Still worth its weight in gold

Still worth its weight in gold

The ''Gold Standard'',  the norm by which countries once agreed to fix the prices of their domestic currencies in terms of a specified amount of gold, may no longer be in vogue.

The old standard weights used for measuring goldBut the “gilded age” still holds a fascinating sway over people as the price of gold zooms.
This is no mere rhetoric. One austere yet impeccably accurate measure by which gold was weighed in that era – in the 20th century’s early part until the U S ended the gold standard in 1933-- when the electronic balance had not yet come on stage, was a set of heavily guarded special stones’.

“These are special stones used for weighing gold,” an official of the Tamil Nadu Government Museum in Chennai told Deccan Herald when their outstandingly rare collection of “Nine such special stones” saw the light of day for a special one-day viewing by members of the public. The “special stones” collected during the British period have dates ranging between 1929 and 1947. The year 1929 is particularly significant. It was the year of the global depression, when gold ought to have been all the more precious and ipso facto the accuracy of the weights and measures then.

 Even today, when gold ornaments are weighed, the present day  “8 grams” are referred as “a pown” in the local lingo. This is a legacy that goes back to the practice of weighing gold or gold ornaments in erstwhile British India by these “Pown weighing stones”, the official explained. Chennai Museum is one of the few in the country to preserve a unique set of them.

These “special stones” range from the smallest one-eighth of a “pown” to 20 “powns” which make a sovereign. Made out of brass and square in shape that gets progressively smaller in size when you go down the weights in a descending order, they have interestingly on their “obverse side the word ‘pown’ written in Tamil with the corresponding Indo-Arabic numeral.”

Special stones

Floral patterns dot the corners of these gold-weighing special stones, perhaps to indicate that gold was also as tender and symbolic of feminine energy at all times. On the “reverse side”, some of these “pown” weighing stones also have the “Crown Symbol”.

These stones also have dates between 1929 and 1947 inscribed on them.

The practice of weighing gold in stones goes back to the period of the great Chola King Raja Raja Chola in the South, the official disclosed. The stones that were specially used for weighing gold then were named after the Lord of the cosmic dance, Nataraja, known as “Adavallan” in Tamil.

Such weighing stones were recorded as “Kudinganaikal” in the Chola inscriptions. Precious metals were always weighed by these special stones in a “specially
designed balance” for want of accuracy by any other means, avers the official.

Apparently, these special weighing stones have evolved over centuries. In ancient Tamil society for instance, natural products like “grains and nuts” were used as weighing stones, the Museum official explained. It was perhaps associated with the tiniest concept of a “mass”, something that intrigues even modern physicists and cosmologists in search of the elusive “God-particle”.

For instance, one-half of a “Karshapana” (a punch-marked coin) is equal to 32 Rati seeds (Kundrimani), he says.

Corresponding to different type of natural products like mustard seeds, “zeera”, “kundrimani” (known as crab’s eye in English) etc., the ancient Tamils had used various types of weights. It was much later during the zenith of the Chola reign in South India (latter half of the 9th century to early 13th century AD) that special stones for weighing precious metals like gold and silver became part of societal life, going by inscriptional evidence of that period.

Accuracy of weights

Significantly, one Barthemea, a European traveller, in his travel accounts has narrated the accuracy of the weights and measures of the subsequent Vijayanagara period,  S S Jawahar, Commissioner of Museums, Government of Tamil Nadu, said. In Barthemea’s words, “the balances are too small and true (so sensitive) that they can be able to change its position by the weight of even a hair.” Even an “ancient table” of  “gold weights” had been recorded.

What is paramount in all these is that “these pown weighing stones of the
bygone era represent accuracy, authenticity and authority of the Government,” says Jawahar. At present, electronic balances have replaced such anachronism of weighing scales and stones, but the underlying principle and logic of equivalence has amazingly been the same.

Going by these references, it looks that “1 Kunrimani” of gold made of  “4 Nel (grains) Edai” was the least, tangible weight measure in the medieval period and perhaps even earlier. No wonder, even in  post-modern era of super computers and I-pods, the woman parsimonious with dowry is derisively asked in Tamil, “You brought not even a Kunrimani of Gold?”

Thus, it is not just “gold bars” that have made any “gilded age”. The narratives of the ever-shinning gold and silver as a fairly stable measure of prosperity have from ancient times constructed around the smallest of tangibles that were valued in the social commerce of a people.

If a poet was to praise these special “pown” weighing stones of the early part of the 20th century, preserved by the Chennai Museum, as a bridge to a distant past, he was not just being poetic! Is the usurious “pawn broker” of modern times, a variant of the ‘pown broker’? Only more history can tell.

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