'That Iron and Steel has been manufactured and used in India for a very long time is generally well-known. Indian iron if not steel definitely seems to go back to at least 2nd millennium B.C. Archeological evidence has found crucibles suggesting steel manufacture dating to the 3rd century B.C. in South India. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that India was perhaps one of the first civilizations to smelt iron, ie. to extract iron from the ore.

There are various references to iron, iron implements and weapons in the vedic literature (1). Perhaps the most impressive evidence of the use of iron and steel in ancient times is found in the Susruta Samhita, the Ayurvedic textbook on surgery. (This work is dated approximately 1000 B.C). Elaborate descriptions of nearly one hundred kinds of surgical instruments are available from this work. A number of these instruments must have been made from high quality steel. For instance, a dissecting instrument is mentioned whose edge would be less than "half a piece of hair bisected longitudinally" (2). This alone should be a sufficient testimony to the quality of lndian steel and the skill of the artisans who forged the instruments

In both the Ayurvedic and the Siddha medical systems iron has been used in medicinal preparations. In the literature of Rasa Sastra several distinct types of iron with their properties are described (3). In the context of preparing medicines using iron, different types of furnaces and refractory crucibles and methods of preparation of these crucibles are described. The refractory crucibles used in the preparation of South Indian steel seem to correspond to a particular type of crucible mentioned in Rasa Sastra texts such as the Rasaratna Samuccaya (4).

Ancient Monuments

The most famous monument which to this day stands as a proof of the skill of the Indian artisans is the famous iron pillar in the Kutab Minar complex in New Delhi.' It' is 23?feet 8 inches in height and has a diameter of 16.4 inches at the lower end and 12.05 inches at the top. Its date is assigned to the 5th century AD. It is made of wrought iron. On analysis it is found to contain 99.72% iron; 0.08% carbon; 0:046% (silicon; 0.006% sulphur; 0.114% phosphorous and no manganese. This iron is typically a product of the indigenous iron smelting furnace. The low proportion of sulphur is said to indicate that the fuel used in smelting this iron must have been charcoal. There is some speculation that the relatively low sulphur and manganese and high phosphorus are responsible for the capacity of this iron in resisting corrosion for about 15 centuries (5)

This gigantic pillar was constructed apparently by the forging together of small "blooms" (6) of wrought iron which were produced by village furnaces. To forge such a massive object needed forging skills of a very high order, a feat which could not be duplicated the world over till very recently (7).

It is also interesting to note that when researchers analysed wrought iron produced in the indigenous furnaces of Adivasis in the Chota Nagpur and Bastar areas of Central India, this iron seemed to have the same composition and corrosion-resistance qualities of the ancient iron of the Delhi Pillar (8).

Also well-known among the ancient monuments are the iron pillars at Dhar, near Indore in M.P., and at Mt. Abu, Rajasthan. The length of the massive iron beams that were used in the construction of Konarak temple is about 21 ft. and the average cross-section, 8 to 10 inches. The composition of the iron in these beams is very similar to the iron of the Delhi Pillar (9).

All these pillars and beams are presumed to have been hand-forged from wrought - iron blooms from small village furnaces smelting iron. However, there is as yet no clear and comprehensive understanding about how exactly these massive objects have been forged.

Specimens of iron objects of the 5th century AD found in Sri lanka also seem to have the same composition as the Delhi Pillar. All this evidence indicates that the ancient iron smelting and forging technology was (a) very widespread geographically - all across the country, producing very similar iron in composition and characteristic and (b) active over a very long historical period, from at least the 1st millennium B.C. to the 19th century.

The ancient literature reveals that the art of strengthening of steel by means of various heat treatment processes such as annealing, tempering and quenching were known to ancient Indian artisans (10). Although texts specifically dealing with iron extraction from the ore have been referred to, to date no such texts have been found.

One of the extraordinary features of the ancient Indian iron that needs serious investigation is its property of corrosion - resistance. Although several explanations have been offered, there seems to be no clear understanding of this among modern scientists.

Sarangadhara Paddhati, an encyclopaedia of the 14th century gives certain processes for protecting' iron objects from corrosion and giving them hardness. These processes involve coating the object With special solutions, heating and quenching (or immersing) in oil or water (11).

Ananda Kumaraswami mentions a process used for a long time in Sri Lanka and still in use at the beginning of this century. The process gave a "blued" colour to the iron and prevented rusting (12). It is likely that the ancient Indian iron monuments used such a process to prevent corrosion. However, our modern scientists seem to have undertaken no investigations to verify these statements or to1 offer in-dependent explanations for this and other extraordinary features of ancient Indian iron and steel, such as the varieties of iron described in the ancient literature of Rasa sastra.

After studying the indigenous' processes of iron-smelting and steel-making, a scholar points out (13):

(i) Ancient furnaces of different shapes, sizes and from different parts of the country had many common features.

(ii) Design features indicate that the knowledge of the artisans who manufactured iron and steel was based on a distinct science.

(iii) Generation of high temperatures in these furnaces was possible and not a constraint.

The knowledge of Indian artisans was so well-developed that they controlled the' furnace operation and temperature precisely so as to produce iron or steel of known quality (14).

(iv) The artisans could also produce steel of controlled quality and could apply thermal treatment to develop desired hardness and other properties in steel.

However, despite all this evidence, our modern scientists continue using epithets like "primitive" etc. to describe this technology. Here it may be pertinent to quote Dharampal: 'The 17th, 18th and 19th century European view of society and thus of science and technology, politics etc was diametrically at variance to the views about them held by non-European societies. Consequently, the S & T of the non-European world also had different seeking and developments from those of Europe. In countries like India, their (S & T) organisation was more in tune with their more decentralist politics and there was no seeking to make their tools and work places unnecessarily gigantic and grandiose. Smallness and simplicity of construction was in fact due to social and political maturity as well as arising from understanding of the scientific principles and processes involved. Instead of being crude, the processes and tools of 18th century India appear to have developed from a great deal of sophistication in theory and an acute sense of the aesthetic" (15).

It would be relevant to keep this perspective in mind while assessing the contemporary relevance of the indigenous iron and steel technology and the artisans who were the technologists of this society.

British and European interest in Indian Steel in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Ever since the crusades, Indian steel had been encountered by Europe in the form of the famous Damascus swords (16). Indian iron and steel had been known to European trade perhaps for a thousand years or more. In the 17th century, the Dutch and others had been dealing in Indian iron and steel. Simultaneously, the process of manufacture also attracted European attention. One fairly descriptive account of the process as observed in the Telingana and Tamil areas was published in Holland as early as 1692 (17).

Serious British scientific and technical interest in the manufacture and quality of Indian iron and steel seems to have begun in the 1790's. British interest in Indian iron and steel probably resulted from the fact that Britain was largely dependent on other European countries for the supply of iron and for the finer qualities of steel or iron for conversion into steel. Britain considered Indian iron and steel as a good substitute for the European iron and steel.

Starting with 1790's several British travelers and officials began to observe the iron and steel processes in different parts of India (18). These eyewitness accounts are an important source for the description of iron and steel processes of the 18th and 19th centuries(19).

According to Dharampal, c.1790 India produced about 200,000 tons of iron per year (20). Around this time, China seems to have produced about the same quantity of iron. Estimates for Europe (excluding Russia) are 175,000 tons around 1700; 800,000 tons around 1750; 420,000 tons around 1796; and 700,000 tons in 1806. Around 1793 Russia produced about 202,000 tons of iron (21).

The impression one gets from the European accounts of the 18th and 19th centuries is that even in the middle of the 19th century the indigenous iron-smelting process was fairly alive and widespread in India. Steel making was also carried out in several important centers in the country, particularly in Southern India. The steel from South India was made t in crucibles and was known to the Western world as "wootz".

Here it must be noted that following the receipt of a sample of "Wootz" or crucible steel by the Royal Society in. 1794, this steel became the focus of very intense scientific activity in several countries of Europe (22). In the 18th and 19th centuries a great deal of experimentation was carried out in an attempt to reveal and understand the nature and structure of wootz. These investigations contributed immensely to the growth of many aspects of metallurgical science in the West - knowledge of the structure and composition of steel; beginning of metallography - i.e. understanding the structure of metals through the examination of surfaces under a microscope; beginning of the study and manufacture of composite materials - which is now an important area of modern metallurgical sciences and so on (23).

Beginnings of modern industry in India

In the beginning of 19 th century, England was wholly dependent on Germany, Sweden and Russia for all of its steel. At that time British observers in India realized that Indian iron and steel were perhaps superior to the products of Europe. Hence Britain sought to remove its dependence on other European countries by replacing European steel by, Indian steel. By then, the Indian indigenous iron industry was already on the decline due to the dismembering of the Indian society resulting from the British colonial rule (24). Indigenous iron was replaced by the import of poor quality English iron. Several attempts were to make to manufacture pig iron or cast iron in India under modern factory conditions and export it to England to the converted into steel there. The iron manufactured in India would thus no pose no threat to the import of English iron - although it was cheaper and of far higher quality than the latter.

Starting in the 1820's, several attempts were made in South India and in Bengal to manufacture cast iron in large, charcoal-fuelled blast furnaces. However none of , these attempts was economical, despite a great deal of support from the British state. Perhaps the main reason for their failure was that by then many parts of India had been extensively deforested as a result of colonial forest policy. Good charcoal became difficult and expensive to procure.

In the first decade of the 20th century, J.N. Tata set up a modern steel plant in what is now called Jamshedpur, in Chota Nagpur, Bihar. This plant is a tribute to J.N. Tata's patriotism and far-sightedness. He was among the first to sense that mastery of iron and steel technology would make India powerful and self-reliant in the modern world. However, the Tata steel plant was entirely designed and constructed by personnel from the west. The initial operation of the plant was also under the supervision of Western was perhaps intended that Indians would master the technology in a short while. Even though the area where the Tata plant was set up is an adivasi area, rich in the indigeous iron-smelting tradition, it is significant that the new plant had no relation whatsoever to the traditional process of the artisans (25). The post-independence establishment of steel industry in the Public Sector continued to neglect the traditional technology and the knowledge of the artisans.

Our Interaction with modern technology

Even a cursory look at available historical material confirms that there was a well-developed science-based technology of iron and steel in India which served all the needs of our people till the end of 18th century. In many parts of the country this technology survived even to the end of the 19th century.

The most important aspect of the indigenous iron-smelting technology was the artisans whose' descendants still earn a livelihood as blacksmiths in villages and towns. Over the last century, after the indigenous iron and steel technology completely disappeared from most parts of our country, many village blacksmiths left their native villages and moved to towns. Many villages today are perhaps short of skilled blacksmiths who can serve the everyday needs of the village. Those who remain in villages purchase scrap iron and steel from towns and fashion it into implements for agriculture and domestic use.

The modern iron and steel technology in India which supplies today much of our needs has two major deficiencies: (i) This technology was born in a certain context in Europe; it has been developed with raw-materials of Europe in mind. When it was imported into our country it became evident that it was not compatible with our raw-materials; (ii) it has no continuity with the history, tradition and social ethos of our country and our indigenous iron and steel technology. And this technology seems to have remained alien in our context. We have failed to adapt this to our situation, to our human and material resources. The result is that our steel is perhaps the most expensive and the poorest in quality in the entire world.

The modern iron and steel sector has failed to utilize the skills of traditional artisans who had been the traditional technologists in iron-smelting, steel making and forging. When the modern steel plants were initiated in a major way after independence, we should have seen to it that our traditional technologists and their descendants are systematically brought into the modern sector. And they should have been brought in not merely as unskilled, wage-labourers, but as technologists who are allowed to play a creative role. Even assuming that we had to begin with imported, Western technology, if the artisans had been allowed to creatively interact with this technology, there should have been a great deal of experimentation, innovation and adaptation. This has obviously not happened in the modern steel sector.

While we examine the modern steel sector, the experience of China may be very relevant (26). In China, till 1949, all rural needs for iron and steel were met by indigenous technology operated by rural artisans. In 1958 China embarked on the "great leap forward" programme. The target for the steel industry was to double the output of steel during that year (from 5.35 million tons to 10.7 million tons), by combining the development of a large - scale modern industry with the traditional technology. So, in 1958, about one million small traditional iron and steel furnaces were built with millions of artisans employed in constructing and operating them. By the end of 1958, these traditional furnaces supplied 3/4 the of China's pig iron and 40% of china's steel. This rapid growth of traditional technology of iron-smelting solved the raw material supply problem for many large steel plants.

At the end of '58, large numbers of traditional furnaces were consolidated into small integrated iron and steel plants. The location of these plants and the design of blast furnaces were based on the experience gained during the 1958 movement. Thus began a process of replacing small traditional furnaces with medium sized blast furnaces. This process was completed by the end of 1959.

As a consequence of this process, modern steel industry in China was spread over a wide area and acquired a decentralized character in continuity with the traditional sites of Jiron & steel manufacture. The design of blast furnaces and steel plants was also in continuity with traditional technology. Most importantly, all the traditional artisans were mobilized to participate creatively in the modern steel sector.

An important feature of the traditional iron-smelting technology in India was that it could make use of relatively low-quality ores. The modern process used currently, requires inputs of high quality ores. This is why although the traditional technology was widespread in the country and could make use of all locally available ores, the modem steel plants have to be restricted to areas where high-quality ores are available (27).

Thus, the consequence of our importing a modern technology and not giving any scope for participation by the traditional experts is that our steel plants remain concentrated in a very small area of our country - namely the Bihar-M.P.Orissa belt where iron ores and coals which are somewhat compatible with this alien technology are available. Now we are reduced to a situation that no new steel plants can be located anywhere else. Although there are large deposits of iron ore in many parts of India, we do not have the technology that can take advantage of this. So, we are reduced to the pathetic condition where we are exporting valuable iron ore from Karnataka while we have severe shortage of steel which is met by imports.

Despite nearly 80 years of familiarity with modern iron and steel technology, we have failed to creatively interact with, innovate and adapt this technology and make it our own. Therefore, we are compelled to periodically update this technology by going in for import of the latest technology available elsewhere. Despite considerable expenditure on R & D, we have not produced self-confident and innovative technologists who can lay the foundation for an independent steel industry. The reasons for this perhaps are that: (a) we have not made a careful study of our past in iron and steel manufacture - any attempt to look into our past carefully would have instilled a great deal of pride in our scientists and enabled them to deal with modern technology confidently. Besides, the traditional technology would have stirred up many ideas which would certainly have given a new direction to the modern iron and steel industry (28); (b) We have not utilized the talents and creativity of our traditional technologists in this area. After independence, we had the great opportunity to bring our artisans into a situation where they could have creatively interacted with the modern steel technology. This would also have brought about a lively and fruitful interaction between modern and traditional scientists. This should have given a further boost to our ability to handle modern technology. We cannot hope to master modern technology in any area by ignoring the creative potential of a large majority of our own people.


It is imperative that we bring our artisans back into playing a creative role in society. The least that the state can do is that the artisans are supported so that once again they can smelt iron in the traditional way in villages. If some encouragement is given to their efforts, certainly the blacksmiths should be able to produce enough iron and steel to serve all the needs of rural areas. It is also very certain that the artisans will soon recreate special products such as wootz. This may be treated as a very special product serving special needs such as surgical instruments, for which the technology and materials are now perhaps imported.

The situation is similar with respect to many other special materials. The consequence of not allowing the traditional experts to play any creative role in society is that we have a modern sector propped up completely by imports of technology and which turns out third-rate products which are practically useless to ourselves. Only an understanding of our traditions in technology and an involvement of our traditional experts in all these technologies can get us out of our current crisis in the manufacture of iron and steel and other important materials.

Notes and References

1. Panchanan Neogi "Ironin Ancient India" Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Calcutta, 1914.

2. Neogi ibid :

3. Neogi, ibid

4. D. Jayakumar, PPST-Foundation 1990, unpublished manuscript. Also see Thelma Lowe "Decani Wootz - making crucibles: A Preliminary Study" American Ceramic Society Conference, Pittsburgh, USA, May 1987, for a description of the crucibles of the Hyderabad region of South India. The furnaces described in the texts of Rasa Sastra seem to be also similar to the furnaces used in the 18th and 19th century for smelting iron.

5. Neogi, op.cit.

6. Bloom is a lump of iron which is the product of a traditional iron-smelting furnace.

7. In a meeting of metallurgists at SAIL R&D Centre, Ranchi, in Jan. 1990, Prof. S.Bannerjee, Director, NML, emphasized the extraordinary engineering skills which went into the forging of this pillar.

8. Prof.B.Prakash of thej Department of metallurgy, Banaras Hindu University, has brought out this fact in some of his writings. See for instance, B.Prakash and K.Igaki, "Ancient iron-making in Bastar District", Indian Jour-nail of History of Science, 19(2), p.172-185.

9. Neogi, op.cit

10. The Brhat Samhita of Varahamihira, mentions a variety of liquids used in the' quenching of iron and steel. Brhat Samhita, Vol.I.p.431, Motilal Banar sidass, 1986.

11. Neogi, op.cit

12. Ananda K.Coomaraswamy - "Medieval Sinhalese Art" (1908).

13. Bhanu Prakash V. Tripathi - "Iron technology in Ancient India" - Department of Metallurgy, Banaras Hindu University.

14. The temperture seems to have been controlled by (a) bellows (b) using tuyeres of different sizes so that the volume of air let into the furnace was varied.

The temperature was "measured" by observing the colour of the flame. Even today, adivasis in the Bastar District of M.P. smelt iron only during the night so that the colour of the flame may be visible clearly and the temperture may be gauged precisely.

15. Dharampal, unpublished manuscript.

16. Crucible steel from South India was taken to the Arab countries by Arab traders. There it was fashioned into exquisite swords by Arab artisans. Hence these swords came to be known in Europe as "Damascus" swords and the steel as "Damascus" steel.

17. Dharampal - unpublished manuscript.

18. Dharampal "Indian Science and Technology in the 18th century" Impex India, New Delhi, 1983.

19. Detailed descriptions of the proceses of iron and steel manufacture can be found in Dharampal - p.263-308; E.Balfour and Francis Buchanan A Journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar Higgin-bothams & Co., Madras 1870. Reprinted Asian Educational Services, Delhi 1988; and E. Balfour, "Report on the Iron ores of the Madras Presidency", Madras, 1855.

20. Dharampal, op.cit

21. Arnold Pacey, (untitled manuscript with PPST Foundation Library) - p.101.

22. See C.S.Smith - "Four outstanding researches in Metallurgical History", American Society for Testing and Materials, 1963, for a description of the impact of "wootz" or "Damascus" steel on metallurgical research in Europe.

23. Currently research work is going on in the West in what are called Ultra-High-Carbon (UHC) steels. Those steels which contain around 1.7% carbon, are super-plastic - they can be formed into complex shapes easily - at relatively low temperatures. Recently, scholars working on these UHC steels realized that perhaps they had merely rediscovered Indian "wootz" steel - so similar are the properties of UHC steels to those of wootz! The Western fascination with "wootz" has not faded even after 200 years See J.Wadsworth and O.D.Sherby - "On Bulat - Damascus Steel Revisited" Progress in Materials Science, Vol.25 (1980), p.35-68.

24. Some of the reasons for the decline of the indigenous iron and steel technology were: (a) the. taking away of forests from the village communities and extensive deforestation by the state, resulting in denial of charcoal to the artisans for smelting iron, (b) An oppressive tax on iron-smelting furnaces making the indigenous process economically unviable.

25. Even a decade after 'the starting of the Tata Iron and Steel Company in Jamshedpur, there were reports of Adivasis in a nearby area, a few miles away, smelting iron in the traditional way. See for instance, Andrew Mc-William "Indian Iron-making at Mifjati" Journal of the Iron and Steel Institute, 11, (1920), p.159-170.

26. S.A.NiloIayer and L.I.Molodtsova "The present state of Chinese Iron and Steel llndustry" Soviet Geography, Review and Translation, Vol.1, No.8, Oct. 1960.

27. We can consider the Salem area of Tamil Nadu as an example of this. Salem was famed for its excellent iron and high-quality crucible steel. All this iron and steel was manufactured in villages all over Salem District from locally available iron ores.

For the last two-three decades there has been talk of setting up modern integrated steel plant in Salem. This plant was to make use of the ores of Kanjamalai, next to Salem. However, it was found after several investigations that the Kanjamalai ores could not be economically used in a modern steel plant since they are of "low-quality". As the example of China indicates, if we had involved our artisans creatively in planning modern iron and steel industry this situation should have never arisen. It should have been possible to economically use Kanjamalai ores in producing the requisite quantity of steel.

28. Recall the impact on European metallurgical science of the investigations into "wootz" steel in the 18th and 19th centuries. It must be mentioned however, that today, there are a few leading metallurgists in India who are studying the traditional iron and steel technology with modern techniques.

Author:T.M. Mukundan

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