Infinity Foundation sponsored new book project titled:
"Iron Technology and Its Legacy in India (From the Earliest Times to Early
by Vibha Tripathi, PhD
India is one of the richest countries in the iron ore deposits. Perhaps because
of this reason she has been famous for producing good quality iron and steel
right from the ancient times. Alexander, in 3rd century Before Christ was presented
with steel swords. Ktesias highly praised the Indian swords that he was gifted
with. In the following centuries in 5th cent. A.D. the marvel of metallurgical
skill finds expression in the Delhi Iron Pillar, the seventy ton edifice that
has withstood the weather almost without rusting foe over 2000 years. The huge
beams at the sun temple of Konark and the Dhar pillar bear testimony to the
metallurgical expertise of the ancient Indian craftsmen. Even as late as the
British period, the steel sword of Tipu Sultan was considered a marvel that
has recently drawn world attention. The saliency of wootz iron that was being
produced in large quantities at a cottage industry level in Mysore and the neighbouring
regions is on records. It was in great demand in the ancient world. However,
despite such a distinguished past, the history of iron metallurgy in India has
not received due attention of scholars. Several volumes that have dealt with
the subject of ancient metallurgy of the world do not even mention about iron
technology in India. As late as 1980' the volume edited by A. Wertime and J.D.
Muhly, 'Coming of the Age of Iron' is silent on iron metallurgy in India. It
is high time that the glorious past of iron in India and her contributions to
the advancements in the field if metal technology in general be brought to the
notice of the world. It is, therefore proposed to write a volume on ancient
Indian iron technology and the legacies it has left behind.
Iron, in India makes its earliest appearance in a chalcolithic setting, probably
discovered by early copper using societies in different parts of the subcontinent.
How and under what circumstances the metallurgy was learnt/discovered is an
issue that is still debated. Whether iron technology was learnt through outside
contacts or it evolved out of the existing knowledge of metal craft as a by
product needs to be investigated into. Which part of the subcontinent it appears
first? How did the metallurgy develop? Why is it that despite several attempts
at different levels it has not been possible to understand much less to reproduce
the wootz ? When was its impact felt in socio-economic milieu? What was the
pattern of adaptation of iron technology in the early society? The interface
of technology and society is yet to be examined and evaluated in all its dimensions.
The present study proposes to address to such unresolved issues related to early
Indian iron working. It is with this aim that the present book is proposed.
Status of Research on Iron Technology in India
Scholars in the field of history, archaeology, geology and also modern metallurgy
have been taking interest in iron working practices during ancient times. Some
important publications may be mentioned here. As early as 1912 Hadfield studied
iron objects excavated at Taxila (Sir John Marshall). P. Niyogi wrote a history
of iron (Iron in Ancient India, 1914). A sizeable work on Iron was produced
by N.R. Banerjee ('Iron Age in India', 1965, Delhi). More recently D.K. Chakravarti
published 'Early Use of Iron in India' (1992, Delhi). A.K. Biswas and Sulekha
Biswas have written Minerals and Metals in Ancient India (INSA, Delhi 1995).
G. Kuppuram and K. Kumudmani wrote History of Science and Technology in 6 volumes
(New Delhi, 1990). There are chapters on iron in 'History of Technology in India'
(Vol. 1, A.K. Bag, ed. 1997). Recent publications on iron technology are, Metallurgy
in India : A Retrospective (P. Ramachandra Rao & N.G. Goswami (eds), N.M.L.
Delhi 2001) D.P. Agrawal's 'Ancient Metal Technology and Archaeology of South
Asia (Delhi, 2000) and the 'The Age of Iron in South Asia : Legacy and Tradition'
by this author, (Vibha Tripathi, Delhi, 2001). Work is also underway on various
aspects of iron metallurgy, viz. R. Balasubramaniam is engaged in study and
analysis of Delhi iron pillar and is writing frequently on it. Thelma Lowe has
been working on the Wootz steel for more than a decade. Articles on these subjects
appear in Indian and International journals from time to time. Tylecote, Pleiner,
Maddin etc. have been contributing on archaeometallurgy writing on different
aspects of iron metallurgy in reputed journals.
There is now a need to undertake an overview of all the researches going on
in different parts of the world and present a comprehensive history of iron
in India. Equally important, though much more ardous is the study of artifacts
from excavations that are being conducted in different parts of India. A systematic
classification and analysis of these objects belonging to different phases of
cultural growth will throw a much needed light on development and adaptation
pattern of technology and the impact on its contemporary society.
Interestingly, despite the adverse conditions, against all odds the traditional
societies living in remote parts of India still continue to produce iron in
the age old primitive methods. It may be interesting to investigate it closely
and make a proper documentation of these practices. Besides being a model for
understating the past, these societies are bearers of a legacy of the glorious
tradition of Indian iron technology. A field survey conducted in these areas
is likely to yield fruitful results and shed light on the Indian heritage in
Ancient Indian literature is a rich source of knowledge on different aspects
of life, including on metal technology. To give an example, the early medieval
text Ras Ratna Samuchchaya, describes several varieties of iron and their
manufacturing processes. It may be worth its while to incorporate material from
the literary sources to substantiate the information available from other sources,
an exercise that has not been done on an appreciable scale, so far. This is
high time that such an examination of sources is attempted with a multidisciplinary
angle covering all these aspects of ancient Indian iron working. It is proposed
to undertake this work in this book.
Aims and Objectives
(i) To study in detail the iron technology with a multidisciplinary approach
using all possible sources.
(ii) To conduct a brief field survey including small scale excavations in
some selected areas for untapped sources of information.
(iii) To collect samples for study and analyse them for a proper and phasewise
understanding of different aspects of metallurgical development.
(iv) To correlate the resource-zones and the related important cultural centres
of ancient India.
(v) To undertake ethnographic investigations in remote areas for the surviving
remains of traditional iron working.
(vi) To interpret and synthesise the data collected in the form of a book
on ancient Indian iron technology covering all its aspects.
To fulfill these objectives I propose to adopt the following approach:
(i) Literature survey for collection of data from different sources, viz.
(a) archaeological (b) literary (c) ethnographical.
(ii) Exploration of minerally rich areas for remains of ancient working and
collection of sample.
(iii) Collection and analysis of ore, iron objects crucibles, slags, furnace
remains for retrieving further information and reconstruction of metallurgical
(iv) Survey and documentation of tribal regions for collection of indepth
information on traditional iron working. Some small scale excavations, if
necessary may have to be undertaken.
(v) Synthesis of the above data in the form of a book.
The format of the proposed book (which may be modified if need be) may be
spelled out as under:
I.1. Incidence of iron in ancient world : If we situate the examination of
iron in India in the world context we may get a better perspective. The issues
like circumstances of the earliest recognition and emergence of metallic iron
may have certain comparable features in different world civilizations. Therefore,
we need to examine
a. Mesopotamia and other Western Asiatic countries
c. Central Asia
I.2. The early iron technology, typology, iron utilization pattern and whether
it had any impact other than status symbol needs to be assessed.
I.3. Why and when iron comes to be adopted in preference to copper-bronze.
I.4. Coming of an age of iron in ancient world.
Ch.II. Advent of Iron in India
The earliest emergence of iron, the circumstance of its discovery will be
investigated in this chapter. The following issues will be closely evaluated
a. Is iron in India an accidental by product of earlier metal working or
alternatively a consequence of interactions?
b. Where is the evidence of experimental stages?
c. Are there cases of meteoritic iron in India?
II.1. First iron in India in Copper-Bronze Age Setting
a. The Harappan Context(?)
b. Iron at Chalcolithic Ahar
c. Iron at Chalcolithic Madhya Pradesh
II.2. First Regular Use of Iron
2.1 Context of Early iron in India
(In a large country like India there are different zones that show iron
in divergent cultural contexts).
2.2 Chronological Framework and antiquity of iron.
2.3 Conclusion and Discussion.
Ch. III. Archaeological Evidence of Iron
As suggested in Ch.II, above, iron shows up in divergent contexts therefore
it will have to be studied according to (a) their spatial distribution (b)
the typology of objects at different stages of development (c) the technological
status (d) the possible resource zone for each region (e) mining and ore selection
(f) furnaces, forges, tuyeres, slags etc. if found in excavations.
III.1. The Early Iron Age (Second half of 2nd mill. BC - 7/600 BC) : The
main culture of this stage are:
III.1.1 The Painted Grey Ware Culture
1.2 The Black-and-Red Ware bearing Cultures (of Mid and Lower Ganga Plain)
1.3 The Megalithic Culture (of South India)
The chronological framework and the utilization pattern with an impact
on culture will be evaluated at the above stages.
III.2 The Middle Iron Age (7/600-100 BC)
2.1 The Northern Black Polished Ware Culture
The emergence of cities vis-à-vis iron.
III.3 The Late Iron Age (100 BC/AD-5/600 AD)
Culmination of technology and the golden age of iron technology in the
III.4 Conclusion and Discussion
IV. Growth of Metallurgy
The status of metallurgical development at the three stages will be examined
at length in this chapter.
IV.1 The Bloomery iron - smelting and forging
IV.2 From wrought iron to steel
2a. Carburization - accidental and/or deliberate
2b. Quenching and tempering ;lamination
IV.3 Crucible iron or wootz steel
A high quality steel with famous watering pattern was produced from around
the early centuries of the Christian era in certain parts of India.The swords
produced with this steel have been famous all over the world as Damascus steel
perhaps because this was the centre from where they were being exported to
different parts of the world.They had excellent qualities like malleability
ductility and durability of edge.Mostly preserved in collections in Middle
East, experts in metallurgical sciences have tried to understand the processes
without much success.We need to focus on this masterly craft of the Indian
artisans. Following issues related to the wootz or so called Damascus steel
need to be taken up for a detailed examination:
3.1 Metallurgical processes - smelting, forging, steeling
3.2 Furnaces, forges and crucibles
3.3 Transportation and distribution mechanism
3.4 Conclusion and Discussion
V. Literary Evidence on Iron
India has a rich literary tradition stretching over several millennia. Though
primarily socio-religious in nature, it does contain information on the present
subject albeit sparsely. On closer look it is possible to glean through for
information on (a) techno-typological know-how (b) utilization pattern (c)
value perception of metals (d) class biases, if any. The literary sources
may be classified as under:
V.1 Brahmanical texts
a. Vedic literature
b. Dharmashastra and Sutra literature (including Panini)
c. The Epics
d. The Arthasatra
e. Nitisastras and texts on polity.
V.2 The Buddhist and Jain Texts
a. The main texts
b. The Commentries
V.3 The Stratigraphy and chronology of the selected texts
Note : It may not be possible to take up all the available texts for obvious
reasons. But the archaeological evidence wherever possible may be substantiated
with information from literary sources.
V.4 Conclusion and Discussion
VI. The Ethnological Evidence: The Model of understanding technology
VI.1 Pre-industrial Iron working in India (India had a rich tradition of
iron working before the British period. The nature of the working and the
mechanics of production and distribution will be examined in this section).
VI.2 End of a Tradition : The teeming cottage industry of iron working comes
almost to a grinding halt during the British period. What were the causes
of the same? Did it die for good? Such questions need to be addressed to while
dealing with the status of ethnological evidence on iron.
VI.3 Survival : Iron working survived in some remote parts of the country
against all odds. It has been preserved by some ethnic groups. We propose
to underline their working.
3.1 Ore selection and mining
3.3 Smelting-forging and smithy
3.4 Tools, implements and settings
3.5 Furnaces, forges, tuyeres, slags etc.
VI.4. Revival of Indigenous iron technology : Problems and Prospects
It may be worth examining whether there is a possibility of reviving this
craft today. Is prospects will be examined for:
4.1 Economic viability (?)
4.2 Future prospects of revival
4.3 Conclusion and Discussion
VII.1 Socio-economic Implication of Use of Iron through The Ages
2. Technology adaptation and productivity
3. Iron and urbanization of Ganga Plains
4. Conclusion - Cultural dynamics.
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