January 2014


Representations of History
January 2014




Façade of building: the front portion of ‘Central Point’, the building which houses the Central Bank’s economic and currency museum in Fort, Colombo

Words Feizal Samath Photography M. A. Pushpa Kumara


Walk into the new Central Bank's new Economic History Museum of Sri Lanka in Fort and prepare to be greeted by not only the finest expositions in the history of currency but also the history of the country.


The bullock cart era, the buggy cart, the ‘Natamis', the capitalist class, four-wheel vehicle and everything that represents Ceylon is captured in this museum through coins and paper currency, reflecting the social, cultural and economic progress of the country. This dates back to the four eras of dominance-Anuradhapura (3 BC), the Kingdoms of Polonnaruwa, Kotte and Kandy to the colonialists-the Portuguese, Dutch and the British-and post-independent Ceylon (Sri Lanka after the country became a republic in 1972).


There is plenty of anecdotal evidence on how the private sector (then known as the mercantile trade) flourished in the 18th Century under the British rule and a kind of globalisation emerged; much, much earlier than today's globalised world.


For instance, browsing through the pages of time, how does one reconcile with the fact that Ceylon had a 10,000 rupee note issued in October 1947 by the British or how foreign coins dominated trade when foreign traders arrived by sea? The highest-value currency note today is 5,000 rupees!


The building housing the museum 
is steeped in history. Opened in 1914, 
a century ago, it was the head office of an insurance company called the National Mutual Life Association of Australasia and was then the tallest building in Colombo.

“Central Point” Museum provides a comprehensive understanding on 
how currencies have oiled the wheels of progress in a country
Located at the corner of Chatham Street and Janadhipathi Mawatha in front of the elegant Victorian Period Clock Tower, the building was taken over by the Central Bank in 2011. It is named "Central Point" to signify the building's proximity to the clock tower then a central part of Fort, the heartbeat of 
Sri Lanka's business district.


The three floors of the economic history and currency museum provides 
a peek view into the economic and social history of the country initially through a video show on the ground floor. Footage for the video was obtained by the Central Bank through various local and foreign sources and its own library depicts different periods of growth and development. There were British men and women travelling in horse-driven carriages, ‘Nattamis (Indian labourers brought by the British to work in trade and who exist to this day in Colombo's bustling Pettah business area)', blacksmiths, foundries and other workhouses.


On the second floor discover the history of currencies in the form of coins and paper. One section, from a distance, looks similar to a glittering jewellery store with glass cubicles showing an unimaginable range of coins dating back to the Anuradhapura era. The oldest locally made coin was called Kahapana found in Kegalle District. Coins came in different shapes and sizes, some crudely designed with odd shapes and uneven in balance.


Coins were used widely in transactions during the second half of Dutch rule in the 1700s. The first paper currency came with the issue of the Rix-dollar (Dutch currency). The Rix-dollar coin was then known as Pathaga in Sinhala. The first note was equivalent to 25,000 Pathaga.


Interestingly counterfeit notes emerged during this time and in an effort to stop the circulation of counterfeits, the Dutch demonitised 
the old notes and issued new notes 
in 1793. Enter the British and then follows a plethora of coins and currency notes. The currency thuttu led to the famous colloquial expression "thuttu dekakata ganang ganna epa". Meaning "not worth two cents".


Coins minted from gold were also issued during this period. Aluminium, nickel, copper and silver are main metals used to produce coins.


Coins and currencies are displayed 
in chronological order according to 
the ancient, medieval, colonial and 
post-independence periods.


Central Bank staff is at hand to explain to visitors the history of coins, what metals are used and the denominations. The production of currency notes and their security attributes are dominant features of the museum. One glass panel contains cotton pulp, a security thread mould and banknote paper. Features of a currency note with the security thread and other features are also explained by staff, particularly to school children, many of who visit the museum on organised trips.


A newest security feature is the fibres of about 4 mm in length, which can be seen by the naked eye and more clearly through ultraviolet light. These are mostly in higher value notes.


Are old coins meant to be accessories, is a question asked in a 
book issued by the Central Bank titled "From Purana (ancient times) to the Rupee". The book which gives the history of the currency and economic eras, said at that one point coins minted for circulation were used to create jewellery and accessories. Very old coins as well as present day coins are used in jewellery-making, though under currency monetary laws it is illegal to 
use legal coins for any other purpose.


A visit to the "Central Point" Museum provides a comprehensive understanding on how currencies have oiled the wheels of progress in a country. The museum is open from 8.30 am to 
6 pm daily except on Poya days, free to the public and welcomes school children especially. There is a café on the ground floor as well.

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    Entrance to building: a receptionist seated on the ground floor of the Central Point building in Fort where the Central Bank has its museum

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    A 10,000-rupee note issued by the Government of Ceylon in 1947 for a legal tender

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    A trade in progress: statues of two traders as they barter goods. Exchange of goods was the popular mode of trade, centuries ago

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    Old coins on the weighing scale

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    An ancient coin showing the bo tree and swastika

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    A gold coin during Dutch rule in Ceylon

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    Glass cubicles looking similar to a jewellery store with ancient coins from different periods

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    The third floor houses the currency museum devoted to displaying currencies of Commonwealth countries and their history

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    A wall depicting bank notes of different eras

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    A well-preserved weighing scale commonly used to weigh coins

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    Hook-shaped coins believed to have been brought to Ceylon by traders from Persia (now Iran)

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