The strange tale of the birth of the Mughal Rupee
The Mughal Rupee was a silver coin which was used as trade currency in the Indian subcontinent for over three centuries after its birth in the sixteenth century. It was innovated however in strange circumstances of an intense power struggle between the Mughals and the Afghans in between the two reigns of the second Mughal Emperor Humayun.
Mughal currency initially comprised of a thin-flanned silver coin, the Shahrukhi imported by the Mughals from their Central Asian homeland via Kabul-Qandahar where Babur, the first Mughal Padshah created his own kingdom in 1505 after being expelled from his homeland. The Shahrukhi was supplemented by a local copper coin, the Falus forming the initial Mughal coinage in the Delhi-Agra region and beyond.
Babur stabilised his kingdom and passed it on to his pleasure-loving eldest son, Humayun upon his death in 1530. The young Emperor was entrusted the vast kingdom which he partially entrusted to his three brothers. Apart from being trusting in nature, Humayun was also addicted to Opium and other drugs. He thus squandered a number of opportunities despite having some spectacular victories during his reign. Additionally, his younger brothers coveted his throne many times rebelling against him. However, as a loving elder brother, Humayun forgave their foibles.
However, unknown to him, a major challenge to his rule was rising in the eastern part of his kingdom in Bihar. A Pathan petty fief-holder by the name Farid Khan was rising fast to become the undisputed leader of the otherwise divided Afghans based in Eastern India. The Mughals under Babur had defeated the Afghan Lodhi clan pushing their adherents eastwards into Bihar. Farid Khan, now called Sher Khan, rose at a time of great turmoil and bid his time to attack the neighbouring kingdom of Bengal in 1535 with full force. He checkmated the Bengal Sultan into signing a treaty which accepted him as an independent ruler of Bihar. Sher Khan took the title Sher Shah and issued silver coins with his name and titles and the date of his accession, 942 Hijri. These silver coins were very similar to the existing Bengal Tanka coin complete with a proto-Bengali legend inscribing Sher Shah’s name with the prefix ‘Shri’!
Humayun rushed after Sher Shah’s second invasion of Bengal to engage the Afghan challenger. However, the sly Afghan engaged him in endless negotiations and later took the Mughals by surprise at the Battle of Chausa and later at Kannauj defeating Humayun conclusively in 1539.
Humayun escaped to Agra and later via Rajasthan-Sindh left India for Persia leaving his kingdom to his opponent, Sher Shah. Sher Shah took over Agra and Delhi and ruled for five years. In the five years of his reign, he reformed the currency of North India formally introducing the silver rupee weighing a little less than a tola along with a heavy copper coin called the Paisa. This currency was profusely issued by Sher Shah and his successors till 1555 when the tide turned in favour of the Mughals. At this stage, the Suri throne was coveted by three claimants (just as the Mughal throne was fifteen years ago). Humayun began his return by first taking over Qandahar and then taking over Kabul by deposing and blinding his rival brother, Kamran Mirza in 1553. Humayun then replicated Babur’s march by defeating Sikandar Sur at Sirhind in late 1554. By the middle of 1555, Humayun occupied Delhi with his army.
To showcase the beginning of his second reign in North India, Humayun chose to issue silver coins in his name with the Hijri date 962 (1555–56 C.E.) However, his new coins had to be issued in the weight standard of the Rupee introduced by his arch rival, Sher Shah about fifteen years before. This was a tacit acknowledgement that Sher Shah’s currency reforms had outlived his short reign of five years and that the currency of North India had decisively changed into the bimetallic currency based on the silver Rupee and the copper Paisa.
Humayun died shortly at the beginning of 1556 and his successor, Akbar integrated Sher Shah’s Rupee-Paisa into the Mughal currency as its mainstay and introduced a gold supra-unit, the Ashrafi or the Mohur. This converted Mughal currency into a trimetallic coinage comprised of gold, silver and copper units with a formula for interconversion and market exchange based on their intrinsic values. This system, perfected by Akbar’s finance officials, lasted till the end of the Mughal Empire and was also partially adopted by the British in the nineteenth century.
Humayun Silver Rupee (weight 10.89g) dated AH 962 (1555–56 C. E.) Agra mint ??
Image Courtesy: Classical Numismatic Gallery, Ahmedabad, India*
Obverse: the Islamic expression of faith, the Kalima in the central square with the name of the Rashidun Khalifas in the margin.
Reverse: Humayun’s royal titles ‘Muhammad Humayun Badshah Ghazi’ along with date 962 in the central area and the mint formula below (off flan on this example)
Post script: During his first reign from 1530 to 1540, Humayun experimented with a number of regional currencies from Bengal, Gujarat, Kashmir and Malwa, attempting to reform the coinage of North India. But, like many of his foolhardy enterprises, his currency reforms were doomed to fail as they were not backed by a strong executive resolve. This was where Sher Shah Suri scored and implemented a new series of silver coins, the Rupaiya inspired by the silver tankas of Bengal Sultanate which were issued for over 350 years continuously.
*Public domain right granted to the author, Mahesh A. Kalra by Mr. Shatrughan Saravagi, Classical Numismatic Gallery, Ahmedabad, India
Image Access link: https://www.classicalnumismaticgallery.com/viewlot.aspx?itemid=12507&auctionid=31&lotno=353
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