Taking note of new notes

With the smallest denomination being 20 and the highest 5000, Kavan Ratnatunga looks at the new and not so new features of the currency issued by the Central Bank recently

The Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) issued a new set of six currency notes into circulation on February 7 which will replace the current notes in circulation that were first issued in 1991. The new set includes a new Rs 5000 note. Images of the notes had been published in the local newspapers on January 28 and online on the CBSL website.

The notes have the date 2010-01-01 since the new notes were originally expected to be released at the CBSL 60th Anniversary celebrations in August 2010. The CBSL then announced that the notes would be released to the public at the Deyata Kirula exhibition which opened in Buttala on February 4. However lack of sufficient security at the temporary exhibition stall prevented that early release. They were only presented to President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Independence day.

The notes from Rs. 20 to Rs. 5000 are all of the same 67 mm width which is the same as a US dollar. The length of each note is 5 mm longer starting from 128 mm for the Rs. 20 to 153 mm for the Rs. 5000 which is slightly smaller than the US$ and the old Rs.1000. It is probably hoped that they will now not be folded by bus conductors, which reduces the lifetime of the notes.

The colours are close but not exactly the same as the older notes. The Rs. 20 note, for example is more pink and the Rs. 1000 a lighter green. The Rs. 500 has been made a distinct purple like the rare Rs. 5 notes of 1952 -a colour which was changed to red in the next issue of 1954. Most people I showed the notes to felt the older colours looked richer.

"Development, Prosperity and Sri Lanka Dancers" is the new theme for the notes. CBSL marketing uses the phrase "We dance to our very own beat" to signify a nation brimming with new hope for a prosperous future. The designs were done by winners of an island-wide competition conducted by CBSL in 2009,

The landscape scene on the note was designed by artist Kelum Gunasekara - a new economic development has an older example in the background. It also has on each an endemic bird of Sri Lanka on the right and a butterfly on the lower left.

The portrait on the back of the notes designed by artist Sisira Liyanaarachchi sees different pairs of a traditional Sri Lankan drummer and a dancer. A guard stone appears on the upper right. But people will miss the Lion watermark which has been present on all notes since the pictorial issue of George the VI in 1941 except the wartime fractional notes below Rs.1.

Originally it was a lion standing on its hind legs holding a whip. After 1985 when the ‘Ceylon’ in the name of the Central Bank was changed to Sri Lanka, it was the Standing Lion of the National Flag. CBSL has now broken with tradition and removed the lion watermark and these are the first notes after 1951 that don't have the Lankan lion as a watermark. The image of the bird on each note has been used as the watermark for that note in this series.

I am very glad that the CBSL met the requests of collectors and for the first time issued sets of six notes with matching serial numbers in a colourful folder with a slip case. The price of Rs.7,500 included an extra Rs. 830 for the folder. The text is only in English. Individual folders are also available for each denomination where the text is in all three languages, Sinhala, Tamil and English. Costing from Rs. 150 to Rs 5,500, depending on the denomination, the full set of six individual folders cost Rs.8100. Only a 1000 of each has been made as collectors’ items.

The folder with all six notes seems to be more popular and had serial numbers in the 5000's. The six individual folders had serial numbers in the 6000's and I was lucky to get a set of them with the same serial number. Buying the folders has the additional advantage of getting low serial numbers which hold a numismatic premium.

CBSL has also advertised an uncut sheet of 40 Rs100 notes, sold in a tube for protection. Uncut currency sheets are novelty collector’s items overseas.

The CBSL website says the paper used is 100% cotton fibre. It however feels very different to the older notes probably because of the printing. This paper appears to be more synthetic, the surface more polished. The public will take some time to get used to them. In the transition period while the older notes are withdrawn from circulation the smaller notes may get misplaced among the larger older notes.

Clearly the Rs. 5000 is needed, may be even a Rs.10,000 since they now represent buying power less than the Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 when they were first released in 1981. For some real estate transactions payments need to be made in cash and the higher denomination note will be useful. From over a 1000 years ago when when gold kahavanu were used, the highest denomination was usually the value of about a quarter sovereign of gold now worth over Rs 9,000. It is a pity that provision has not been left in the series to issue a Rs. 2000 note in the future. Such provision would have been reflected by a extra Braille dot on the Rs. 5,000 note which should have been an extra 5 mm longer.

I understand that the design made for the Rs 2000 note, was used for the Rs. 5000 rather than make an extra design. The Rs 2000 is a very useful denomination, For example, in the USA the $20 note is the most frequently used note. The $50 and $100 are rarely seen in circulation.

The new notes have the look and feel of the classic 1979 Flora and Fauna issue, which is one of the most sought after by collectors of currency worldwide. That rarity is both for beauty, as well as the short period after which they were replaced. Only time will tell how long the new notes will last in circulation and how they will be liked by the public and numismatists. More details including identification of the development and older sites, birds, butterflies, Guard stones, Drummers and Dancers on the new currency notes have been posted on the CBSL website and my own webpage

(The writer is the President of the Sri Lanka Numismatic Society which meets monthly in Colombo and can be contacted at

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