The title, lion and palm tree, is based on the design used by the East India Company for its single and double mohur coins. The Company issued coins in gold, silver, copper, and even tin. The gold coins were known as mohurs and were not legal tender. These were issued in one-mohur and two-mohur denominations valued at Rs. 15 and Rs. 30 respectively. The relevant Act of 1835 also authorised issue of 1/3rd and 2/3rd mohurs of value Rs. 5 and 10 respectively, though I am not sure whether these were actually issued. These single and double mohur coins, first issued in 1835, had the image of King William IIII on the observe and the design of lion and palm tree on the reverse.
Only a few of these beautiful coins are known to be in existence today and fetch a very high price at auctions. One reason for the rarity of the coin is the high value of the metal content making it unprofitable for the Calcutta Mint to issue in large numbers. The rest must have all been melted for the gold. Those who have read The Anarchy, William Dalrymple’s 2019 book on the East India Company, would have noticed that the image of the double mohur coin was used as a dinkus separating .
Museums Victoria, Australia, whose numismatic collection has a double mohur, describes the coin on its website. It refers to Robert Saunders, then Mint Master of the Calcutta Mint, whose initials appear on the coin. But, the image of lion and palm tree for the East India Company is believed to have been designed by John Flaxman, celebrated British sculptor and draughtsman, who died almost a decade before the coin was first minted. Therefore, it seems Flaxman did not design it specifically for the East India Company unless if the Company had been planning the unified coinage for a long time. The attribution to John Flaxman has been confirmed by Paul Stevens in his books, The Coinage of the Bombay Presidency, and The Coins of the English East India Company.
Flaxman must have drawn inspiration from Punic coinage and the designs that he had seen during his many years travelling and working in Italy. The motif of lion and palm tree and indeed that of the palm tree with other animals, particularly the horse, were in vogue in the Mediterranean region, especially in Northern African Carthaginian civilization from at least as early as the 4th century BCE. The shield of Hannibal (375-450 CE), now in Paris, also has the image of a lion and palm tree emblazoned on the obverse.
Dr. Shailendra Bhandare of the Ashmoleum Museum confirmed (via email) that there is a wax model of a ‘lion and palm tree’ design in the British Museum attributed to Flaxman, which appears to be a forerunner of the coin design. He says that Flaxman was a very prolific society sculptor who made many bas-reliefs and plaster models for funerary and other monuments. From his research, it appears that Flaxman was working on the design at least fifteen years before his death, but we don’t know for what ultimate use. He has reasonable evidence to believe that there was also a conversation going on between him and his colleague, the famous painter JMW Turner, about this design. Unfortunately, a lot of Flaxman’s work was destroyed in the London bombing during the Second World War. So, it is difficult to piece things together. The discussions about the design of coins begins in about 1824 which is just before Flaxman’s death. Dr. Bhandare is almost certain that Flaxman’s design was not made for the purpose, but it appears to have attracted attention as something which allegorically denotes the ‘British Empire’.
The motif of lion and palm tree is found to have been used symbolically in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions. Jesus is believed to have been born under a palm tree. The Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament states as follows:
“In the space above the outside of the entrance to the inner sanctuary on the all the walls, spaced evenly around the inner and outer sanctuary, were alternating carved cherubim and palm trees. Each cherub had two faces: the face of a man was toward the palm tree on one side, and the face of a young lion was toward the palm tree on the other side. They were carved all the way around the temple. Cherubim and palm trees were carved on the wall of the outer sanctuary from the floor to the space above the entrance.”Book of Ezekiel (41:17-20)
Palms around oases symbolised hope and hospitality. There is no wonder that it was closely associated with Islam, the first mosque having been built on trees with palm leaves, and the first call to prayer having come from atop a palm tree. Coins from the Middle East depicted palms and palm leaves even in more recent times.
In various civilizations of the Mediterranean and Middle East, the palm tree and its leaves were associated with victory, peace, endurance, immortality, and fertility. It was given away to victors, including in ancient Olympics. It was the sacred sign of Apollo. This explains how the palm appeared in the iconography of these regions, including in buildings, pots, ornaments, and later, coins.
Lions symbolise power and strength. Even today, the most ubiquitous and perhaps the only animal that has been universally celebrated in art and public spaces alike is the lion. Sculptures of lions guarding entrances to cities, temples and monasteries, palaces and castles, museums, and houses, are common across most cultures. And this includes other secular buildings of the modern era such as art institutes, parks and malls, stock exchanges, hotels and restaurants, universities and libraries, town halls, mausoleums, banks, and factories.
Speaking of art, one cannot forget Eisenstein’s clever montage sequence of the rising lions at the Odessa steps in his iconic classic, the 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin (clips available in the public domain). I also suspect that the famous five foot tall sculpture of a Lion, now in Wiltshire, by Bruce Little, the celebrated South African sculptor, might have drawn inspiration from Flaxman’s sharp and elegant design emblazoned on the East India Company’s double mohur – lost in thought, serious of purpose, and engendering confidence.
The motif of lion and palm tree, I believe, is based on the legend of a lion safeguarding treasure buried at the base of the palm tree. There are numerous tales of seafarers, including pirates and smugglers, burying treasure under a palm tree, which is marked with a knife for later identification. Moreover, the use of a lion as an icon for power and safety are well known. The motif is therefore heraldic and appropriate for use on any sovereign coin, even by a central bank. Its use by the East India Company, the first joint stock company in the world, could be considered inappropriate. But, the Company had quasi-sovereign powers, had an army twice bigger than that of Great Britain, controlled half its trade, and ruled over a land mass bigger than that of any then sovereign nation.
As is well known, the the image of “lion and palm tree” was used as the basis for the logo of the Reserve Bank of India. It was Sir James Taylor, the second Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, who suggested replacing the lion with the tiger. For that, the image of the tiger atop the entrance to Belvedere, the residence of then Governor of Bengal, was used as a model.
The use of the tag “lion and palm tree” as the title for this blog signifies its objective of safeguarding the treasure of global public interest in the area of banking, central banking, and the economy.
Note: This post will be periodically updated to reflect additional information being collected.
© G Sreekumar 2021
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