Money in ancient and Medieval Sri Lanka
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Author:  Guest [ Sun Dec 21, 2008 1:18 am ]
Post subject:  Money in ancient and Medieval Sri Lanka

Money in ancient and Medieval Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka was one of the earliest issuers of coinage in the world.’ Archaeologists have found Sinhala coins dating from fifth century BC. Excavations at Anuradhapura Gedige in 1985 produced a series of silver-plated coins dated to 400- 200 BC, pre-300 BC, 300-100 BC and 190-70 BC.

by Kamalika Pieris

Money was in use in Sri Lanka from a surprisingly early period. Excavations at Batalanda cave in Kitulgala showed that sea cowries had been taken up there 15,000 years ago. Sea cowries were used as money in China in pre-historic times. Sri Lanka was one of the earliest issuers of coinage in the world.’ Archaeologists have found Sinhala coins dating from fifth century BC. Excavations at Anuradhapura Gedige in 1985 produced a series of silver-plated coins dated to 400- 200 BC, pre-300 BC, 300-100 BC and 190-70 BC. Salgaswatte excavations at Anuradhapura Citadel produced 390-130 BC, pre-300 BC, 300-100 BC and 200-100 BC coins.

The earliest Sri Lanka coins were punch marked rectangular pieces of silver known as the purana. These were probably issued by guilds with the approval of the rulers. They later became circular in shape. They were succeeded by die struck coins such as the ‘Lakshmi ‘and ‘elephant and swastika’ coins. In the last three centuries of the Anuradhapura period, a gold coinage with the kalanda as the standard weight was in circulation. There was also the pala (quarter weight) and aka (one eighth weight). In the 9th and 10th centuries, there was the kahavanu (gold) and the kahapana (silver) coins. Apart from currency, un-coined metal, particularly gold and silver weights were used for exchange. There were minute weights such as the nika in gold and silver.

The issue of coins was a royal monopoly. The coins were issued by the royal treasury. Periyakadu vihara cave inscription (Kurunegala district) mentions the minting of coins. Badulla Pillar inscriptions prohibited the debasing of coins. There were separate coins for foreign transactions. A 7th century Sinhala coin, give the weight in Sinhala but in Nagari script, indicating that it was for external and not internal use. Seals and inscriptions also carried the same markings as coins. The first Sinhala king to issue coins in his name was Vijayabahu I. The use of precious metals for coins ended in the reign of Parakrama bahu I. In his reign coins were mainly silver or white metal, with a limited number of copper coins. . A coin assigned to Parakrama bahu I was found at Kadurugoda, (Kantarodai) in Jaffna. It is considered to be an extremely rare coin.

The coins of the 13th century rulers were known as Dambadeni coins. A massa coin of the Dambadeniya period was found in Jaffna. It is assigned to Parakrama bahu II who revived the massa coin. Ummagga Jataka refers to coins of copper under Parakrama bahu IV of Kurunegala. A coin assigned to Parakrama bahu VI was also found in Jaffna. In mid- 14th century the massa or kahapana fell into disuse and coins such as panam were more widely used. The south had its own inscribed coinage. A town dated to Anuradhapura period was found at Akurugoda, Tissamaharama. Excavations at Akurugoda unearthed coin moulds which indicated local production of coins. Coins showing the birth, enlightenment, dhamma and death of Buddha were found at the Mahagama excavations in Ruhuna. Mahagama excavations had yielded enormous quantities of coins. ‘Car ekak puravana tharamata.’ They were sold to collectors in kilograms.

Foreign connections

By the 3rd century BC, trade was money based. Mampita vihara inscription in Kegalle district indicates this. Export transactions were in money. Coins from Iran, China and Indian kingdoms like Orissa have been found in Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura Gedige excavations of 1985 unearthed coin moulds for the punch marked coins of India. Roman coins dated between 2nd and 6th century AD were found at Mahatittha, Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Kantarodai, Mihintale and Valaicchhenai. The gold and silver coins of almost every Muslim dynasty of Baghdad, Alexandria, North Africa and northern India belonging to the period between the 8th and 15th century have been found in Sri Lanka. Arabian coins of 12th and 13th century have also been found in the area south of Colombo near the coast in Kalutara district.

Money was integral to the economic and social life of the community. Valuations were done in terms of money. During the reign of Bhatika Tissa (143-167) there was a judgement on a matter concerning the determination of the monetary value of a stolen object.1 Fees, taxes and fines were paid in money. I think that fees have been levied by the state for some of its monopolies. Individuals could mine gems on payment of a fee. The public were fined for all sorts of offences, including adultery. Situlpahuwa inscription refers to fines paid at court. Timbirivava inscription of Kassapa IV shows that fines were paid into the royal treasury. 2 Most of the taxes levied on merchandise at ports, market towns and capital city were probably collected in cash. Minvila inscription refers to taxes from three ports or ferries. Situlpahuwa inscription refers to the customs duty from the Godawaya port. Land tax was paid partly in kind and partly in cash. In the medieval period there was a poll tax of one massa or a certain amount of gold pieces charged upon the head of each individual. There were also other taxes which were termed monthly and daily payments.

Sale of tank

Land transactions were done in cash. Eppawela inscription (10th century) refers to a sale of one paya of paddy land for eight kalanda by Velatme Mihindu to Ukunuhasa Kotta. Wilewewa inscription dated to Gajabahu refers to a sale of a tank for 4000 kahavanu by Chitra. Torava Mayailava vihara inscription (2nd century) refers to a field purchased for one thousand kahapana by an amatya named Maha Atulaya. According to an inscription at Dambulla the monk who constructed Chatawana Chaitya had obtained a paddy field for it by selling his begging bowl. He also bought two other paddy fields, paying in kahavanu. Hinguregala inscription stated that the monastery had purchased fields from a company of soldiers stationed at a military camp. Payment was made separately for each field to a separate group of soldiers.

Money was used for other commercial transactions as well. Terms like ‘attikaram’ and ‘at panduru’ show that advance payments were made in money. In the medieval period individuals obtained cash loans on interest (poli) either on trust or by mortgaging property (ukas). Poverty among the poorer classes was such that sometimes parents were compelled to sell or mortgage their children for slavery for a few kahapana. One parent married his daughter to a rich family for 12 kahapana, another mortgaged his son for 8 kahapana and a third parent was told ‘this is your daughter, put her in a house, get 12 kahapana and buy a milch cow.’ Payments relating to slaves are mentioned in inscriptions.

There were banks. Diyagama inscription refers to several banks. Aminichchiya inscription, Kekirawa, states that the tanks and monies of a certain temple were in charge of a niyamathana named Kalamahanaka, based in Anuradhapura. This institution had acted both as a bank and a board of trustees. Anuradhapura had another bank known as Mahatabaka. There were banks in Kelaniya, as well as in villages and other towns. King Mahallaka naga had dealings with Utapura bank. Vasabha placed monies in charge of Tiragama bank. There is also mention of Amara bank.

Interest was paid on deposits. Thonigala inscription (7th century) says that the son of a minister deposited in a bank or board of trustees, paddy, ulundu, green gram and other grain. The interest was to be used to offer alms to bhikkus during the Ariyawamsa festival. The interest worked out to 50% for paddy and 25% for beans. Deposits were also accepted in an institution called nakara. Ruvanvelisays slab inscription indicated that the income from a donation was handed over to Mujitagama nakara and the document relating to this was kept in Loha maha paya.

There was considerable buying and selling in the domestic sector. The urban areas had shops. Mahavamsa refers to ‘shops here and there in the outskirts of Polonnaruwa.’ In Anuradhapura, there were market centres for ‘privileged classes’. These traded in luxury goods. Mahavamsa records that Suranimila bought perfumes from one of these shops. Festivals were also seen as opportunities to buy and sell. The festival to celebrate the completion of the Mahathupa at Mihintale during the time of Mahadatha Mahanaga included streets with shops and stores.

Essential items were also bought for money. Samantapasadika, (5th century) refers to food centres within the city where one could purchase meals, including cooked meat and sweets. Samantapasadika also speaks of visits by customers to workshops of craftsmen to purchase everyday items like axes and ceramic alms bowls in exchange for payment in coins. Saddharmalankaraya and Pujavaliya, (13th century) talk of villagers who took pingo loads of grass and cartloads of firewood from the villages into the cities for sale. One villager took herbs and fruits from a forest and sold it in town. He bought essential foodstuffs, rice, salt, chillies, and oil from the proceeds.


Money and barter existed side by side at village level. Some of the village products circulated in the form of barter. Barter continued in the medieval period. Saddharmaratnakaraya (13th century) speaks of a fisherman who exchanged his fish daily for ghee, milk and oil. Historians point out that currency was also in use to some extent in the interior villages. Medieval literature speaks of villagers paying kahavanu to purchase ghee, venison and lime. Saddharmaratnavali refers to a person who exchanged his fish for metal weights known as aka. Parevi sandesaya refers to village market places.

The Buddhist monasteries dealt in money. Viharas were given money as endowments, with precise instructions as to the way the money was to be used. These monies were usually for bana preaching and dana. In some property donations, the benefit would have been realised in cash. Vasabha made a grant of a tank to provide for oil for lamps at an uposatha house. Gajabahu granted a tank for the provision of food at Abhayagiri vihara and Mahinda III granted a canal for repairs to the Ratana pasada. The vihara sometimes sold its properties. The queen of Udaya I redeemed villages which had been sold and returned the villages to the vihara in question.

Monasteries had a cash income. At Chetiyagiri 145 kalandas and one aka in gold were set apart for its annual expenses. Money was used to pay for services provided to the monasteries. Inscriptions dating from the 9th to 13th centuries show that the lay officials working in the monasteries were working for wages. Even minor servants such as flower gatherers were paid definite sums of money. In a few instances, allowances were also paid in gold. According to the evidence, monks responsible for the management of Abhayagiri were paid. Though wages of labourers were paid in kind, generally with rice, Mahavamsa said that the workers on the Mahathupa were paid in wages and that hundred thousand kahapanas were set aside for this. Money was also used to buy the materials needed for monastic repairs, to obtain items which were not manufactured in the monastery and to purchase robes for monks.

I think that the monastery budget was, in part based on money. A 10th century record at Abhayagiri refers to the funds set aside for food and clothing and funds set apart for robes. I think that these were held in cash. The Mihintale tablets stipulated that the produce from two villages, Damgamiya and Algamiya, were to be used for repairs at Katu maha saya and Kiriband pavu dagoba respectively. The produce would have been converted to cash for this. The offerings made at these two shrines as well as the shrines of the main monastery together with one ‘yal’ of paddy and one hundred kalandas of gold were to be allocated for repairs at the main monastery.

‘Business house’

The monasteries maintained elaborate accounts. R.A.L.H. Gunawardana remarked that the book keeping and accounting of the monastery was ‘worthy of a business house.’ Mihintale tablet stipulated that all receipts from estates as well as all payment made for the supply of food, for repairs and allowances were recorded in a register. The committee of management at Chetiyagiri had to prepare a daily statement of accounts from the entries in the registers. There were separate statements of accounts, giving income and expenditure for the various establishments attached to Abhayagiri monastery. Abhayagiri hermitages had to present an annual statement of income, expenditure and balance in hand. Guawardana says that it is likely that accounting was both in cash and kind. Gunawardana suggests that the two incomes were totalled and accounted separately.

The Mahavamsa contains many references to money. The gifts given to the viharas were recorded in terms of money. Jetthatissa gifted the Loha maha paya a jewel worth sixty thousand. Dutugemunu had given gifts to the Bodhi tree ‘spending a hundred thousand pieces of money." Parakrama bahu II had a chest made for the tooth relic at 5000 gold nikas and another chest for 25,000 silver nikas. Festival expenses were noted. Sirimeghavanna spent 900,000 kahapanas for a festival for the Tooth Relic.

Building costs are emphasized in the Mahavamsa. It was noted that Lanjatissa built three stone terraces spending three hundred thousand pieces of money. Lanjatissa had spent another hundred thousand for Chetiya vihara.’ Sena III laid out a stone paving for a temple at the cost of forty thousand kahapanas. Movable and immovable properties owned by the monasteries were given money estimates. Jettatissa renovated the Lohapasa so that ‘it was now worth a lot of money." Mahavamsa said of the Lohapasada that "palace, parasol, throne and pavilion were beyond price.’ Thrones whenever mentioned were declared to be worth a koti each. A pasada in one of the buildings was reckoned at thirty kotis. The bundles of pearl strings on the four corners of a canopy ‘were each worth nine hundred thousand pieces of money.’

According to the Mahavamsa the pin pota also referred to money. When Dutugemunu was dying his pin pota was read out. This held a list of the merit-gaining activities of the king. .According to the Mahavamsa, the pin pota started off by saying that Dutugemunu had "built ninety-nine viharas spending nineteen kotis and the Lohapasada spending thirty kotis". The sangha were clearly very comfortable with money. Anuradhapura inscription of Mahinda V (982-1017) prohibited monks from taking money to ordain monks. It said that the giver and taker should both be expelled from the monastery.

The writings of W.I.Siriweera, O.M.R Sirisena, A.S Hettiarachchi, S Paranavitane, T Hettiarachchy, Walpola Rahula, N Mudiyanse, L.S.Perera, AV Suraweera and a talk by Brig, S Munasinghe were used for this essay.

1 R.A.L.H. Gunawardana. Necessary evil, the growth of a system of judicial courts and the response it evoked among the Buddhist monastic community in ancient Sri Lanka. Buffalo Law Review 55(2) 2007. p 686.

2 EZ ref can be found in A.R.B. Amerasinghe. Legal heritage of Sri Lanka p 214.

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