Nature of Ancient Sri Lankan Coinage

There is very little reliable knowledge or research  about the Art [skill , a way or method ] of the ancient engraver of Coins or Mint-master  who produced the different varieties of coins found in the Island. His work inevitably includes some reference to his own existence, training? or experiences, but even more to beliefs of the time he lived. The ideas expressed would have been a tradition known to, and  accepted by the people of that era , which  most probably  had the blessing of  a Issuer  or the Ruler him self. The idea or a message   expressed on the coins were of religious, political and social values of that era. Can a present day numismatist appreciate or perceive  those values which was expressed  in a totally different moment in history, interpreting  the Symbols placed in a very limited spatial area ?. Some of interpretation is summed up at the end.

The Characteristics of Coins.

How did the ancient Sri Lankan  people identify these pieces of metal what ever the shape  as objects of exchange, and accept their value?. In modern coins the  most important and essential characteristic  is the inclusion of the name of the issuer, or the official crest of the State or the face of the issuer or a symbol which imply the authority of the issuer and its value.This is what is followed by all countries in the 21 Cent AD. The closest that earliest Sri lankan adhered to this must was during the 8-10 Cent AD. When they had the name of State and Value or weight in Nagari script, with most letters were similar to the Sinhala script of the period. This was was on the Gold series known as the Kalandas of Gold, the Full, half , quarter and eighth Kalandas.   Shown below is the quarter Kalanda.

After almost 1200 years, these coins came to our rescue when we were to issue an 500 Ruppee Gold Coin for the 1991 South Asian Games. The name of state was the same except they were in English, Tamil and Sinhala, the value was Rupees Five Hundred from the nagari script AKA. By sticking to the same eigth carat Gold content of the Aka Kalanda[ the eighth] , we were able to keep the cost of minting below Rs 500/=. 



The earliest mention of coins is perhaps on a rock inscription in Kegalle Area off the Colombo -Kandy Road at manpitiya, it states a donation of two Kahapanas . This word is made up of two parts kaha- Pana. The Pana part is believed to Merchandise or Trade as taken from another inscription of a  Pana- adaka, an Superintendent of Trade or Merchandise. The Kaha is the sinhala for karsha a weight denoting a value as a means of exchange. This definition of money was conducive not only for trade but could be used to pay for services or labour, to store wealth etc.


Definition of Kahapana

An early definition that can be deduced  of ancient Kaha-panas [ Token for trade and exchange] as stated in Buddhagosha’s – Samantapadika- Atthakatha[ 5 Cent AD]. Buddhagosha visited the Island and translated  the Sinhalese texts  at Anuradhapura.

‘Kahapanas[Rupiya] are either of Gold or Silver of the common metal[ Copper]. The metal Masaka is the masaka made of copper and the like; the wooden masaka is of Masaka made of Sara wood,or the outside of bamboo or even Tala leaf on which an Image is cut or not cut’.


Closest Definition of money

It is clear that the ancient accepted as a means of exchange many types of objects, this is verified by coins finds during excavations.

  • Coins or Token may be of  Gold, Silver or Copper or any other material.
  • Image may or not be placed on coins[Coined and  Blank Pieces ]. These should be symbols that are well known too and accepted by the people.
  • There was a certain standard perhaps the weight of silver Kahapana on which the weights of copper coins were based upon.
  • There is no mention of shape

This  statement is true in almost all the old civilisations, except a few in South America and Africa?.


The names of coins may be obtained from an ancient text available to the Sinhalese in the ancient period. Here the text we gather that there were coins named kahapanas, the half or ardha – Kahapana, it quarter  and they were perhaps of Silver and there was Coins of Copper or its alloy named Masaka and it division  called Kakanika.


Names of coins




MetalValues and Weights- Ancient




The Standard Silver kahapana.The ancient standard at Rajagaha was that One twentieth of a kahapana [ now identified as the Silver punched marked coin of the weight of about 56 rice grains  found a fair quantities in the Island] was equivalent to a Masaka[ A Copper Coin of about 140 rice grains in weight]. The ancient standard measure of weight was in grains of rice.

That is the value of  56 grains of Silver was the same as the weight of 20 Copper kahapanas of 140 grains, this was 2800 grains of copper.

The value of Silver to Copper in exchange was about 2800/56 = 50.

Silver could buy 50 times its weight in Copper.

The need for different denomination.

The lowest average income according to ancient standards of living was similar to that in North India, this was about 5 silver Kahapanas per month or about around 80 copper panas per month or its equivalent in Grain or Rice. Saddhrama-Ratnavaliya written in the 13 Cent AD, states the Ina-dasi a paid servant who worked for a family in Nagadipa who worked for 60 kahapanas[ perhaps per year]. This is also the lowest yearly salary in the ancient book Arthasastra. This is worked on the basis that 4 hand fulls of rice was sufficient for a family  feed it selves for a day.The daily expenditure of about Two and a half Copper Panas per day for a family of about four.

A. Cunningham in Coins of Ancient India states that the daily wages of  labourer was around one copper pana in addition to his food. Perhaps the similar  conditions existed in Sri lanka


A few large coins above the copper pana weight of 144 grains of rice has been found. The Standing Lady and Railed Swastika is found from above 20 grams right down to to coins around half a gram. The  Large Elephant Swastika coin is about 14 grams , but smaller denominations of around half gram has been rare. Similar coin  of the Tree and Swastika, Lion and Swastika ,Seated lady etc have been found as stray finds or in scientific excavation. Th smaller Elephant and swastika and the Lion and dot are confined bo below 4 grams

The one eight and sixteenth of a pana is found in almost all types of coins. This was perhaps the  cost of the cheapest commodity that one can exchange for.

A set of same type  or design on coin with an Image of a Standing lady Bathed by Two Elephants and Railed Swastika on reverse of various sizes dug up by Gem miners from within the ancient fortress of Mahagama[ Now Tissa Rest house area is shown below.

Av set of Standing lady coins of various sizes


The introduction of metals into coinage was an important step.  Metals such as Gold , Silver and Copper had its parity rates between them. This led to various denominations with particular weights. But most of the coin like objects found seems to fit into values which may be identified with out weighing due to the size. Some of these coin like objects which are displayed at the Sri Lankan Numismatist Society Meeting are instantly identified as the full, half, or eight of a Pana by some members who are familiar in handling them.weights of Copper found in sri lanka

19/20 CENTURY PROCLAMATION. Compare with the Silver and copper pieces



The indication of the shape of the coin may be deduced from  ancient sculptures  of coin like objects. The shape of  Silver Kahapanas or Punch Marked Coins is found on  the scenes engraved at Bharut and shows the spreading of these coins to cover the entire ground in its  purchase by  Anipidu of the Jetavana complex in India to build a monastery for  the Buddha.

But the earliest indication of the shape of a coin in Sri lanka is perhaps found on the South Vahalkade at Kanteka Caitiya at Mihintale. This may be assumed to an artistic expression of a  seated figure of perhaps Varuna dispersing coin like objects of various shapes. These objects  are square, round and rectangular.Sqyare, Rectangular and Round Coin like objects- Mihitale- South Vahalkada- Katheka Caitiya.


Compare the shape of the Silver Kahapanas found in Sri Lanka with those on sculpture.


An example of different shapes and metals is on the serrated coins issued between 1940-90’s, where the face of King George, Queen Elisabeth in copper, the Crest of Ceylon and the crest of Sri Lanka in Aluminum . The  ancient serrated coin of the island of 2-4 Cent AD is special issue of Maya-devi coins that are dug up in Ruhuna , the South of the country made of an alloy of copper and lead. Serrated coins were used by the Romans in Spain- Denarii of A.Postumius Albinus.
The Face of King George and Queen Elisebeth, the Crest of Sri Lanka 1950 and the Crest of Sri Lanka in 1970

Serrated shape of the 2-4 Cent AD of Standing Maya devi , having the Railed Swastika in the reverse

Serrated Maya-devi[2-4 Cent AD

Coins of the ancients appeared in many shapes , a fish like pieces discovered in Ruhuna is shown below. This is similar to the Olbian [ Greek Island] coins and is inscribed with the name of the issuer. These were first published by Bopearachchi & Wickremasinghe.Many of these pieces have been found.


The Fish symbol is found on many inscription mainly in the south of the island , known as Ruhuna. S Paranavitane volume – Inscription of Ceylon 1971 shows ten  of these symbols found on inscription of pre-christain era. They appear along side the Railed Swastika  , now accepted to be the royal emblem [ Dr Paranavitana opinion is that the railed Swastika symbolically represents Gamini Tisa[ a name used by Royalty,   and the fish symbol is the dynastic symbol of the Ksatriya’s of the Kataragama, who were scions of the Matsya clan who migrated from Latadesa from where this Sinhalese are said to have migrated].


The earliest Scientifically dated indigenous coin.
The earliest coin[ Pre 300 BC] like object of Sri Lanka found in layers scientifically dated by Dr S Deraniyagala during excavations at Salgaswatte and Gedige is inscribed with the name of the issuer – Dataya on one face and a Swastika on a shaft on the other [Chandrika Jayasinghe].This is perhaps the earliest example in the evolution of unique Railed Swastika as a Royal Emblem of first Dynasty of kings in the Island.The Coin of Dataha[ Pre 3 Cent BC]

Name of the Issuer.
A very early coin like object that express the name of the issuer in both letters and symbols [phonetically] was published by KNV Seyone. The letter Sri , the Sanka [ or chank] on one face with the Bo-ankula on the other, may very well be Sri Sanka- Bo . Perhaps an issue of Aggabodhi III or IV[ 7 Cent AD].

Issuer name

King Chinata[ 2 Cent BC and King Siri-sanga Bo{7 Cent AD

Another coin like object of lead with the name King Chinata was also found in Ruhuna. and most probably that of a Sub-king.
The Name of Issuer and Value
A find that may clear any doubt as what these objects are coins was found in the South of the Island at Ruhuna Tissamaharama. This is inscribed with the name of issuer Kuda-Tisa and the value of the coin[ Pa na ya [an ancient name for a coin- Kaha-panaya] , which was the name of value or denomination of ancient currency. The legend reads Kudaka-tisa panaya. The Coin of Kuda- Tisa.This is from the cabinet of the much decorated war hero Major General Gamini Hettiarcahchi. These coins was published by Raj Somadeva in Saddhamangala Karunaratne Felicitation Volume-2002.The above pieces were issues of sub- Kings and its acceptance was restricted to small parts of the Island.The Panaya of Kuda Tisa.UN-INSCRIBED COINS ON WHICH “IMAGES ARE CUT OR RAISED“.

The majority of the ancient coin types of the ancient Sri Lanka which are found all corners of the Island have an arrangement of 6 to 8 symbols, on both faces but are not inscribed by the name of the Issuer . But there is one symbol that is common to all or most that were excavated at Salgaswatte and Gedige at Anuradhapura. This is the  Railed Swastika  symbol which  is now accepted as the  emblem/crest of the  ancient kings, thus authorising it use as money?.

In addition, a common set of Buddhist auspicious symbols that are found on other artifacts of that period are were well known to the people. Most coins have about 8 symbols on them, perhaps a astamangala[ Religious and good luck] object ,which not only had purchasing power, but also brought the people good luck. This was the common practice of the ancients, a tradition seen on ancient Indian coins too, which had similar symbol except the Railed Swastika. In its place was a emblems of kings of the different Janapadas and states.The Roman in later times followed this same practice and placed lucky symbols and images of their deities on their coins.


Until the first coins with a Railed swastika was discovered by Henry Parker at Tissamaharama, the belief was that Parakramabahu I was the first King to issue Coins[On the Coins and Measures of Ceylon-T.W. Rhys Davids]. and the inscription on Kalanda of Gold series was wrongly read as ‘Sri Lankeswara‘. The Railed Swastika was compared with a Swastika which John Still ridiculed to be as as’ Royal as a Four leafed Shamrock‘.

Fortunately over 50 Inscribed Lion coins have been found at Anurhadapura, Tissamaharama and at Jaffna with the unmistakable Railed Swastika. Dr Walberg makes great attempt to compare these with coins of Maharathis of India which has very similar Lion on the  obverse face. The coin he found is from Tissamaharama, but he fails to compare the symbols and the arrangement of the same with other coin like objects found during the same dig at the same time and place all having a Railed Swastika on the reverse. Even Dr Walberg accepts the lion [and railed Swastika]Coin as a money, though he is silent about the Railed Swastika found on the reverse.

I leave it to the reader to make their own opinion what these objects are AFTER EYE-BALLING the line diagram of the arrangement of coin like pieces of metal found in large numbers in the Island and with out taking into our argument the other basic factors such as weights and sizes which is different study. Does these objects have what is required in the symbols and there arrangement for the ancients have accepted them as money?.

Lion and Swastika

Lion and Swastika

The Lion and Railed swastika Coin, which has the name of issuer inscribed , the Crest of Royalty and the Buddhist auspicious symbol on them. These symbols are aesthetically placed around the main symbol at the centre. This practice appears to conform to some laid down specification.
Multi-symbol Elephant and Railed Swastika
The other coins such as the large Multi-type Elephant and Railed Swastika is a coin found at Salgaswatte and Gedige amoung the layers of undisturbed soils ,Carbon dated to around 200-300 BC. Here again the commonality in the design and similar systematic placement of auspicious symbols is seen. This is believed to be issued by King Devanam-Piyatissa as a commemorative for the propagation of Buddhism in the Island. The four symbol perhaps depicting the four important events in Buddha life is placed around the Standard or Dajhaya.[ Sign Emblem of King Devanampiyatissa- P WEERASINGHE- RAS VOL XXXIV 1989/90]. The Elephant signifies the Conceptions or Queen Maha-maya’s dream, the Bo-Tree in enclosure – his enlightenment, the Short Railed Swastika his – teachings and the Caitiya- his demise.[ Dr DPE Hettiarchchi]

The reverse is a Railed Swastika depicting the Dharmma-Raja or the Crest of Royalty flanked by the Tri-ratne and the Vajrasana, with a Caitiya under it. The three Dots are placed between these symbols and are characteristics of all early coins of the sinhalese. A design similar to the Lion and railed swastika Coin.

Large Elephant and Railed Swastika

Large Elephant and Railed Swastika

The symbol for the Buddha Birth .
A coin first published in RAS Journal by Dr PE Peries in 1909 with a figure of Standing lady bathed by two Elephants with a Railed Swastika and Buddhist symbols as on other ancient Sri Lankan coins. Dr Peries mentioned the similarity of this figure with that of the Four armed Lakshmi bathed by Elephants and later numismatist named this as the Lakshmi Plague. But DPE Hettarchchi who studied the symbols on ancient coins in detail, suggested that this was the identical copy of the Maya-devi’s bath scene before the birth of the Buddha as depicted in 7 very prominent Facades on the Sanchi Vihare. On Sanchi gateways the dream of Mayadevi [ Conception] appears once, the Caitiya symbol[ His demise] appears 32 times, the Bo-tree in enclosure[ His enlightenment] 67 time, the Rider-less horse[ Renunciation] 5 times,. But there was no symbol depicting of the event of his birth, He suggested that this scene depicts the birth event of Prince Siddharta [ RAS Journal PARANAVITANA FELICITATION VOLUME ].

The Standing Lady bathed by Two Elephants- Ritual bath prior to birth of Prince Siddjharta

Maya devi Coins

A ancient Sinhalese Coins with the symbol similar to the ancient Sinhala numeral 10 is found on the Bo-Tree and Railed Swastika. The arrangement and the commonality of symbols is apparent as with other coins shown above. .TREE AND SWASTIKA
The reverse of the Tree and Railed Swastika is shown below along with the minor good luck symbol.The Reverse of Tree and Railed Swastika
There is a pattern or the minor symbols are not not placed around major symbols in an ad hoc or arbitrarily manner. The placement of these symbols are.
Large Multi-symbol Elephant & Swastika
Large Multi-symbol Elephant & Raled Swastika
Inscribed Lion & Railed Swastika.
Bo- Tree & Railed Swastika.Hexagonal[click]

Large Bo-Tree and Railed Swastika

Tree and Railed Swastika.Round

Normal Bo-Tree and Railed Swastika

Maya- Devi and Railed Swastika.Rectangular[ click]

Maya devi and Railed Swastika

Naga- Raja or Bhumi and Railed Swastika.

King Mahasen’s Lion Coin[click]

King Mahasen’s Lion Coin

This new reverse on Sinhalese coins is found on the Recangular Bull coin.[ for more click]


Like the Railed swastika flanked by the auspicious symbols such as the Bull and the Pot , or the Asana[ Throne] and the Tri-ratna etc, the Four Dots in a circle is replaced by the Pun-kalas [ The Pot of plenty] flanked by two Lamps[ Dipas]. These symbol is found on the inscription of Parakramabuhu I- inscription[ Every drop of water shall be used for the prosperity of the country], which is shown below.

The pot is on a throne or Asana depicted by short line in a centre with two longer lines above and below – a similarity to that on coins. This symbol is found under the Railed Swastika.The drawing shown under depicts the Island Coins between 4 Cent to 7 cent AD, when the Gold Kalandas replaced them. There again the two Lamps flanked the standing figure which stood on a Lotus stalk[ A Characteristic of the Standing Lady on Maya-devi coins]. The only change was a different set of symbols having the Srivatsa  replacing the Railed Swastika etc.The Sun , Moon,and the Pot of plenty continued to be used. However a gradual change is obvious seen  in what ever theme was depicted  on the coins. The railed swastika series was used for 5 centuries, followed up perhaps by the Four  dot in circle etc for 2 Centuries, Followed up by Animal between two lamps etc for perhaps three Centuries and ending with the Standing/ Srivatsa and Seated figure series from the 8 Cent AD of late Anuradhapura  to 15 Cent AD of Kotte[ Parakramabhu VI Lion Coin].

The Pot of plenty flanked by two Dipas on a throne [Two lines below and above a shorter middle line.

Bull with Crescent Moon and Lamp on Obverse and Pot between two lamps on three wavy lines on reverse.

Lion and on reverse Pot on 3 wavy lines flanked by two Lamps.

Obv: Seated Bull on 3 Wavy lines with Crescent Moon Rev: Two Fish on 3 Wavy Line flanked by two Lamps

The Kalandas of Gold having most of characteristic of Ancient Coins , the two lotus stalks, the Four Golas, The cresent Moon, the Chank,,The Pot, et.

Coin of King Vijayabahu I1058-1114 AD

Parakramabahu I [1153-1168 AD

Chodagagadeva[1196-1197 AD

Nissankamalla [1187-1196 AD

Kalyanavathi [ 1202-1208 AD

The Mint-masters followed a tradition or some basic minimum requirement in the choice of minor auspicious symbols and how these symbols were placed around a few chosen main symbols.

The ancient Mint- masters used auspicious Buddhist Symbols which were very well known to the people, along with the Crest of Royalty on most of the coin types between the period 300 BC -200 AD. The practice of placing symbols sacred and known to the people was a very convenient and a successful method of expressing the authority of the Rulers on coins. These coins were immediately recognized and accepted at a glance.

So far the interpretation of such symbol.

1. The railed swastika is the Royal Emblem and also as Gamini Tisa a title used by many of our Rulers.

2. The three sounds of Sinhala words Sri  Sanka and  Bo sound is speculated to be Sri Sangabo – a title used by Sinhala kings- found on the Coin of Aggabodhi and the Kalandas of Gold.

3. The four symbols the large Elephant & Swastika are Buddhist symbols . The Elephant represent Maya devi dream -Conception of the Prince Sidhartha. The Bo tree in enclosure the enlightenment of the Buddha, the Railed Swastika short , the Dhramma according to which the king ruled and hence taken as the Royal Emblem. The Caitiya the relics the passing away of the Buddha.

4. The standing figure of lady bathed by two elephants is the same interpretation as that given to the similar standing and seated figures on the Sanchi Vihare at Bhopal India, the scene represent the bath of Maya devi a Sakyan lady in a lotus pond,prior to birth of Budddha and represent that main event in his life.

Please send all comments and  suggested corrections to


2 thoughts on “Nature of Ancient Sri Lankan Coinage

  1. Pingback: Caste in Sinhala Society | Thuppahi's Blog

    • S Paranavitane states that Fish symbol originated at Latadesha in Indus Valley, original sinha clan[ perhaps of the Kastriyas of Famous Porus who fought Alexander the great], who perhaps migrated to Lata in the East of India. Did the kastriya of Buddhas family too have the double fish as an emblem[ Who came over with Princess Baddhakachnna]. The Fish over lion copper pieces is also found in Bihar , the region of Kapilawastu, and found in fair quantities in Sri lanaka[and Kalinga]. It was important enough to he placed in the oldest Dagabo by Mahanaga[ Henry Parker].See copper punch marked coins

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