It’s slender, short and rusty look makes it rather inconspicuous. No one would even blame you if your untrained eyes overlook it. But collectors bet on this item. It’s one of the rarest of rare curios preserved in hardly three to four museums across the world. Not even the Indian Museum has it.
Known as Jabilee — a medium of exchange (currency) used by the Ao tribe of Nagaland centuries ago — it looks like a slender and small spear made of iron barely 25 cm long and weighing less than 10 grams. Only one person in Kolkata claims to have six of these pieces, which he managed to buy from a tribal chief of Mokukchung district in Nagaland years ago.
Three of these 300-year-old Jabilees are now on display in Kolkata at the three-day coin exhibition – Mudra Utsav - organized by the Numismatics Society of Calcutta (NSC), which kicked off on Friday. The venue is the Haldiram building, opposite CCFC, in Ballygunge.
“I was touring some of the tribal areas of Nagaland three decades ago to collect a British India coin which the Queen had gifted to some of the Naga chiefs when I stumbled upon these Jabilees. When a Naga tribal chief first showed these pieces to me, I refused to buy them and returned to Guwahati. But then I came to learn about these rare items and rushed back to Mokokchung and bought them,” said Shanker Kumar Bose, a former banker and the past president of Numismatics Society of India.
A Jabilee was a high value currency among the Ao Nagas – a major tribe of Nagaland – and was used to purchase slaves and Mithuns (wild cow preferred for their meat). While one slave would cost 50 Jabilees, one Mithun would cost 100 Jabilees. The punishment of stealing a Jabilee, which was considered a hereditary property, could even attract death sentence.
While two of the oldest Jabilee discovered so far are preserved in Assam State Museum, around 12 are kept in Kohima Museum. Tuensang Museum has four such pieces and around 100 are kept at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
“The infor mation about the existence of Jabilee coins among the Ao and other Naga tribes first came to light when the British occupied the Ao country in 1889. It is indeed amazing that a tribe living in the most difficult terrain with a primitive organization could introduce a currency more or less of standard weight,” said Bose, who was also the former advisor on numismatics of Guwahati Museum.
Also on display at the exhibition are several other rare items such as a Daas Khat – a writing through which a debt-ridden man unable to pay off his debts would self himself as a slave, a parallel currency which was used in tea-estates in North Bengal.
While the Daas Khat – dating back almost 500 years – was collected from Sylhet in Bangladesh, collectors said that the tea estate coins, not endorsed by any government, were used in tea gardens to pay wages to laborers and purchase daily items even a hundred years back.
“The focus of this year’s exhibition is on coins of Bengal. The exhibition showcases some of earliest punch-marked coins of Bengal dating back to 3rd century BC. This apart, numismatists and experts from across India have come to participate with their collections in the exhibition. While there are rare coins dating back to the Mughal and Gupta era, collectors have also brought recent Indian currency notes which are rare,” said Ravi Shankar Sharma member of NSC.