The History of Ancient Sri-Lankan Coins -Introduction.

The History of Ancient Sri-Lankan Coins


Its location in respect of  the Ocean currents and Trade winds brought most ancient mariners and traders ,who sailed the Indian Ocean ,to the Island of Sri Lanka.The sought after resources such as Pepper, Ivory, Pearls and Gem stones etc was main items of trade and exchange.

It is assumed that the  exchange goods was by the  system of barter. But money in any form if available could have been fruitfull, convenient and  practical for such trade. All these Traders had their own form of currency so did the neighboring countries . There is epigraphical evidence of indegenous  Traders and Trade corporations  or Guilds .  The Ships of the Ancient Sri Lankan are mentioned in ancient woprld history , there were many  expeditions undertaken by our Kings, that are mentioned in our chronicles .

Every self respecting Monarch of the ancient period  minted their own coins, to express their political authority and will over their  area of control.The finds of large quantities of coin like objects that were produced in our Island and the availability of copper and other minerals,the evidence of ancient copper and Iron smelting founderies in the Island. All the requirements with evidence for Sri Lanka  to have had some sort of a coin based economy is available.

Yet some numismatist is of the opinion that Sri Lanka used the silver kahapanas or Punch Marked Coins for foreign trade. So did all the other states in the Indian sub-continant. PMC’s are found in every state and janapada of India. But all these states had their own copper and gold currency in addition to to the silver PMC’s, which was the or as  common currency of the Indian states. The  old story of John Still in th late 19 Cent , when a few coins were  published was that the first local coin was issued by Parakramabahu I in the 12 Cent AD. Now the date has been pushed back that the first coin was the Gold Coin of perhaps the 8 cent AD, until then the Roman Copper coins[ were only used. The so called imitations, minted in fair quantities to the Roman standard was by local minters. They had  their own symbols  insted of Roman symbols. AThe little work done by Walberg need be continued and the word imitations be given little respect to what it really was.

The History of Ancient Sri-Lankan Coins

The commonest of all ancient Sri Lankan pieces is perhaps the rectangular shaped coin with the Standing or Seated  figure on one face and the Railed Swastika on the other. A few Numismatist insist that these are not coins for the undermentioned reasons. But they agree that they were could be assigned to a period from 2 Cent BC to about 5 Cent AD.

  • the flan are rectangular ,coins of the West were circular.
  • Curved top edge flans
  • edges of flan is curved forming a oblong shape.
  • Few are pierced and used as pendents.Only a few, these were pretty  to be used as necklace as well. A usual practice adopted and applies to other coins.
  • few flans were bent,a lot are broken, not all but less than 1%.
  • few flans have serrated edges
  • They are found in relious sites etc. [ But so are most world coins . Religious Theory- Origin of Coisn do not aspply to Sri Lanka]

A study of the nature of ancient Coinage a coin cannot be defined by shape and size. Roundness is only a fairly recent characteristic of coins, even this gives way to multi-faceted shapes to differentiate between issues and fractions.[ Understanding Coin-P.J Casey1986 – B.T Batsford Ltd London]. But those who propose the theory that Sri Lankan did not  mint coins until the 8 Cent AD, have not  even considered the fair numbers of Round and squre coins having  very noticable similar symbols as those of the above Oblong pieces . 

A good example is that when an inscribed coin with a lion  and a Rialed swastika  was dug up at Tissa, Ruhuna in layer  dated to 6 Cent AD but the letters of the script is definitely of the 1/2 Cent AD type , R.Walberg had to prove that it  may have  belonged to the Mahrathis family of coins. He has not compared the symbols and fabric etc  on this lion coin with symbols of coins like objects that were found in the same location but in a very much lower layers[ 1 Cent AD]. Two Lion and Railed Swastika Coins and the Tree and Railed Swastika etc were found in the identical location. All these are round and non of them had been perforated.

Even Romans had serrated edge coins and our modern 2 and 10 cents are serrated.These coins were minted by craftsman through a period of 500 odd years in various metals, some were struck and some Cast.I think these small changes is not out of the ordinary.These characteristics may prove useful in categorizing them and dating them.

A ancient Definition of Coins of the East

The point here is will these flans with symbols on them will be accepted by the people as a means of exchange?. In different parts of the world, money in all shapes, forms and materials was used.There was no one standard. But what of our ancient past?.The earliest clue perhaps found in the text defining what money was in given in Samantapasadika an commentary written by Buddhagoghosa during the 5 Cent AD. These were copied from ancient text available to him at the Abeyagiri Vihare

In this passage kahapanas is either made of gold or that of silver[rupia]or made of copper or brass,etc; the wooden masaka of Sara wood or outside of Bamboo or lastly of Tali-pot leaf on which a figure is cut ; the masaka made of Lac or gum on which a figure is caused to rise ;lastly on bone, skin or fruits or leaf;whether with or with out a raised image ‘.

A disc of Gum of trees or Lac , the property of Col Pearce.RA published in Numismata Orientala- TW Rhys David is shown below.

A Coin Like Object of Resin or Lac.


The reader has to ask him self if the symbols that are placed on these metal flans as in the passage of Samantapasadika figure is cut or figure is caused to rise is recognized by both parties in the exchange of good or services and accepted without question. Shown below are a set of symbols found on ancient coins of Sri Lanka found in layers excavated at Salgaswatte and Gedige dated between 400 BC -100 AD. These are categorized into . The ancient Indian text Arthasastra of Chanaka or Kautiliya, [King Asoka’s and his fathers adviser] would have been available to our kings.King Devastation sent an Accountant Tisa as one of his em-miseries to Asoka, and he was given the rank of Setthi a trader banker during his stay of 3 months in Asoka court.Rev Mahinda and Theri Sangamitta comes from strong family tradition of Setthi or banker/ traders.

Description of Coins

A Hand full or a Pana

An inscribed  coin like Lead [Pb] object was found by the gem miners of Akurugoda Tissamaharama. This was read as under by Raj Somadeva and published in the Saddhamangala Karunaratne- Felicitation Volume of the Archeological Survey  Department in 2002. Kudakatisa putaha panaya A Pana, belonging to the son of Khuddatissa Location : Akurugoda, Tissamaharama in the Hambantota District. Context  : un-stratified Medium   : metal (lead) Present location  : Brig. Gamini. Hettiarachchi collection This is a coin about 1.08 cms in its diameter. The obverse of the object consists of an elaborate :flower design. On the other side there are ten Brahmi letters indited along the edge of the disk. On the centre of this side is a figure of a Srivatsa symbol. The inscription on the reverse side can be read as ‘Kudakatisa putaha Panaya. This long word can be divided in to three separate words as kudakatisa, putaha and panaya. The word kudakatisa is no doubt a personal name. Word kudaka can be derived from the Sanskrit word ksudra and its Pali derivation khuddaka, which means ‘small’. The word panaya is a tatsama of the Sanskrit word pana. According to Codrington pana was a kind of value measure specially used for early coinage in Northern India (Codrington, 1924:2). Therefore, the meaning of the present inscription is ‘the coin that belongs to the son of Khuddatissa. If the line of derivation, which is emphasized here, is correct, it is very interesting to note that it reveals to us a new way of presenting coins at such an early date. Also it directly famishes us a clue to understand that this small metal disk had a coin value at that time. The word Kanakatisa is derived form the Sanskrit words Krsna Tisya. It is also a possibility that its derivation is from Sanskrit Kama Tisya. There are three inscriptions at a site called Nuvarakanda in the Kurunegala district mentioned about a person named Kanatisa (CJSG II: 126). The word Krsna literary means the colour of Black or dark Blue and has so many adopted meanings. It is also used to denote an avatar of the god Vishnu in the Vedic literature.


The souces of religious text that is available in the form Buddhist  stories was the period before Gautama Buddh[ % Cent BC] from the time of Vippassi Buddha. According to Mahapadana suttra Atuvava there were five Types of money[ Rev Meda-UyangodaVimalakirthi Sthaira] 


The Fourth type coin in use in India was  with impression of the Tortoise on Gold flan, perhaps similar to th ancient coins of Greece. None of these  type have been found in Sri Lanka. But Objects in the shape of Tortoises and with impression of it has been found at Tissamaharama.

 1.The turtle was the symbol on one of the earliest Greek coin-The silver Stater.

2.The  use of the tortice / Turtle figure on metal continued to used  in Sri Lanka . A coin like object  that was found in Ruhuna and  published by Bopearachchi & Wickremasinghe in Ruhuna- An Ancient Civilization Revisited ,is in the shape of a Turtle.Two of them A41 and A42 are inscribed in the ancient letters of the Sinhalese as ‘Of Tina” and  “Of Samudda“.?.  Two of these found at Akurugoda is shown below. 


Iron was initially used in ancient Greece as a standard for exchange in the form of bars or spits. A hand full or six in number was termed a  Drachma [A hand-full in sinhala a Dharana or in India a and full of cowries was a Pana].The Drachma  was used during the invasion by Julius Ceaser and found in UK. They were also found deposited in the temple of Hera at Argos and Phiedon of Argos. Phiedon of Argos had ordained that a first coin in history a silver Stater struck by Ageina, Greece was to be accepted as two Drachmas. The closest commercial town to Argos was Corinth. there is an inscription in a temple where its stated that ” I am a Drachma”suggesting that an Aegentian coin was fixed to the stone as a sort of exhibit to let be known that this lump of silver[The stater or standard coin] was hence forth to be recognised as the equivalent of the old bundle of iron bars. The closest parallel in Sri Lanka is a coin now in possession of Major General Gamini Hettiarchchi which is inscribed as Kudaktisa Putaha Panaya which means “A Pana belonging to the Son of Khuddatissa”. [ Raj Somadeva]. This is perhaps unique that Sri Lanka has evidence of a Token made in lead that is worth a Pana in value. Pana were believed to be copper coin. The meaning of Pana can also be taken as a hand-full-According to A Conningham it was hand-full of Cowries i.e numbered 80 as an equivalent of a silver karshapana. The copper standard for ancient coins was according to Dr PE Peries- Nagadipa- RAS Journal XXVIII, 1919.

1/16 Pana ..   .. 9 Grains
1/8 pana .. Ardha-kakini .. 18 grains
1/4 pana .. Kakini .. 36 grains
1/2 pana .. ardha-pana .. 72 grains
Pana ..   .. 144 grains
1 1/2 pana ..   .. 180 grains
2 pana .. Duvi-pana .. 288 grains
4 pana .. Pala
4 Palas of copper .. 1 Silver-pana or Kahapana

In the ancient text Attha-katha on the Dhammapada-the fractional pieces of the coins is described in the story of Sirima. Here the King request for any one to take away the body of Sirima but as nobody agrees the valued is halved each time. At last the price is said to be a Kahapana, then half kahapana,a quarter [pada], a masaka and Kakanika and ultimately nobody took her even for nothing. In the Mahawansa the during the period of the second Buddhist council, the Sanga at Vesali had requested money which then were kaphapanas, half kahapanas and massas. The Silver standard was the Karshapana or kahapana[Sinhala],The silver coin of 1/2 the weight are the Single die coins and and 1/4 weight pieces are recorded in the Island. As we allocate coins which may be parallel to the Kings of the Island, you will see that all these standards are found in fair quantities throughout the historical sites that have been excavated. Evidence of a standard weight system for coins of different metals and fractional pieces was in practice in the Island and in India


Is it a coincidence that small objects in the shape of Turtles were dug up in ancient Mahagama, some of these are inscribed . One of them published by Bopearachchi and Wickremasinghe in Ruhuna Revisited has on it an inscription Sata which is a Hundred. Weather these were used as Tokens for transactions we may never know, but the ancient Sri Lankans had the capability of producing these objects and they would have very well served the purpose of small change Token for the larger value Kahapanas. These are of lead and easily minted could have been useful as Token for the smaller denomination copper coins which was a weight with a commodity value.



In the ancient world in Greek Colony of Olbia bronze pieces in the shape of fish was cast and circulated along normally shaped money[ Coin Collecting-JG.Milne,CHV.Sutherland and JDA Thompson,1950]. These pieces had the token value that ancient people got used to value them a for a standard Fish that was earlier used in exchange or as barter for other goods. This is similar to the small knife coins of China which the ancient Chinese used as token that had a value of a full size specimen of a knife Many tokens or money type objects has been discovered as stray find from Tissamaharama. They are of two shapes and are similar to objects used ancient Greek Island in the Mediterranean Sea. The first is many “Inscribed and un-inscribed Fish” which may have been used as token in the exchange of goods or and for any ritual practice. Some cast lead fish that are inscribed has been found in ancient Ruhuna. Some believe these to be ritual objects, another possible explanation may be that these were tokens an ancient practice for the exchange of goods. Many of them were published by Bopearchchi & Wickremasinghe- In  RuhunaAn Ancient Civilization Revisited. One of them No A 43 is inscribed Tisaha – Of Tisa[a common name , also used by Kings] . What of Tisa. Was it a Token?. or  Coin?>


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