Dabbulu – Lost History of a Stray Word
Common words – lost roots
The common Telugu word for money is డబ్బు dabbu-lu – which has no relation with either Sanskrit or most other Indian languages. The origin of this word has been long a puzzle – and even though the Telugu dictionary lists some eight other words for currency and money, it is dabbulu which is most commonly used.
After years of puzzlement, a recent visit to Hyderabad gave me some promising threads, that I decided to follow up.
Old words for new
Early European travellers to India reported a local currency that they called the dab or dub, and in a few cases even the దుడ్డు duddu or debua. దుడ్డు duddu as per dictionary is in some places, of four, and in others, of two annas. One of the earliest reports that we get are from a Portuguese priest, whose books were translated in English also – Travels of Fray Sebāstien Manrique, 1629-1643: China, India, etc. All descriptions agree that this was a copper coin – but the exchange rate varied across regions, towns, seasons and economic conditions.
Salary – by any other coin
The tankha, a common coin till colonial era, first popularized as fiat currency token, during Tughlaq rule, was derived from the Hindi word, for a टांका taanka, stitch. Widely forged, the Tughlaqs were forced to withdraw old tankhas, and replace with new standard coins, the tankha remains in use in Bengali as taka – and exists in Telugu as టంకము – tankumu.
After Sher Shah Suri decided to replace the tankha, and impose his copper-silver-gold rupiya, State officials started accepting salary in tankha – now used as an equivalent to salary. Derived from tankha, is also the Hindi word for mint – tank-saal, which Telugu also uses as టంకసాల – ṭanka-sāla.
The Greco-Latin denarius is దీవారము (dīvāramu) or దీనరమ dīnāramu – and also used దినారి dināri, dināri. Probably derived from chavanni, but unclear etymology is చవిలె – cavile; ṭsavile – Four dubs or coins, of the value of twenty cash each. Four cavilehs equal one టంకము – tankumu. A bigger version is the చవలము cavalamu; ṭsavalamu – about half a rupee. Wealth generally can be denoted by the word లపక lapaka.
Oldest … after Tamil
Telugu was the language used by Vijayanagar kings extensively. Amuktamalyada (or sometimes called Vishnuchitteeyam) the book by Krishna Devaraya (reigned from 1509–1529), was written in Telugu. Telugu was also a significant language of the Satavahana kingdom, with Telugu inscriptions on Satavahana coins. The hub of wootz steel and diamond trade, merchants from all over the world came to Vijayanagar cities for trade. Portuguese horse-traders proliferated in Vijayanagar – with them came Spanish coins.
New World – and old money
India was in the Portuguese half of the world as per the Papal Bulls – and hence, we see Spanish influence in India through the Portuguese presence in India. For the medieval period, apart from extensive indigenous records, we also have European travelogues by Domingo Paes (a horse-trader), Duarte Barbosa, Fernão Nunes and Niccolò Da Conti. Tavenier was another famous visitor to Vijayanagar kingdom.
The most prominent king of Vijayanagar was Krishna Devaraya, who came to the throne (reigned from 1509–1529) soon after Spanish campaign of American conquest began (after Columbus voyage in 1492). American gold as Spanish coins attracted entire nations in Europe to encourage piracy and loot. India, the centre of world trade then, gave us the common Spanish coin that survives in name today – the peso; a close cousin of the paisa.
But the most famous of Spanish coins was the doubloon.
Tiger by the tale
The paisa has been a apart of Indian currency structure much before the peso became a part of the Spanish currency unit. India, always an importer of gold, may arguably, have also imported the word paisa. Though most Indian coins were named in India – and foreign words were not used much.
Was doubloon an import from Spain – or is it that doubloon was an export from the famed Vijayanagar bazaars into the Spanish currency. For the nouveau riche Spain to name its currency after the famed Vijayanagar word for currency could be an interesting tale to catch.