Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sign of the Times: Symbolizing the Indian Rupee

By Supriya Savkoor
(Credit: Ravindraboopathi)

Recognize any of the following symbols?
€, ¥, $, £, ₦,₮, ₩,฿, ₴, ₫, ₭

I haven’t embedded any secret or scrambled messages in there nor am I cursing at you in Swahili. Rather, these icons represent a handful of currency symbols from around the world. I even threw in the currencies of Mongolia, Laos, and the Ukraine. Not that these relatively small countries aren’t entitled to their money, but I use them as a point of comparison to India, the world’s largest democracy and second most populous country. India’s currency is called the rupee, but for centuries since its inception in the 16th century, the rupee didn’t have an official symbol, and was simply abbreviated as “Rs” in front of the numeric amount, as in Rs20.

Then came spring 2009, when the Indian government announced a contest in search of the ideal symbol. The finance minister suggested whatever new symbol is adopted should reflect the country’s culture and ethos. By summer 2010, some 3,000 entries had poured in (not much, really, when you consider the country’s population of 1.2 billion). Of those 3,000, five were shortlisted. On July 15, 2010, the government made its choice:

Designed by architect and visual communicator, Udaya Kumar, the new symbol combines the Devanagari letter र (pronounced “ra”) and the Latin capital letter for “R” without that vertical bar at the left. Kumar added the parallel lines at the top of the symbol, he said, to denote the tricolors of the Indian flag.

India rolled out the new rupee symbol over the next six to 24 months, first on coins in 2011, then on bills in 2012. Banks started printing the new symbol on checks, shopkeepers on their price tags, and international newspapers within their business pages. Even Apple and Windows computer operating systems updated their code (i.e., Windows 7 and iOS 5 and above) to support the new symbol in different fonts.

And if money talks, the Indian rupee could tell some good stories.

Ancient India, along with ancient China and Lydia (a kingdom in what is modern-day Turkey), was one of the earliest issuers of coins. The term “rupee” comes from the Sanskrit word “rupya,” meaning coin, and “rupa,” meaning silver. In the 15th century, when the Pashtun leader Sher Shah Suri, founder of the Sur Empire in India, introduced the first rupee coin, he based its value on silver. Though the price of silver fell tremendously in the 19th century, successive dynasties and conquerors kept the rupee going, from the Moghuls, the Danish, French, and Portuguese, the English, and right through to Independence and beyond.

A silver rupee from the Mughal Empire,
minted under Akbar's reign (1556
1605). {{PD-1923}}

French Indian rupee from 1938
Banque de L'Indochine, image by India Post)

From the East India Company in 1835 (Credit: Ranjithsiji)

George V on the silver rupee coin from 1918 (Credit: Almazi)

After Independence in 1947, the Indian government replaced King George VI’s mugshot with the Asoka lions, which remains a national symbol.

Many countries and regions use or have used the rupee as their currency as well, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Nepal, Burma, Bhutan, the Persian Gulf, East Africa, Italian Somaliland, and on and on.

A Sichuan rupee, struck in Chengdu, for use in Tibet.
(Credit: Clemensmarabu)

Reverse of the Sichuan rupee (Credit: Clemensmarabu)

A Rs100 note from Mauritius (Credit: Avedeus)

A Rs1000 note from Pakistan, with a portait
of founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

(Credit: Adnan Asim)

A pre-2001 Nepalese rupee, with King Bipendra’s portrait,
before the political change from monarchy to republic caused
the government to abolish monarchs’ pictures on currency.
(Credit Bill Clement)

The rupee in the Seychelles

The first rupee coin, made of nickel, issued in Pakistan in 1948
(Credit: Almazi)
The Japanese forged Indian rupee notes in Burma during World War II as part of a propaganda war.

A Burmese Rs10 note issued by the occupying
Japanese Army, circa 1943. (Credit: Bill Clement)
And now, finally, the Indian rupee has a currency symbol. Perhaps the beginning of a glorious new chapter?


  1. I had no idea the rupee had a symbol now. And a pretty one, at that. It looks a bit like a Nordic rune, no? Now they need to come up with a symbol for the rial...

  2. That's so interesting! I never thought about India not having a symbol for it when I traveled there in 2010. What are some other countries that don't have a symbol? There must be tons.