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Survival of Traditional Indian Iron Technology


By Pankaj Goyal


Recently an interesting book, Tradition and Innovation in the History of Iron Making has come out. We give below a summary of some interesting essays dealing with traditional iron technology.


After aluminum, iron is the second most abundant metal in the earth’s crust and is considered as one of the most useful metal as it is utilized in almost all industries. It is believed that iron was accidentally discovered late in the Bronze Age. The early iron encountered by man was meteoritic iron. In India and China iron making may have developed independently and by 600 BC excellent steel was being made in India. India has been known for its ancient heritage of iron and steel production and metal craftsmanship. There are a large number of iron monuments in India that represent the ancient metallurgical expertise, some of the examples are iron pillars at Dhar and Delhi, iron beam at Konark, Orissa etc. 


The beginnings of iron technology in India date back to probably the end of the second millennium B.C. Initially, it was generally believed that iron came to India with the Aryans. Several of such conjectures have been discarded now. Some of these are discussed below.

1.      It was believed that iron was a monopoly of the Hittites and with the disruption of their empire the technical know-how dispersed to different parts of the world around circa 1200 B.C. But now it is known that there are several sites in the world where metallic iron was in use in pre-1200 B.C. period although in small quantity. Metallic as well as smelted iron has been reported in some early contexts.


2. The word “Ayas” that generally stands for iron occurs several times in the Rigveda, the earliest text of the Aryans in India. But a detailed examination of the word Ayas reveals that it was used either to indicate metal or copper bronze. There are certain contexts that can be interpreted both ways but more precisely Ayas meant copper-bronze and if it was true then we can’t say that iron come to India along with the Aryans (the composers of Rigveda).   


3.      Metallurgically, iron smelting and forging processes were considered so complex that independent origin of technology at several places was regarded as improbable. But recent investigations show that iron is a by-product of copper and lead smelting and this makes iron production a viable proposition in any copper – bronze working society. The availability was greater in more elementary and less efficient groups as they were likely to blunder and stumble upon a new product than the expert groups whose skill ruled out mistakes. Hence, under certain conditions iron-rich copper and even metallic iron could get reduced out of copper – lead smelt as a result of use of fluxes.


4.      If we go through chronological evidence, it also shows that iron was indigenous in origin. Recently, from the mid-Ganga plains several sites like Raja Nal-Ka-Tila in Sonabhadra district, Malhar in Mirjapur district and Pandurajar Dhibi, Hathigra, Mangalkot in Bengal etc. have yielded important early evidence of the occurrence of iron. No one can ignore all such evidence that suggests that iron technology developed independently in India. Although, it may be possible that in certain bordering regions iron could have come through interactions with neighboring regions but there is no data to support diffusion of foreign technology into the deeper parts of the subcontinent.


Literary Evidence

The existing literature related to indigenous iron and steel industry is really vast. The accessible literature on India’s indigenous iron industry is largely based on European accounts as most of the ethno-historical data on this subject was collected by the European observers of the early colonial period. However, it seems that most of the European evidence concealed more than they exposed and the actual artisan is missing in this perspective. These European observers chiefly dealt with the broad outer characteristics of craft production (the shape and the size of the furnace, working method, product etc.) with only a passing reference to the smith as a ‘tribal’, a ‘savage’ or simply as ‘an emaciated creature’. One other factor that played a significant role in the restriction of the accessible historiography on Indian iron is its failure to take note, much less highlight, the fact that the colonial observers’ notion of iron metallurgy in India differed widely between the early eighteenth century and the post-Bessemer invention period.


But the available indigenous literature shows a different perspective of the Indian craft tradition, though this indigenous literature has its own limitations. The limitations of the nationalist historiography are widely known at present as one could hardly get into the actual working sphere of the artisans simply by depending on archival and similar other evidences generally used in historical research. Historical evidence cannot give or explain the idea of early technologist’s perception of his work, his position in the particular craft structure, site of his work and the design of his workshop.


Indigenous Iron Industry of Jharkhand

Jharkhand has a long tradition of metallurgy as archaeological evidence of copper, gold and iron smelting has been found in this region. Jharkhand has been an epicenter of the growth and dispersion of a particular tool technique. It is believed that a nomadic group known as Asur had introduced the craft of iron smelting in this region (It is interesting to note that the name Asur  is also associated with traditional iron technological sites of Kumaun in the Central Himalayas). How old is the Asur’s association with Jharkhand is not known. There are two types of small iron smelting workshop that distinguish the iron industry of Jharkhand – the open air furnace of the nomadic blacksmith and the more numerous thatched furnace. Then, there was the larger iron-smelting workshop of the Koth-Saal type, followed by Khammar-Saal or iron refining houses. There were also some groups that did not smelt iron but specialized in forging tools. These different groups show differences in their tool techniques which are reflected in their widely different narratives and legends relating to their craft techniques. Significantly, the dichotomy between the ordinary Saal or the small iron-smelting furnace and the larger workshop of the Koth-Saal type also existed in some other parts of India.


Traditional Iron Workings in India

There are a number of groups in India, whose main occupation is iron smelting or related to iron working, but here only four ethnic groups (Agaria, Asur, Brijias and Lohar) are taken into consideration for highlighting the Indian traditional iron smelting technology. These four groups give a good idea about the traditional iron techniques in India.


(1) Agaria Iron Smelting Techniques

The Agaria is a scheduled tribe living in the districts of Mandala, Dindhori, Bilaspur, Balaghat of Madhya Pradesh. Iron smelting is the chief and traditional profession of Agaria groups. The Agaria community resides in close proximity of ore deposits, perhaps to save time as well as energy. There is no need of deep digging in India as iron deposits are profusely distributed. Iron ores used by them are mainly hematite or magnetite that occur in association with lateritic rocks in the form of heavy reddish brown stones. These stones are then broken into small pieces and cleaned of sticking earth. They mix the ore with charcoal in proportion of 1:3 and put this mixture into the furnace. After filling the mixture up to the top of the furnace they ignite it and plaster the mouth. After a continuous blast of one and half hour, the thick molten liquid starts appearing through the waste flue that indicates that the processes of melting of iron has begun. When the flow of slag stops, the bellows are removed. Finally, the bloom of glowing semi-molten iron balls are lifted out with the help of tongs and carried for hammering. After repeated hammering and heating this iron ball is used for making various implements and household tools.      


(2) Asur Iron Smelting Techniques

We can say that the Asur iron smelting technique is a living tradition of the past. Asur is one of the thirty scheduled tribes in Bihar and are found in the districts of Gumla, Lohardaga and Palaman and the Pat area of Netarhat plateau in Bihar. Three different varieties of iron ore are recognized by them: Magnetite is the first one and termed as POLA by the Asur. The second one is haematite, commonly known as BICHI. The third one is Haematite from laterite and commonly termed as GOTA. Charcoal of green sal trees is used by them as this charcoal is capable of generating sufficient heat for smelting processes as well as the sal tree is a good quality of forest wood.


(3) Birjia – the Iron Smelters

The Birjia is one of the most primitive tribes of Bihar. At present, Birjia people are mostly found in Lohardaga, Bishunpur and Raidih (Gumla) and Guru police stations of Palamu district. Traditionally the chief occupations of the Birjia are iron smelting, benora cultivation and basket making.  They are believed to be the first human race, who discovered the iron ore and prepared different types of iron implements with the help of their indigenous process.  A few among them still follow their traditional occupation, but due to shortage of raw materials they have started to adopt new economic activities.  Kothi (the basic open hearth furnace) is the iron smelting furnace used by them the height of which is about 2-1/2 feet with a single hole. The mixture of iron ore and charcoal was charged from the top and air was blown through a nozzle, by repeated pressing of the cylindrical bellow with the help of the feet. This bellowing with the legs is known as Chaupa.  The air is blasted for about 4-5 hours. The temperature in the furnace is determined by the skilled workers themselves. After the reduction the bellow is removed and the furnace mouth is broken. The bloom in the form of sponge is taken out from the furnace and hammered, first gently and then by hard hammering to shape it into desired forms.  But the unfortunate thing is that the tradition is now almost lost in competition to the modern technology.


(4) The Godulia Lohar and their Iron Making Technique

The Godulia Lohars live in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Western parts of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. Black smithy  is the chief traditional profession of the Godulia Lohars. As they are nomadic groups, their home is their bullock cart that holds all the possessions and requirements that they need for their living. The same techniques were followed by their forefathers and the tradition is still continuing today by transmitting knowledge from father to son. They specialize in recasting waste scraps of iron. A small pit in the ground is used as a firing place and with the help of a manually operated wheel-fan the blast is produced. The quality of the scrap iron is enhanced by repeated heating and hammering and thus the new desired shaped tools and implements are made.


Traditional Iron Making in Modern Context

The traditional iron working is still alive in certain remote areas of the country, where higher quality of product is made by the workers in small furnaces. But in the present context there appears a need to review the technical availability of traditional iron making due to the changing politico-culture and socio-ecological constraints.  It has been said that the traditional iron making is wasteful both from the point of view of raw material as well as charcoal consumption as it plays an important role in the process of deforestation.  But, if we look at their technology closely we find that these groups are tapping those ores that are neglected or rated as low grade and not considered important for smelting by modern steel mills. The other significance of their work is that they locate and exploit those small pockets of ore deposits that have not been recorded in the geological texts while listing economically viable mining zones.  The delicate way of ore picking by them cannot be neglected. So if we take a holistic look, their technology is based on maximum utilization of the available ore resources. Regarding the second allegation that they are over exploiting forest resources, we find that most of the charcoal is made by them with dead trees lying in the forest. The Agaria families of Chhattishgarh and Chhota Nagpur visit forests for the collection of the sal leaves to use them as the plates for their meals, but the number of leaves per family is fixed and they do take a lot of care while plucking the leaves. So when even leaves are not plucked indiscriminately or carelessly by them, how can we accuse them of wasting trees? They show a great regard and respect towards the trees.  The trees are considered as the abode of deities or ancestor spirits that take care of the welfare of the people. 


Role of Traditional Iron Technology on Ecology

 In the present ecological conditions, the traditional technology can play a vital part by saving the environment and making it pollution free. The charcoal used by them as a source of energy is proved to be a far less pollutant in comparison to the fuels used by the modern steel mills. On the one hand, coal or other fossil fuels produce a large number of carcinogenic byproducts, while on the other charcoal is not a pollutant because of its low sulphur content. The furnaces used by these communities are small and so they do not cause damage to the atmosphere. The traditional iron working is in the form of small scale household industries distributed over a large area. Resource exploitation by these communities is therefore shallow, expanding over an extensive area. So, one can say that the ore and fuel used by these communities are not affecting the environment. These data lead us to construe that these the traditional crafts of iron making have an eco-friendly economic viability in the present context.  



Traditional iron technology in India was well developed as shown by the above facts.

The indigenous iron smelting was found among the tribal artisan groups and this tradition is gradually losing due mainly  to the following reasons:

1.      This tradition is losing its grip because of the availability of better tools and implements in the market.

2.      The scarcity of the raw materials forced these tribes to adopt some new ways of economic activities.

3.      The work is very laborious and time consuming.

4.      The other factor that is playing an important part in losing this tradition is the adoption of the western techniques. The Indian tribes have been dispossessed of their habitat and thrown into an alien world without being equipped to face the harsh world. As a result of this, they are losing their traditional techniques and are forced to adopt the new ways to eke out an existence. As we are now realizing the potential of their craft, we need to review our industrial policies after over fifty years of independence.


Indira Gandhi National Museum of Mankind, Bhopal, is trying to revive this dying tradition. This will certainly help to protect these traditional iron smelters from unemployment and thus will be able to save this traditional system of iron technology.



Sarkar, Smritikumar. 2002. Studying India’s Indigenous Iron Industry: Looking for an Alternative Approach. In Tradition and Innovation in the History of Iron Making, Girija Pande and Jan af Geijerstam (Eds). Nainital: PAHAR. Pp. 205-224.


Tripathi, Vibha. 2002. Iron Technology in India: Survival of an Ancient Tradition. In Tradition and Innovation in the History of Iron Making, Girija Pande and Jan af Geijerstam (Eds). Nainital: PAHAR. Pp. 225-236.


Nayal, Rakesh and Nilanjan Khatua. 2002. Traditional Iron Making Techniques in India. In Tradition and Innovation in the History of Iron Making, Girija Pande and Jan af Geijerstam (Eds.) Nainital: PAHAR. Pp. 250-257.