The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Buddha & Islam, in his sets of coins

“Look at the legend on the coin. Sakyamuni, that’s what it reads in Brahmi.” The satisfaction in the voice is evident as J.P. Goenka points to the motif on the copper coin dating to Buddha’s time. And this is not the oldest coin in his collection. The scion of the Goenka family has, in all probability, the finest stores of Sultanate coins in the world. “The British Museum is second best to me,” he announces, in his living room at Goenka Niwas in Alipore.

The younger brother of industrialist R.P. Goenka has co-authored a book entitled The Coins of the Indian Sultanates, which has recently won the Samir Shama Prize from the Royal Numismatic Society in London, the umbrella body of keepers of old coins. This is the first time that the prize, instituted in honour of a famous Saudi Arabian collector and reserved for a publication on Islamic numismatics, has come to India. Most of the coins featured in the book are from Goenka’s own collection, preserved in the Goenka residences in three cities.

Goenka is now settled in Mumbai but the richest segment of his collection — the Bengal Sultanate school, spanning Tripura, Assam, Dhaka, Pandua, Jayantia and Gaur, dating from the 12th to the 16th Century — is housed at his Alipore home. He also bought late actor Vasant Chowdhury’s collection of Bengal Sultanate coins. The third-generation Presidencian is immersed in a hobby that he took up after retirement from the family’s textile, jute and wool businesses, “at age 60”. He is terribly finicky about what he collects. “The Sultanate coins have aesthetic beauty. The Mughal coins are not that good-looking. And the machine-struck coins, from the East India Company times, I simply do not keep. The die came from Birmingham and the coins were produced mechanically… thak, thak, thak,” he says dismissively.

One of the major sources of coins is Bangladesh. “In places like Rajshahi, when the water recedes after monsoon, old coins, embedded for ages in the riverbed, surface. These coins find their way to Dhaka during Id, when villagers come to sell off their river-bed discoveries for the price of silver,” he says.

What is the future of such a collection (his Bengal Sultanate coins alone number around 3,500)' All Goenka is willing to say is that it will not reach any museum in India. “Scholars here have no access to the collection. I had once brought down an expert from London. For seven days, he was made to wait in a dusty dark room and shown some rubbish. In the British Museum, they just open the strong room for us and leave,” he says, adding how wary he is of holding an exhibition here and allowing people a glimpse of a golden past.

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