Images of cats from the British Museum collection, £9.99
Length: 27.000 mm
Width: 18.000 mm
Weight: 3.130 g
Bequeathed by W.R. Jacks
Coins and Medals
Bronze coin, a 'Lakshmi plaque'
Sri Lanka, 1st century AD
The Hindu goddess bathed by elephants
According to the Hindu creation myth, Lakshmi came into being as a result of the churning of the cosmic Ocean of Milk. She is the goddess of good fortune, fertility and royal authority, who is believed to bestow prosperity on her followers. The earliest images in Sri Lanka, datable to the first century AD, are on rectangular coins known as Lakshmi plaques. They depict the goddess as Gaja Lakshmi, that is, being given a purifying ritual bath by elephants. This example shows the goddess holding a purnaghata (vase of plenty) in each hand, which in turn support two elephants (symbols of royalty and also rain). The swastika and railing, traces of which are visible on the reverse, is a popular auspicious symbol on Sri Lankan coins of the period.
None of the early Sri Lankan issues carry inscriptions, but according to the fifth-century Buddhist monk Buddhaghosa, the symbols on them enabled a money-changer to tell where each coin had been minted and who was the issuer:
'The money-changer knows ... 'This one is genuine, this is false, this is half-value' ... and he does so by looking at the coin, and by listening to the sound of it when struck, and by smelling its smell, tasting its taste, and weighing it in his hand.'
Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga ('The Path of Purification'), XIV, 4
J. Cribb, B. Cook and I. Carradice, The coin atlas (London and Sydney, Macdonald Illustrated, 1990)