COWRY, s. Hind. kauri (kaudi), Mahr. kavadi, Skt. kaparda, kapardika. The small white shell, Cypraea
moneta, current as money extensively in parts of S. Asia and of Africa.
By far the most ancient mention
of shell currency comes from Chinese literature. It is mentioned in the famous Tribute of Yü (or Yü-Kung); in
the Shu-Kiñg (about the 14th cent. B.C.); and in the Book of Poetry (Shi-King), in an ode of the 10th
cent. B.C. The Chinese seem to have adopted the use from the aborigines in the East and South; and
they extended the system to tortoise-shell, and to other shells, the cowry remaining the unit. In 338
B.C., the King of Tsin, the supply of shells failing, suppressed the cowry currency, and issued copper
coin, already adopted in other States of China. The usurper Wang Mang, who ruled A.D. 923, tried
to revive the old systems, and issued rules instituting, in addition to the metallic money, ten classes of
tortoise-shell and five of smaller shells, the value of all based on the cowry, which was worth 3 cash.1
[Cowries were part of the tribute paid by the aborigines of Puanit to Metesouphis I. (Maspero, Dawn of
Civ., p. 427).]
The currency of cowries in India does not seem to be alluded to by any Gr
eek or Latin
author. It is mentioned by Masudi (c. 943), and their use for small change in the Indo-Chinese countries is repeatedly spoken of by Marco Polo, who calls them pourcelaines, the name by which this kind of
shell was known in Italy (porcellane) and France. When the Mahommedans conquered Bengal, early in
the 13th century, they found the ordinary currency composed exclusively of cowries, and in some remote
districts this continued to the beginning of the last century. Thus, up to 1801, the whole revenue of the
Silhet District, amounting then to Rs. 250,000, was collected in these shells, but by 1813 the whole
was realised in specie. Interesting details in connection with this subject are given by the Hon. Robert
Lindsay, who was one of the early Collectors of Silhet (Lives of the Lindsays, iii. 170).
The Sanskrit vocabulary
called Trikandasesha (iii. 3, 206) makes 20 kapardika (or kauris)=¼ pana; and this value seems to
have been pretty constant. The cowry table given by Mr. Lindsay at Silhet, circa 1778, exactly agrees
with that given by Milburn as in Calcutta use in the beginning of last century, and up to 1854 or thereabouts
it continued to be the same:
|4 kauris||= 1 ganda|
|20 gandas||= 1 pan|
|4 pan||= 1ana|
|4anas||= 1 kahan, or
about ¼ rupee.|
This gives about 5120 cowries to the Rupee. We have not met with any denomination
of currency in actual use below the cowry, but it will be seen that, in a quotation from Mrs. Parkes, two
such are indicated. It is, however, Hindu idiosyncracy to indulge in imaginary submultiples as well as
imaginary multiples. (See a parallel under LACK).
In Bastar, a secluded inland State between Orissa
and the Godavery, in 1870, the following was the prevailing table of cowry currency, according to Sir W.
|28 kauris||= 1 bori|
|12 boris||= 1 dugani|
|12 duganis||= 1 Rupee, i.e. 2880 cowries.|
Here we may remark that both the pan in Bengal, and the dugani in this secluded Bastar, were originally
the names of pieces of money, though now in the respective localities they represent only certain quantities
of cowries. (For pan, see under FANAM; and as regards dugani, see Thomass Patan Kings of Delhi,
pp. 218 seq.). [Up to 1865 bee-a or cowries were in use in Siam; the value of these was so small that
from 800 to 1500 went to a fuang (7½ cents.).Hallett, A Thousand Miles on an Elephant, p. 164. Mr.
Gray has an interesting note on cowries in his ed. of Pyrard de Laval, Hak. Soc. i. 236 seqq.]
were at one time imported into England in considerable quantities for use in the African slave-trade.
For this purpose, says Milburn, they should be small, clean, and white, with a beautiful gloss (i. 273).
The duty on this importation was £53, 16s. 3d. per cent. on the sale value, with 1/3 added for war-tax.
In 1803, 1418 cwt. were sold at the E. I. auctions, fetching £3,626; but after that few were sold at all.
In the height of slave-trade, the great mart for cowries was at Amsterdam, where there were spacious
warehouses for them (see the Voyage, &c., quoted 1747).
c. A.D. 943.Trading affairs are carried on with cowries (al-wada), which are the money of the country.Masudi,
c. 1020.These isles are divided into two classes, according to the nature of their chief
products. The one are called Dewa-Kaudha, the Isles of the Cowries, because of the Cowries that
they collect on the branches of coco-trees planted in the sea.Albiruni, in J. As., Ser. IV. tom. iv. 266.
1240.It has been narrated on this wise that as in that country (Bengal), the kauri [shell] is current in
place of silver, the least gift he used to bestow was a lak of kauris. The Almighty mitigate his punishment
[in hell]!Tabakat-t-Nasiri, by Raverty, 555 seq.
c. 1350.The money of the Islanders (of the Maldives)
consists of cowries (al-wada). They so style creatures which they collect in the sea, and bury in holes
dug on the shore. The flesh wastes away, and only a white shell remains. 100 of these shells are called
siyah, and 700 fal; 12,000 they call kutta; and 100,000 bustu. Bargains are made with these cowries