Sometimes history is written in monumental remains of the past, such as Borobudur or Prambanan. Sometimes history is written in a less-than-monumental manner, which, although tiny, can also hold extraordinary tales.
For one volunteer with the Denpasar office of archeology, I Dewa Nyoman Putra Harthawan, ancient coins found across Bali can tell unexpected stories about the island’s earliest civilizations.
A coin collector and lecturer on the archeology of currency at Udayana University, exhibited his coin collection during a recent puppet festival at the House of Masks and Puppets in Kubu Bingin.
He says that one of his coins provides evidence of a millennia-old relationship between Bali and China.
“My oldest coin is a Chinese copper coin from 175 BC. This small coin has a huge story, not only because it proves that there was ancient trade with China, but because these coins have become part of our culture.”
“This coin is known as a ban liang, or half liang, from the Han dynasty,” Dewa says. “From these remains, we have good evidence that we have had contact with China since very early on [….] We have found not just one of these coins, but many coins from an era 2,000 years ago. We have had intensive contact with China for more than two millennia.”
People in Bali used Chinese and Dutch coins from ancient times throughout the Dutch colonial occupation all the way until Independence, Dewa said. “Up to the 1950s, Bali had two currencies — Dutch and Chinese coinage simultaneously, but holding different values, much like the rupiah against the dollar today.”
‘Mélange’: Over millennia, the Chinese coins have been absorbed into local culture by the Balinese.
The use of two different coinages had been phased out in Java a century before, he adds. “It was only in Bali that these coins continued in circulation. The Javanese no longer used Chinese coins during the Dutch occupation. There were some coins minted during the Majapahit era, but these are very rare and we feel these coins were struck as commemorative coins only.”
Chinese coins were used as legal tender in the archipelago at least from the Majapahit era and perhaps even earlier.
“Bali and Java certainly used Chinese coins as currency. As the Majapahit kingdom spread across Indonesia, so would this currency,” says Dewa.
Artisans of these former eras have also left their mark, with many coins bearing symbols specific to Indonesian culture and beliefs, rather than Chinese characters.
Dewa’s collection features many coins, some tarnished and black, others defaced with the original Chinese characters removed and re-etched with symbols of wayang puppets, horses and elephants.
“The removal of Chinese characters is a big mystery,” Dewa says. “This may have been done between the 15th and 17th centuries, with the inspiration to alter the coins influenced by the Majapahit period. There is an Indian influence to the coins that is quite different from their original Chinese characters.”
The introduction of symbols from Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata has echoed through the centuries, with Balinese still using Chinese coins as offerings in religious ceremonies.
Palimpsest: The original Chinese coins were defaced, their characters scratched out and replaced with local symbols from the Mahabharata and Ramayana tales.
“Every family has these coins — they are handed down from generation to generation, so that goes back many hundreds of years. When I was building this coin collection, I met with families. Much of this collection comes from those meetings,” Dewa says.
“It is interesting that we used these Chinese coins as our currency for at least 700 years, yet this is not our money. So the question is why was that,” Dewa says. “We still use these coins in ceremonies. Do some of these coins have some magic power?”
Some coins have clearly etched symbols evoking hope, he adds. “In Bali there is the pis bulan [moon coin], that we believe has magic. We believe that if we own a pis bulan, life will be beautiful. There is also the pis bahagia, the happiness coin, and the tanpak dara, or security coin.”
Dewa believes that his collection is key to telling the story of Bali and its people. “These small coins with their huge stories are not only important as powerful evidence of ancient Chinese trade and relations from a time before Christ, but also because these coins have become part of our culture.”
“We want to present these coins so people know the coins and their pictures, the meanings of their symbols, such as happiness, health, peace — the characters with good meanings that are offerings in our ceremonies,” says Dewa of a collection cast in copper that reveals the secrets of the millennia.
Sacred: Chinese coins are still used in offerings in Bali.
At work: A man sits before a pile of ancient Chinese coins.
Weave: Chinese coins are threaded to form sculptures.
Ancient: Chinese coins were first introduced to Bali around 175 BC and 2000 years later are still used in ceremonies on the island.