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The Fanam’s of Calicut

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Some of you may remember the Panam, Taram & Kasu etc of yester years in Malabar. If you look around on the internet, you will find many auctions of the gold fanams minted at Calicut from the 1200-1800 time frames. They cost an average of 15-40USD these days to a collector. These Viraraya fanam’s minted at Calicut were stated to be popular beyond its boundaries, in Cochin Tamil regions, Ceylon as well as many other places, due to the stability of its value (they fetched a premium of some 12% over certain other fanams). Notably this gave the Zamorin of Calicut much power, for he alone could mint currency in Malabar for a very long time. So let us take a look at some details but let me warn you, this is not a numismatic article on Kerala coins, but mainly covering the Malabar Fanam and related denominations from a historic perspective, though you will also find mention of some details of Travancore & Cochin minted currencies. Note that even though the Malayalam terms are Panam, Tharam and Kasu, I have used the popular fanam and tare at times in this article, but not the term cash.

If I were to tell you that this coin termed in history books as the ‘fanam’ or PANAM in Malayalam owe its origin to a weight standard based on the Manjadi seed, some of you may be surprised. The name VIRARAYA (now you could always question - if it just meant a ‘courageous king’ or the ruler clan of Vijayanagara or Coimbatore), probably came after the first person who minted it and got it standardized. An old Chera silver coin bore the legend "Vira Kerala” so that was probably the forerunner. Some historians assign the Vira raya coin to Vira kerala who ascended the throne in Malabar around 1127 A.D. Some state that the title Viraraya is a form derived from Rayeran, a name of Valluvanadu seen even in 9th Cent AD, in Panniyur inscriptions of 2nd Cheras. Some confirm that it was indeed the this name that the Zamorin used (others being manaveda or manavikrama)

This was the main coin that was used in those times, the Gold panam (currency) or gold fanam as the westerners called it. The same type of coin was also minted in neighboring Tamil & southern lands and Vijayanagara, holding strong for many centuries. After the Hyder & Tipu incursions into Malabar, the coins were re-minted with different emblems & notations, but were still called the fanam. I think it was one of the Moguls, Shahir Shah, who eventually heralded the issue of the Rupee.

Let us start with some of the earliest records. The weight system for gems, currency & gold is provided in the ancient ‘Kanakku Saram’ of the Chera world as follows

1 nenmani = 1 visa thukkam
4 nenmani = 1 kunni (rati) kuru
2 Kunri = 1 manjadi
2 manjadi = 1 panathukkam
10 panathukkam = 1 kazhanchi (kalanju)

The Manjadi weighs actually between 4.1-5.3 grains (I can only assume in jest that over time, the seed became healthier & heavier). Roughly one could say 5 grains per manjadi and 50 grains per kalanju was the accepted norm. The nenmani is ‘rice in the husk’ or nellu. The kalanju is the fever nut, Molucca bean (Caesalpinia bonduc) and the manjadi is the (Adenanthera pavonina). As time went by, the scale was halved and a panam became one manjadi. So except for the word panam in the above list, all were vegetables!!

Recall the Manjadi and Kunni from visits the Guruvayur, where they can be found in bronze vessels for children to play with ? It is said that they make them wise, naughty etc…I certainly am still fascinated by those lovely seeds. Though the manjadi disappeared from the weight system, they are sometimes used by diamond smiths and are a 16th of the older rupee system and related to the ‘anna’.

A great number of coins were in circulation in Kerala and some of them were Pon, Kashu, Kanam, Panam, Rasi panam, Kaliyuga rayan panam, Veera rayan panam etc. Parasurama, the legendary founder of Kerala, is stated to have minted gold coins called Rasi panam. The hun, varaha or pagoda as currency based on the kalanju seed was of course different between areas of India, varying from 55 to 53 grains of gold, but more on that later and was exchanged for 10 panams.

As far as Malabar & Cochin is concerned, the minting of currency again goes back to the Cherman Perumal days, of (presumably) the early 8th-10th century. It is said that the permission to mint money was given by him only to the Zamorin and he held on to the authority until his unseating by the Mysore Sultans in the 18th century. While we had plenty of other foreign currency changing hands in the trading areas and were primarily used to pay the traders ( there are hoards of coins discovered now and then, dating back to Greek and Roman times) the currencies used for local transactions were based on the Panam. Malabar used to have the smallest coin in the word, the silver tare weighing a mere 1 or 2 grains. More on that argument within Kerala, later on…

The Viraraya fanam

The Vira Raya Fanam (which was mostly used on the Malabar Coast of India) had been struck over a very long period and over a dozen versions existed. Historians record that they originally had a purity level of 17 carat though more recent records state 12-14 carat or 60% gold. It was roughly 5-6 grains in weight (1 gram=15.4 grains). The fanam was called Viraraya, vir-raya, viraya or rati fanam, nowadays translated as the plough fanam. A more detailed chemical analysis revealed that the Calicut fanam (1800 version) had 53.5% gold, 29% silver and 17.5% copper.

While the Zamorin’s fanam, was the most sought after legal tender, the coin was apparently first stuck by the Kolathiri raja of Chirakkal. Years later when the Mysore Sultans were in power, the Ali raja of Cannanore also started minting his version.

Various gold fanams were current in Travancore before the nineteenth century, the oldest, known as the rasi, also has a shankhu or conch shell on the obverse, and is closely allied to the "Vlra raya " fanams of Calicut. During the eighteenth century the copper coinage of Travancore was known as the "Anantan kasu "; on the obverse was a five-headed cobra, and on the reverse the value of the coin, one, two, four or eight "cash " written in Tamil. In the years 1764 and 1774 the Moplah chief of Kannur, 'Ali Raja, struck double silver and gold fanams with Persian inscriptions, recording his name and the date. During the Mysore rule, the Tipu fanam versions started around 1801.Silver double rupees & Paisas were also stuck. These paisas had the picture of an elephant (Those interested may please refer the book - The coins of Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan By J. R. (John Robertson) Henderson for details)

The Malabar Panam is mentioned often by many travelers such as Ibn batuta, Ma Huan, AbduRazak and later Western travelers during the Portuguese, Dutch and English times.

Ibn Batuta said that 6 golden Dinars were equivalent to 100 fanams whereas Ma Huan explains – The king uses a 60% purity gold to cast coins, it is named Panam. He also makes a silver coin tareh and this is used for petty transactions. The various mentions are dutifully compiled and recorded in Hobson-Jobson dictionary under Fanam.

The smallest coin, the tare or taram was reminiscent of a star, was cast in pure silver at Vijayanagar and Calicut which purchased in the 16th century 5-6 eggs, enough fish to fill two people’s bellies or rice for a whole day. 16 tare was one fanam.

The tare had an even lower denomination which was the copper kashu or the origin of the English word ‘cash’. 16 copper kashu fetched the minute silver tare. You could buy a monkey for 4 kashu. Some versions had a hole in the middle.

The Calicut mint was destroyed in 1766 together with the palace when the Zamorin immolated himself. Then after exile in Travancore, the mint was reopened in 1792 by the Zamorin and finally handed over to the British in 1798 (During this time the fanam quality dropped and the value was 25% lower). The fanam minting was a great sign of his imperial authority and fetched the Zamorin income as well, even during the early British times (1792 -1798), he received a half of the mint receipts. The mint was always closed for 13 days mourning (and probably stock taking) upon the death of a Zamorin.

The tareh or taram was also called Viz and weighed one to two grains and 16 tareh = I panam wheras the panam dropped in value to the Rupee later going from 5 to 4 and finally 3.5.

The picture on the Zamorin’s Viraraya panam has never been fully explained. Some say that the picture is part of a conch shell, some say a standing figure, and some have concluded that the double lines signify a plough or double plough. Below these lines are a number of dots, never really well understood though attributed to the 12 rasi (from the Rasi fanam) or signs of the Zodiac.

Dr Nampoothiri provides the following information in his fine book – Malabar studies - Typically the ceremonious start to minting coins started after the ‘ariyittu vazcha’ or enthroning ceremonies of the Zamorin. During this event, the various titles and position holders are allotted their budgeted or ordained amounts. As stated previously the permission to mint money in Malabar was granted to the Zamorin by the Cheraman Perumal. By 1543, the Virarayan was called new money or Puthu Panam. It was also called New fanam, Calicut new fanam etc. The goldsmiths at the mint were from Madurai. They were titled veraraiya thattan (Veerayaran goldsmith or sometimes as KVK Iyer states Manavikraman Asari) and they lived at Verittan kandi (veera rayira thatan kandi). Whether the name Veera rayan panam came from a Zamorin called Virararyan is not established, but highly likely. Every title holder including the traders, Bandar koyas and Tharakan’s obtained a certain amount of decreed money from the mint. As explained earlier the new panam started in 1791. It was valued slightly lower at 3.5 per rupee as against 4 the old panam fetched. The old mint burnt to ground in 1766 and is around the area where Coutinho was killed and Albuquerque wounded during the 1510 raid.

During Vissicher’s times, a fanam was equal to a British shilling. He also explains exactly how the fanam is pressed in the Cochin mint after they started minting money in the 17th century. Francis day in ‘Perumals of Cochin; mentions that the concept of using dies to punch coins came from the west toward the 5th -6th century. He believes that the picture on the coins is Parasu rama’s battle axe. Pyrard visitng Calicut in 1607 mentions about the large mint at Calicut is situated next to the bazaar and palace. He also mentions that the coins have the Zamorins effigy on one side, and a pagoda or idol on the other, which may not be quite right.While Travancore had its own coinage, the original panam or pazhaya panam was minted by the Kolathiri rulers. The Zamorin version which became popular was the puthiya panam or new fanam. According to Shungunny menon (History of Travancore) this Zamorin fanam was not legal tender in Travancore. For details of Travancore currency, refer the book by Menon, pages 83-85. Travancore silver charkram was equal to the wieght of a Calicut gold fanam. The earliest fanams were globuoles of gold. The Travancore kings also issued chinna fanams weighing 2.8 grains. Buchanan and Hamilton mention that copper money was minted by Brahmans! Strangely the panam was also struck at France and Denmaruk ( Tranquebar) for their respective territories.

The panam had a number of other uses too (other than being used with all good luck offerings and gifts), let us take a look. For example, it was tradition to give it at weddings

In the Badaga community the man about to die is made to ask for a viraraya fanam - When death is drawing near, a gold coin, called Viraraya hana or fanam, dipped in butter or ghee, is given to the dying man to swallow. If he is too far gone to be capable of swallowing, the coin is, tied round the arm.

The Malabar system quoting Thurston was - "When the dying person is about to embark for that journey from which no traveller returns, and the breath is about to leave his body, the members of the household, and all friends who may be present, one by one, pour a little water, a few drops from a tiny cup made of a leaf or two of the tulsi (Ocimum sanctum), into his mouth, while they are holding in the hand a piece of gold or a gold ring, the idea being that water should touch gold before it enters the mouth of the person who is dying. If the taravād is rich enough to afford it, a small gold coin (a rasi pon-panam, if one can be procured) is placed in the mouth, and the lips are closed.

During Vidyarambham - The ceremony at the house is opened by Ganapathi pūja performed by an Ezhuttacchan, or by a Nambūdri, or another Nāyar. The Ezhuttacchan writes on the child's tongue with a gold fanam (coin) the invocation to Ganapathi (Hari Sri Ganapathāyi nama), or sometimes the fifty-one letters of the Malayālam alphabet, and then grasps the middle finger of the child's right hand, and with it traces the same letters in parched rice.

The fanam is 8-10mm in diameter. The taram is 4 mm in diameter and is the smallest coin in the world. The arguments over which coin is smallest – Travancore or Malabar has erupted recently, though the Travancore version weighs more and is wider by a mm. The Archeology director (a namesake) has stated that the Calicut taram was not considered legal tender (I hope he can read all the references in this article if he wants).

The rasi palaka was used to count coins as they were too small. The Palaka is (the coin board) a wooden board with small niches used to count small coins (counting up to 100 to 200 at a time). Strangely, books such as Elliot’s reference manual on South Indian Coins talk about Ceylon, Travancore and Cochin coin issues but do not have much information on Malabar coinage other than a brief mention of the Vira raya fanam.
The origin of the PanamP Gopakumar states in his Hindu article - The Panam monetary system was closely correlated with ( kaudi shell) cowry. The inference is that a handful of cowries is equal to one panam. The earliest pana coin, recorded in history, was Kaarshapana having been available even prior to the reign of the Magadhan emperor Bimbisara. It was known as dharana or purana and later christened as the punch-marked coin. Karsha ascribes to the act of ploughing and agriculture, indicating that the hub of weight standard, monetary system and coinage of India has been agriculture. Coin heritage of Kerala is no exception. The first non-Kerala coin which the early Keralite met with was the Kaarshapana brought to the region by the Buddhist mendicants.

I have deliberately not extended the discussion to connect the evolution of various southern currencies to the Rupee, paisa etc, will leave that for others to pursue, for otherwise this will stretch out of context.

And all that made me remember the song – Aiyaram ponpanam veenu kitti from the movie Srishti…Cochin Ibrahim and Lr Eaashwari sung the duet.

Coin Splendour - Prasanna Rao Bandela
Malabar manual – W Logan
Zamorins of Calicut – KV Krishna Iyer
Malabar Studies – NM Nampoothiri
The Bean
that Weighs Beads - Dr. V. Sankaran Nair
Ceylon Coins and Currency H.W. Codrington

Mint coin striking –

Viraraya coins - Coin Splendour
Viraraya fanam
Manjadi – Wiki
Kalanju – Organicindia
Rasi palaka & smallest coins - Hindu


  1. PN Subramanian

    Wonderful article. I was unaware of the role played by Manjadi Kuru in the weight standard. Cunnigham is said to have collected Rattis from various parts of India and compared their weights. 32 Rattis used make one Karshapana. Thanks.

  1. The Prophet Of Frivolity

    A not so quite off topic doubt - Have you seen this book named : Social History of Kerala. 2 vols. I saw it as reference in a book. It is authored by K.V. Krishna Iyer too. I just wanted to know about it before I start hunting down to get a copy.

    Thanks in advance.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks PNS

    The manjadi was a weight standard in many parts of India, actually.

    Thanks for visiting POF - No I do not have the book, it is by LA Krishna Iyer. KVK Iyer wrote Zamorins & history of Kerala.
    The LAK Iyer book seems difficult to locate..

  1. The Prophet Of Frivolity

    Oh...I made a mistake. You are right. I confused those names. I could locate that book but I don't want to buy it before knowing how it is. Perhaps I will have to look in some of the libraries in Kerala.

    Thanks for the response.

  1. Rajesh

    Fabulous article. Very informative and interesting.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Rajesh & POJ. In case you find the book, pls let me know how it reads..

  1. roopadarsakan

    very good post
    all the best

  1. Rajesh Rajah

    great article!! i've always wondered about the inscriptions on puthu panam. thank you for shedding light on it.