Money makes the world go round but it is also making you walk barefoot spellbound among beautiful displays in a museum loaded with yes, lots of money. There are coins seemingly made of gold that glint and currency notes so large that you wonder how big the wallets were in the past. This is Haji Abdulla Memorial Heritage Museum housed in Corporation Banks’s Heritage Museum and Financial Research Centre near the famous Krishna Temple in old Udupi.
Museums have been a mixed bag in my travels ranging from some of the disappointing government run archaeology museums to the scintillating ones in Kurukshetra and Shillong. Few minutes ago, the guard at the gate had politely asked me to come in but not before taking my shoes off. The curiosity was certainly piqued by several notches.
Udupi has been serving surprises all right. While it is common knowledge that Udupi lends its name to the neighbourhood restaurants serving cheap and hygienic South Indian food, what is not widely known is that Manipal, the El Dorado for students across the country, is a next door neighbour to Udupi. And the big surprise is that apparently Udupi is the banking cradle of the country. Corporation Bank, Karnataka Bank, Syndicate Bank, Vijaya Banak and Canara Bank - where you still remember the manager in New Delhi’s Chanakya Puri branch counting the coins you had saved to open your first bank account - were all founded in Udupi.
This museum with an old world charm is actually beautiful and lovingly put together. Under the wooden beam ceiling, exhibits glint in soft light. The neat exhibits of coins are a numismatist’s delight and for anyone who has ever carried currency notes or coins in their pockets and purses. All the exhibits are painstakingly researched and their explanations displayed. I am joined by the earnest curator Mr. M. K. Krishnayya whose passion for the museum and its contents is seen to be believed. In addition to being a numismatics expert, he is also a thematic philatelist. The curator’s rich stories of money come pouring out like the rains all morning here today in Udupi. The history and story of money is indeed interesting.
The Coin Museum has a heart warming story just like the several philanthropic stories heard across the country. The halls housing the museum were once the home of Corporation Bank’s founder Haji Abdulla Saheb Bahadur. He established Corporation Bank in 1906 to fulfil the long felt needs of banking for the people, to free them from exploitation by the money lenders and to inculcate the habit of saving. It is said that Saheb Bahadur would donate his wealth – a little every day – to the poor. And when there was nothing left to give, he chose to take his own life. The founder’s lofty ideals and ethos seem to echo as we walk barefoot in the halls. Yes, the practise of walking barefoot is prevalent since the times when everyone took off their shoes while walking through the lane in front of Haji Saheb’s house.
We are on the money trail. The coins date from 400 BC and run through times and dynasties of Mauryas, Shakas, Kushans, Satavahanas, Guptas to assorted Sultanates, Mughals, Marathas and the British. Mahajanpads of early historic times like Gandhara, Kuntala and Kuru issued their own punch-marked coins called Puranas. The coins of different shapes and sizes are made of gold, silver and copper. Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth made her appearance on coins as early as 2nd century BC. You can see coins with symbols, motifs, scripts, legends and images of rulers and deities. The prized possession of the museum is one-rupee silver coin weighing 11 gms called Rupaya which was introduced in 1540 by Sher Shah Suri who besides building the Grand Trunk Road also ran Humayun out of the country.
As money evolved from barter system to where currency was introduced as metal pieces, the evolution of terminology of money from the Mughal times to independence is pretty interesting. Three Phooti Cowries made a Cowrie – yes, there actually was money that was called phooti cowrie made of sea-shells and is believed to be the longest and most widely used currency in history; ten Cowries made a Damri; two Damris made a Dhela; two Dhelas made a Paisa; 64 Paisa made 16 Anna and 16 Annas made 1 Rupya! You can certainly recall proverbs where these names for money have been used or in the movies where the father threatens the heir with not deserving a single cowrie, dhela, paisa or rupya as inheritance; the nomenclature changed over the years!
The museum has currency notes too some in the denominations of Rs 5000 and Rs 10000. One exhibit has profiles of all Governors of Reserve Bank of India. The curator is a distinguished stamp collector too and some exhibits display his love for philately. One of his favourite themes is stamps with flags. There is an exhibit that shows how our Tricolour evolved over the years. The museum is indeed multi-dimensional unlike a two-sided coin.
Launched in 2011, the museum is the fruit of labour of two employees. Most of these over 1500 coins belong to Mr. Radhakrishna Kumble, who has collected these coins over a period of 25 years through his own salary while the stamps belong to Mr. Krishnayya. The Udupi Coin Museum has put love of museums back in my life. The museum is a glowing example in today’s cynical world where two selfless individuals carry forward the legend of their bank’s founder. This is all about passion which thankfully no amount of money can buy.
The Museum Curator Mr. M. K. Krishnayya’s contact number is 9945271614
A version of the story appeared in the Spectrum supplement of Deccan Herald on 15th Nov 2016
Decoding the Past Through Coins
Decoding the Past Through Coins