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Haj rupee’s journey from pilgrim’s wallet to collectors’ shelf

Mumbai :As millions of pilgrims gather at Mecca and Medina for the annual Haj pilgrimage this week, Hajis recollect a specially-minted Indian rupee note that officials would issue every year for the journey. The ‘lal’ note, a name it got because the Rs100 note was a shade of red, has now become a rare, collector’s item.
Thane resident Abdullah Kaka, 81, recollects using it during his visits to Mecca in 1951 and 1968. Haj officials in Mumbai gave him the notes before he boarded the ship for Jeddah, the embarkation port for the holy cities. He used the special currency all through the pilgrimage.
While Kaka does not remember what the Haj Rupee looked like, he knows what he used it for — both in 1951 when he went for Umrah — a shorter version of the pilgrimage and later in 1968. “In 1951, we would get a bottle of Coca Cola for Rs1. By 1968, when I went again for Haj, the exchange rate of the rupee had fallen to Rs 3, which later picked up to Rs 1. However, the last time I went for Haj in 1996, I remember exchanging the normal rupee notes for Saudi Riyals, at the rate of Rs 13,” Kaka said.
Officials said not many Hajis would remember the special note , which the Mumbai office of the Haj Committee of India (HCOI) first issued in 1959. “As per my understanding, Haj notes were in circulation till the first half of 1970s. Maybe, after that, the Saudi economy improved, which is why they might have stopped using our currency,” said one official of HCOI.
A retired HCOI employee?saidafter the special Haj currency was stopped,pilgrims were given bank drafts that they exchanged for Saudi currency. Today, they are given 2100 Riyals at Indian airports before they depart for the pilgrimage.
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) could not provide this newspaper information about exactly when the notes were withdrawn, but information at the RBI museum reads: “These notes were issued in denominations of Rs 10 and Rs100, and had the word HAJ inscribed on the obverse. The serial number of the notes was prefixed with the letters ‘HA’. The notes were discontinued when the notes meant for circulation in the Gulf States were withdrawn.”
Numismatists — experts who maintain the history of rare currency notes — retraced the inception of the Haj rupee to the Reserve Bank of India (Amendment) Act 1959. Under this act, the RBI introduced what was called a Gulf note, which was the currency issued from India to be used as a medium of exchange in the Gulf States of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, The Trucial State and parts of Muscat.
However, the same year, the RBI decided to introduce the red Haj notes, as the Gulf notes were rampantly being used to smuggle gold. “With gold being smuggled across the coast, and the Indian rupee and Gulf note being used in the process, the colour of Indian currency to be used in the Persian Gulf was changed. The Haj notes had two denominations, a blue Rs 10 note and a red Rs100 note,” said Jayesh Gala from mintageworld.com, an online museum for coins, currency notes and stamps.
As the notes fell out of use, not many specimens have survived. The ones that have, are now very valuable. Farokh Todywalla of Todywalla Auctions in?Mumbai, which trades in rare currency notes, said the Haj notes are hard to find, with the base value of one Rs 10 Haj note costing a minimum of Rs 3.5 lakh.
“Even before Independence, our currency was being widely used in UAE because there was no dollar as an exchange currency then, which is why RBI used to issue notes for most part of the subcontinent. But, very few of these Haj notes are now found in India. In fact, collectors usually get it from UAE,” said Todywalla.
Dinyar Madon, 60, a senior counsel at the Bombay high court, has a Rs 10 Haj note from 1959, which he bought 10 years ago. “All I am aware of is people who would go for Haj used to take that note to spend it in Saudi Arabia. It was used as currency then, but eventually phased out.”