepared
in Calcutta. The request was agreed to, and the Calcutta
mint was instructed to supply dies from a design supplied
from Bhutan37. I have not been able to confirm exactly what
this design was, but it is possible that the coins produced
from this die were the machine struck copper coins described
as nos. 48 and 49 above. This order for dies was almost
certainly not repeated, as the copper coins are rather scarce,
and are only known to have been struck from two pairs of
dies. This was presumably because the British insisted that
the coins struck should not conform with those struck by the
Government of India. They generally opposed neighbouring
states having coinages of their own, which might be used as
coin within Indian territory. Shortly before this time, some
fine medals were struck in Calcutta for Bhutan, with a
portrait of the first King on the obverse, and a view of
Punakha Dzong on the reverse. These medals were produced
in gold, silver and copper, although the vast majority were
struck in silver. One of these medals was presented to Sir
Charles Bell on 25th January 1910, just after the supply had
been delivered to Bhutan, but silver versions were presented
to Bhutanese officials until at least the 1940s, when Lyonpo
Sangay Penjore received his medal from the second King38-
In 1928, the second King asked the Calcutta mint to strike
some silver half rupees, and some copper pice, for use in
Bhutan. The coins were designed by Mr A.P.Spencer, the
Chief artist/engraver to the Calcutta mint, from a rough
design supplied from Bhutan39. Some 20,000 half rupees
were supplied in 1929, but it was noticed that there was a
small mistake in the legend, and this was corrected when a
further 30,000 pieces were sent in the following year.   At the
 Coinage in Bhutan
same time, 10,000 copper pice were sent, with the correct
In 1950, and again in 1954 and 1967, half rupees were
supplied by the Calcutta mint to Bhutan, by now they were
made of nickel or cupro-nickel, but using the same dies.
Initially the unchanged date (Earth-dragon year, 1928) was
used, but was later replaced by a new year (Iron-tiger year,
1950). In both cases, however, the incorrect obverse die was
used, with the error in the legend, but this raised no
objections, and the error was never corrected again. Also in
both 1950 and 1954, some copper pice, of a new design,
reminiscent of the copper coins of the first King, with the
quartered square, were struck in Calcutta.
From 1974, a number of new coins have been struck, both at
Indian mints and at various foreign mints, but few have
circulated to any significant extent, most having been ordered
by outside agencies, and marketed internationally. In
practice, coins have ceased to have any local relevance in
Bhutan, and I will not list such recent pieces in this article.
The coins have been almost entirely replaced by bank notes,
which were introduced in 1974.
The Purchasing Power of Bhutanese Coins in Circulation
Until the 1950s, the old copper coins were used widely in
Bhutan, together with both Indian rupees, Tibetan betam,
and the old silver Cooch Behar coins and the fine silver
Bhutanese copies (Nying-tam Gatikha). The exchange rates
that prevailed at that time were:-
24 Che-tam (the thin copper coins)
=    12 Ma-tam
=    1    Betam
3 Betam = 1 Ti-ru (Indian Rupee)
2 Betam = 1 Nying-tam Gatika
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
1 Ma-tam would buy two apples, one cup of milk, or a pile of
pan leaves40.
In this article, I have tried to give an account of the
development of the use of coinage in Bhutan, illustrated with
representative examples of the coins concerned. I sincerely
hope that additional numismatic evidence will surface in
future years, so that a more comprehensive account can be
prepared of the various mints that were in operation,
describing which coins were struck in each mint, when, and
under whose authority. In addition, it may in future be
possible to prepare a comprehensive catalogue of the coins
themselves, but at this stage readers should merely be aware
that there are innumerable varieties of the coins illustrated
here, and even some major types have been omitted from this
brief overview of the coinage of Bhutan. In conclusion, I
should like to thank all those who have helped in my studies
of Bhutanese coins over the years, and in particular Karma
Ura, Adam Pain, John Ardussi and Dasho Karma Gayleg.
1 Karma  Ura,   The Ballad of Pemi Tshewang Tashi:  A Wind  Borne
Feather. Thimphu 1996,  p.42
2Karma  Ura,   The Hero with a  Thousand Eyes.  A historical novel.
Thimphu 1995, p.34
zibid, p. 108
4Ibid, p. 192
5 Dr.C.T.Dorji, History of Bhutan Based on Buddhism, p.75.
6 from The Biography of Shabdung Rinpoche Ngawang Rnamgyal
(1594-1651), written c. 1674, reprinted in Dolanji, India, in 1974,
Section 4, ff. 113b-l 14a. My thanks to John Ardussi for giving me
this information.
7 Ladakh had no coinage at this period, but a few commemorative
gold and silver coins were struck in Ladakh in the name of
Aurangzeb in 1665, so it is possible that some of these were sent as
gifts to Bhutan on this occasion. Until recently none of these
Ladakhi coins had been seen, but a gold piece recently appeared on
 Coinage in Bhutan
the London market, c.f. N.G.Rhodes, "A Tibetan Coin struck in the
name of Aurangzeb" ONS Newsletter No. 156 (1998), pp. 19-20.
8Dr C.T.Dorji, op.cit. p. 108.
9 My thanks to John Ardussi for this information.
io Dr C.T.Dorji, op. cit. p. 113.
"Dr C.T.Dorji, op. cit. p. 118.
i2 The Biography of the 13th Deb Raja Sherab Wangchuck (r. 1744-
65), ff.30b-39b. My thanks to John Ardussi for this information.
13 Calendar of Persian Correspondence, Vol. VI No. 1583.
14 N.G. Rhodes, Gabrisch & Valdettaro, The Coinage of Nepal, ,
London 1989, pp. 204-6)
15 S.Turner, Account of an Embassy to the Court ofthe Teshoo Lama,
London 1800, pp. 143-44.
16 M.Aris, Views of Mediaeval Bhutan, London 1982, p.54.
17 N.G.Rhodes "The Coinage of Cooch Behar", ONS Inf. Sheet No. 10,
i8For  Cacella and  Cabral's journey to  Bhutan,  see  Luiza Baillie's
article in this issue of Journal of Bhutan Studies.
19 Asiatic Researches, vol.XV (1825), p. 152.
2° Dr.C.T.Dorji, op.cit, p. 131.
21 John Ardussi tells me that these traditional ceremonies were
called Mang-'gyel, when specified items, often including coins, were
given to each person, each household or each monk. Amounts were
usually recorded, giving a valuable insight into the population of the
country at the time. Apparently this was also a Tibetan custom. For
distribution of goods among the Thakali of Nepal, see Vinding 1998,
22 Capt. R.B.Pemberton, Report on Bhutan, Calcutta 1839, pp.64-65.
23 Foreign Dept., Political, 12.9.1838, No. 109 &110.
24 Foreign Dept., Pol. 7.8.1839. No.77, P.C. - letter from E.Morley,
the Accountant General to H.J.Princep, Esq.
25 Useful Tables, Calcutta 1834, p.46 & PI.II N0.6.
26 S.K.Bose, "In Search of a Die", Oriental Numismatic Studies, Vol.1,
1996 (ed. byD.Handa), p. 166.
27 Two uncirculated examples of this type in silver were given by the
second King to Mr and Mrs Williamson when they visited Bhumtang
in 1933. A variety struck in copper, but die-linked to fine silver
examples, has a slightly different obv. design, with a large letter Sa
in the centre, and the word dBang in a panel below. Dasho Karma
Gayleg told me that he had heard about this variety, and that
according to family tradition, it was struck by Ugyen Wangchuck,
after he was made King, and that the legend should be interpreted
as meaning that the King had "power over the land (of Bhutan)".
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
28 My thanks to Karma Ura for bringing this die to my attention, and
giving me a rubbing of it.
29 I obtained this pair of dies from a collector in Austria, although I
understand that it was purchased in Bhutan by a tourist. It is
regrettable that I have not been able to find out where the die came
from, and who may have used it. The crudeness of the design, and
the light weight of the coins struck from it, leads me believe that it
may be a forger's die.
30 Jean Deloche, Les Aventures de Jean-Baptiste Chevalier dans
l'Inde Orientale (1752-65), Paris 1984. Until 1757, Chevalier worked
for the French, but after the battle of Plassy, he was employed by
some British traders, but remained based at Goalpara.
31 Private collection of Dasho Karma Gayleg.
32 Her Majesty the Queen, Ashi Dorji Wangmo, Of Rainbows and
Clouds, Thimphu 1997, p.27.
33 Karma Ura, The Hero with a Thousand Eyes, Thimphu 1995,
34 Peter Collister, Bhutan and the British, Serindia, London 1987,
p. 162 to 167. See also the illustration between pp.146 & 147,
showing the boxes containing the subsidy, photographed on 19th
December 1907 at Bumthang. A similar photograph of the same
scene is in Michael Aris, The Raven Crown, London 1997, p.9.
35 Sir Charles Bell, Tibet Past and Present, Oxford 1924, p.114.
36 Some of these rupees are known countermarked with the letter,
Sa, which appears on so many Bhutanese coins. However, no such
countermarked coins have been found in Bhutan, and it is likely
that the countermark was applied in Eastern Tibet, and has no
connection at all with Bhutan.
37 National Archives of India, Foreign Dept, Intl. Nov. 1909, Nos.50-
38 For medals and decorations of Bhutan, see Karma Ura's article,
Remembering the 'Heart Sons' of Bhutan in Kuensel dated March 6,
39Mr Spencer's work is fully described by F.Pridmore in "Notes on
Colonial   Coins",   British   Numismatic   Journal,   Vol.XXXVII   (1968),
pp. 158-74,    where   the    Bhutanese    half   rupee    is   stated   to   be
"unquestionably his finest work in relation to coins".
40 Dasho Karma Gayleg, personal information.


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