Ngultrum: History of Bhutan’s currency

In 1974, in a short and simple but traditional ceremony, the Ngulturm was formally launched in Thimphu as the legal tender of the country. Five years later, in 1979, the national currency was declared as the only legal tender money in Bhutan. 

On the morning of April 6, 1974, Her Royal Highness Ashi Sonam Chhoden Wangchuck released the first currency paper notes. The ceremony was held in Tashichhodzong in the presence of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo and the Cabinet. The paper notes released were of one, five and ten denominations. 

Kuensel covered the historic occasion. According to the April 14 issue, “Rs. Nu 10 Lakhs worth of notes have been printed bearing the signature of HRH Ashi Sonam Chhoden Wangchuck as His Majesty’s representative in the Ministry of Finance.”  It further states: “All Bhutanese notes will be legal tender on par value with Indian notes which shall also remain legal tender.”

The Nu 10 note was printed in purple colour with undertones of orange and white. The note had the portrait of His Majesty the Third Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck printed on it. The back of the note had a sketch of the Simtokha Dzong.

Similarly, the Five Ngultrum note had a portrait but that of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The back of the note had a colour sketch of the Paro Dzong.  The note was printed in reddish brown with undertone of orange and green.

According to Kuensel, the size of both the five and ten corresponds to that of the Indian Rs 10 and Rs 5 notes.  The Nu 10 note was released to commemorate His Late Majesty and came into immediate circulation. The Nu 5 was to released only in June to commemorate the historic coronation of His Majesty Fourth Druk Gyalpo. 

The Nu One note did not have any portrait but had juxtaposed Dorji (Vajra) and a pair of Dragon. It was blue in colour and, like the Nu 10, came into immediate circulation.

According to Kuensel, the paper currency was designed by the master craftsman Khikhor Lopon and his counterpart PB Chitnis of the Indian Security Press. V Swaminathan executed the project under the direct supervision of HRH Ashi Sonam Chhoden Wangchuck.

The India Security Press printed these notes for the first and last time. Located in the state of Maharashtra, the government press was charged with the task of printing various Indian government documents, including postage stamps.

Like the Indian currency, the words, “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of  Ten Rupee,” was printed in the currency but only in Dzongkha. 

The first time was the Nu 5 notes circulated was in the Tashichhodzong during the Tendrel Phunsum Tshogpa ceremony. On June 2, it was offered to the various dignitaries that attended the ceremony.   Out of the 10 offerings the cash offering was the last signifying the end of the ceremony.

On June 2, 1974, the public including students who had gathered on the grounds of the Banquet hall were given cash gifts of Nu 15 each. 

On June 3, the Ngultrum was distributed for the second time to the people of Bhutan who had congregated in Changlimithang to celebrate the coronation.

The tradition of distributing money to the people known as changgyaps during important and national occasion continues to this day. For many who flocked to the coronation, receiving of the money was their highlight.

According to the Annual Report (1972-73) of the Ministry of Finance, the Government of India gave our government a grant of Rs 45 lakhs. The money was used to prepare for the coronation. In the Receipt Payment of the year, Rs 15,78,151 was reflected as preliminary expense for the coronation of His Majesty. It is likely that the amount of 10 Lakhs or at least 22 percent of the fund was used from this grant to print the currency. 

The first time the Ngultrum appeared in a government document was in 1974. In the Plan Progress Report-April 1, 1974 to December 31, 1974, prepared by the Ministry of Development states: “The total plan outlay for the first three years of the plan was Nu 1,866.07 lakhs. A further expenditure of Nu 564.92 lakh was incurred during the first nine months of the fourth year.” In the 41 page report, Ngultrum is used at least 11 times.

The second lot of paper currency was printed and released in 1978. The Dzongkha version of the word “Ngultrum” was misspelt “Ngulkram.” This was the result of Dzongkha typewriter that did not have the alphabet, “Tah.” 

Five years after the Ngultrum was formally released, in 1979, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo announced it as the only legal tender money in the country. 

On 3 January 1979, a meeting was called as follow up of the Gelephug meeting. The Minutes of the Meeting were handed out and discussed in details. 

The neatly typed four-page report in foolscap paper has this important announcement. According to the Minutes, “His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo has been pleased to command that from May 1979, coinciding with the birthday of His Majesty, the Late King, Ngultrum will be introduced as the only legal tender money in Bhutan.” 

His Majesty stated that “the use of our currency will enable us to have effective control over the monetary policy and help us to indicate our trade deficit more clearly making the people aware of the need to produce goods for domestic consumption and for export.”

History

There are at least three theories of the etymology of Ngultrum.  The first is that the word Ngultrum is dngul-tam. Dngul means silver and tam means distribution. In Dr John Ardussi’s thesis, “Bhutan before the British, a Historical Study,” he states, “the question of currency values and types circulating in Bhutan during the 18th century is little known from the native literature. The dngul-tam may have been a local silver coin of moderately high value. In the 18th century, prize horses were given to princes of Cooch Bihar as gifts. These horse were worth 130 dngul-tam.” 

Dr Wolfgang Betsch, a numismatist, thinks that “Ngultrum” is a combination of two words: Ngul or Silver and Trum which means Tangka. The term “Tangka” refers to a Tibetan silver coin that has been coined since the mid 1600s.

The third popular theory of the origin of the etymology of Ngultrum is that it is derived from Taka. Also known as the Tanka or Tangka, it was one of the major historical currencies of Asia, particularly in the  Indian subcontinent and Tibet and became a currency of the Silk Road.  It was inscribed in numerous languages across different regions, including in Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Hindustani, Bengali, Nepali, Tibetan and Mandarin. The taka was traditionally equal to one silver rupee in Islamic Bengal. 

Tigchung

Before the Ngultrum was released, Tigchung coins were in circulation. For example, in 1966, during the 25th session of the National Assembly, it proposed minting of one crore of Tigchung in India. At the time, Tigtsa was not available in India so it had to be imported. “This would cost the government of Bhutan about 9 Lakhs in hard currency which was procured. The House also learnt that the country would be benefitted by Rs 36 lakhs after having the costs for the minting materials and the mint charges.”

Conclusion 

National currency is one of the symbols of an independent country. So far, there has been no national discourse on the etymology of the Ngultrum. In 1974, the Ngultrum replaced the Tigchungs and was formally launched as national currency. This ceremony was quiet, simple but traditional and held in the capital. 

Contributed by 

Tshering Tashi

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