Arumugam ‑ an Indian numismatic.


In the nineteen‑seventies  I worked at an agricultural project in Karnataka. A known Danish numismatic, Olav Bonefeld, asked me to help him with coins from India. Olav Bonefelds big interest was coins from the former Danish colony or trade station, Tranquebar. On a travel to India and Tranquebar he had met an Indian numismatic with the same interests, Mr. S. Arumugam.


When Arumugam came to my house with coins for Bonefeld. He showed me coins and tried to make me interested and to make me buy some. As I am interested in history and as a boy had collected a little coins, it was not difficult. I started with one coin from each of the Danish kings, who had ruled while Tranquebar was Danish. It was nine coins, one from each of the kings from Christian the fourth to Christian the eight. It was the start of my interest for the Tranquebar coins.  


Arumugam was employed by the Indian railways, but his big interest was coins and numismatic. He has collected and sold a big part of the Tranquebar coins that are available today. In the last 30 years, the sea has taken a part of the coast in Tranquebar. The town has become smaller. At the same time a number of coins has been washed free. The fisher families in Tranquebar collects these coins. Arumugam went regularly to Tranquebar once in the month during the monsoon and bought coins from his contacts. Arumugam had contacts with many collectors of Tranquebar coins. With J.C.F.Gray in Canada, Brian Hannon in USA, Olav Bonefeld and me in Denmark. Many of the coins in these collections come from Arumugam.



Arumugam and the author near Dansborg in 1979                                  Tellerlunds map of Tranquebar 1733. The black line show the costline today


Arumugam had great knowledge about coins, not only Tranquebar coins, but also other Indian coins. His big interest was coins from the old South Indian dynasties: Chera, Chola and Pandya. From these dynasties, he had a big collection, which included many unpublished coins. It was his intention to write detailed about these coins. His premature death did not give him time for that. He managed to write a number of articles about numismatic, and he had two big articles about coins from South India published in World Coins i USA in 1971 and 1976.  


S. Arumugam was born the 18th of July 1926 in a poor family with 5 children. S in his name stand for Shanmugam, his father’s name. He went to school for ten years and got a examination. It was a great achievement in a poor family. He was employed as a clerk by the railways. In 1947 he was married and got 6 children. Shortly after he was married, he saw a metal-dealer hammer old Chola coins into a copper jug, to sell them for melting. He had an unusual interest for history, so he bought the old coins for a mere song and started to identify them. This was according to his own statement the start of his great interest for numismatic. According to his family he was now completely obsessed by coins. He travelled all over South India, without thoughts for food, sleep or his health, to get more coins ‑ coinscoins.


He wrote many articles about numismatic. He spend all his money to buy more coins, and he even sold his wife's jewellery to get more coins. To sell your wife's jewellery is a very serious thing in India.  The jewellery is the wife's property. She has brought then into the family from her own family, it is her insurance. Mrs. Arumugam is a unusual wife. She agrees to her husband’s sale of the jewellery and even encourage him to buy more coins. In the long run Mrs Arumugams attitude prove to be right, just as the famous Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen puts it in his novel : "What the husband does is always right."

The interest for coins, especially Tranquebar coins became a very good business. The family were able to build a good big house, the sons got an education, the daughters got big dowry, so they marry well. Mrs. Arumugam also gots her jewellery back, big heavy gold jewellery. Once Mrs. and Mr. Arumugam visited us, she wears her jewellery. The family has been travelling by train from Tiruchirappalli to Bangalore, a long journey. Because of all the jewellery they were fearing robbery. When they were going to sleep in our guesthouse, they get nervous because of all the jewellery, and only when the jewellery were locked up in my the safe, they could go to sleep.  


In their home in Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu there are a big exhibition case with coins from South India placed pedagogically after time and dynasties, from the antique coins to the coins of the Republic of India. The exhibition case has been used for many numismatic exhibitions in India.

The first big numismatic exhibition where Arumugam participate was in 1959. The guest of honour at the exhibition was general Kariappa, the first commander in chief of the independent India.  General Kariappa admired Arumugams exhibition of coins and encouraged him to continue his interest for South Indian coins. At the wall in the families sitting room there are a picture where general Kariappa talks with Arumugam at the exhibition. When Arumugam shoved me the picture he told, that the meeting with general Kariappa has had a great influence on him and had increased his interest for South Indian history and numismatic.  

A visit at the Arumugam family always starts with a meal where children and friends participates. You eat with your fingers and show appreciation of the good food. After the meal, after washing hands and after the children and family has left, it is time to look at coins. Tranquebar coins, other Indian colony coins, coins from native states and antique South Indian coins. As a special honour and sign of confidence, the unpublished coins from Chola, Chera and Pandya are shown. Arumugam could tell about his coins for hours.  




In the rainy season, Arumugam went to Tranquebar once each month to buy coins. The fisher families collected the coins at the beach after the storms. They could not fish during the storms, and they were collecting and selling coins to get money to buy food. By buying the coins direct from the fishermen Arumugam could get them at a low rate. On the other hand he always payed the people, he knew, and they were many, even if they did not have coins. He always brought a big bundle of one rupe notes to be able to give some money to the people he knew, so they could buy some food. He told, that when he could not afford to help, he would have to stay away.


Once we were in Tranquebar together, I bought some coins from a merchant there. Even the price was lower than I used to pay Arumugam, he found it far too high. Both the merchant and I were scolded because we were spoiling the level of prices, by making a deal at such a high price. Then he showed me how to make a deal. We went along the coast, where the sea is taking land from the coast, and where the coins are washed free. We went to the fisher village, where the poor fisher families live in thatched houses. They are fishing from the open seashore in their catamarans, as they have done for centuries. People surround us. Some chairs were brought for us, and we start to inspect the coins that men, women and children brings. Arumugam fix the price. To me it seems low, but it must be higher than the people can get from the merchants in Tranquebar.




Arumugam examining and buying coins in fishermens village


Once in 1975 there were few fake lead coins among some coins that Arumugam had sold to me. He had not noticed it and had sold the coins to me in good faith, and he immediately replaced the fake coins, when I complained. The fake coins were for him a very serious matter. Immediately he went to Tranquebar and warned the people, who had sold the fake coins, and told them if they did it again, he would tell the police and they would be jailed. His firm intervention had effect, and as far as I know, there have not been any fake coins since.  


The experience with the fake coins from Tranquebar in 1975, made me look critical at a big and famous collection of unique lead coins from Tranquebar in the Museum in Copenhagen. I consulted Arumugam, who had seen so many Tranquebar coins. He had never seen coins in Tranquebar like the unique coins in Copenhagen, so he encouraged my suspicion that the unique coins were fake. After his information, I were able to prove that the unique coins were fake. Arumugam also informed me that similar unique coins were in the museum in Madras.  


In 1984 Arumugam died after a short period of illness. He did not get the time to write his book about the antique coins from South India. His big collection of Chera, Chola and Pandya coins with many notes are still in the procession of the family. During a visit in 1989 I again had the honour to see the unpublished coins and Arumugams son, Mr. A. Manoharan told me that he considered it an obligation to his late father to complete his work with the South Indian coins. It will be a big mission for him to accomplish.