Mandala Of Indic Traditions
LINGUISTIC AVATARS OF WOOTZ: THE ANCINET INDIAN STEEL
J. Le Coze, of the Centre for
Materials Science, France, has come out with an interesting essay about the
different names of steel in different parts of the world that the ancient Indian
stell known as wootz inspired. Wootz, was perhaps derived from the Kannada
word Ukku. This steel making process was practiced in peninsular India
since great antiquity. The ancient Indian steel was known as Damascene steel
in Persia and was in great demand in the Persian courts of the First Millennium
BC. Even Alexander was presented a sword made of such steel. Coze studied the
etymology of the terms denoting steel. Taking into account the fact that the
names given to steel in different languages have always a technical content
(hardness, resistance, etc.), Le Coze traced the transformation of the term
Wootz, denoting the Indian crucible steel, through the Arab texts of
the 9-12th centuries AD describing the preparation of the crucible steel named
fulad. He discovered that fulad had an Indian origin of the word
as transformed by Arab travellers.
The following account is basically
a summary of his essay.
is the name given to a crucible steel prepared in India. Coze informs
that it first occurred in printed form in the 1795 Pearson's report. This steel
was abundantly studied in Western Europe during the 19th century AD because
of its special characteristics: high hardness, difficulty in forging, unknown
procedures, etc. However, the origin of the name itself is unclear even if it
has been proposed by Yule and Burnell in the Hobson-Jobson Dictionary
that the word Wootz could come from ukku in the Kanadda language.
Such a possibility does not give any technical content to the word, and there
lays the center of the problem because, in the etymology of the different names
given to steel in different countries and times, it appears that, contrary
to iron which is a general name, steel represents a property qualifying
a particular iron product. This is because steel is never a primary product
extracted from the ore; in ancient metallurgy, it was obtained by cementation
of wrought iron (malleable iron) or in modern processes, by fining cast iron,
whereas iron - either wrought or cast - has always been a primary product.
Words Designating Properties
word steel and the German Stahl are derived from Stahal in
Old High German (~l1th century AD) and contain the reconstituted Indo-European
root *sta which can be found in the German verb "stehen /stand"
or in English "to stand", and related to the Sanskrit stakati,
which means: "it resists". The same root is used in Nordic languages
and in modem Russian, Polish, etc. In Celtic languages the same root is generally
used, e.g., stailin but other words meaning force or hardness are also
found, e.g., dir in Breton. In French, acier is derived from the
Latin acies which means cutting edge or point of an arrow. The
same root is used in all Latin based languages: Spanish, Italian, etc. Diderot
explained that Pliny used acies to represent the word chalybs, i.e.,
steel in ancient Greek.
The Latin word acieris (close to acies),
represents a bronze axe used for religious sacrifices. The main point here
is not the nature of the metal, but the property of the tool. The same remark
applies to the names of metal in the ancient Vedic hymns analysed by Pleiner:
ayas and loha could represent iron or other metals. Ayas would
signify "strength and solidity" of a metal. In the Pali Canon (5th-3rd
BC), ayo- (in composite words) often means iron, and loha is
copper, but in many cases there is a possible confusion. For instance, ayas
has given aes (bronze) in Latin but, about the 1st Century BC, ayo-
is generally related to iron. Such confusion is also found in ancient Greek
that in ancient Greek, three names were attributed to steel: stomwma (stomoma),adamaV
(adamas) and calubV (chalybs). Stomoma was used by Aristotle
(4th BC) for cutting (edge). Since Hesiode (~8th BC), adamas signifies
inflexible or hard. It was systematically translated into "hard as steel"
but there is no direct reference to a metal in Hesiode texts or even in Virgil,
eight centuries later. However, adamas has been the origin of the adjective
for diamond (adamantine) and the English adamant which means inflexible.
According toHerodotus (5th BC), Chalybs is the name of a people living
in Asia Minor. They were known to prepare chalybdikos (sideros) i.e.,
hard (iron). This name is not directly a qualification of a technical
property but of the geographical origin of the product. In China, iron is
represented by thieh which could mean grey and steel by
kang, from kang thieh (hard iron).
In the Muslim world of the 9th-12th centuries AD, the production
of fuladh, a Persian word, has been described by Al-Kindi, Al-Biruni
and Al-Tarsusi, from narm-ahan and shaburqan, two other Persian
words representing iron products obtained by direct reduction of the ore. Ahan
means iron. Narm-ahan is a soft iron and shaburqan a harder
one or able to be quench-hardened. Old nails and horse-shoes were also used
as base for fuladh preparation. It must be noticed that, according to
Hammer- Purgstall, there was no Arab word for steel, which explain the use of
Persian words. Fuladh prepared by melting in small crucibles can be considered
as a steel in our modem classification, due to its properties (hardness, quench
hardened ability, etc.). The word fuladh means "the purified"
as explained by Al-Kindi. This word can be found as puladh, for instance
in Chardin (1711 AD) who called this product; poulad jauherder, acier onde,
which means "watering steel", a characteristic of what was called
Damascene steel in Europe.
In Russian the corresponding word is bulat and in
Mongol bolot. In the 19th century AD, it was accepted as evident by European
metallurgists that the ancient word bulat / fuladh and the newly introduced
one Wootz represented the same kind of high carbon crucible steel (1-2wt
% C) which should have been used by Muslim blacksmiths to forge the so called
Damascene blades, the secret of which had been lost as was said by Russian and
European metallurgists of that time.
Coze emphasises that it is not the aim of his present paper
to discuss from a technical point of view the identification of the ancient
steels named fuladh and the wootz specimens observed in the 19th
century AD, which were all of recent production. Ancient pieces of metals have
not been analysed, up to now. However, even if differences can be found between
the Indian and Muslim processes, the essential character of melting in crucibles
is present in both products (compare al- Tarasusi 12th century AD).
ORIGIN OF THE WORD WOOTZ
different names were given to crucible steel in different languages. Following
Yule and Burnell (1886), Wootz would seem to have originated in some
clerical error, or misreading, very possibly for wook, representing the
Canarese (Kannada) ukku (pron. wukku) "steel" or
uchcha, "of superior quality". They add: "the Madras Glossary
gives as local names of steel, Canarese ukku, Telagu ukku,
Tamil and Malayalam urukku, and derives Wootz from Sanskrit
ucca, whence comes Hindi uncha".
In his History of Chemistry in Ancient and Medieval India, Ray
(1956) however mentioned only that Wootz was the name given to Indian crucible
steel in Europe, without discussing the origin of this word. Biswas (1994)
wrote that vrtta means steel in Kautilya's Arthasastra: "vrtta
means circle or disc and could denote crucible-molten steel". Steel
is also represented by ukku in Telugu or Kannada, wuz in Gujarati,
or Wootz which was the term used and spread all over the world by the
traders from the Middle East.
Significance of dos
In the description of the fuladh preparation,
it appears as a substance called duc, dos or dws as a function
of the transliteration from Arab to Latin characters. Al-Biruni
mentions that "Nirmahan is divided...into two types. One is (nirmahan)
itself, and the other is its water which flows from it when it is melted
and extracted from stones, and it is called dos; in Persian it is called
astah and in the area of Zabulistan, ro, because of its
speed of flow and because it overtakes iron when it is flowing. It is solid,
white and tends to be silvery". The translation by Allan is quite similar:
"...This is called duc...because of the speed with which
it comes out of the iron and precedes the iron in reaching a fluid state...".
Mazaheri (1958) uses the transcription al-dws.
It is important to remark that the origin of dos is
unknown. Contrarily to fuladh, nirmahan and shaburqan,
which are Persian words, dos is not. Its Persian equivalent was astah
and in Zabulistan-between Afghanistan and Pakistan-its name was ro. Nor
is it an Arab word, as the Arab word for water is different. This substance
could be identified either with liquid metal or liquid slag. It must be remembered
that the significance of the word could have changed from the 9th to the 12th
AD, and that it could represent quite different products as compared to our
present definitions of iron and steel, because the products were identified
from their fabrication process, not from a chemical composition as of today.
Without discussing the details, it is clear that the substance represented by
dos has the property of "flowing like water". Following Mazaheri
(1958), the word dws in oriental Arab can be transformed into wds
in occidental Arab, due to a common confusion between the sounds represented
by d and w. Mazaheri proposed that dws after transformation
into wds during its travels from East to West, is the origin of the name
Cose infers that even if the
Mazaheri's proposition may not give the first origin of the European Wootz,
it shows how it could have been transmitted from India to Europe. More important,
such interpretation gives a technical content to Wootz as a material
prepared in the liquid state and shows the historical continuity between the
9th century AD product named fuladh by Muslim writers and
the 19th century AD Wootz, the name given in Europe.
The Arab transmission of the word Wootz seems logical
because Muslim traders were very active between India, Persia and western Muslim
countries. But this is not sufficient to give an absolute demonstration. Written
sources should be found to make a decisive link. Regarding the origin of dws
itself, it could be a name, completely different from Persian and Arab,
as observed above and the Gujarati oats proposed by Heath (Hadfield)
or wus by Biswas, thus giving dos/ a technical content to this
word, thanks to ancient Muslim written sources. However, it could also be objected
that the Gujarati word would come from dos/ wds.
that the simplest solution would be that wus (a Gujarati word) was existing
independently of Arab travellers and that Al-Biruni, who seems to be the first
to write the word dos, could also have been the author who transformed
wus into duc. This explanation can be supported by the fact that
Al-Biruni, after visiting India, lived in Ghazni about 100 km south from Kabul,
at a time when the Ghaznevid Empire extended as far as the Sindh at the border
of Gujarat. Al-Biruni was then living in eastern Muslim countries where he might
have transformed the w sound of wus into the d sound of
duc, in the same way as the reverse was possible from eastern to western
the idea that Wootz (name of a steel) had necessarily a technical content
as the other names given to steel in many languages, with the proposal by Mazaheri
of the relation dos/wds which contains the idea of "flowing like
water" found in the preparation of fuladh, it becomes possible (i)
to understand the transmission of wds from India to Europe by Arab
travellers; (ii) to show the continuity fuladh/Wootz from the
9th AD to 19th AD; and (iii) to give a technical content to Wootz
as dos, i.e., molten steel. The first origin of the word Wootz,
transmitted by Muslim travellers, is not Persian. It could be attributed
to Gujarati but this point must be researched further.
SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY (Given by Coze)
Al-Biruni. (1st AD),
Partial translations by Al-Hassan (1978) and Allan (1979).
Al-Kindi. (9th AD), Partial
translation by Al-Hassan (1978) and Allan (1979).
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(12th AD) Tabsirat arbab al-abab, ed by : C. Cahen (1947-48),
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19 (1947-48) 103-163.
Persian Metal Technology 700-1300 AD, Oxford Oriental Monographs, London,
Anossof, P, 'Memoire Sur
l'acier damasse', Annuaire du Journal des mines Russie, 1843, p. 192-236;
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Bailly, A, Dictionnaire
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India, Vo (1996), D.K. Printworld, New Delhi, pp. 385-393.
Bronson, B. 'The making and
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II, pp. 19-23.
Chardin, J., Voyages en
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Needham, J., The Development of Iron and Steel
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steel, manufactured in Bombay, and there called Wootz : with remarks on the
properties and composition of the different states of iron", Phil. Trans.
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Pigott, V., "Ahan, Iron,
from Prehistory to the Ethnographic present", Encyclopaedia Iranica,
Columbia University, 1983. .
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Yule, H. and Burnell, A., Hobson-Jobson, the Anglo-Indian
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England). Abbreviations used: Can.: Canarese; Tel.: Telanga; Tam.: Tamil; Skt.:
Sanskrit; H.: Hindi.
Zaky, A.R., Medieval Arab arms in Islamic arms and armours, ed. R.
Elgood, pp. 202-212 London, 1979.
J. LE COZE.
2003. About the Signification of Wootz and Other Names Given to Steel. Indian
Journal of History of Science. 38 (2):117-127.