23rd April 2000
Front Page
Editorial/Opinion| Business| Sports|
Sports Plus| Mirror Magazine
The Sunday Times on the Web

Coins of history

By D. C. Ranatunga
Coins are a valuable means of understanding a country'spast. Being in proximity to India and maintaining close links over the ages, it was natural that even in the coinage systems in Sri Lanka, there would be much influence from this big neighbour. Trade links with Arabic, Persian, Spanish and Venetian countries naturally brought their currency too into the country. 

The first coins that circulated in Sri Lanka are believed to have been flat pieces of silver stamped with a varying number of small punches, bearing a range of symbols from peacocks to human figures. These were known as purana and had been in circulation from the last three centuries BC into the first century AD and even later.

The oldest inscribed coins issued in Sri Lanka and attested are the 'Sri Lanka Vibhu' and 'Lakshmi type'. The first series has on the obverse a standing figure to the right and on the reverse a seated figure accompanied by a legend 'Sri Lanka vibhu' in Nagari script. The gold coins depicting a figure of Lakshmi have the legend 'Laksmi' in Nagari.

Sorbonne researcher Professor Osmund Bopearachchi and coin enthusiast Wing Commander Rajah Wickremesinhe have gathered valuable information on the coins used in the south to discuss a rich civilization that existed there. Their findings appear in an exhaustive study titled 'Ruhunu, an Ancient Civilization Re-visited' where they present numismatic and archaeological evidence of inland and maritime trade. 

"As in India, the most important ancient capitals of Sri Lanka were inland, but each one had a port on the coast. Manthai, the most active port in ancient Sri Lanka, is located close to Aruvi Aru river, which linked the port to the inland capital of Anuradhapura. Likewise, the geographical situation of the ancient capital of Polonnaruwa, on the banks of the Mahaveli river which flows to the sea at Gokanna, is not a coincidence. In the same way, Tissamaharama, Sri Lanka's ancient capital city in the south, became so important in its glorious past because it was established on the left bank of the Kirindi Oya which connected it to the ancient port site of Kirinda," says Professor Bopearachchi in his introduction to the book. 

In their research, they have found a lot of artefacts that show a direct relationship with the maritime and inland trade. They include coins, seals, sealings, intaglios and beads found in the villages of Akurugoda, Minigodana and Tikirigodana in Tissamaharama which "oblige us to change all preconceived ideas about Tissamaharama and ancient ruins". The main aim of the writers was to catalogue some of these findings and give a general overview of their historical importance.

The writers say they have found locally inscribed coins hitherto unknown in a Sri Lankan context, which can be dated at least to a thousand years before the already known inscribed coin series. On the basis of paleography, the coins can be dated between the 2nd century BC and 2nd century AD. A unique feature is that they have been issued by lords and householders as well as individuals. They also point out that the discovery of coin moulds, pots containing coins and hoards of coins at the same site indicate that monetary transactions were developed in these areas. Coins that are not inscribed depict female figures, a variety of animals including the elephant, lion, horse and fish and a variety of geometric designs. 

Beads and jewellery, seals and seal rings and intaglios are evidence of developed industries possibly dating to the 3rd century BC. The writers give detailed descriptions of these in separate sections and the reader is also able to see them in the illustrations and photographs. The book contains 36 colour and black and white plates. The writers stress that it is not an attempt to either underestimate the role played by Manthai or overestimate the importance of the sea ports in the western and southern coasts. "The mariners of antiquity would have certainly preferred to reach the east coast of India through the Mannar Pass as long as it remained practicable. However, purely indigenous or Indian crafts used equally on river or sea would have certainly reached the emporia along the rivers on the west and south coasts of the island in search of spices, precious stones and other commodities. The finding of both imported and local ceramics, beads, intaglios, coins dating back at least to the third century BC, in the river mouths and along the river banks, is the result of these extensive commercial activities in the island."

They feel that their findings place the trade, economic and political activities of Tissamaharama in a different and important context. "Archaeological material from different horizons entered the ancient Ruhuna as a result of seafaring in the Indian Ocean. We thus firmly believe, in the light of these new discoveries, that Tissamaharama and ancient Ruhuna should be revisited and its economic and political history re-written," they conclude.

'Ruhuna Re-visited' gives a new dimension to the activities in the south. To the students of history, it provides fresh material. With only a limited number of copies available, the writers who are keen to see that it reaches the students of history and archaeology, school libraries and collectors are offering it at a special price. Those interested in buying the book should get in touch with co-writer Rajah Wickremesinhe on Phone: 852485.

Index Page
Front Page
Sports Plus
Mirrror Magazine

More Plus

Return to Plus Contents


Plus Archives

Front Page| News/Comment| Editorial/Opinion| Plus| Business| Sports| Sports Plus| Mirror Magazine

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to 

The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.

Presented on the World Wide Web by Infomation Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.
Hosted By LAcNet