SCOTT SEMANS WORLD COINS
SHROFF MARKS ON BENGAL SULTANS TANKAS (068)


Following is an analysis, by John Deyell, of the incuse punched marks (shroff marks, test marks) found on many issues of the Sultans of Bengal. Input is sought by the author: jdeyell@rogers.com.


Under the practice of batta noted by Abu'l Fazl as originating in Bengal, the silver tankas of the sultanate were heavily discounted in circulation by currency traders and exchange brokers. This historical observation appears to be confirmed by the numismatic evidence: the vast majority of the surviving silver coins of the Bengal sultanate bear numerous 'shroff marks', i.e. chops or punches presumably applied by sarrafs or bankers. This name for the marks, in common use by numismatists, is an Anglicism which arose during the pre-independence period. A more objective term would be 'countermarks'.

It is actually difficult to find a specimen of the Bengal silver tanka which is totally free of these countermarks. The 'shroff marks' are of three principal kinds or classes, which appear to have had different but related functions: * identification marks, which are small light punches bearing pictorial devices or geometric patterns; * cancellation marks, which are large deep chisel gouges; and * test marks, which are shallow circular holes.

The first two types of shroff marks, the identification and cancellation marks, are typical of the coinage of the Bengal sultanate, and quite unique to that coinage, not being remarked on the profuse silver coins of the contemporary Malwa and Gujarat sultanates of central and western India. The latter type, the small circular holes, did however appear on the coins of the contemporary sultanates, and also survived into the Mughal era.

The coins catalogued above were all produced by a process of hand minting. Although there is no direct historical testimony as to the manufacturing technique of the Bengal mints during this period, the first book of the `Ain-i-Akbari, written at the end of this period, contains a full description of the hand minting process. The mint itself was a regulated venture, meaning it was a either royal factory or a royally licensed private venture. The minting act started by placing a coin flan or blank of standard weight between two dies or tools engraved with a countersunk design. The upper die was struck by a hammer, causing the dies to compress the flan thereby imparting a raised design. These dies were at least equal in width to the flan being struck, so every part of the coin's surface was covered by the coin design. The design imparted the message of the coin, in effect making it legal tender through royal sanction. The coin design was an official impression.

In contrast, the mini dies or punches used to impart the 'shroff marks' were much narrower than the coin flan, and the countermarks they left obscured only a fraction of the coin's surface, leaving much of the original design visible. Close inspection always reveals that the 'shroff marks' were struck over the original design, hence were applied after the original design. Some 'shroff marks' are struck over others, meaning they were struck in sequence, conceivably at different times. Observation of a number of coins leads to the observation that the 'shroff marks' were not placed on the coins in the mint itself, since coins of the same type, mint and date seldom bear the same countermarks. For these reasons, G.S. Farid in his study of these countermarks came to the conclusion that they did not represent either mint marks or treasury marks, i.e. they were not imparted officially either at the time of manufacture or of release into circulation. Rather, the 'shroff marks' appear to have been placed on the coins while in circulation, most often in a chronological sequence rather than concurrently. Some of the 'shroff marks' may well have been placed officially, for example by revenue officials testing the quality of coins tendered as taxes. But it would seem from the great diversity of marks and the rarity of duplication or redundancy, that they were usually placed by many private individuals each handling relatively small numbers of the coins. Farid classifies them as hallmarks, owners marks or traders marks.

The chronological relationship between the date of manufacture of a coin and the dates when it was countermarked cannot be determined with any precision from the internal evidence of the coin itself. A terminus ante quem may be deduced by identification of the underlying coin bearing the mark. It is patently obvious that a 'shroff mark' appearing on a coin bearing a particular date of issue, could not have been applied prior to that date. The internal evidence of an intact treasure trove hoard may sometimes be able to provide a terminus post quem for any particular 'shroff mark', if relatively unworn specimens of late dated coins without countermarks are present.

Direct witness or testimony about these medieval countermarking practices is hard to come by. But the pattern of 'shroff marks' on late Bengal sultanate coins is distinctive and consistent from hoard to hoard, permitting some general observations to be made:

* 'Shroff marks' applied during the era of the Husain Shahis (1493 to 1538) are only impressed on one face of the coin. Punches leaving different types and varieties of impressions always appear on the same side. So they were applied by persons who followed a common protocol.

* On coins of secular legend, the 'shroff marks' are virtually always applied on the face of the coin bearing the ruler's laqab or titles of honour. On coins bearing the kalima, the 'shroff marks' are always placed on the kalima side of the coin. So they were applied by persons who were aware of the message content of the coins. They may have been placed by persons for whom the Muslim profession of faith engendered less respect than the royal titles, i.e. by Hindus.

* Of the first two types of marks (pictorial marks and chisel marks), the pictorial were the first applied to any individual coin. This is deduced from the fact that pictorial marks are often found alone (without chisel marks), but not vice-versa. Chisel marks are never found alone. Chisel marks may have been 'the end of the road' for old coins, i.e. were used to de-monetize the coins and relegate them to bullion status.

* The pictorial marks were clearly intended for identification. They were small, neat and carefully placed around the periphery of each coin so as not to obscure the original legend. They consisted of simple fauna, floral or geometric forms, as well as Bangla aksharas. It can be deduced that these identification marks were placed by individuals for whom recognition of the mark was vital. Most likely these were revenue officials or exchange dealers and bankers. The identification marks must have been unique to each owner, and they probably served to alert the owner that he had previously tested the weight and fineness of the marked coin, and found them satisfactory.

* In contrast, the chisel marks were large, deep and numerous on each coin on which they are found. They radiate in a circular pattern from the centre of each coin to the rim, obscuring most of the original legend. They are so deep as to expose the bare metal of the interior of the coin. It is evident that these were cancellation marks, intended to negate the monetary acceptability of the coin and relegate it to bullion or raw metal status.

* The test marks were small and neat, and applied to both faces of the coin. They were applied in such a way as to leave the coin's legend clearly visible, and were thus intended to be unobtrusive. Their function was primarily to test the silver content of the coin by exposing the core to view. This was an effective defence against fraudulent coins made by silver-plating base metal flans.

* These test marks are found in varying numbers on the coins. As a coin so marked circulated, the test marks would have oxidized or become dirty, necessitating a fresh test mark to determine the coin's authenticity.

All three types of 'shroff marks' bear witness to a dynamic process of coin exchange, testing and discounting at work in sixteenth century Bengal. Indeed, Abu'l Fazl notes how during this period slight differences in weight due to the normal wear and abrasion of coins in circulation, could affect the exchangeability or currency of coins, and hence their market value. Worn or underweight coins were discounted in the market or at the treasury to become bullion, a commodity, rather than money, a circulating medium. The 'shroff marks' are a physical confirmation of this process.

- John Deyell. Feb, 2002

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