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Hindustan Times, May 1, 1998

Making big money

By Najm-Ul-Hasan

Experts on gigantic coins believe that Sassanids (3rd century BC) were the first to mint giant coins. But none of these have come down to us. The Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad (AD 8-11) revived the practice and issued denanir al-sila. As their name (dinars of reward) suggests these coins of special artistic quality were made to recompense the services rendered by officials of the State.

Though many gold coins from the Abbasid period have survived, none are particularly large. Arab historians mention coins as large as 1,000 mithqals (4.25 kg) but the largest known pieces do not exceed 10 mithqals (42.5 gm). It is surmised that very large ones ended in the melting pot. However, numismatists have not yet given up hope that some day a horde of Abbasid coins, including gigantic ones, would be found much like hordes of Roman gold coins.

These coins of reward or presentation coins as they are often called also served another purpose: apart from reward the word sila also means bond or link between the giver and receiver. And they served this purpose as well.

In India, Alauddin Khilji was the first to have issued gigantic coins. According to records left by Thakkur Pheru, mint master of Alauddin’s Delhi, then known as Siri, Alauddin issued gold coins of 5, 10, 50 and 100 tolas (one tola=10.6 gm). Pheru also tells us that Alauddin’s successor Qutbuddin issued both silver and gold coins in no less than 14 denominations including 100, 150 and 200 tolas.

The heaviest recorded gold coin is described by Gulbadan Begum, Babur’s writer daughter. In her memoirs she says that soon after the battle of Panipat Babur got a gold coin minted weighing “three imperial sers, that is 15 sers of Hind” and sent it as a gift to his court jester Asas, who had stayed behind in Kabul. “‘If Asas asks you’, Babur instructed Khwaja Khan, who was to carry the gift to Kabul, ‘what has the emperor sent for me?’ ‘Just say one Ashrafi’. When Asas got this reply from Khwaja Khan he fretted about it for three days,” writes Gulbadan Begum.

"His Majesty had ordered that a hole be bored in the Ashrafi and that Asas be blind-folded before being presented with the coin. And the coin was to be hung around his neck. Uncle Asas was quite helpless and wondered aloud about the weight around his neck. When he lifted the Ashrafi in his hands he was delighted and very, very happy and pranced around in joy and kept repeating: ‘No one shall take away this Ashrafi from me. No one!’” concludes Gulbadan Begum in her journal.

The legacy of such marvellous numismatic precedents was made more and more sophisticated by Babur’s descendants. Akbar’s 100 mohurs have so far been reported, the estimate of its weight is based on the weight of a similar 100-mohur gold coin struck by his grandson, Shah Jahan, which has survived and came to light when its proposed auction was announced in Switzerland along with a truly gigantic 1000-mohur gold coin of Jahangir in 1987. The coins minted during Jahangir’s regime have become part of world heritage and remain unrivalled worldwide.

According to historical records one such gigantic coin was given by Aurangzeb to Firuz Jung, the father of the founder of Asaf-Jahi dynasty in Hyderabad in recognition of services rendered to the emperor’s son, Muazzam, during one of  his expeditions against Bijapur.

It is apparent that Jahangir did order minting large and gigantic coins in denominations of 100, 200, 500 and 1000 mohurs. It should be kept in mind that in Moghul concept the two words, mohur and tola, are co-terminous. Jahangir, in his memoirs, has used them interchangeably. It should also be remembered that a mohur was normally a gold coin of approximately 11 gm.

The curator of Islamic coins in American Numismatic Society, New York, Dr Michael Bates, points out that Jahangir called this 1000-mohur a coin. "The term mohur is obviously used in a generic sense (the word literally means something stamped) because a coin of 1000 tolas weight would have had the gold content of about 1091 ordinary mohurs”.

Apart from Firuz Jung’s 1000-mohur gold coin, only two other similar coins are mentioned in the records that we have—one given to Yadgar Ali and another to Zambil Beg, an envoy of the Shah of Iran. Of these, two were struck in the same regnal year. It is surmised that coins as enormous as 1000-mohur were struck only for a short period of time.

The 1000-mohur gold coin is now with Mukarrum Jah. It weighs 11,935.8 gm, almost 12 kg. In diameter it measures 20.3 cm. It is but natural that striking such enormous coins would have strained the technical resources of the mint. It is evident from this 1000-mohur piece how difficult it was for the minters to bring up fully the inscriptions at the outer edge of the coin; and at the bottom of the obverse, as observed by Dr Bates: “There is evidence of die slippage, for many repeated blows must have been necessary to strike this mass of metal.” And yet this piece of exquisite beauty remains unsurpassed. This is undoubtedly not only the largest coin in the world today but, as experts say, “likely to be as large as any gold coin ever made”. The inscription on the coin is in Persian and in Nastaliq style of script. In the centre is the emperor’s name and title and surrounding the circular core are two couplets most meticulously set on the coin with all the rules of calligraphy observed faithfully.

The smaller of the two coins, which were sought for auctioning, belonged to Shahabuddin Shah Jahan. Minted at Lahore in 1639, this gold coin is of 100 mohurs. It weighs 1094.5 gm with a diameter of 9.5 cm. Although small in dimensions this too is as elegant as its bigger companion. Evaluators have put its worth at over $3,000,000 while the 1000-mohur Jahangir coin was estimated to be worth $10,000,000 in 1987.

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