Symbolism on Ancient Sri Lankan Coins


The symbol on ancient Sri Lankan Coins  are similar to those found  on ancient coins of other Janapadas in mainland now called India. These can be divided into  Human figures in various poses. the Animals , Trees, the geometric symbols [ auspicious] .

This Art, a  form of expression, signified the beliefs, attitudes and activities  and need  or the totality of life of ancientpeople . Though the symbols were the same , the message conveyed  may have differed from Janapada to Janapada and through changes with time.

Some of the Human figures may have the characteristic of the Aryan deities such as Surya, Indra, Agni, Vayu,  etc. The rest of the art  is also found on  in the monasteries around which all settlement centered around in Sri Lanka. Every single piece of art of coins of ancient Sri Lanka is also found on the 2 cent BC stupa’s at Sanchi and Bharat , especially all the animals, the  sensuous standing and seated Figures of Ladies   and on the symbols depicted on the two Mangalika Mala[ necklaces] .They are common to 1 Cent Ayagapatas of the Jaina’s. They are very common symbols associated with Vishnu, Siva and other Hidhu deities found in their temples of a later period.

They are found on temples, icon on metal, terracotta,paintings, pottery, jewellery, on the foot prints of the Buddha, the Astamangala slabs, in the Garbhpatras under the Buddha statues , on Seals and Itaglio’s etc all over the scattered ruin in the Island. They are also found on inscriptions on Kings and commoners from the 3 Cent BC.



    A representative numbers of coin types published by H.W. Codrington in Ceylon -Coins and Currency were unearthed at Anuradhapura in 1990-1992 by Robin Conningham. Many similar pieces unearthed at Tissamaharama by the German team lead by Hans Joachim Weisshaar.Finds at both locations were ascribed to datable phases. The dates of finds more or less was in agreement with that predicted by Henry Parker in Ancient Ceylon and H.W. Codrington in Coins & Currency of Ceylon.1924.The members of the Numismatists Society of Sri Lanka has a fair numbers stray finds of these pieces.These were found by Gem miners of Tissamaharama around the German excavation site. All these finds are of great numismatist significance in the study of coinage of Sri Lankan origin.One of first book on coins of the Island was Numismata Orientalia  by H.W. Rhys David in 18 77.The coins unearthed then were only those of Polonnaruva and Dambadeniya period . His impression was that the first coins were issued during the Polonnaruva Period by King Parakramabhu I.Henry Parker published 4 pieces with the Railed swastika on a face , found while reconstructing a canal at Tissamaharama , the same vicinity of the German Dig. Henry Parker immediately recognised this unique symbol the Railed Swastika and suggested it as a dynastic crest of the ancient Sinhala rulers. There was much opposition to this view and for even suggesting they were coins.
  2. The Swastika and the Railed Swastika are taken as two different symbol.Both are found on ancient Sri Lankan Coins.The Railed Swastika symbols was described as no more royal than a Four leaved Shamrock[ John Still in Royal Asiatic Society Journal Vol xix-No 58, 1907, after discussing the Swastika with out a Railing at length].While the Railed Swastika is found on most pieces of ancient  Sri Lankan origin, the Swastika without the Railing is only found on a few Sri Lankan pieces. They are recorded on the a few Lead Inscribed pieces, one Tree in Enclosure and Railed Swastika[ C.C.C Pg 22 I A – Codrington] and found on two fractional pieces of the Lion and railed Swastika coins. One of these by German Excavation team at Akurugoda.It is also found depicted as the fingers in a standing figure of a copper plaque.
  3. The skeptics is now of the view that the first issue of truly Sri Lankan were the Gold Kalandas and its fractional pieces during the late Anuradhapura period.They sell the view that ancient Sri Lankan only used the Silver Punched mark Coins of the Magadhan Empire of India and around the 3/4 Cent AD they used the copper Roman coins as small change.Perhaps 64 of these coppers was equivalent to a Silver kahapana in the approximate Commodity Value for copper to Silver??.
  4.  All self respecting ruler in neighboring nations in India the Cholas, the Pandayan and the Chera etc regulated coins and expressed their political will over their region of control, it was suggested by these learned numismatist that the Srilankan kings  continued to produces either Temple Tokens or Pendents or Ritual objects from 3 Cent BC to 700 AD. The irony is that the Sri Lankan who had a post  of a Mint-master in the ancient days , had the metallic resources extending from Seruwila to Ambalantota ,a good history of metal smelting technology , ability to produce temple tokens of the highest order failed to conceive the idea of minting their own money until 8 Cent AD.They  speculate that the only  Currency were  the Silver kahapana and its half, the economy had no need for copper denominations for small change or fractional pieces in their daily transactions?.
  5. MONEY. Ancient money exist is all forms , the ability of a common man to recognize a piece of money at a glance was the key to be accepted as a means of exchange or to store them as wealth. For easy recognition the Issuer, as a rule the monarch placed his name or his portrait on the coin.This is not so in most of the coins where a mark or symbols of royal authority known to the people was placed instead. These symbol were well known and easily recognised by the community and they implicitly expressed the Authority of the issuer.
  6.  In the ancient coins of India and Sri Lanka only a few coins found are inscribed , the rest of pieces are marked with symbols or motifs. The very symbols that the Indians placed on their coins were used by those who issued the pieces found in Sri Lanka. These marks can be traced to the Silver Punch Marked Coins of the Magadhan Empire.Over 500 motifs were used of the over 600 type of coins issued during a period of 400 years.
  7. Many coin like objects that are found in 1990’s at Akurugoda were Inscribed in ancient script the Sinhalese used on their rock inscriptions.coins have been found recently in fair quantities.A few similar pieces were unearthed during archeological excavations mentioned above. Most are of them are of lead[ Pb] and some in copper metal.These pieces are marked with a similar set of symbols, common to this region of the world.These will be described under inscribed pieces.The pieces with the railed swastika and other symbols are examined in this article.Only one of these types the Lion and railed swastika is inscribed.What did these symbols  on the ancient pieces signify, they could have served any  of the following
    1. Were they just decorative themes or icons  placed there to fill vacant space.
    2. Were they Icons representing the Ruler or Issuer of these pieces? or they were symbols well known to the people of the Island and instantly recognised. But they were used by neighboring states. Was there any one symbol that distinguished them of the rest of out side world?.
    3. Were they lucky symbols that protected the holder from the unknown evil forces?
    4. Did they represent all or some of the above characteristics?.

    The aim of this exercise is to examine if these objects had the necessary characteristics to be used as money.The factors limiting this theme will discussed under the Symbols, the Shapes and Sizes,the fractional pieces and historical records of the coinage in ancient Sinhala Text and Inscriptions.

    1. In the absence of a proper description of what  an Ancient Currency was, the best evidence can be  deduced from ancient text that Buddhgosha  copied into Pali from Sinhalese text available at Abeyagiri in the 5 Cent AD. In disciplinary regulations laid down to the Buddhist monks is regarding handling of money. The money is defined as under[ HW Codington- CCC].
  9. From this statement it can be deduced that coins may be of any metal or material in what ever shape or size, but the most important criteria was that it had to be marked or an image raised up on ant material that can be easily identified with the issuer or ruler for them to be accepted as currency. This is no different to the modern definition of money.
  10. In Vimathi Vinodini Samanthapasadikava of the Anurhadapura period States that the Twenty  Massa that was minted according to the ancient traditions is equivalent to a Nila Kahapana.What these tradition are not written down, except in the Kautillya Arthasastra.


    The symbols found on these pieces, of this groups, are categorized as major and minor symbols in this paper.
    1. Major Symbols-They are larger and appear as prominent marks AND APPEAR IS MOST COINS IN THE CENTRE.
      1. The Swastika mounted on a central staff on a railing of four short lines.This is unique and found only on Sri Lankan coins and has to be distinguished from the standing alone Swastika which is found on other coin like objects of Sri Lanka and on ancient Indian Coins.The fact that they are found on all coins of this group is of special significance.The combination and placement of other less prominent symbols around this is a Railed Swastika is another salient feature of Sri Lankan, which is also unique to few type with in the group.
      2. Human figure, males or females[ Mother Goddess ] seated or standing.There is separate class where the plaques and two or three square coins with a lady bathed by two elephants may be categorized into.Even these symbols are found on ancient Indian coins.
      3. Animals-the Elephant, lion [and horse?]. They appear as a prominent symbol attended by smaller or less prominent symbols as is the case in most ancient Indian coins.
    2. Minor Symbols– They are smaller and less prominent.These are the the auspicious symbols of India and Sri Lanka.
      1. The Three-arched Hill or Caitiya,
      2. The Nandipada or Triratna,
      3. The Drum shaped Asana or throne.
      4. The triangular headed Standard.
      5. The Swastika– scares in this group, found above lion in Lion & Railed Swastika on obverse and in Tree in enclosure[ C.C.C].
      6. A group of dots or Golas
  12. These symbols is of great antiquity and traced back to Indus valley[ Pre -Arayan Period of India-History of Ceylon Vol I Ceylon University Press 1959].In religious Development in India , Nalinaksa Dutt- ” An idea of the religious beliefs of the period of the people of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa can be formed from the numerous stone images,figurines and engraved seals found at the two sites. They may be classified thus; worship of (1)Mother-goddess;(2) Three faced Siva and Phallus;(3)Trees;(4)Animals or Zoolatry and Swastika or wheel.
  13. Various interpretation are given to them, will be discussed later.All of them are found on the carvings of Sanchi gateway and other Buddhist centers of India.Perhaps they were vedic symbols later adopted by the Buddhists in India and Sri Lanka.The symbols on coins were sometimes used as a tool to express the political will or to expound religious beliefs and its propagation,perhaps a Buddhist interpretation was most likely. The ancient people of Sri Lanka considered their monarch a future Bodhisattva who ruled according to the Dhramma.Perhaps these coins were before the origin of the Buddha statue, when certain Icons as the Tree in enclosure represented the Buddha where the main event of his life is depicted on sculptures of ancient India. These were interpreted such by archeologist from the gateways at Sanchi Vihare, Bharut etc.
    These pieces of this group may be categorized into two Classes
    1. Class I , similar minor symbols and common design on both faces.
      1. The Multi-symbol Elephant and railed swastika.
      2. The Tree in Enclosure and Railed Swastika.
      3. The Small Elephant and Railed Swastika.
      4. The Lion and Railed Swastika
    2. Class II, those with Human figures on one face , the other face with Railed Swastika similar symbol arrangement around it.
      1. The Plaques with Human figure– Standing or seated with Railed swastika
      2. The Re-struck square Goddess and railed swastika.
      3. The Square Goddess and railed swastika
      4. The Goddess and Railed swastika

Nine different types dated to the period 3 Cent BC- 3 Cent AD can be recognised by the prominent railed swastika Symbol.The following well known type placed below according to the chronological order from the dating of Anuradhapura excavations.These data was taken from a newspaper article of Wing Comd Raja Wickremasinghe and his presentation at the Numismatist society. The type 1 is perhaps the earliest Swastika on a post found in Sri Lanka, but do not belong to the Railed swastika series. The line diagrams of coins are shown.

  1. 390-130 BC.
    The Unique Swastika. An inscribed coin of “Dataya“. Here is perhaps the earliest swastika mounted on a shaft or an Akshara.Three of them were unearthed during excavations at Anuradhapura and a stray find from Akurugoda is published.[ Published by C Jayasinghe].
  2. 300-100 BC.
    At Salgaswatte the earliest piece with the Railed Swastika had the human figure holding two stave’s or pillars  with an various types of Hairdo’s or crowns  around the head. The Railed swastika is  flanked by a Seated Bull and a Full vase and in some cases with other auspicious symbols used by ancient Sinhala craftsman. The a pencil rubbing off a similar coin is shown under, the figure appears to be a combine of four peacocks[ See Mr KNV Seyones – Peacock Coins] Many of them were first published by Henry Parker in Ancient Ceylon 1909. Some of these are shown under. These will be updated
  3. 300-100 BC.
    The Large Elephant, Tree in Enclosure, Railed Swastika and Caitiya around a Standard on one face with the Railed swastika on the reverse.The Basic arrangement is shown below. Many fractional pieces are published.Variations where the Standard is replaced by a Elephant Goad in the first two and the interchange of the Triratna and Asana is shown below.
  4. 190-100 BC.
    Multi- Faceted Railed swastika & Tree in Enclosure.Boat or skid under Railed Swastika.
  5. 190-100 BC
    Railed swastika & Elephant[Small]. A coin published by Bopearachchi and Wickremasinghe as H 20 in the Ruhuna- An Ancient Passivisation Revisited.the Railed Swastika is under the Elephant on one face and the under the Railed Swastika on the other face.
  6. 190-100 BC
    Railed swastika & lion.The Three arched hill or the Caitiya is under the Lion in most finds, but it is also under the Railed swastika is rare pieces. Shown below is line drawing of the face with the Railed Swastika. The other feature the Standard,the Tri-ratne upside down and the Dots.
  7. 190-100 BC .Railed Swastika & Tree in Enclosure.This coin too show some similarity of the positioning of the caitiya under the Railed swastika and in rare pieces under the Tree. The dots are also a characteristic mark on these coins. 
  8. Railed Swastika and Standing lady [ re-struck ]
  9. 190-100 BC
    Square -Railed swastika & standing lady with Boat.
  10. 190BC -70 AD.
    Railed swastika & Standing lady.
  1. Two coins with a lady standing on a boat with the railed swastika on the other face,
  • ARRANGEMENT OF SYMBOLS ON RAILED SWASTIKA GROUP.The summary below is from all coins available to the author, any single coin may not have all these symbols as most are worn or they have minor changes in the symbols.The distribution of marks on Obverse of Coins and reverse of coins.
        NEW OBVERSE           NEW REVERSE      
    Name The railed Swastika Caitiya The Asana Triratna The Standard The Dots The Chaitiya The Standard Asana & Triratna The Dots
    1.Plaque-Railed Swastika & Human figure Yes No No The seated Bull The Full Pot
    2.Railed Swastika & MS large Elephant yes yes under Railed Swastika yes yes No Yes yes yes Yes Yes
    3.Tree in Enclosure & Railed Swastika yes yes under Railed swastika yes Yes Yes on both sides Yes No yes to left & right yes Yes
    4.Square Railed Swastika & Tree in Enclosure yes No a two Tier symbol yes yes no no Yes
    5.Railed Swastika & Small Elephant yes yes under Railed Swastika yes Yes under Elephant
    6. Railed Swastika & Lion yes yes under Railed Swastika No No yes on both sides Yes No
    7.Re- struck Railed Swastika & Goddess yes No two elephant goads Elephant standing on a Lotus stalk
    8.Square Railed Swastika and Goddess yes No a Boat or skid No No Yes Elephant standing on a Lotus stalk
    9.Plaque – Railed Swastika and Goddess yes yes on H57[Bope and Wicks] Unique yes Yes Yes above Railed swastika on Small coin No A Lotus Plant under figure Elephant standing on a Lotus stalk

     The ancient tradition adopted in positioning of Minor Marks around the major Marks on Ancient Coins.

  • After viewing these can these coins be picked out from the rest of the coins of India? for reasons below
  • They all have Railed swastika.
  • The three arched hill is under the Railed swastika in Large and small elephants coins, the tree and the Lion coins. Bopearachchi and Wickremasinghe publishes a unique Goddess-plaque with this same feature.In most coins except for few small Elephant coins the Railed Swastika is flanked by either the Drum like Asana, the Triratna or Nandipada or the Triangular headed Standard or some other symbol in rare pieces
  • The Caitiya appears on the other face under the Main symbols in Lion piece, the Tree in enclosure piece,the small elephant piece.In the larger coins in good condition the Standard, the Triratna and the Drum shaped Asana is seen flanking the main symbols.
  • The large Elephant piece , the Small Elephant piece, The Tree in enclosure piece, one face can be exactly matched.The other face too have many similar Characteristics. The oblong plaques the reverse has much in common, the other face is different but belong to one class.
  • The Indian coins too had their own distinguishing marks or dynastic crests such as the Boar (Chalukya), Bull (Pallava), Tiger (Chola), Fish (Pandya and Alupas),Bow and Arrow (Cheras) and Lion (Hoysala) etc.They have similar symbols on the other face to those of Sri Lankan faces.These were accepted by traders and people right along the Dhakkinapatha -the famous Southern Trade routes. But come again the route ended in Sri Lanka who had temple tokens of same characteristics.The aim of the issuer to place a symbols on a a face of the coin, which strikes the eye of the holder who immediately identify it and accept it has money.It is prudent to name this set of coins as Railed Swastika group.
  • The pieces has been fabricated to a pre-designed concept which changed with Kings ,their mint-masters, with changes in ideas and beliefs and with time with in a time frame of over 600 years.The Plaques had all types of  shapes[ Walberg] , even seretted, like those  Roman Hispania Coins [80 BC].
  • Did these pieces have the required characteristics of the Indian coins in shape, metal, sizes and weights and the use of the same set of symbols. The shapes the deviation of weight and inscriptions published are equally important in the story of ancient Sri Lankan coinage.But that is a separate topic.
  • If fact the design on the  kalandas of Gold which some believe is the first  truly Sri Lankan Coins, has attributes of ancient Sri Lankan Coinage. The Figure standing on a Lotus stalk and the seated figure  has its origins in the God or Goddess plaques of ancient Sri Lanka. However the other auspicious symbol ranging from 7 to 9 on most coins minted in the past has changed.

The material on this blog may be used for any publication by any reader, and  I would be pleased to send what else is available with me= provided a copy of it is sent to me on my e-mail –

Brig Siri Munasinghe.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s