History of Iron Technology in India (From Beginning to Pre-Modern Times)

Item Code: NAF764
Publisher: Rupa Publication Pvt. Ltd.
Author: Vibha Tripathi
Language: English
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 9788129111852
Pages: 264 (46 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.5 inch x 7.5 inch
Weight 880 gm
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Back of The Book

“India has an ancient civilization based on a unique, endogenous knowledge system, involving significant scientific development. But there has been no authoritative account of this development, in contrast to the monumental work of Neendham that ensured the academic repositioning of China as a scientific civilization. This effort by the Infinity Foundation is appropriate for remedying this lacuna.”

About The Book

This book presents a comprehensive history of Iron Technology in India. It covers the long span of Indian history stretching over roughly three and a half BCE to pre-modern times. One can trace the development of iron technology from the humble beginnings in a chalcolithic milieu followed by the technological evolution reaching the peaks of iron technology of the colossal structures of the Delhi Iron Pillar weighing several tons by early centuries of the Christian Era. The metallurgical expertise and the ingenuity of artisans find expression in the production of wootz steel swords with their intriguing rippling patterns. These swords and daggers were highly prized in the ancient world. They were marketed by the enterprising sailors of the Middle East at lucrative profits. The sword of Tipu Sultan is indeed a legend.

The iron and steel industry in India was flourishing till the eighteenth-nineteenth century CE. The quality of the product was superior enough to be prized by the European world, viz. by the Dutch, the Spanish and the British up to pre-modern times. Iron produced at Tendukhera was imported by Britain to be used in Bridge. However, one perceives a decline in traditional iron industry during the British period. Iron working could manage to survive till a few decades back among the ethnic societies who had been engaged in it for generations. The book incorporeities results of a firsthand study of these traditional iron-workers, who may be termed as bearers of the legacy which had a glorious past but a very uncertain future.

The author has synthesized literary, archaeological, metallurgical and ethnographic data in a holistic matter to give us a glimpse of the evolution and decay of the iron technology in India. The book contains original material collected during the decades of the author’s research. It is hoped that it will be of interest both to the specialist and he general reader interested in the history of Indian metallurgy.

About The Author

Prof. Vibha Tripathi is the head of the Department of Ancient History, Culture and Archaeology at Banaras Hindu University . During the last two decades she has specialized in the metallurgy of iron to understand its evolution. Besides the Iron Age technology, she has contributed to the fields of geo-morphology, palaeo=environment, settlement systems, and even to the study of the terracotta art of the Indus Civilization.

She was educated at the University of Allahabd and got her Ph.D. from BHU. She was excavated several archaeological sites and published their reports. Prof. Tripathi is a very versatile scholar and her works reflect a multi-disciplinary yet holistic approach. In her writings she has used a variety of data including ancient Sanskrit works, ethnography, cultural traditions, scientific analyses and archaeological data. She has extensively published her research papers innational and nternational journals and has made an extensive study of ht tribal iron technology and has pleaded for its revival to provide employment as also to preserve the technological heritage. Prof. Tripathi is an archaeologist of international fame and a scholar of Sanskrit. She is a good musician and during her younger days used to paint and dance well . Such versatile talents have informed all her scholarly works.

Her major books include The Painted Grey Ware: An Iron Age Culture, Indus Terracottaas, Archaeo-Metallurgy in India, The Age of Iron in South Asia amongst others.


It seems that history of science and technology in india has so far not been accorded the significance it deserves. Both laymen and students need to know and feel proud about the great achievements that were made in the past. This exercise should also help us to find out the causes which pushed us back and the West overtook us in its Industrial Revolution. In the western accounts of history of science and technology most of the important achievements are traced back to Greece thus giving these studies a Eurocentric bias.

In recent years several laudable efforts have been made in compiling the Indian History of Science and Technology. As is to be expected, these efforts had their own biases and perspectives. It was, however, felt that detailed accounts of individual technologies need to be reconstructed and not mere short descriptions. The History of Science and Technology Book Project was launched by Infinity Foundation keeping in view the need to correct the Eurocentric distortions as also to provide authentic and detailed summaries of the main technologies and how they evolved through history.

There is a vast amount of literature on these subjects but literary evidence is often prone to a variety of interpretations. It is therefore wise on the part of the organisers to place more reliance on material evidence available through archaeological excavations and museum exhibits. It was soon realised that the Indus civilisation, vast as it is in its expanse both in time and space, itself required a number of volumes to cover its achievements in the fields of metallurgy, architecture, hydraulics and a variety of other technologies. Under this series they have already commissioned a general book on Harappan Technology and its legacy to be written by Prof. DP Agrawal. Prof. JP Joshi has already completed a monograph on the Harappan architecture and engineering. Probably, a few more volumes covering Harappan metallurgy and hydraulics etc. will be useful. It seems that Infinity Foundation has already commissioned about a dozen volumes covering iron technology, Himalayan architecture, zinc technology, traditional hydraulics, chalcolithic technology, archaeometallurgy of eastern India, traditional hydraulics of Uttaranchal etc. The future volumes may cover history of agriculture and animal husbandry, glass technology, ceramic and textile technologies etc.

Iron Technology is in itself a vast theme covering more than 3000 years. Prof. Vibha Tripathi has prepared a volume covering in brief all the aspects of Iron Technology right from its beginnings to pre-modern period. Prof. R. Balasubramaniam has produced a volume on the much neglected class of iron objects including pillars, beams and cannons. Unlike China, Indians preferred wrought iron technology in India. During the medieval period India attained some of its peaks in wrought iron forging technology in the manufacture of forge welded cannons. The skill required to fabricate the barrels of cannons by the use of forge-welded iron rings is a technological feat because it required good understanding of properties of iron. The excellent skills of the medieval Indian smiths become evident when one considers the enormous number of rings used in the construction of each cannon.

The Harappans built massive cities over huge platforms defying the annual inundations of the mighty Indus. In Mohenjodaro they dug 700-odd wells with burnt bricks to get clean potable water. In towns like Dholavira in Kachchh, they built elaborate reservoirs covering almost ten percent of the town to store rain harvested water. In the Harappan towns we see for the first time a gridiron layout of the streets. At Dholavira they have drains for potable water, sullage as also for run-off of the storm water but they have been constructed in such a manner that no mixing of dirty water with potable water ever takes place. The Harappans used a binary system of weights with high accuracy. Their linear unit of 17 mm seems to have led to the anguia width mentioned in the Arthasastra.

Indians mastered the technology of making extremely tough steel known as the Wootz. It was such a famous and a precious commodity that it was considered a fitting gift to be presented to an emperor like Alexander and also to the Persian kings in the fifth century BC .

Thus, a series of book series on History of Science and Technology of India as sponsored by the Infinity Foundation covers a very important but so far neglected area and we do hope soon we will have an authentic history of science and technology of India and its role in a global history.


The present book by Prof. Vibha Tripathi is an excellent and up to date synthesis of a wide range of data on Indian iron, and I thank her and the editor of the series in which the book is published, Prof. D.P Agrawal, for kindly giving me the privilege of academically introducing it.


To argue that Indian iron and steel had a global reputation in the pre-modern period may not be enough. The extent of this reputation has to be driven home, and this one can do only by citing the relevant sources from the countries to which Indian iron and steel used to be exported. The fact that the famous Damascened swords of the mediaeval period used to be made of Indian steel, specifically south Indian steel which was known as Wootz (derived from the local term Ukku) among the Europeans, means that there must be an extensive body of trade documents in west Asia, which would throw light on the extent and mechanism of this trade. Early in the eighteenth century the best steel in the Cairo market came from India, and as late as the 1830s one reads about the presence of Persian merchants at Nirmal in the Adilabad district of Andhra to purchase steel. There was a time, presumably in the eighteenth century, when the people of Westphalia in Cermany used to roll puddle steel into half-inch or three-fourth inch squares and sell them in the Hamburg market under the name of Indian steel. In the eleventh century Jewish trade documents discovered in the mediaeval quarters of Cairo there is a reference to a Jewish merchant based in Mangalore, who used to ship, among other goods, iron to the Middle Eastern and Egyptian market. Some of these data have been mentioned in my The Early Iron Use oj Iron in India (1992), and Prof. Tripathi herself draws attention to some Chinese and Arab sources, but there is still scope for undertaking detailed archival research on this point.


A strong point of this book is the emphasis Prof. Tripathi lays on the accounts of British engineers on the extent and quality of the manufacture of indigenous Indian iron and the more basic ethnographic documentation of the same. She deserves full credit for drawing attention to the survival of indigenous iron industry in some remote pockets of Jharkhand and for giving importance to the recent attempts to revive this industry My familiarity with this topic does not extend much beyond Valentine Ball's A Manual of the Geology of India: Part III - The Economic Geology (1881), but those who have ploughed through the occasional records on the pre-industrial iron manufacture published in Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal or the famous records of iron and steel manufacture in the early nineteenth century survey reports of Francis Buchanan and Benjamin Heyne would know that there is a voluminous archival material to be discovered on this throughout the length and breadth of the subcontinent. This is primarily for our historians to investigate. One doubts very much if the economic history of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century India can be reconstructed without properly assessing the role of the contemporary iron industry Occasionally one comes across references to the construction of bridges made of indigenous iron, and places like Tendukhera on the north bank of the Narmada are mentioned in this regard. But how many major centres of production of pre-industrial iron were there in the subcontinent at that point of time? We do not know the answer, but that does not mean it is not worth knowing, if we have to have an idea of the technological base of the country before the British moved in.


Equally important in a related context is the issue of Wootz or south Indian pre-industrial steel. Two crucial problems still remain to be worked out. First, what is the antiquity of this industry? In my 1992 monograph (pp.174-175) I argued that the vitrified crucibles and furnaces excavated by K Rajan at Kodumanal in the Coimbatore area in its early historic context (third century BC, but probably earlier) denoted the early steel-making tradition of south India as recorded by Buchanan and Heyne. In view of the extensive and pre-l 000 BC iron-manufacturing tradition of south India I think it is probable that the Wootz tradition is rooted in the megalithic stage itself. However, this has to be tested in the ground, and as far as one can judge, there is no systematic interest in investigating the history and distribution of Wootz-manufacturing sites in south India, although Sharada Srinivasan and her associates seem to have made a beginning in this in recent years. In this context one may also mention.

In my 1992 monograph again (pp. 146-147) I cited Cecil Von Schwartz's record of steel-making by what he called the Deccanese process, whereby steel was obtained by directly reducing iron ores in crucibles. Schwartz called this "crucible cast steel", and although in recent years there has been some interest in the pre-industrial tradition of south Indian steel, one is not sure if Schwartz's 'Deccanese process' has been archaeologically identified. In 1989 in an unpublished report Thelma Lowe reported in the Karimnagar district of northern Andhra 74 iron-producing sites, and on 13 of them Wootz was apparently manufactured by the Deccanese process. If we are proud of our Wootzmanufacturing tradition, we should undertake extensive field-investigations and recover as much of this history as possible. It is doubtful if the relevant manufacturing debris in the Andhra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu countryside will still remain undisturbed within a few years.


Prof. Tripathi has undertaken, among other things, an admirable review of archaeological and literary data in this volume. The literary data are no doubt very limited and do not throw much light on the technical details of iron production. This is something we cannot do anything about, but what can be done is to prepare a compendium of various terms used by the blacksmiths and indigenous iron-producers in different parts of the country in the context of their actual manufacturing process and trade. The literature of the higher strata of Indian society had no place for such mundane details, but this does not mean that these details did not exist. They existed among the ordinary craftsmen, and it is time we gave some attention to the understanding of these terms in various regions.

Archaeologically I find the present scenario very exciting. The fact that there were iron manufacturing centres as early as 1800-1600 BC at places like Malhar in the fringe of theGanga valley means that such centres came up only to supply iron implements and lumps of bloomery iron to the settlements of the valley. Apparently there was an extensive trade network in iron in the central Ganga plain as early as the first half of the second millennium Be. One hopes that the details of this network will soon emerge with more archaeological discoveries. Mining and metallurgy are two of the areas of ancient I ndia, of which we can justifiably be proud This is something which was explicitly stated by Panchanan Neogi, a teacher of Chemistry who wrote the earliest syntheses of the history of both copper and iron in ancient India in the first decade of the twenteenth century. Except some stray C-14 dates from old mine shafts and some detailed investigations of such shafts in the Zawar mining area of Rajasthan, the history of pre-industrial mining in India still remains to be worked out. Initiative in this regard should come not merely from the historians and archaeologists but also from the people employed in the public sector organisations which control modern mining in these areas. There are thousands of old mine shafts in their jurisdictions, and if they do not want to know anything about their history, one can blame only the educational system of which they are products - an educational system which inculcates no professional curiosity outside the immediate needs and concerns. There is no national level laboratory to analyse ancient metallurgical objects either. Meanwhile, we are deeply indebted to Prof. Tripathi for what she has given us - an excellent analysis of what can be said about the history of iron in ancient India in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Nobody has been more consistently interested in this history than Prof. Tripathi.


India's contributions to developments of science and technology have caught the attention of scholars in recent decades. The developments that took place in India in various fields of science, mathematics, astrology, metallurgy etc. are yet to be fully studied and documented. The Infinity Foundation, USA, has made a serious effort in this direction. It has come forward to present to the world a critical and comprehensive history of Indian science and technology. The Foundation aims to bring out volumes focusing on different dimensions of science and technology. We agreed that the subject has three distinct dimensions: technology, archaeology and certain specific variety of iron produced in ancient India. It is felt that there should be separate volumes in each of these subjects. Prof. R. Balasubramaniam will deal primarily with metallurgy of iron and some other scholar will deal with the wootz steel. The present volume restricts itself to archaeological and historical issues related to iron technology.

I was invited to write a history of iron technology in India. The present work extends its scope several times - from the origin of iron in India in the antiquity to decline of indigenous iron working in the pre-modern times. Despite the risk of some repetition that is inevitable, the present volume makes an effort to cover a large area of Indian history - from ancient to modern period - a timeframe spanning over several millennia. To compress the evidence spread so extensively both in time and space in the form of a book within such a short time space is indeed a difficult task.

In the course of the study, I felt that although India has a very long and efficient tradition of iron working, its history is little known to the world today. Even the famous steel, which India produced right from the closing centuries before the Christian era and subsequently exported to the world, came to be known after those ports through which it found way to world markets. For instance, the wootz steel, famous as Damascus steel, was actually a product of ingenuity of the Indian metal smiths. However, the Arabs with whom India developed a close relationship - commercial as well as socio-cultural was a great service to the advancement of knowledge. They acquired and spread several branches of Indian science such as astronomy, mathematics, including the Indian numerals, navigation techniques to other parts of world wherever they went. This included information about the much-appreciated Indian steel.

As early as the fourth century BCE the steel industry was so developed in India that steel was presented to Alexander as a tribute. Even earlier, in the fifth century BCE, Ktesias received swords of Indian origin in the royal court of Persia. Thus Indian steel finds mention in early records, as it must have been a real prized commodity in that age. To arrive at such a level of expertise, it must have got hundreds of years of experimentation to back it up. But these facts are hardly known to those interested in history of science and technology of the ancient world. It is our duty as students of archaeology and ancient technology to let it be known to the world of scholars.

There are misconceptions right from the issue of origin of iron in India. Looking at the emergence of iron, the earlier contention was that iron reached India through diffusion from the west as late as sixth-fifth century BCE. The Bactrians, the Creeks and the immigrating Aryans were held responsible for bringing it to the Indian subcontinent. The very foundations of those theories have now been challenged. Firstly, it is no longer tenable that metallurgically iron being too different from earlier metal techniques could not be developed independently. Secondly, the archaeological evidence coming in recent years by way of very early 14C dates is indeed more clinching. Importantly enough, those dates come from the heartland of India ruling out all possibilities of diffusion of iron through outside sources. Such early dates are not to be found in the archaeological contexts on any of the bordering lands. Thus one may safely argue for an independent origin of iron in India.

It is noteworthy that despite such an early beginning of iron, there is very little change in the social or economic condition. It has given rise to questions on the effectiveness of iron in bringing about culture change. One of the debated issues of Indian archaeology even today is the impact of iron in the process of urbanisation. In dealing with this issue, we have not taken cognizance of the fact that development of metallurgy of iron must have been a very slow process. Its adaptation was still slower in an impoverished chalcolithic milieu in which stone or bone largely sufficed. Judging by the number of metal tools, it appears to be more of a luxury than anything more. It is against such a backdrop that iron technology and its impact ought to be studied. I have tried to incorporate socio-political background at different nodal points of cultural development in this study of iron technology.

The early society shaped, dictated and canalised the direction of technology. It demanded tools and implements for war, hunting, carpentry, masonry, household jobs and building material. With improvement in metallurgical skills, iron objects could be produced in larger quantity and definitely of better quality by 600-500 BCE. It did influence the economic growth. The cause-effect relationship between technological advancement, economic development, and the consequent urban development should better be avoided here as much has been said on the subject from both angles. One thing is certain that the Indian artisan class never betrayed the society. They were capable of meeting social demands. Even seven-ton colossal structures could be manufactured with great efficiency. The Delhi Iron Pillar of fourth-fifth centuries AD is an example of a well-organized iron industry. This situation continued till much later - right up to the Mughal period.

Babur on his arrival in India expressed surprise at the large number of skilled artisans available here - perhaps something he had not been familiar with. No wonder records confirm that there was no unemployment in India till eighteen-nineteenth century. Besides, the average per capita income of India was several times higher than Europe.

It is these skilled craftsmen and their expertise that was commissioned by medieval rulers to produce military hardware to wage wars on the indigenous political system. However, the relationship between the Sultans, later Moghul emperors and the artisans was largely exploitative in nature. According to eyewitness records, it was very oppressive in nature. This indeed must have taken its toll on the creative faculties of the artisans. These points have never been considered in the context of examination of technology in the earlier works.

The Europeans, on their arrival in India were impressed by the fine quality steel being produced in India. The Dutch imported shiploads of steel objects. They even established their own manufactories at several places in Deccan. The British and the Swedish showed great enthusiasm towards iron production on a larger scale. They established several factories in different parts of the country. They were given preference over local manufactures. The latter were, on several occasions, refused permission to run their establishments in favour of the Europeans who were enamoured by the high quality Indian steel and easy accessibility of raw material. The Indian steel that they tested was rated to be much superior to British or Swedish steel.

Perhaps lack of understanding of local temper and work conditions played a negative role as most such ventures had to be shutdown in course of time. The colonial temper of the British promoted British iron industries by importing cheap iron after the advent of blast furnaces there. The indigenous iron industry succumbed to these changes. Centuries of exploitation and suppression by the oppressive political system, along with import of cheaper iron, which the indigenous ironworkers could not compete with put the last nail in the coffin of indigenous iron production.

Despite the odds, though the indigenous iron industry lost its vigour, it did manage to survive in certain remote parts of ore rich forested areas. Our own research and explorations in such areas have brought forth traces of survival of traditional iron workings. It has been briefly documented here. I personally feel that there is a need to reactivate this, not only for the sake of preservation of cultural heritage of India but also for allowing a whole class of society to lead a decent life with dignity. They are bearers of a legacy of the past. In the modern times of 'small is beautiful' and concern for preservation and conservation of eco-system, effort should be made to revive traditional industries. The traditional craft groups should be given right to forests and forest products for raw material. They have nurtured the forests for generations with a spirit of veneration. It is worth giving it a sympathetic consideration in the modern planning.

In the end, I hope that the present volume on iron technology in india will be able to provide the reader an idea about the emergence, developmental stages of growth of iron metallurgy, achievements of ancient metal smiths, as well as the story of their struggle - both at personal and professional levels. This volume presents a history of iron technology; the attention and appreciation it got from traders of the ancient times from various parts of the world who flocked to the manufacturing centres to buy it. The colossal structures, the massive cannons and guns adorning important buildings and museums are a witness to the glorious past of Indian iron and steel.


Introduction to the Series y M. G. K. Menon vii
Note on Infinity Foundation ix
Foreword by Dilip K. Chakrabarti xv
Editor's Note xxi
Preface xxiii
Acknowledgements xxvii
List of Tables xxix
List of Illustrations xxxi
1 Introduction 1
2 Incidence of Iron In The Bronze Age 15
3 Origin And Dispersal of Iron In India 29
The Diffusion of Technology 30
Iron in Rigveda 32
Archeological Evidence of iron in the Borderlands 34
Iron in China 35
Indigenouos Origin of Iron in India 38
The Early Iron Age Cutlures in India 42
Early Centres of iron in India 50
A Multi-centred and Indigenous Origin of Iron in India 56
4 Iron In Ancient India: From Wrought Iron To Steel 71
Development of Metallurgy in Ancient India 72
Literary References to Early in Ancient India 95
Wootz Steel 98
Iron Ore and its Mining 103
5 Iron In India From The Imperial Guptas To The Mighty Moghuls 119
Status of iron from the Imperial Guptas to the Early Medieval period 120
The Monumental Structures 125
The Mighty Moghuls 132
The Iron Cannons 133
Production, Distribution and Marketing Mechanism of Iron and Steel 145
Condition of the Artisan 148
6 Iron In British India 153
Status of Indigenous Iron during the British Period 153
Iron Production Centres 155
Status of Indigenous Iron: Summary and Discussion 175
The British and European Ventures 177
The Colonial Ambition and Stagnation of Iron Production 182
Decline of Indigenous Iron Industry 184
7 Survival And Revival of The Indigenous Iron Industry 187
The Tradition Iron Working 191
Iron- making in Netarhat Plateau-Jharkhand 196
Discussion 199
Economic Viability 200
8 Conclusion 205
9 Bibliography 223
10 Index 237
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