Sarraf an Arabic word meaning money changers, brokers, bankers, coin sorters, creditors etc in the Mughal and post-Mughal periods. The term applied to one who studied the purity of coins and ascertained the amount of batta (discounts) on them before these were deposited in the treasury. The term was widely used in the contemporary trading world of Europe, India and China. The sarraf, also called poddar and bania, was the product of the Mughal currency system. All foreigners in trading relation with India were acquainted with the term.
Bengal had always a favourable balance of payment with its international trading partners who, under the circumstance, had to adjust trade deficit with Bengal in bullion. One major sector to absorb the imported bullion was the magnetisation of the economy. Currencies were coined on a very large scale in the Tankshalls (mints) at Dhaka, Murshidabad and Patna. From 1757 coins were minted from Calcutta also. In Mughal times currencies of one province were legal tenders in other provinces as well. So, to meet trade deficit currencies were also coming from other imperial mints of India. Very significant amount of Arcot currencies, French Arcot and English Arcot particularly, were coming from south India.
But all these currencies were not of equal value intrinsically. In fineness also, these were not uniform. The currency of the Bengal government was called Sicca Rupee, which was the standard currency. The sicca rupee maintained its full value up to three years from the date of its coining and then it was considered as sanaut or debased coin. All foreign currencies were also termed sanaut because these were inferior to sicca rupee in content and fineness. In the market place only sicca was accepted in its full value and the value of all other coins had to be ascertained in terms of sicca rupee and batta had to be paid according to their intrinsic value. Sarraf was the person who, through his professional skill, ascertained the level of depreciation and the amount of batta to be levied on it for its exchange with sicca rupee. The sarraf was the purchaser of sanaut for sicca rupee. He took the sanaut currencies to the mint for recoining. For the hassle, he got a commission from the mint farmer. Sarraf had an opportunity to deceive the people who brought sanaut to him for exchange. But government check and balance system was so systematic that the sarraf was bound to be honest, though foreigners often suspected him to be a fraud.
Government revenue was collected only in sicca rupee. From the 1770s sicca rupee became scarce and the problem made the revenue payment on the part of zamindars very difficult. Sarrafs not only collected sicca rupees for zamindars but also often became their securities with the authorities and the courts. For zamindars, one way to pay revenue regularly even without being in financial position to do so, was to engage a sarraf at the collectorate to pay the revenue on his behalf. Under the pressure of the operation of the revenue sale law 1793 (sunset law), the zamindars commonly engaged sarrafs who, as their agents, paid the revenue in time, on his behalf. On commission basis, sarrafs worked at every collectorate treasury, at every mint and at every public and private office wherever money transactions and exchanges took place.
The sarrafs maintained widespread networks all over the country, even outside Bengal. They received bills of exchange issued by their colleagues and other recognized business houses across the country. A sarraf was a rich and respectable man, and hence the contemporaries addressed him as 'mahajan'. The dominance of the sarraf as a class declined and finally disappeared with the currency reform in the mid-nineteenth century and with the introduction of modern banking and token currencies. But in some form or other batta practice persisted in the rural hauts and bazars where old currencies were in circulation quite long after its formal abolition in 1835. A sarraf was also a moneylender, but not in the sense as a moneylending mahajan is seen in the countryside in the nineteenth century and after. [Sirajul Islam]