HARKING BACK: Amazing story of my grandmother's phooti cowrie.

Byline: Majid Sheikh

Many words that we use in our normal conversation we use without thinking what they really mean. I remember once asking my grandmother for money and she promptly replied: 'I do not have even a 'phooti cowrie', meaning absolutely nothing.

We all knew what she meant but then my dear friend Saifullah Khalid the other day sent me a photograph of the old coins of Lahore, and there it was, the world's very oldest coin, a 'phooti cowrie'. Naturally, I consulted a number of books and learnt that a 'kowri', or a split shell, was taken from the Chowri snails and was first used in our land during the Indus Valley Civilisation almost 5,000 years ago. The name 'phooti' was because it is split on one side. So the Chowri shell was what a 'phooti cowrie' was. As the production of such shells was limited by nature, so its scarcity meant that it had value.

Three 'phooti cowrie' shells equalled a whole Chowri, which was a small sea shell. But both these had to have some final value. That was the 'rupa', later called 'rupaya'. The very first mention of the Rupee can be found in the 'Astadhyayi' by Panini, the Swabi-born linguist in the middle of the 4th century BC. The value of a rupaya was 5,275 'phooti cowries'. In between were ten different coins, they being 'chowri', 'damri', 'pie', 'dhalla', 'paisa', 'taka', 'anna', 'dowani', 'chowani', 'athani' and finally a 'rupaya'.

In case you think that all this is ancient stuff, just visit the Lahore Museum and you will be amazed to see all of them framed and explained. For that matter ask any old walled city person and he will know of all these ten coins, at least the names. But the value of the first 'rupaya' was pegged to a 'tola' of gold, which almost 2,000 years ago was at an even value. With time as gold acquired greater value this value diminished. Amazingly in the sub-continent silver was more valued than gold, and that is because gold was in greater supply. Once ample silver flowed in from Iran after the Greek invasion, gold overtook silver in value. But that never changed for the 'rupaya'. Even today all money is in one way or another backed by its gold value. Needless to remind that when this column was written it was 70,000 rupees to a 'tola' of gold.

In my research I discovered that there is an active business, mostly online or at auctions, of old coins of the Punjab. I was shocked to learn that a 1,500 year old 'dowani' was sold in Frankfurt for a massive US$1.2 million, but this...

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