The Mughal emperor Akbar would be showered with coins when he entered or exited the palace on his elephant. The coins, popularly known as nisaari sikkay, were scooped up by peasants in the elephant’s trail. The Lahore Museum owns some 1,200 nisaari sikkay, bearing the emperor’s stamp and about an inch in circumference.
But just a few are actually on display at the museum. In fact, only 70 of the thousand or so coins on display are originals. The rest are replicas. The museum stores about 45,000 original coins, dating from 6 BC to 2010 AD, in its reserves.
Naushaba Anjum, the museum’s coin keeper, says insufficient security and lack of interest among visitors are the main reasons that most of the originals are generally kept hidden away. “Most visitors are unaware of the value of these rare, centuries-old artefacts. Otherwise there would be more burglaries,” she said, adding that the museum had the biggest coin collection in the subcontinent.
She recalled the relief among museum staff in 1988 after a burglary in 1998. “They mostly stole replica coins from the Indo-Greek era. The officers were so relieved that the originals were in the reserves,” Anjum said.
She said putting originals on display also increases the risk that they will be damaged. “The best way to share information about the coin collection is to write about them in the museum’s annual bulletin or newspapers,” she said.
“When coin collectors, scholars or students want to study something they get in touch in advance and plan a visit,” she said. A table has been set aside in the reserves room for anyone interested in studying coins.
Anjum said the museum had acquired six collections of coins from various eras over the last ten years, but some coins were not on display because of a lack of technical expertise in producing replicas.
After the 1988 incident, officials imprinted the originals of the stolen coins on plaster of paris and produced new replicas in laboratories. But the replicas produced were not as good as the ones produced during British rule.
“We have displayed some originals because we lack the expertise to make accurate replicas,” said Anjum. “In a way, the replicas in the museum library are also antiquities as they have been on display since long before Partition.”
The recent collections acquired by the museum include 1,200 nisaari coins, 150 Indo-Greek (2 BC) era coins and 20 punch-mark coins (6 AD) purchased in 2006 with the help of a Rs200,000 donation from the Qarshi Group. The same year, the then Parks and Horticulture Authority director general purchased 210 Mughal coins and donated them to the museum, along with some Pakistani coins. Some 214 Mughal coins were donated from Okara. Ten coins of the late Mughal period were donated by the Express news group in 2009. In 2004, a farmer gave the museum 465 copper coins from the reign of Nasir bin Karlik, ruler of Sindh in 13 AD.
A few originals from these donations, such as the 6AD punch-marks and Pakistani coins, are now on display. Earlier, coins from British India between 1849 and 1947 were the only originals on display.
Details of all the coins in the reserves are mentioned in 20 hardcover catalogues lined up against the shelves in Anjum’s office. She added that a lack of funds meant these catalogues had not been published.“They state the mint [region of origin], script and language, date, emperor’s name, year of rule, cultural sign, date of issuance and any poetry written on the coin. Images of both sides of the coins are also included,” she said. Anjum said that the most precious coins in the museum were from the Sikh era, and it owned most of the coins ever found. The reserves have just over 45,000 coins. “They are safe here as only VVIPs are allowed in on state visits. The keys lie in a strong room,” she said.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2012.