Cowries are marine snails of the mollusc family Cypraeidae. They stand out on account of their thick, glossy and near-oval shell (almost egg-like in shape, with a humped dorsal surface that is speckled or coloured, and a ventral surface that carries fine-toothed, inward-folding apertures). It is the shell that has made cowries so famous. For thousands of years, they have been used as currency in Africa, Asia and Oceania.

The most famous of the cowries is the Money Cowrie (Monetaria moneta) of the genus Monetaria. It was known as ‘cowrie’ in English, ‘cauri’ in French, ‘kauri’ in Swahili, ‘kaudi’ in Hindi, and ‘kavadi’ in Marathi, all derived from a Dravidian language. Linguists surmise that the the borrowing was made from a word very similar to the Tamil ‘kotu’ (that translates as ‘shell’). Hence, the Dravidian provenance of the term.

With their durable, portable, recognizable but difficult-to-counterfeit design, cowries were greatly favoured in the Indian Ocean trade network. Sourced from the Maldives, cowries were circulated as shell money over a belt stretching from West Africa to East Asia. They were used to procure items as diverse as slaves (in West Asia) and domestic fowl (in Southeast Asia). In China, cowries were soon replaced by metal currency. But they survived as a medium of exchange for very long (in some instances, into the 19th century), in places like Nigeria and Thailand.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is a photograph of the Money Cowrie.