Our second photo moment takes us from Mauritius to India, a land famed among numismatists (coin-collectors) for its array of peculiarly shaped coins. Like Mauritius, the Asian subcontinent has produced scalloped coins but even more strangely, until recently, diamond-shaped coins could be found in the spare change. Until inflation saw their eventual extinction from everyday circulation, India, as well as the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka used diamond or square coins. India in particular has had one of the longest usage of these coins going back centuries.
From 1965 until 1994, the country’s government-run mints at Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad produced the 5-paise coin. Under Indian law, the mints produce both coins and blanks (planchets) on behalf of the Government. They were issued under a system whereby one Indian rupee is equal to 100 paise (1 of these is called a ‘paisa’). In the Hindi language, paisa is also a direct translation of the word ‘money’. This word also appears in other languages such as Urdu and Gujarati. In Bengali, ‘paisa’ was pronounced locally as ‘poisha’ and in Sylhet, Bangladesh the locals changed the word further. For Sylhetis, money is ‘foisha’. This cute little Indian term even made its way across the Indian Ocean to the countries of east Africa, where Kiswahili took ‘paisa’ and made it ‘pesa’.
From the 1960s onwards, India minted both 1-paisa and 5-paise coins in a soft light metal version of aluminium using simplistic designs to reflect the low value of the coins. The aluminium was alloyed, or blended with magnesium (at a quantity of 96% Aluminium + 4% Magnesium), at the mints to give the aluminium a degree of hardness suitable for being struck and made into coinage. The 5-paise coins each weighed around 1.5 grams and measured 22 millimetres diagonally. Before the 5-paise was aluminium-magnesium alloy, it had been struck in cupro-nickel (a mix of copper and nickel) to the same shape and design, but was much heavier at 4 grams. The changeover of India’s smaller denomination coins to aluminium was due to the rise in commodity prices, which saw the value of harder metals rise considerably. The Indian government decided to re-issue the 1, 3, 5, 10 and 20 paise coins in this relatively new lightweight metal simply as a cost-cutting exercise. Rising inflation in the 1970s soon confined the 1 and 3-paise coins to relive their glory days in piggy banks and coin collections and the 5-paise piece became the smallest coin of value then to remain in circulation. The coins are diamond-shaped (quadrangular) and had medal alignment. That meant that if you flipped the coin over sideways, the image on the other side would be oriented the same direction, rather than upside down.
The head (obverse) of these 5-paise coins features the Ashoka lion capitol. This is a stone ornamentation featuring lions and was sculpted for the ancient Indian emperor Ashoka Maurya (304–232 BCE), a powerful royal warrior and early patron of Buddhism. The Ashoka pillar also serves as India’s official national coat-of-arms. The bilingual inscriptions either side of the pillar are in Hindi and English and simply state “India” (Bharat in Hindi). Later versions saw the addition of a slogan in Sanskrit “Satyamev Jayate” – which translates as “truth (alone) shall prevail”.
The tail (reverse) is very basic in design. There is just the numeral 5 plus the word “paise” in both English and Hindi in keeping with government policy on national languages.
In around 1987, the five paise underwent what could be described as a coin diet. The thickness was reduced, but that meant you could no longer make them stand on their sides as a party trick. The coins’ individual weight dropped from 1.5 g to just 1g, making them among the lightest square coins in existence.
Sadly, the 5-paise coin’s unique shape did not save it or its aluminium spare-change siblings from the onslaught of inflation. By the 1990’s the depression of the Indian rupee, which at one time was worth more than pound sterling, meant the coins had little purchasing power.
They were last minted somewhere around 1994-97, and have passed into Indian and international coin-collecting folklore. They are still highly sought after, with large bulk lots being made available online to collectors acquring their own slices of India’s rich monetary history. The author was himself able to purchase de-monetised coins from a street vendor while on a day visit to Mumbai only seven years ago. The coin was immortalised in a website, 5paisa.com, which specialised in financial information and online trading services. Unfortunately outside of the numismatic world, the coins have largely been forgotten, although not by scrap dealers in India and Bangladesh who hoard the coins, melt them down and remodel the metal as utensils and pans to flog to poor housewives. Despite not being minted since the mid-Nineties, they remained legal tender until the Reserve Bank of India demonetised them in June 2011.
I have always been fascinated by these coins, as in Europe there is no national tradition of minting coins with four sides. The design is simple, yet quintessentially ‘desi’. My first 5-paise coin was a poor condition one gleaned off a friend in secondary school, and I remember being amazed at how light and unusually-shaped it was. When I did some research on the coin, I was amazed to discover that it contained aluminium, which until then I had associated with soft drinks cans and the foil that came with the roast dinner. In fact I credit the Indian five paise coin with igniting my interest in all things monetary and aluminium.
The photos produced for this Moment were taken at my home office using a Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini and adapted using the PiZap website.
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