Coins for Sambuddhatva Jayanti – Sunday Times

By Kavan Ratnatunga

On May 16, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, issued a sterling silver crown-sized commemorative coin for the 2600 Sambuddhathva Jayanti. The Buddhist Era started in 544 BCE which is canonically adopted as Buddha's Parinibbana at age 80. So 2011 is 2555 BE which is 2600 years after the Buddha's enlightenment at age 35. There are many estimates which are 60 to 120 years shorter.

A 2011 nickel plated steel Rs. 10 commemorative coin will also be issued and is expected from the Royal Mint in a few weeks. It is minted to the specification of the standard Rs. 10 coin issued in April 2010.

2011-Sambuddhatva-Jayanthi 2011-Sambuddhatva-Jayanthi-coin
Silver coin, obverse:
At centre, a symbolic representation of the Sri Maha Bo-Sapling in bowl with 2600 on a large pedestal. The words Sambuddhatva Jayanti appear within the upper part of the annulus in Sinhala at the apex and in Tamil and English to left and right. 2011 appears within annulus at bottom. Silver coin reverse:
At centre a 24 prong Dharma Chakra (wheel of doctrine). Along the upper part of the annulus the name Sri Lanka in Sinhala at the apex, with Tamil and English to left and right. The face value 1000 in numerals and Rupees are seen below at centre in Sinhala with Tamil and English to left and right, within the lower part of the annulus.
At centre of the obverse is the same 24 prong Dharma Chakra with the anniversary 2600 in the central circle. The words Sambuddhatva Jayanti appear, within the upper part annulus in Sinhala at the apex and Tamil and English to left and right. The words Yunjatha Buddha Saasane (a society that acts righteously on Buddhist Philosophy) are seen within the lower part annulus in Sinhala in the centre and in English and Tamil to left and right.

Only 2000 of the silver 2600 Sambuddhatva Jayanti coins were minted and with a face value of Rs. 1000 are being sold at Rs. 7500 each by the Central Bank while stocks last. 250 coins were retained by CBSL, with the rest being sold to the Buddha Sasana Ministry who proposed the coin issue, did its design and funded its minting. This coin will become a difficult collector’s item unless the Buddha Sasana Ministry puts most of its coins up for public sale.

The frosted proof coin is in a coin capsule inside a bright yellow leatherette covered Royal Mint presentation box. A printed numbered Certificate of Authenticity contains the specifications and the text in Sinhala, Tamil and English.

The certificate says the Dharma Chakra represents the Four Noble Truths. The usual Dharma Chakra adopted in Sri Lanka, like on the national emblem has eight spokes and represents the Noble Eightfold Path. Wikipedia states the 24 spokes represent the Twelve Laws of Dependent Origination and the Twelve Laws of Dependent Termination (Paticcasamuppada). The CBSL press release says the 24 lattice symbolize Suvisi Vivarana the 24 proclamations given to the Bodhisattva (future Gautama Buddha) by 24 former Buddhas approving him as the Buddha designate. I could not find a reference to this association with Dharma Chakra.

The Buddhist Dharmachakra with 24 spokes, is found on the stone pillar built by the Emperor Asoka at Saranath in Varanasi, where Buddha preached his first sermon. The Asoka Chakra was adopted in India as their national emblem and placed in the centre of the Indian flag. The chakra used on this coin is slightly different, by the additional circle of dots, one on each of the spokes, and convex nature rather than a central bump on each rim section of the Ashoka Chakra.

The spelling on the certificate of Sambuddhathva Jayanthi is different to the correct English transliteration found on the coin. This spelling JAYANTHI is used in the 2550 Buddha Jayanthi coins issued in 2006. The press release uses this spelling and few other variations. The addition of ‘h’ and switching V to a W are common English transliteration methods adopted by those who converse mainly in Sinhala. This is the 10th silver crown to be minted by CBSL since the first commemorative was issued for the 2500 Buddha Jayanti celebrated in 1957. Of these 10 coins, five have been for Buddhist anniversaries, three for CBSL anniversaries and one each for the 50th Anniversary of Independence, and the 1996 World Cup Victory.

The author maintains an educational website on Lankan coins at, and is President of the Sri Lanka Numismatic Society

BOC coin museum: Not upto the mark – Sunday Times

By Dr. Kavan Ratnatunga


Open only on request: The entrance to the museum

The long awaited Bank of Ceylon Museum was finally opened on August 1 without much fanfare with the 77th anniversary celebrations of BoC. The Museum was to have opened for the Bank’s 75th anniversary.

BoC first opened a coin museum at their 50th Anniversary in 1989, based on a collection loaned to the bank by Fred Medis. That old fashioned museum which I saw many years ago was opened only on request, and even then rarely because of the lack of staff. In November 2012 on a visit to BoC headquarters, I met Dushanthi Jayawardena who with a Masters degree in Museum Studies from the US had joined the bank with a personal interest to renovate the museum. Together with Brig.Siri Munasinha and Cmdr. Nihal Fernando of the Sri Lanka Numismatic Society I volunteered to help create a Numismatic Museum which we will not be embarrassed to show a visitor around.

Mr Medis offered to sell his collection but the BoC was not willing to invest and that collection was returned to him. Fred claimed that a number of his items were missing and highlighted the need for rigid inventory control with high resolution digital images and weights to ensure the integrity of the collection over the long term. This had not been done even though the collection had been with BoC for nearly 25 years. I had thought of loaning my Lakdiva Collection to the bank, but decided against doing that, because of these issues.

Ruwan Fonseka had purchased few years previously the collection of Wg. Cdr. Rajah Wickramasinhe, who had been president of the Sri Lanka Numismatic Society for many years. BoC purchased part of that collection for the museum. The selection of a representative collection of coins to purchase, within the limited Budget of BoC was a long and tedious process. It is a pity the bank decided to spend less than 10% of the modernization budget to buy the coin and currency collection which was to be the focus of the museum.

The new BoC collection however includes many rare Brahmi inscribed lead coins from Ruhuna, which were first discovered in the 1980s from around Akurugoda near Tissamaharama. Some of them are plate specimens from the 1999 book Ruhuna-An Ancient Civilisation Re-visited by Osmund Bopearachchi and Rajah M. Wickramasinhe. These coins issued before 1st century BCE, have been dated by other similar coins which have been found in archaeological excavations.

Another highlight is the large collection of over 30 Lankan gold kahavanu of many types from 8th to 13th century, in comparison to the single commonest gold Kahavanu on display at the CBSL museum. Over a dozen copper massa on display have the names of the Kings and a Queen who ruled Lanka from 11th to 13th century, identified by the Nagari text on the coin.

What is also interesting is the view from the 28th floor of the BoC. It addition to the grand view of the city except towards the adjoining WTC towers, it gives a clear view of the Colombo Port City slowly filling up the sea to the west and 3 towers of Hotel Shangrila now rapidly rising to the south. We saw both projects start up slowly while working on the BoC Museum project from the 30th floor.

We had worked many days at personal cost for over two years. Unfortunately Dushanthi had to leave in 2015 April to take up residency abroad and the project lost momentum and expertise. The museum lacks the quality we had envisaged and strived to produce.

Our offer of help to see the project through went unheeded. Requests to send us the panel text to proof read were ignored. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, in this case in both Numismatics and English. The panel text that we had drafted with the latest research seems to have reverted to what had been published nearly a century ago by Mr H. W. Codrington.

So when we went uninvited to the opening of the museum finished by the new BoC curator, it was no different to the coin collections at theColombo National Museum or the Central Bank Museum. The knowledgeable will be amused and the ignorant misled by what they read. Despite BoC having a large collection that could be imaged to illustrate the panels, many of the coin images used had been taken without any permission or acknowledgement from my personal website Visitors will wonder why some of the coins illustrated are different from those displayed in the cases. Each ancient hand struck coin has unique character and it is very easy to identify them without ambiguity from an image.

I was told that the BoC museum displays were finalized, working day and night for four days, which is more than the two days I was told used for the CBSL museum. The faults are too numerous to list. We hope the bank will spend what it takes to rectify the errors on the panels and displays, and many teething problems, as soon as possible, to take the museum to what it should be.There were many promises made to us and the Sri Lanka Numismatic Society, when we joined the project,which we hope will materialize someday.

Don’t miss the UV room with a white painted door near the exit, which was put in on my suggestion. It allows you to view the fascinating security printing on Sri Lankan currency since 1971. Particularly beautiful is the Rs. 2000 note. The room needs some instructions, because the display panels with the currency notes, need to be rotated, so that they are UV illuminated from above, to see the printing that glows in UV-light.

A small 40 page book on the modernization and expansion of the Bank of Ceylon Museum has been printed in English and a 12 page pamphlet in Sinhala which were distributed. A short video has also been produced, and was shown in the adjacent meeting room. In addition to the coin and currency displays it has an interesting section on the history of the Bank of Ceylon.

The Bank of Ceylon Museum is now open but can be viewed only after making a request to the BoC PR office. I hope they reconsider and keep it open for even a few hours each working day.

Defacing currency is a crime – Sunday Times

By Kavan Ratnatunga
I was recently surprised to see chains made of current Sri Lankan coins exhibited at the Dalada Maligawa Museum in Kandy and also at the Kiri Vehera Museum in Kataragama. I wonder if those who had them made as gifts or the curators of these Museums are aware that they are in direct violation of the Monetary Act of Sri Lanka and guilty of a prosecutable offence, with a fine recently proposed of upto Rs. 100,000.

The recently issued 2004 Annual Report of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka states "The Currency Department conducted an oratory contest in Sinhala medium amongst schoolchildren in the age group of 15 - 19 years in order to create an awareness on the proper use of currency without defacement or mutilation."

Statutory law
Shouldn't these museums set a better example to the visiting schoolchildren and public and not act outside the existing monetary law of the country?
Monetary Law (Act 58 of 1940 certified on 28th August 1950) section 58 states:

Any person who without the authority of the Monetary Board
(a) cuts, perforates, or in any other way whatsoever mutilates any currency note;
(b) prints, stamps, or draws anything upon any currency note, or affixes any seal or stamp to or upon any currency note;
(c) attaches or affixes to or upon any currency note anything in the nature or form of an advertisement; or
(d) reproduces in any form whatsoever, or makes a facsimile of, any currency note, shall be guilty of an offence.

Section 58A of the same law states:
(1) Any person who, without the authority of the Monetary Board, melts, breaks up, perforates, mutilates or uses otherwise than as legal tender, any coin which is legal tender in Sri Lanka shall be guilty of an offence.

(2) Any person who knowingly uses, possesses or deals with any metal or article which he knows or has reasonable cause to believe, is derived from any coin which has been dealt with in contravention of subsection (1), shall be guilty of an offence.

Mutilating currency
As long ago as 1825 when the British colonial powers tried to introduce British currency in Ceylon, it was not very successful since the British silver coins were worth more than their face value to the silver craftsmen who kept melting them.

The practice did not stop even after it was made illegal to mutilate coins, an almost impossible felony to control. The British stopped sending silver coins to Ceylon, creating a shortage in change, which was met by the Indian silver rupee becoming the de-facto unit of currency and by many coffee factories issuing their own copper tokens, from 1840 to 1870.

This law introduced many years ago is still part of the Monetary Act and is more justified today than a few decades ago. Just the aluminium in the 1, 2, 5 and 10 cent Lankan coins which have practically gone out of circulation is worth more than the face value of the coins. Since 1996, the 25 cent, 50 cent and one rupee Lankan coins are made with nickel covered steel to reduce the cost of minting them.

The brass five-rupee coin which had 30 cents (1984) of brass when introduced, now has about three rupees (2005) of brass in it. On average you need one thousand rupees in 2005 to make the same purchases as you could with one hundred rupees in 1983. It now costs the Central Bank of Sri Lanka more than the face value to mint the coins the size and composition of some of which were defined over 22 years ago. i.e. the same period the value of the rupee has gone down by a factor of ten.

So if coins are mutilated and taken out of circulation, the Central Bank has to issue more coins into circulation at a significant loss. Currency notes although they cost less than the face value to print need to be replaced every few years as they get dirty and any mutilation just shortens the useful lifetime a note can remain in circulation. There are many more examples to show how far this rule is ignored in Lanka.

On many of the older circulated currency notes one regularly finds multiple post marks. This practice seems to have stopped around the 1960s probably because the Central Bank informed the postal authorities that they were guilty of an offence which was traceable. Looking at many of the currency notes one gets from circulation today one notices that it is a common practice of cashiers to write a total in a bundle directly on the currency note rather than on a wrapper of the bundle. I hope they understand they are guilty of an offence. Some even write their name and address on the currency notes.

I have found a few notes with political slogans. A 10-rupee currency note from the early 1980s I have collected states in Sinhala, "North for Amir", "South for Reagan" and "For us Kanaththaa" and reflects the political frustration of that era.

Indian silver rupees and old Ceylon silver coins are often used to decorate jewellery boxes and make silver belts and chains. As long as these artifacts were made after 1942 when these coins ceased to be legal tender, it is not an offence.

These laws are more relaxed in the USA. U.S. Title 18, Chapter 17, Section 331 prohibits among other things, fraudulent alteration and mutilation of coins. This statute does not, however, prohibit the mutilation of coins if done without fraudulent intent if the mutilated coins are not used fraudulently.

Nineteenth century companies in USA used to counter-stamp coins as a way of cheap advertisements, equivalent to today's spam e-mail. Americans rarely reuse a penny they get in change. It hardly has any monetary value and there are proposals to discontinue its use. It is maintained by the politics of Jobs at the US Mint which needs to make a few billion one cent coins every year to replace the wastage.

Smashing one cent coins has been a big thing in America for a long time. An elongated coin is made by a coin being forced between two steel rollers. An engraving is on one or both of the rollers and as the coin passes through the rollers it is squeezed or elongated under tremendous pressure from the original round shape to one of an oval and the engraved design impressed into the coin at the same time. Such machines are frequently found near tourist attractions in USA to provide a cheap souvenir.

Many coin dealers impress a business card on it hoping that the collector will keep it. They have become popular in Great Britain since the 1981 changes in the old law from which the Lankan law was originally derived.

The 50 US State Quarter coins series being issued from 1999 to 2008 has created a collector market being exploited by US entrepreneurs. From simply gold plating these coins or from a more elaborate automated colourizing of them with enamel, paint dealers produce items that can be sold to collectors at coin shows and on eBay for more than ten times the face value of the coin.

Another gimmick is to re-strike a real US quarter with a different design. A popular parody "Head Quarter" on Bill Clinton a few years ago has led to a series of them being re-struck with different designs. The coin shown issued as if for "Texas" shows George Bush trying to lasso Osama Bin Laden.

A US website called encourages readers to write the URL on the note, register the serial number of any one dollar bill from circulation with location and track this tagged note after you spend it if others who get it in the future bother to record where they got it on that website.

(The author maintains an educational website on two thousand years of Lankan coins at and is a life member of the Sri Lanka Numismatic Society)

Coinage over centuries – Sunday Times

Coinage over centuries
Gaveshaka continues the story of stamps promoting our heritage
Coins have been used in Sri Lanka since pre-Christian times. The chronicles, Buddhist literature and inscriptions refer to the earliest coins known as 'kahapana' – a silver coinage which had come from India. They were rectangular pieces of silver of an average weight of 56 grams, on which were impressed various punch marks on both sides.Stampes

These coins were probably issued by the trading guilds with the permission of the king. These had been in use from the pre-Christian times till around the 3rd century A.D. Between the 3rd – 8th centuries, circular copper coins with 'svastika' and elephant or other symbols like the lion, Goddess Lakshmi, a horse had been used.

The noteworthy gold coinage of the Sinhalese was the 'kahavanu' or the 'Lankeshvara' which had been in use in the 9th and 10th centuries. 'Kahavanu' seen in the Rs. 3.50 stamp is the oldest Sri Lankan coin inscribed in Nagari, one of the oldest North Indian scripts. The coin seen on the stamp belongs to the weight category known as 'kalanda'.

(The term is still used in measuring some native medicines). There were at least four weights in the category – half (ada-kahavanu), quarter (de-aka), one eighth (aka) and one sixteenth (masaka). The obverse and the reverse of the coin depict a stylized human figure in standing and seated positions.

Following the invasion by the Cholas, the capital shifted to Polonnaruwa. The Cholas ruled until Vijayabahu I ascended the throne in 1055 A.D. He is the first Sinhalese king whose name appears on coins. Referred to as the 'Ceylon type', the coins were the same as what was current in the late Anuradhapura era, referred to above.

The Chola king Rajaraja I had imitated these coins with the substitution of the king's name in Nagari
characters in place of the legend 'Lankesvara' or 'Lankavibhu'. A coin issued by Vijayabahu I is seen in
the Rs. 13.50 stamp.

The coinage by this time had been debased and Vijayabahu's issues were of very poor gold and
silver washed with gold. The use of precious metals had ceased with the issue of coins during the reign
of Parakramabahu I. Silver was, however, used to wash coins of base metal. King Nissankamalla issued few coins, some of which were white metal. In later times, there were prolific issues of copper coins.

The Arya Chakravartis, rulers in Jaffna peninsula issued similar coins in a modified form. On the reverse of the coin (Rs. 17 stamp) shows a bull lying down with trappings and the legend 'setu' in Tamil characters. The seated bull is always surmounted by a crescent with a dot signifying the sun and moon and the auspicious Tamil legend 'setu' below. These coins attributed to the 13th and 14th centuries at the earliest, were copper ones. The coin illustrated on the stamp was 3.87g in weight and 20mm in diameter.

A thin, circular gold or silver coin of an average diameter of ¼ inch and a weight of 5.8 grains, known as the 'panam', was the currency of the Gampola period. While the local coins were in use, there had been numerous types of coins of foreign countries that had found their way to Sri Lanka. This was due to trade activities and diplomatic missions. Dr. Senarat Paranavitana identifies several foreign currencies in circulation prior to the arrival of the European powers. There were the silver larins or fish-hook coins of Persia, the gold seraphins of Ormuz on the Persian Gulf, Pandya issues of Sundara Pandya, the 'varagam' of Vijayanagara, the 'pagodas' of the Gajapati kings of Orissa, and Chinese coins mostly of the Southern Sung emperors.

The find of a large hoard of Chinese coins together with Sung celadon bowls, at Yapahuva, has been
quoted as evidence of the diplomatic and commercial relations with China towards the close of the 13th century. The commemorative issue of stamps depicting indigenous coinage released on June 18, 2001 had four stamps. Three have already been discussed and the fourth was the first commemorative coin issued by Sri Lanka since independence in 1948.

It was to mark the Buddha Jayanthi year (1956) when a five rupee coin was issued commemorating the 2500th anniversary of the passing away of the Buddha. The Buddha Jayanthi coin was the first
Sri Lankan 'Crown' size issue – a 925 fine silver with a weight of 436.55g and 1.525 inches in

The design had an adaptation of the Anuradhapura moonstone and a jasmine flower
surmounted by a lotus flower. It is significant that the jasmine flower and the lotus had been retained through our indigenous coinage in various forms from the earliest 'swastika' coins

Getting hold of the Alexander medallion – Sunday Times

Getting hold of the Alexander medallion

Sri Lankan numismatist Prof. Osmund Bopearachchi recounts to Smriti Daniel his great find among the treasures of Mir Zakah
Embossed on the gold coin is the arrogant profile of Alexander the Great. On it, the young conqueror’s features endure: his luxuriant curly hair and the crooked line of his broken nose; his elongated cheeks and large, unblinking eyes. Curiously though, his head is covered in the scalp of an elephant, its trunk curling triumphantly over his brow. Around his neck is the image of the Gorgon, the coiling snakes worn as an aegis. The horn of Ammon protects his temple. The striking image is valued for far more than its obvious beauty. It is believed to be the only portrait actually created during the lifetime of Alexander the Great to survive into modernity. This is Alexander as he saw himself - invulnerable, verging on godhood, immortalized in the moment of his triumph.

“It’s exactly Alexander, there is no doubt about that,” says Sri Lankan numismatist Prof. Osmund Bopearachchi. Having announced the find to the world, more recently Osmund co-authored a book with History professor Frank Holt which was published just last month titled ‘The Alexander Medallion: Exploring the Origins of a Unique Artefact’. Written partly in defence of the authenticity of the gold medallion, the book describes the extraordinary circumstances that led to the unveiling of the priceless artefact. Its historical significance far outweighing the value of the precious metal itself, its history is both the subject of the book and of Osmund’s long obsession.

At the centre of the story is a humble village in Afghanistan. Located in one of the most hostile political and geographical landscapes on earth, Mir Zakah lies along the ancient trail that connects Ghazni in modern Afghanistan to Gandhara in what is now Pakistan. Travelling in the company of a French journalist and 12 bodyguards, Osmund made his way there in 2004. As the temperature plummeted to minus 15 degrees centigrade outside, the men covered themselves with carpets to keep warm and brushed their teeth with snow. Despite the abject poverty that surrounded them, in the evenings the numismatist would show his hosts pictures of incredible treasures – of gold, silver and bronze ornaments, vessels and coins - and ask them whether there were any among them they recognized.
The pieces he was showing them were in the possession of a Japanese museum.

The museum had been sold the pieces which had been deliberately misrepresented by corrupt agents as belonging to another set known as the Oxus treasure . Now, Osmund was unsurprised to discover the men had in fact seen many of the pieces before. After all, some of them had actually handled the objects themselves, pulling each piece fresh from the earth just a few feet away from where they now huddled together. Some shared their keepsakes with the visitors – on the palm of his hand, one man displayed a single diminutive gold coin. Unbeknownst to the Afghan farmer, the Indo-Scythian coin with the image of Azes stamped onto its face was a rarity, worth an estimated $20,000. Yet, this was only one of Mir Zakah’s treasures – and there are hundreds of thousands more.

The Mir Zakah deposit is believed to contain roughly 550,000 coins alongside hundreds of other, larger objects. “When you look at the composition you get everything – from North India to Southern Uzbekistan and North Afghanistan,” says Osmund explaining that the pieces are equally diverse in their chronology, with some of the earliest dating to the 5th century B.C going up to the 2nd century A.D. How they came to be tossed together in the same well remains a matter of speculation. Osmund himself imagines a scenario where an army of Sassanians successfully plundered the treasuries and collections of temples and cities but was then faced with a sudden challenge from a rival group. They would have been forced to ditch their loot before going to battle. If so, clearly they lost and their treasure was left to languish unclaimed for centuries.

When some of it resurfaced centuries later, many pieces would be routed through the bazaars of the Pakistani city of Peshawar, before they were smuggled out to America and Europe. The first coins appeared in the late 1940s and 50s, just after the hoard at Mir Zakah was first excavated. Intervening in 1948, French archaeologists attempted to collect and study some of the deposit’s treasures, but political disturbances and violence in the region forced them to give up their hunt well before the hoard was exhausted. It would lie relatively undisturbed till a group of ambitious looters would dig up the well again in 1993 - 94. Again, they would leave the job half done. Violence and multiple deaths among those involved with the illicit dig would earn the Mir Zakah hoard a reputation for being cursed among locals. Soon the site would become altogether inaccessible to outsiders, as Afghanistan entered a prolonged period of unrest.

Still, what was dug up was enough to flood the markets of Peshawar with astounding quantities of artefacts and coins in particular. It was here that Osmund first encountered the treasures of Mir Zakah in person. Osmund remembers being entirely overwhelmed as sack after sack, each filled with approximately 50 kgs of coins, were poured over the floor before him. It was quite literally a ‘pluie’ or a ‘rain’ of coins, says Osmund, adding, “I suspect that no numismatist has ever seen so many coins in such a short space of time.” Determined to get a handle on the composition of the hoard, he began what he describes as a desperate exercise. “I began to sort the coins into groups according to the issuers, e.g. early Indian, Greek city states, Seleucids, Indo-Greeks, Indo-Scythians, Indo-Parthians, and Kushans.”

It was an impossible exercise, as was the authorities’ every attempt to confiscate or buy the loot of Mir Zakah – even as you read this, a known stash of three tons of valuable coins in Basel, Switzerland remains tantalisingly inaccessible to scholars. Instead wily smugglers have succeeded in ushering priceless artefacts into museums and private collections all over the world – not hesitating to create fictitious histories for their antiques if required. Alexander’s commemorative medallion would find its way to London and into the hands of an anonymous collector who has no intention of parting with it, though he has allowed it to be exhibited.

For those familiar with coins from Ptolemy I’s reign, the portrait of Alexander is not an uncommon one. Though the work is particularly fine, it could have arguably come out of a workshop in Egypt. However, the one obstacle to this interpretation is quite literally of elephantine proportions. On the back of the coin, where you might have to expected to find Athena brandishing a spear, you see instead an elephant walking on tiptoe. Issued in 326 BC to commemorate Alexander’s resounding defeat of Porus, the King of Paurava by the river Jhelum in what is modern Punjab, the coin was intended to be a golden boast. It is a find that excited Osmund – he calls it “the missing link” that explained the baffling appearance of an Asian elephant on coins minted in countries where there were none about. It represented the attempts of other, later rulers to share in Alexander’s glory.

Other silver coins issued around the period flesh out the action of the battle. In one, Alexander, astride a horse, flings a spear at Porus on his elephant. In another, the King’s men ride in four-horse chariots as they draw their awesome bows. These coins are evidence, that where historical records fail, where stories are forgotten, coins remain to tell the tale.madallion

As for Osmund, the Alexander medallion is only a highlight in a very distinguished career. Reportedly, the only Sri Lankan numismatist to have a PhD in the subject, Osmund graduated with a B.A from the University of Kelaniya and has spent the last three decades in France where he is the Director of Research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. Specializing in the coinage of the Indo-Greek and Greco-Bactrian kingdoms, he has catalogued numerous collections of coins, including one for the Smithsonian. A professor of Central Asian and South Asian archaeology and art history at the University Paris-Sorbonne, he is currently a visiting Professor at the University of Berkeley in California. He is also the author of nine books, the most recent being ‘The Pleasure Gardens of Sigiriya. A New Approach’. Among others, he has been honoured with the Gustave Mendel Award, The Lhotka Memorial Prize and the Order of Constantine the Great.

In Sri Lanka, he is currently engaged in a search for the traces of an ancient sea port and settlement in Kuchchiveli in the Trincomalee district, but says that while he intends to juggle many projects, the coins from Mir Zakah continue to fascinate him. “From 1983 (when he was writing his PhD dissertation) until today, coins from both Mir Zakah deposits have been part and parcel of my life,” says Osmund. There is much left to be done: the dig is incomplete and what has been already excavated is very poorly documented.

“As long as all the artefacts and coins dispersed in private collections are not made known to the world and the three tons of coins still lying in the Free Trade Zone of Basel are not exposed and studied, the story of Mir Zakah will remain untold,” he says.

Lanka’s first silver rupee – Sunday Times

Lanka’s first silver rupee

By Dr. Kavan Ratnatunga

After almost 15 years in the vaults of the Central Bank, surviving a bomb blast in 1996, the first and probably last Silver Rupee from Sri Lanka, issued after decimal currency was introduced in 1870, has now finally been released by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.

In January 1992, a one rupee cupro-nickel coin was issued into circulation by the Central Bank to commemorate the third anniversary of the induction of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. An additional 2,500 coins were minted in proof condition, with another 2,000 in silver and a hundred in gold struck at the Royal Mint. Previously 40 gold coins had been minted in 1978 for J. R. Jayewardene of that rupee coin. The silver and gold coins were never issued to the public and were given as gifts by the Presidents.

President Premadasa's untimely death in May 1993 left a large number of the silver proof coins in the vaults of the Central Bank. The public could see just two of each on display at the Central Bank Museum in Rajagiriya.

Although coin collectors eagerly sought the silver and gold coins issued for the first two executive Presidents of Sri Lanka, they were practically impossible to find. A few of the silver are known to have been offered for sale for over the price of a gold sovereign. The Sri Lanka Numismatic Society made many requests for the release of the silver coins, but no one really expected it to happen anytime soon.

A few weeks ago, there was a talk that the silver Premadasa coin has been released by CBSL, but this proved false. So when I got a phone call again on Monday I thought it was another false alarm. But it turned out to be true. Word spread rapidly among numismatic collectors, who rushed to the CBSL Museum on Tuesday, October 10 to buy these coins.

Priced reasonably at Rs. 750 each, very limited numbers were sold to collectors. Issued in the original green box they reflect a former era of Lankan politics.

A Proof coin is minted without touching and should therefore never be taken out of the plastic capsule in which it is sealed. The coin is about 10% thinner to make it of the same 7.128 grams weight of the cupro-nickel coin.

Awaiting next week's release of a Rs. 2,000 currency note, it is clearly a last hurrah for the rupee coin, which has almost become too small and low a value to get back as change.

(The writer maintains an educational website on 2300 years of Lankan coins at

A new 10-rupee coin for your pocket – Sunday Times

Is there sense in minting cents, asks Kavan Ratnatunga

On April 5, 2010, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL), issued a new Rs. 10 coin to replace the Rs. 10 currency note that will be withdrawn gradually from circulation. The coin minted in nickel-plated steel is in the shape of a eleven-sided polygon.

The obverse of the coin has the Armorial Ensign in the centre within a petal design along the periphery. The reverse has the face value of "10" in large numerals and in words in Sinhala, Tamil and English just below. They are flanked by ears of paddy on either side, above the year 2009, within a geometric design along the periphery.

The coin has a mean weight of 8.36 grams which is slightly more than the old Rs. 2 coin. With a diameter of 26.4 mm it is just one millimetre larger than the old Rs. 1 coin. It has a thickness of 2.1mm which was selected to be in-between the Rs. 2 coin which is 1.7 mm and the Rs. 5 coin at 2.7 mm. This is to allow good resolution at coin vending machines.

The 11-sided coin is like the Canadian dollar coin which is almost the same size at 26.5 mm but much lighter at 7 grams. By selecting a large odd number of sides it has a constant diameter and if rolled on a flat surface the centre of mass of the coin remains steady without wobbling up and down.

The justification of using coins rather than currency notes is because coins last longer than currency notes which need to be withdrawn from circulation when they get worn out. However those like bus conductors who handle large amounts of small currency prefer currency notes since they can be folded horizontally and wrapped around their fingers.

In 1940, just 70 years ago, 10 rupees was the value of a gold sovereign. The Sinhala term "Silima" for the British denomination shilling was 50 cents. With a gold sovereign now costing more than Rs. 30,000, it is ironic that at the time the 10-rupee coin is being introduced, its buying power is less than the half cent coin when it was demonetized in 1941.

This being the case, one is surprised why the CBSL continues to mint 25 cent and 50 cent coins which are rarely seen in general circulation.

The CBSL incurs a considerable loss minting these coins since it probably costs a few times the face value to mint them. In theory it may be OK to release coins even if they cost more than the face value, on the poor assumption that they circulate freely. However when the face value drops below when it can be used to buy anything, any coins that one gets end up being dropped into a till and quickly goes out of circulation.

The CBSL has a programme to collect coins from tills in major religious sites to keep them in circulation, but has little access to tills at homes. Bus fare and prices in shops no longer use fractional rupee value. It is clearly time that the CBSL made the rupee the lowest legal denomination.

In many countries like Japan where the currency denomination is worth about a rupee, the fractional denominations have been abandoned.

USA is debating whether to continue minting the one cent coin, and some European Union countries such as Finland and Netherlands produce them only for collector Mint sets. These are worth more than Rs. 1.

The new silver frosted proof coins – Sunday Times

Point of View

By Kavan Ratnatunga

A commemorative two hundred rupee, frosted proof silver coin was issued by the Central Bank (CBSL) last week, on August 25 to mark the Bicentennial of the Sri Lanka Customs Department. It is the same size of a Rs 2 coin and has 11.9 grams sterling Silverworth currently about Rs 650/-. The face value was probably selected because of 200th Anniversary.

In terms of section 52 A (1) (a) and (b) of the Monetary Law Act (Amendment) No.6 of 1998, with the approval of the Minister of Finance, the Central Bank issues commemorative coins and notes, and sells such coins at a price higher than the specified denomination.

After releasing a ‘Notice to the Public’ on its website on Friday 21st, CBSL put few large advertisements in the Sunday newspapers stating that a limited issue of 3,000 coins will be issued into circulation and a coin will be sold at a price of Rs. 3000. What CBSL did not say in that advertisement was that most of the issue (2750 I am told) was taken by the Customs Department which requested the coins, and not available to the general public.

When I phoned the CBSL I was told that the coins will be issued after 11 am. I got to the CBSL cash counter sharp at 11 AM and was 2nd in the queue. Another collector had come early. By about 11:15 AM when they started issuing the coin a long queue formed and the 50 coins released that day was over in under half hour, although they sold only one coin to each customer. I understand from a collector friend who went on the next day that only six coins were issued on the 26th, and he was 10th in line and was very disappointed not to get one. There had been quite a uproar when one person had jumped the queue and got one.

It is a pity that the CBSL has created an artificial scarcity of this coin, and have not minted sufficient to meet the coin collector demand of the public both locally and internationally. However this current issue is slightly better than the last when CBSL minted just 100 Frosted Proof coins for the Employment Provident Fund and did not make any of them available to the Public. It is now one of the few modern Lankan coins I don't have in my Coin Collection.

The action of CBSL only aid the coin dealers in Fort. For example the one rupee Air Force coins of which only 2000 were minted and 800 released to the public in 2001 March at Rs 600 was sold out in under one month, and I have heard of a rumour of a hoard of them by an investor. They are now sold by dealers for over Rs 15,000 if available.

The Central Bank has issued commemorative coins to mark various important events since 1957. This is the 37th commemorative coin for the 26th event with all of the nine commemorative coins issued in the first 40 years circulated as currency. After the 40h anniversary of CBSL issue in 1990, CBSL has issued 16 commemorative coins, like this issue, which are known as NCLT (Non circulating Legal Tender), exclusive for the collector market. The CBSL got Monetary Board permission in 1990 to sell them above face value to cover the extra cost of minting a limited number of coins. Frosted Proof coins are of the highest quality and to maintain the Numismatic value it should not be taken out of the protective capsule and touched by hand.

About a year ago CBSL started a website to sell these coins on-line. The sale price of the coins were increased to match the international catalog prices which were high only because it was so difficult for foreign buyers to get these coins from Sri Lanka. However I know that even this new website does not meet the requirements of Foreign Collectors. I was told by one of the largest collectors of world coins that CBSL declined to send him his requirement of Sri Lankan coins.

In 1982 CBSL created a list of Coin Collectors, and this list was revised in 1994. I hope that CBSL will consider creating a new list of coin collectors who are interested in placing a standing order for all new coin and currency issues both regular and commemorative. CBSL should ensure that sufficient commemorative coins are minted to meet that demand, over that requested by the institution commemorating the event. This will ensure that excess stock does not remain at CBSL. Interested coin collectors on the list can be informed by Mail or E-mail which will cost far less than the large newspaper advertisements. The few newspaper adverts would have cost far more than the total sale price of the 56 coins of this issue, made available to the public so far.

I estimate the coin collector demand for high value Sri Lankan commemorative coins to be about 1000 coins. When more coins have been issued to the public they have remained for sale for a long time, sufficient for those who wish to have one for their collection to buy one. CBSL still has stock of the 1990 issue. The prices of the 2550 Buddha Jayanthi issue was set so high in 2006, that CBSL has had to now lower the price by 25% to try and sell the excess stock. The 2008 Rs1000 EPF uncirculated coin is still available although only 1200 was minted and sold at Rs 1200 each.

It is only when CBSL decides to release very limited quantities of less than 1000 coins to the public that there is demand larger than supply and create disappointment among collectors. It is clearly no way to encourage new collectors to the Hobby of Numismatics.

(The writer maintains an educational website on two thousand years of Lankan coins at, and is a life member of the Sri Lanka Numismatic Society).

One head and 25 tails – Sunday Times

Ten-rupee commemorative coins for each of Sri Lanka's 25 administrative districts


A new series of Ten Rupee coins representing Sri Lanka’s 25 districts was issued as a complete set by the Central Bank on Monday. The obverse designs depict one or more of unique archaeological, cultural, economic, environmental, religious or social characteristics of each district.

The project was started in August 2011 when CBSL issued a public notice inviting creative artists, to represent elegantly, the unique identity of each of the 25 districts. A cash prize of Rs. 50,000 was offered for each selected design.

The coins which will be issued into circulation at face value were also packaged to sell to collectors. There are three language versions of packaging with text printed in English, Sinhala or Tamil.

A commemorative folder of the complete set of 25 coins is displayed in a 5×5 array in English Alphabetical order. Standard reverse of one coin exposed at back gives the coin specifications. The folder was issued both in a sleeve for Rs. 1,000 and a presentation box for Rs. 2,000.Individual cards (3.5×2.25 inch) with one coin of a district each costs Rs. 50 while a set of 25 district cards costs Rs. 1,250.Kavan-coin

A coffee table book for the set titled “Our People Our Potential Our Pride” printed only in English was also issued for Rs. 4,000.

The release was publicly announced only on the day of the issue by full page newspaper advertisements. After a formal ceremony, a limited number of packaged coin sets were sold both at CBSL and at the Economic History Museum. Packaging in the requested language was often not available. Sets of 25 cards had not been pre-packed. Taking one from each of 25 bags at the time of sale not only took time, but also often in error gave duplicates of some while missing others.

When I visited the museum around noon, I was told that stocks were over and to return at 12.30, which became 2 p.m. and later everyone who had hung around for hours was told to come the next day. CBSL has made some loose packs of 25 coins to sell to its staff and decided to release some of them to the waiting public from the cash counter to clear the queue. The next day at 9.30 a.m., there was a long queue which extended out of the museum building by 10 a.m. Some of those wanting to buy cards when they reached the top of the queue after a long wait were told the full set was not available, and soon all the cards were also sold out. The folders had still not come but the people waited in the queue as they were expected at 10:30 a.m. I left around 11 a.m. before finding out if they finally arrived. Speaking with some it was clear the frustration in the queue was high.

In the absence of the folders, loose sets of 25 coins with Rs. 250 face value were being sold by the sales counter girl who was patiently taking one coin each out of 25 bags, while more than 50 were waiting for their turn in a slowly moving queue to get one set. That was clearly a waste of time as 5 million coins of each category had been minted – more than enough to meet the demand.

CBSL had clearly not prepared to meet the demand and wasted a lot of time of their staff and collectors who had come to buy them. When only one set was sold to each person in the queue, coin dealers in Colombo Fort seeing a possible opportunity to make a fast buck sent extra persons to stand in queue and buy up all available stock. This made it more difficult for genuine collectors to purchase their needs from CBSL, without paying a premium to the coin dealers.

If the limited stock was because all had not yet been produced, and will be released in the near future, that should have been clearly announced to discourage speculation. Assuming that the packaging cost was not at a loss to CBSL, I hope CBSL will pack more to supply all of the collector demand in Sri Lanka and abroad and prevent dealers who have stockpiled from profiting.

Ten Rupees was worth a gold sovereign before the Central Bank was created in 1950. The world “silima” was used for 50 cents as twenty shillings made a British Pound. A gold sovereign is now worth more than Rs. 40,000. The current Rs. 10 is worth less than the quarter cent when that was demonetised in 1910, and the half cent demonetised in 1941. So the highest denomination coin in Sri Lanka now has no significant buying value. Most Trishaws and long distance bus conductors do not now bother about change below Rs. 5.

It is a pity that these 25 district coins were not issued individually, say one per month with maybe a function in each district. It would have been an opportunity to engage with the rural public. Many countries like Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States have issued similar coin sets. Almost all issued over a period of one or more years, gaining momentum in collector interest over that long period. The most popular 50 US state series of 25 cent coins was issued over 10 years from 1999 to 2008 with just 5 issued each year in 10 week intervals.

In 1833, a legislative council was created, making the island a politically and administratively single unit. Five provinces were created, later expanded into nine, and these were subdivided into twenty-one districts. These districts were administered by officials known as Government Agents or Assistant Government Agents.

In 1955, the district replaced the province as the country’s main administrative unit. The Ampara District was created in 1961, followed by the creation of the Mullaitivu and Gampaha districts in 1978 through a new constitution, which also reintroduced the province as the main administrative unit. The last district to be created was Kilinochchi in 1984, and the current constitution (that of 1978) states that the territory of Sri Lanka consists of 25 administrative districts. These districts may be subdivided or amalgamated by a resolution of the Parliament of Sri Lanka.

Almost all countries which have issued a series of coins are a federation of once independent states which merged to form the present large country. This is clearly not the case for small Lanka which has 25 purely administrative districts under the nine Provincial Councils created in 1987 by the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution

This set of 25 coins was issued, it is claimed, to create coin collector interest. However, CBSL does not see the need to communicate with the collectors while letters sent seeking information and with offers to help go unanswered. It is therefore not surprising that it leads to very poor public relations.

At the beginning of the project the Sri Lanka Numismatic Society wrote and requested that this set be associated with the heritage sites, rather than districts. UNESCO Heritage site Dambulla gets no mention, overshadowed by Sigiriya in the same district.

It is a pity that the representation of the image was not identified on each coin. As district names are hardly known, a tourist might wonder why Sigiriya Rock is called Matale. The fact that the two bathing elephants on the Kegalle coin represent the Pinnawala Elephant orphanage is not obvious. The space at bottom could have been used, removing the 2013 which appears on both sides of the coin, when it is not even the year of release. It was just the year the coins were ordered from the Mincovna Kremnica of the Slovak Republic.

In March 2013, Kremnica was awarded a US$6 million contract by CBSL to mint 175 million Rs. 10 coins over the next three years. Adopting a value of Rs. 130 per US$, this works out to Rs. 4.50 per coin. So CBSL makes a 120% seigniorage on the steel Rs. 10 coins they issue into circulation. So the coins that are taken out of circulation by collectors are not a loss to CBSL but just adds to the shortage of change that the public desperately needs.

For more details on this District coin issue visit the author Dr Kavan Ratnatunga’s website
Two word descriptions on the obverse of Rs 10 coins issued
for the 25 districts of Sri Lanka


Coins and notes in Sallay’s words – Sunday Times


Ex-Central Bank official says every coin has its own story
By Smriti Daniel, Pix by J. Weerasekera

An hour with T.M.U. Sallay will have you looking at those coins and notes in your wallet from a very different perspective. As one of the first employees of Sri Lanka’s Central Bank, Mr. Sallay will be the first to tell you that the money we use so casually can not only be a work of art, but also be a victim of politics. Its ebb and flow are tremendously complex, but for a man who delights in the details there is a story worth telling behind every new coin and every change in colour.

Mr. Sallay was not always a connoisseur of currency; he recalls, for he once sold some of his father’s collection for the price of the metal it was made off. However, when he was 30, he applied for a post at the then newly-formed Central Bank. He got the job in the Currency Department of the Central Bank of Ceylon (as it was then known) as a non-staffer in early 1951. He stayed with the bank for over three decades until his retirement as a Senior Assistant Superintendent.

“A graduate from the University of Experience,” Mr. Sallay continues to collect coins and notes today and has been known to drop in on a meeting of the Numismatic Society – of which he was a founder member. Though in his late 80s, his memory is sharp and in his head is a veritable treasure trove of in point – the incident of the purple five rupee note.

It’s the early 1950s and in the home of Deputy Governor Rajapatirana, a domestic given a five rupee note, returned with change for two rupees only. The D.G’s wife was upset, and the matter came to the notice of the Governor. The confusion was because both notes were of the same colour. In 1954, when a new run was commissioned, the colour of one of the notes was changed to red.

Other changes have had less to do with practicality and more to do with business. Laki Senanayake’s iconic 1979 currency notes are today considered valuable works of art. Mr. Sallay is inordinately fond of those designs, not only for their aesthetic value but for the detail the artist incorporated into each piece. And he should know, having been deeply involved with the actual printing of the notes. “I had a really hard time because we had to give all the names of those trees and plants and animals,” he recollects, adding that he spent many hours with a warden in the Forest Department getting the scientific names exactly right.

Mr. Sallay still has his handwritten lists, and he uses them to illustrate what he considers evidence of the artist’s genius – the three banded crimson carp on the two rupee note was Puntius Nigrofasciatus, and it is a Grey Hornbill (Tockus Gingalenses) that sits atop the velvet tamarind tree (Dialium Ovoideum) in the ten-rupee note. The devil of course, was in the spellings.

T.M.U. Sallay

These various endemic flora and fauna featured on the notes were also grouped together in their native climate zones. “The 100-rupee note for instance featured the Seldina bird which is found at about 4,000 feet above sea level,” says Mr. Sallay, adding that the plants and insects that share the note are all from the same elevation. Hence, the notes reflect their inspiration in their colouring as well as in the order in which various animals and plants hailing from different altitudes are placed.

When the government decided to switch designs, it was not because the notes could be easily forged as the public was led to believe at that time, but because the printers had changed -- Bradbury Wilkinson and Co. had given way to Thomas De La Rue. The truth was that the notes were not easy to duplicate -- several security measures had been included. In an article he wrote for World Coin News in 1981, Mr. Sallay cited, as an example of this, the unique circular patterns created from Sri Lankan corals that were placed on the top and bottom of the notes.

He remembers his last assignment with particular fondness. A new coin was released to carry the image of Sri Lanka’s first President J.R Jayewardene. There was only one problem – the coins had to be ready in three weeks but the Royal Mint normally took four to six months to create a new coin. Mr. Sallay was sent to London to see the process through.

It was only after he reached London that his office informed him that the powers on high were somewhat displeased though that this coin was to be a humble 1 rupee coin. They had decided that aside from the standard run, they would have the Royal Mint in London create 25 to 30 commemorative coins in gold. To date, Mr. Sallay seems positively amazed that the entire thing went off without a hitch. When he flew back on January 31, 1978, he was carrying a case filled with perfect gold coins. These precious replicas were then given to the President-elect a few days later. Most of the coins were gifted to family members and highly placed cabinet members.

They are today valued as collectors’ items. Ironically, Mr. Sallay never received the gold coin that he was supposed to have been given in recognition of his work.

Today, he doesn’t follow the trends as closely as he used to, and does not consider himself a serious collector. His love of the subject, however, has made him a favourite with other collectors – they know they will always find a story worth hearing when they sit down with Mr. Sallay for a chat.

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