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Copper Technology in the Central Himalayas Goes Back to 2000BC
By D.P. Agrawal & Lalit Tiwari

The discovery of copper marks the beginning of the Chalcolithic period when humans started using metal instead of stone and clay to fabricate their hunting tools, domestic utensils and other artefacts like ornaments, decorative pieces, mirrors etc. The oldest evidence of the use of regular copper artefacts comes from the Nal Cemetery in Quetta, dating back to III Millennium BC. Mehrgarh in Baluchistan has given some fragments of the earliest copper fragments datable to the V Millennium BC.

Copper is one of the most important metals on this Earth. In India copper was also used traditionally in religious ceremonies. Rasa Ratnasamuccaya, an early medieval work, gives a vivid account of the processes of extraction of copper and its use in Ayurvedic and traditional medicinal systems. Melting point of copper is 1083°C and its common minerals are Malachite, Azurite, Cuprite, and Chalcopyrite etc. The copper mining is mentioned in ancient works from Kautilya's Arthsastra (c. 3rd Century BC) to Ain-i-Akbari written by Sheikh Abul Fazal in 1590 AD. In Kumaun, in Central Himalayas, copper smithy is an old traditional technology.

Archaeological Evidence

Kumaun is known for its hoary metallurgical traditions and seems to have played a significant role in the traditional copper technology. Some evidence related to Copper Hoards Culture shows that copper mining was a thriving industry in Kumaun region. The Copper Hoard Culture is generally dated to II Millennium BC.

There are three significant finds of Copper Hoards' type of artefacts from Kumaun, one from Bankot, second from Pitalpani, both near Pithoragarh, and the last from Haldwani. In 1989 at Bankot, a hoard of 8 anthropomorphic copper objects was discovered while digging a stone quarry close to the Bankot Inter College. It contains 98% copper, 1.22% iron and some minor impurity of arsenic. Another anthropomorphic copper artefact was found from a scrap shop at Haldwani in Nainital district, similar to the ones reported from the Gangetic valley. Thus there is strong circumstantial evidence that the copper technology of Kumaun may go back to the II Millennium BC. Half of the analysed Copper Hoards artefacts show a significant presence of arsenic. As the copper mines of Kumaun also have arsenic bearing minerals, the probability is high that copper for the Copper Hoards Culture derived from Kumaun.

Ancient Mining Evidence

There are several rich ancient copper ore sites in the Central Himalayan region like Kharahi Patti, Rai-Agar, Bora-Agar, Askot and Ramgarh in Kumaun and Dhanpru, Dhobri, Pokhri, Chaumattiya, Raja, Danda, Talapungla, Kharna Nota and Thala mines in Garhwal. Generally the Chalcopyrite is the common mineral in the Central Himalayan's copper mines. Agar village mines situated in Pithoragarh district were perhaps the most important copper mines of Kumaun during the British period. An ancient furnace was located at this village near the talc mine. There are three rectangular pits in two terraces in the village. Two of them, pit no1 and 2 are dug in the upper terrace, the third one on a lower terrace, and is comparatively bigger. The Kharahi Patti mines, in Bageshwar district, are located close to the north of Almora town and extends between Binsar and Bageshwar. According to Atkinson the Gaul mine of Kharahi Patti and Sor Gurang mines produced grey copper in small quantity. Tamtyura, Danochhina, Changochhina, Kharak Tamta, Ghingarkhola, Binsar, Bhatkola, Simsyari, Bihargaon, Uder khani, Bilona, Agar, Gair-Siekra, Lob and Beragaon were some of the sites where metallurgy was practised in ancient times. In some villages like Tamtyura, Uder khani, Binsar, Sikra, Kharak Tamta and Jula copper smithy is still practised, but no mining or smelting. Out of 500 families approximately 65 families are practising copper smithy at present. Only the Tamta caste people did the copper smithy in ancient times, though they are now included among Scheduled castes.

Recent Historical Evidence

According to local copper craftsmen of Kumaun, during the medieval period, a Chandra king of Champawat brought coppersmiths form Rajasthan to set up coppersmithy in Kumaun Himalayas. Their first settlement is said to be at Gosni village near Lohaghat. Later on, with the transfer of the capital from Champawat to Almora, sometime in the first half of the 16th century AD, some families of coppersmiths were also brought to Almora to produce necessary items like tablets and stamps. During the Gorkha regime in the 18th and 19th centuries, two brothers Raibhan and Jaibhan were given land near Lamgara in Almora district to settle down and to produce traditional utensils. Some Tamta families also shifted to Kharahi Patti (Bageshwar District), probably in search of copper ores. In 1884 AD the British government banned the mining activity in Kharahi Patti. In 1942-43, a group of people agitated and urged the government to withdraw the ban imposed on mining in the Kharahi Patti. During 1952-56 the Khan-garh area was explored for the occurrence of copper ore by the Indian government. But now these copper mines are totally closed.

Mining technology

According to the traditional accounts, in olden times people used a large bag on their back for collecting the ore. This work was done by the other lower castes. After collecting the ore was washed with water to remove the soil. Thus cleaned ore was mixed with fresh cow dung to make small pellets. These pellets were dried in the sun and charged into the furnace or in a big handi like crucible, which is made of locally available brown clay, tempered with powdered quartz or limestone and bafila grass. While smelting the ore, the pot is covered with ash and molten liquid copper settles down at the base of the crucible.

They fabricate traditional utensils (like thali, parat, water drum, lota, kuni, gagri, etc.), but some workers also make traditional decorative items like idols, statues, etc through cold and hot work with the help of a hammer. Carving and engraving on copper artefacts is the most remarkable feature of these traditional copper works. For soldering they use a mixture of brass, zinc, copper, tin and borax. They coat it and heat on the furnace. They use rice husk as a washing and polishing agent in their traditional copper smithy.

The furnace, which they use, is locally known as afar. It has a large wheel of bicycle, but in olden times it was made of wood and an iron casing covered this wooden wheel. A small fan tied with ropes directly connects with this wheel. Fan has a small nozzle, which is made of clay and ropes, locally known as nava.


In Kumaun we thus see that traditional technologies have continued for millennia, and are relevant even today to the lives of the common people and perhaps hold key to their economic regeneration.