How Ancient Srilankan exchanged Goods


Excavations of caves in Srilanka , where ancient people lived  10 – 50,000 years ago revealed

  1. Shells of Sea animals whose natural inhabitants were in lagoons by the sea found at Beli-lena, Kitulgala , which is 60 miles away from the sea, these were probably carried along with  the Salt, which was an essential requirement by ancient man.
  2. Remains Edible Tree Snails Acava Paludmus ,whose habitat was in the Wet zone was collected and taken to the Dry Zones for consumption. The remains of such shells in Caves were dated by archeologists to be  over 14,000 years old.
  3. Evidence of manufacture of Stone tools and Implements as far back as 36,000 years ago.
  4. Finding Ornaments designed out Sea Shells by carefully drilling a hole over 18,500 years ago.


This evidence of Prehistoric people who made Ornaments and Stone Tools and perhaps exchanging these items for Salt or edible Snails or with the excess of Meat of the hunter and food gatherers?.   These  mini-economic activities  and movement of goods,  are the first evidence of  an  system of exchange or Barter in Sri Lanka.



The  Barter system or Exchange of good  was not always easy. There were many  obstacles faced by  the Person with  excess Salt and  who wished to exchange this for Meat . The first  obstacle was Finding a person who wanted Salt and had Meat to spare during that time frame. This is called Double Coincidence of Want. Finding the correct goods, correct persons to exchange at the right time was a time consuming exercise. Once these condition were satisfied, only created further delays of bargaining  quantity of  Salt was to be exchanged  for how much meat. This was earliest   the Supply and Demand  exercise that man solved by the introduction of an Tokens of Exchange with  a specified  measure of value. One such measure perhaps used for small transaction in Sri Lanka was a Rice or Grain, perhaps measured in Handfuls[ Pana in India was ‘a handful’  may be the origin of the word for Token of exchange or money] .


Many Cultures of the early period used  different Standards as a measure of value. According to ancient  Greeks  laws  of the 7 cent BC, certain offences were punishable  by imposing a fine, the value was measured with the Bous (Oxen or Bull). The Roman derived their Measure of Exchange or Money from  Cattle  and called it Pecunia.  People of Crete used lebetes or Bowls as a measure and marked their early coins with  Bowls. The Romans used the Amphora a Vase on their coins, Perhaps their standard measure of the quantities of  Grain or Wine in such Pots or Vases.

This is most probably the only answer as to why the Bull and Vase [ Pot] was  popular marks on few of our early coins.


An  word for a unit of value  in early Sri lanka  was a Pana,  this word appears in an old inscription at Handagala in Anuradhapura District . Which is of a  Pana Adaka and interpreted as  the Controller[ adaka] of Trade[ pana]. The earliest evidence of theuse of this word , is where two person of probably of 2nd Cent BC placed an inscription on a rock, of a donation at Manpita Vihare in Kegalle District. Their profession contributed immensely to the Kings Treasury of that period.  One was an Irrigation Officer  Uttara, he had donated Two Kaha Pana  and a Kahavana by  Phussa who dealt with Gems or a lapidiary. These officers of these professions had access to money during this period, perhaps the silver kahapanas .

Kaha was a Weight[ karsha in Sanskrit  Kaha in Pali and  Sinhala] and Pana meant for trade .  Pani [ the hand] or Pana may also interpreted as a Handful[ Mita] of  Grain or handful of Cowrees. [ Coins of Ancient India – A Cunningham]


The Iron age people in China began with Real metal knifes for exchange[ perhaps a tradition passed down from the stone tools ,as time passed these cumbersome real knifes  shrank in size to the more convenient Smaller knife money[ 8 -10Cms],


The  Greek Fishing colony of Olbia in the Black sea and certain dynasties in China used bronze pieces in the shape of fish, perhaps derived from the value of a common fish. There are few inscribed token in the shape of Fish or Turtles found at  Tissamaharama  Sri Lanka, many of them are inscribed in the ancient script used here. The fish marks is also found on many inscription of those who the historian believe to be the Kataragama Khastriya’s mentioned in the Mahavansa.imitative-token-sri-lanka2trading-units-of-coin-like-objects



The naturally  occurring Metal Ingots of Gold, Silver and Copper  became  valuable in the eyes of Man due to the luster and colour. These and  other such  lumps of hardened Wax or Gum off trees , Seeds, Wood  or any durable materials which may be  given a measured value was also used as an intermediary for transactions . These objects now called Tokens and solved many of the problems existing in  the system of barter. They did have many advantage over the system of barter. Did not  lose value due to spoilage [ durability] and easy to store for a rainy day[ accumulate wealth] ,easy to carry[ mobility] and divided by size or weight[ Divisibility]. Which  were  the standard requirement for types of transactions.


The word for money in our ancient books is  Kahapana or Kahavana . This was Common word used for  Standard Measure of Exchange ,both by the various states of ancient  India and in Sri Lanka. The first  mention of this related to an local   expenditure in the Mahavansa was the of 15,000 Kahapanas to repair a damage caused to a Vihare at Mihintale during the reign of  King Elara[145 -101 BC]. An earlier Chapter in Mahavansa states that in the tenth year of the rule King Kalasoka [of Maghada] was a 100 years after the Buddha passing away. At this time in India the Buddhist monk at Vesali  had shamelessly broken many Vinya rules, such as partaking the mid day meal even after, the shadow of the sun had passed the meridian by two finger breadths and partaking un-fermented Palm Wine [toddy]. They also placed a metal Vessel of metal at their Monastery and asked the laymen to bestow  kahapanas , is half’s and Massa etc.[Mahavansa Ch IV .9-14 and Tika], this practice was banned according to Vinya rules. These infringements by Buddhist monks  led to the holding of the second Buddhist Council.

The word Rupiya is used in the once in the Dipavansa to describe the same transaction of King Abaya Naga of 237-293 AD , where the  Mahavansa used the word Kahapana[ Codrigton CCC]. The Indian continued the ancient practice 16 Massas of Copper to a Silver Rupiya until the last century Cent and used  16 Annas to a Rupee standard . Rupiya from which our present Rupee was derived. has the same meaning as Coined[ for placing of a Rupa or mark].

The Kahapanas defined in Sri Lanka ,as early as the 5 Cent AD  in Samantapasadaka Attakatha as

“Kahapanas  were of Metal ,Gold, Silver or Copper Alloy, Gum or Lac [ off trees] .Seed, Wood, leaf, etc  with a Mark was impressed or not…..”.

Sound better when expressed in Sinhala


Only the   Gold , Silver or Copper like pieces  remains as evidence to the present day ,most of them marked and a few  unmarked. A  very  few Coins/Tokens made of  lac or Gum off trees,  have survived until the present day.


The Payments  made with less durable Commodities such as Rice or other Cereals which has a short shelf life ,was  an alternate source of exchange in the ancient  Sri Lankan markets, these practices existed side by side with metal Kahapanas even up to the Kandyan period.

Vatup Sal of 4 Neli’s [ A measure made of a Joint of Bamboo]  of rice was paid to a wood cutter according to Pujavaliya. This was about the standard requirement of Rice to feed a family of four per day[ Arthsastra].

The only authentic source of available about the value of money in the ancient days of the Kautiliyan Society, where the Arthasatra mentions that  Minimum Wage was a 5 silver Kahapanas per month or 60 Kahapanas per year. The Arthasastra says the value of Copper Pana could be approximated to cost of Rice to feed a man for a day. A Sinhala book Saddharmalamkaraya too mention that that a maid servant agreed to work for 60 Kahapanas and an extra 60 kahapanas for the night shift .This amount is too great to be paid for a Month and was an agreement with Arthsastra as an yearly minimum wage.

This is about 5 silver per month . The silver piece was 5 x 16 Copper Panas. The daily wage averaged  to around 2 – 2 ½ Copper Massa per day. A copper massa was about 8-9 grams or weighed 144 grains and it fractional pieces were the money of common man.


The coins described are those found at archeological excavations and stray  finds of gem miners and other chance finds. Every historical site through out the Island has yielded these coins. They were chronologically assigned  to cultural period of that historical site by early Numismatists. These factors  were confirmed by  Thermo luminescence and C14 dating of the strata in which these coins were found by later archeologists .


earliest-sinhala-coins-john-still                                                 earliest-sinhala-coins-deraniyagala

In 1883  while digging a irrigation canal at Tissamaharama Mr Henry Parker came across  a four foot thick layer having a large amount of artifacts of human habitation such as pot shreds, coins, and other objects. The potsherds were inscribed in letters  which could be dated by the forms  to post Christian writings was found on the top layers . which was 16 feet below ground level, Parker found  4 coins with a male figure on it. At deepest level at 18 feet he found  coin  which he estimated he estimated to be at least 3 Cent BC. This coin had figure of a Human with a Halo around the head and a Railed Swastika on the reverse face.[ Ancient Ceylon  H Parker pg 462].

The  coin was believed to be the oldest coin found in Sri Lanka for almost a 100 years.  Later Henry Parker suggested the Railed Swastika which of also found on more than 5 types of different coins found through out the Island may be Royal Emblem of the Kings issuing these coins.

About 100 years later ,Dr Shiran Deraniyagala excavating at Anuradhapura found   the same coin type as discovered at Tissamaharama by Parker at a layer scientifically dated 300-100 BC. But digging deeper at the same spot Dereniyagala found a new coin type was discovered for the first time.  This coin too had a Swastika on the reverse and the obverse  face was inscribed Da ta ya ,in early script used by the ancient Sinhalese. A similar coin was found  at  Gedige Excavations  at Anuradhpura, in strata dated scientifically dated to  Pre 300 BC and  later found again at  Salgaswatte Excavation at Anuradhapura Citadel in layer of earth dated to period 390-130 BC. A Coin of this type was found at ancient fortress of Mahagama,Tissamaharama  by the Gem miners.  This coins is now believed to be earliest coin found so far.

It is of interest that the Parkers find of Standing Human figure with Halo and Railed Swastika was found in strata dated to 300 -90 BC at Gedige excavations , which was above the strata in which the Dataya coin was found, this was dated to Pre 300 BC.


It is interesting that the coin  found at lowest level of  370 cm at  Jetwanarama CFC excavations was a Standing figure Coin type , while the deepest Silver kahapanas or PMC was found was at 230 cms[ Enoka Balasuriya].


The early historian 1900’s  was of opinion Sri Lankans did not mint coins for its use but  they used the silver pieces of India   and later on after 3 Cent AD they used Romans Coins. They believed the  first  Sri lankan Kings was  Parakramabahu the Great in the 12 Cent AD.

Archeologist found many coin types in all historical sites which could be  culturally dated   and in 1924 a book ‘Coins of Ceylon’  was published by HW Codrington. The recent scientific excavation with new dating techniques ,carried out by Dr Shiran Dereniyagala team at Citadel of Anuradhapura,  the German excavations at Mahagama and  Cultural Fund Excavation at Jetwanarama Stupa , Pollonnaruva etc confirmed most of  Codrington’s writings and also  brought to light many new coins types and fractional pieces.

The history of coins which follows is an attempt is made to relate to the  collection of stories written down in Inscriptions and the Mahavansa.



Above coin is found in Bihar and Kalinga , they are very early coins


Silver Sigle punch coinsC


Early Coins of Surasena and Panchala found in the Island.


The Mahavansa says Vijeya’s father came from Vanga Country in Kalinga, and his father Sinhabahu took three thousand pieces for killing the lion. Earliest Copper Punched marked coins was by found Henry Parker  in the relic chamber of Yatala Vihare [3 Cent BC] at Tissamahrama Ruhuna. Many coins has been by the Gem miners around  Tissamaharama Rest-house area. The origins of these coins are now identified  in Orissa ancient Kalinga Janapada , from where Vijaya and many Kings and Queens that followed .

Princess Badhakachana the Queen of King  Panduvasdeva[444-414 BC] came from Bihar region.

Dipavansa states that Vijaya  established the first town of Thambapanni, it was surrounded by suburbs (Ch 9, 34), Upatissa who came along with Vijeya  founded Upatissagama which had well arranged markets, which was prosperous, opulent, large  and lovely.

By  at the time of King Pandukabaya [ 400 BC] Anuradhapura  became a well organized Market town. Mahagama  at Tissamaharama became  the major market town of Sri Lanka. The large number of natural harbour around the Island was frequented by ancient mariners. The first contact mentioned is the visit of merchants from Indian Janapadas who  visited the Island  for trade before the arrival of  Vijaya. The Diyavadana say Vijaya  was son of Merchant, perhaps his father king controlled the trade. Mahavansa states the first meal enjoyed by Vijeya and his men was Rice and Condiment off the ship of Traders that Kuveni had captured , where the ships had goods of every kind.( Mahavansa Ch VII .v 24).

The foreign coins found here may have been brought by the Merchants, Sailors, Envoys and other visitors. The connection are recorded in Mahavanasa and Dipavansa.

The remains of a markets town  close to Jetwanarama Dagoba  or the Eastern Gate of Anuradhapura with the remains of Arecanuts, Corriander, Black pepper. Many ancient Coins both foreign and local origin found in layers now  dated by Archeologist  prior to the building of this  Stupa. These  remains re-enforce the Inscriptions mentioning Trade Guilds  which provided credit to these markets.

The stories  by the Author of Mahavansa  and those many other sources about money

  1. King Vijaya offering a Thousand [ perhaps Silver pieces]  to Kuveni and sending her away before getting down and marrying a Kastriya Princess  from Mathura or the  Ransom of Pearls worth two hundred thousand , sent to his father in Law at Mathura, are good examples .
  2. A thousand pieces given by Princess Ummagatissa to look after her son Prince Pandukabaya. The 1000 pieces given for his Education in Kingly Duties to Brahmana Pundula.
  3. The first Military Budget 100,000 pieces for raising a battalion of 500 warriors.

No name is given as regards to the value or name of the type of money used , as only numbers as mentioned earlier. The Numismatist speculate them be  unmarked silver and copper pieces found in small numbers as they are lost or dropped coins. Those in circulation were re-melted to make the later coins. These silver pieces are very worn and may have been the accepted standard of about 3.4 grams stipulated very early in Indian and Sri lankan standards texts.

What was  the earliest  money mentioned in the Mahavansa which was a  the Gift [Pooja]given by  King Vijaya when he separated from Kuveni saying  “Dear One , Delay not and go,……. I bestow  on thee an offer of a Thousand”.  What was the thousand, was it the unmarked silver pieces  found at Gedige at the bottom layers during the dig by Shiran Deraniyagala? .The ancient practice was that no man will separate with out providing for wife and Children and the husband shall calculate and make payments periodically in suitable installments[ Kautilliya, Arthsastra  ( 3.3. 3-6)]

King Vijaya sent an yearly tribute of Pearls worth twice a hundred thousand to his father in law. Compare this with a 80 Talent[ 68 lbs each] of coined silver paid as tribute by a native Raja  to Alexander when he invaded Punjab[ Quintus Curtius]. If the value is measured in Kahapanas as defined in Sinhala books then  comparison what Alexander received was 2300 Kilo worth of silver to that of Vijaya’s tribute of  700 Kilos.

THE VALUE PANA INSCRIBED ON A COINancient-inscribed-token-issuer-and-value

There is also an ancient copper coin or perhaps a token which was inscribed as Kudaka Tisa putaha Panaya. This was perhaps a token worth a Pana used as a Local coins at Mahagama in the South of Sri lanka, in the Ruhunu rata. This is also about same period as the inscription. Codringtons is of opinion that pana was a kind used to  measure the value of any goods or services. Raj Somadeva says Kuda may means as the smaller or younger Tisa and may even same as kana or means the colour of Black or dark blue.

Raj Somadeva states that this an interesting and unique find and an interesting   method of presenting coins or tokens by giving its value at such early date. This is the earliest dated find with both  the name of issuer and the value is inscribed on a coin.




The above is believed to be issues of King Devanampiyatissa.(247-207 BC)

These  Kahapanas were durable , portable or easy to carry and store . The divisibility to cater for all low, medium and high value transaction was made easy  by the use  of Gold  , Silver  and  Copper kahapanas  by breaking them into fractional pieces with assigned values or names . These were  more portable or easily carried around, than commodities for exchange such as Bags of Rice or a Cow or a fish.

The  weight Karsha[ Kaha in Sinhala]  was a weight of a bean which varied according to the regions. In the ancient Indian Janapadayasa  Silver pana  was about 3.4 – 3.5 Grams or about 56 Grains, a  Gold and Copper Pana was about 9 grams or 144 grains. Only Silver and Copper ancient pieces have been discovered in the Island, before the appearance of gold about the 7 cent AD. The divisibility of coins as the ancient regulation  were in the early stages the largest value coin found in the Island was the silver kahapanas, only few pieces of the half or quarter has been found. But we have found large copper coins.

The largest  copper coins is a worn piece that is over 20 grams of copper alloy, may even be the Pala or the fourth of a silver kahapanas . This is the standing lady coin , more than10 pieces of the double Pana and many broken parts of this coin are reported. The Elephant Multisymbol and railed swastika is usually thedouble pana, butcoins with weight of perhaps3 panasand  a worn coin of two panas of the lion and railed swastika has been published.



It was evident that a Silver Pana was too large a coin for poor people for daily purchases , so there was a requirement of smaller currency.  The names of the fractional pieces is first mentioned in the Mahawansa of an incident which led to the Second Buddhist Council as mentioned earlier. The Buddhist Monks at Vesali in India had said to the lay folk “ Bestow on the brother hood Kahapanas and so on” . “So on”  is described in the Tika as Halves of Kahapanas , Masakas and the Rupamasaka. Our ancient books refer to these coinage of low value as kakanika.

The names of various fractions  of money  in use during the ancient times is in a  story of a death of Courtesans, The story goes that no body took her body away  and the king on the advice of the Buddha  auctioned Sirima body starting price was the 1000 kahapanas which was the price for her favours,Having no one bidding  the auctioneer halved the value from the starting price continuously .which was  1000 Kahapanas down to 1 Kahapana , then to a half and a quarter Kahapana , then to a Copper Pana or . Ada-pana [ half pana] , then a Copper kakanika and last to a half kakanika of Copper.

The Rate of exchange between  the  Silver and Copper  varied between  16 or more depending on the  scarcity of each metal. The weights of coins in very good condition, the ancient standard for Silver was between 3.4 – 3.5 gms. The ancient Copper Pana been  9 grams , the same weight of large bean known as Karasha- phala . The smallest named denomination was  copper Kakanika[ a quarter of a Pana] was about 2 grams in weight.There were fractional pieces of Kakanika. Perhaps the ancient Sri Lankan used rice grain of a certain standard in their measurements.160 Vi ate or grains of Rice made Kalanda .Most ancient coins  are worn or weather beaten been buried for about 2000 years , but yet a collector who has handled these coins, can guess their  value by the  size  with out weighing.

The largest Copper coins is over 20 grams is perhaps a coin called Pala or the fourth the value of a silver Kahapana or the three pana. The type of coin is  what is known as laksmi Plaque. There are a few that weigh between 12 and 16 grams, they may be worn  double panas or 1 ½ Panas. There are other large coins in the Large Elephant Multi symbol and railed Swastika  that range from  10- 18 grams. A large Lion and railed Swastika Coins of weight over 10 grams were discovered by the German excavation team at Tissamaharama. Most coin types have have the eighths or the sixteenth Pana, why? they were required for daily transaction, Even the Seated Lady [ laksmi] had the small coins about a Gram in weight, Of course they weighed by using standard weight of Seeds or grains of Rice.

The minimum wages was about 2 1/2 Panas per day. So movement coins of lower denominations used to cater for  daily expenditure of the majority of the people. So the Half or Ada-panas,the kakanikas and Ada-kakanika were the common change carried around by the people .The high value coins was used to pay large fines such as Robberies,Rape or Murder[the highest fine was 500 Silver for murder] or for high value transaction, such as the kings share of sales of valuable Gems or Pearls. The salaries of higher official of state was paid in Silver kahapanas or in kind. A soldier according to Arthsastra was paid about 500 silver kahapanas, the Army Commander according to Arthsastra was paid as much as 48,000 silver kahapanas per year. Even Phussadeva Arrow that saved the life of King Dutugemunu and killed Bhalluka was placed un-right, covered over with silver kahapanas, and this money was given to him[ mahavansa]. The price for Killing an enemy commander in battle according to Arthasastra was 50,000 silver kahapanas.Even General Nandi mitta family earned 1000 panas per day.

The Pana was equivalent to the now Rs 500  notes, the smaller change was a necessity . These small denominations wasused in paying  small fines at the Court houses for minor thefts and  assaults  or paying the toll taxes for carrying a head load of Rice or Fish or Meat at  a City Gate, at a Kadawata or barriers placed by Kings to collect taxes, which was about 1/16 copper pana, These small coins were useful pay ferry fare when crossing rivers and purchase of their daily needs. These were mentioned in Arthasastra as a guide to administrators of a country. They had alternate options to pay in kind or  by doing labour or parting with a percentage of the produce.