Sponsored By: Infinity Foundation

Iron Technology and Its Legacy in India

Infinity Foundation sponsored new book project titled: 
“Iron Technology and Its Legacy in India (From the Earliest Times to Early Medieval Period)”
by Vibha Tripathi, PhD

History of metal technology in India is a success story of human endeavor to control, manipulate and transform material into new forms. Some of the highlights of these ventures are: the mastery in metal casting technique including the complex cire perdue in the 3rd millennium B.C. as perceptible in the Harappan dancing girl, the heavy tools and implements of the Copper Hoards in the Gangetic Plains in circa 2000-1500 B.C. In the subsequent centuries iron and zinc exhibit an unparalleled expertise in metal working. Zinc could not be extracted in Europe till the 19th century. However, it could be extracted in India as early as 4th -3rd century B.C. In the subsequent period by 12-13 A.D. it was produced through distillation at an industrial level as indicated by the heaps of retorts found in the region of Rajasthan, a practice that continued well up to the 19th century. Thus India may be given the credit of being the first country to master the complex technique to extract metallic zinc at mass scale. The ingenuity and the innovative spirit of the metal workers is manifested most in the iron and steel manufacturing from quite an early date. It is fully borne out by the records of the foreign travelers and historians who visited the country from time to time. For example, Herodotus mentions about the iron arrowheads being used by the fighting army in the battle of Thermopylae in 5th cent.B.C. Almost simultaneously Ktesias gratefully acknowledged gift of swords of Indian steel made to him by the king and his mother at the Persian court. Quintus Curtis records that Alexander was presented 100 talents (30 pound) of Indian steel in the form of ingots along with gold dust and other precious things in 326 B.C. in northwestern India as a tribute. Arian mentions about import of Indian steel in Abyssinian ports. These Greek and Roman records, thus bear a testimony to the saliency of iron and steel in India and importantly enough also to the fact that it was very much in demand in the ancient world. It was being exported to various parts of the world. Iron indeed appears to be a prized commodity in the ancient times. Indian iron was a commodity worth presenting to a monarch way back in 5th-4th century B.C.!

In the following period the mastery of the craft exhibits itself in the form of colossal structures like the 7 ton iron pillar at Delhi (5th A.D.).It has withstood the ravages of time and for centuries without getting rusted. This property has earned it the title of the Rustless Wonder from an eminent metallurgist of modern India. Equally intriguing are the large beams at the Sun temple at Konark dated to 9th -10th century and iron pillar at Dhar in central India. Besides the quality of iron, these are examples testifying the large scale of production exhibiting presence of an organized mechanism to back it up at such an early date. No wonder that the skill and expertise could easily be exploited by the State machinery during the medieval times for manufacturing cannons that adorn several important buildings today. It may be interesting to state that the British rated Indian iron much higher and considered it more appropriate than the iron produced by their own units for manufacturing bridges etc. An important example in the case is the famous ‘tubular bridge’ built in the early parts of the 19th century across the Menai Straits in U.K. It is categorically stated “….its (iron’s) superiority is so marked, that at the time when the Britannia tubular bridge across the Menai Straits was under construction preference was given to the use of iron produced in India” (T.H.D.La Touche,Calcutta,1918). This proves beyond doubt that iron was being imported from India by 19th century Britain for crucially important purposes because of its superiority -a fact that has rarely been brought to the notice in the publications on the subject.

Wootz, a very special kind of crucible steel, generally known as Damascus steel was originally produced in India sometimes around the opening of the Christian era or may be even earlier. It is still an enigma to the modern metallurgists. Several efforts have been made to reproduce it without much success. Wootz was being exported to outside world through important ports of the ancient times. Its presence in so many important collections of the world is sufficient to prove both its importance as well as the scale of its production and its extensive distribution at a fairly early date. However, one wonders about the inadequate researches about Indian iron and steel. Despite such a glorious past of iron technology in India, several volumes dealing with history of iron do not have a word to say about India. It is high time that a comprehensive history of iron technology in India is written covering all its aspects. The present project is a modest effort in this direction.

The present volume of History of Science and Technology in India proposes to undertake the examination of various dimensions of iron technology in India- right from its beginning through the stages of its development to the stage of its culmination. It also proposes to look into the causes of its decline. Through a critical evaluation of sources, many of them not tapped so far it may be possible to bring out several hitherto unknown or half known facets of history of iron technology in India.

The recent archaeological discoveries attribute the first emergence of iron to the copper using societies in different parts of the subcontinent. The earlier contention of diffusion of iron has been questioned in light of new discoveries. We are faced with several questions that need attention, like: How and under what circumstances the metallurgy was learnt or discovered? Whether iron technology was learnt through outside contacts or it evolved out of the existing knowledge of metal craft as a by product- is an issue that is still debated. It needs to be thoroughly investigated. Which part of the subcontinent it appears first? How did the metallurgy develop? What are the various stages of its development? Why despite several attempts has it not been possible for the modern metallurgists to unravel the mystery of technique of wootz steel making? When was the impact of iron felt and why was it so slow to reflect itself 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 causes responsible for the decline of a flourishing iron industry in India have to be looked into. The present study proposes to address such unresolved issues related to early Indian iron technology. 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). N.R. Banerjee produced a sizeable work on Iron, (‘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. Ram Chandra 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. His recently published book, Delhi Iron Pillar: New Insights (Aryan International, Delhi2002) is an outcome of his sustained interest on the subject. 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. Most of the studies on iron mentioned here focus only on some limited aspects of iron technology.


There is a need to undertake a holistic approach to resolve the issues related to iron in India-from its introduction to stages of development and dispersal of technology, special distinguishing features of Indian iron, and those special properties that won it a worldwide acclaim, the dispersal mechanism through which it reached the world market. There are records to show that right up to the East India Company times there were merchants from the Middle Eastern countries who regularly visited the country to buy the stock of steel for swords. Even the British recognized its superiority as evident from the specific case of the Menai Tubular Bridge mentioned above. However, for reasons yet to be fully understood satisfactorily the iron industry in India not only showed a decline but it almost came to an end. There is indeed a need to examine closely the phenomena of rise and fall of indigenous iron industry in India through the ages.

To look into all these dimensions of the history of Iron and Steel in India there is a need to write a book covering all its aspects. It is with this aim that the present book is proposed. To do this, one needs to take an overview of all the researches going on in different parts of the world and present a comprehensive history of iron in India with a fresh perspective. Equally important, though much more arduous, 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 development should be studied.

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 metallurgy before it is lost for good.

Ancient Indian literature is a rich source of knowledge on different aspects of life, including on metal technology. There is evidence of iron working in the ancient literature also. 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 perspective covering all these aspects of ancient Indian iron working. It is proposed to undertake this work in this book.

Aims and Objectives

The main aim of the present study is to bring out a comprehensive history of iron technology in India using a multidisciplinary approach. It is also aimed to dispel the misgivings and misconceptions prevalent about ancient Indian science and technology in general and iron working in particular. The earlier researches were generally based on limited data and outdated approach. It now needs to be reviewed. It is proposed:

(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 analyze them for a proper and phase wise understanding of different aspects of metallurgical development.
(iv) To correlate the resource-zones and the related important cultural centers of ancient India.
(v) To examine inter-regional and intra-regional contacts; the distribution mechanism at different times of history; state involvement if any and processes of technology management at various stages.
(vi) To undertake ethnographic investigations in remote areas for the surviving remains of traditional iron working.
(vii) To look into the status of production up to the pre-industrial period through textual references, old records etc.
(viii) To examine the status of iron production in the mediaeval period through literature survey, especially in contemporary texts and also in the archival data available on the subject.
(ix) To interpret and synthesize the data collected in the form of a book on ancient Indian iron technology covering all its aspects.

To fulfill these objectives there is a need for a book that covers the growth and development as well as the decline of the once flourishing iron industry of India from the earliest times right up to the British period. To fulfill this goal, I propose to adopt the following methodology:


There are a large number of unresolved issues related to the beginning and growth of iron technology in India. Some of these have been spelled out above. There are misconceptions/ misplaced notions due to lack of right information on the subject. With ever increasing database due to researches being conducted in different parts of the world, the dynamics of interpretation of past process have acquired new dimensions. As a consequence, fresh approach is required to study the subject. It is only through such an inquiry that one may arrive at balanced conclusions. One does need to avoid and steer clear of biased approaches of earlier work in the field. Those works are sometimes ethnocentric or Eurocentric. What is required is a critical evaluation of data and deeper inquiry of relatively unknown facts. To attain this goal the following strategy has been devised:

(i) Literature survey for collection of data from different sources, viz. (a) archaeological (b) literary (c) ethnographical (d) archival
(ii) Exploration of mineral rich areas for remains of ancient working and collection of sample.
(iii) Collection and analysis of ore, iron objects crucibles, slag, furnace remains for retrieving further information and reconstruction of metallurgical processes.
(iv) Survey and documentation of tribal regions for collection of in depth 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 chapterization of the proposed book (which may be modified if need be) may be spelled out as under:

Ch.I. Introduction

It has been argued that iron was introduced in India from the West. Iron metallurgy, it has been believed for a long time being a very complex one could not be developed independently. Therefore, it had to be acquired and learnt through some source. This belief led to the assumption that iron in India was learnt through western contacts-either through diffusion of ideas or people. With new researches in the field of archaeometallurgy, and radiocarbon dating of recently excavated sites in India one needs to take a fresh look at this issue of origin of iron in India The other important issue that one needs to focus upon is the role of iron in culture change. This may be reviewed as an interface between productivity, technology advancement and adaptation pattern. The status of metallurgy at various stages of development has to be defined and the adaptation pattern to be studied in the cultural set up. This has to be attempted at several stages of cultural growth. Iron metallurgy had a prolonged incubation period. Its impact on society was indeed slow. All this should be examined in detail to be able to answer question that still keep cropping up. By 4th 5th A.D. iron production was sufficiently developed and organized enough to produce colossal structures like Delhi iron pillar. Wootz steel became an important and a prized commodity all over the world. Metallurgy in India attained an unparalleled status. It is important to delve deep into its production and distribution mechanism. The developments and innovations through the mediaeval and the British periods are recorded in the contemporary writings and may provide valuable insight into the subject. All this has to be examined at various stages of cultural development right up to the early medieval and medieval times. By the time the iron technology attains maturity, it manifests unparalleled mastery. Once it comes of age, how does it find way in the world market- will be interesting to examine. As late as the British period the indigenous industry was in a flourishing state. It has been studied, appreciated and criticized by the British engineers for its strengths and weaknesses .The sword of Tipu Sultan was an enigma and is almost like a legend today. However, the reasons of a virtual disappearance of iron working losing its shine need to be investigated. The reasons behind this phenomenon should be examined. It is aimed to study iron that was almost a legend and a miracle in the field of metallurgy not too long back.

The British engineers and geologists have taken pains to study iron metallurgy. Any history of technology should incorporate such observations made by the experts in the field dealing with the strength and weakness of the indigenous system. It is planned to take a close look at these aspects in the present volume. Effort will be made to highlight emergence, development and decline of indigenous iron technology in all its dimensions and at various nodal points of history.

CH.II. 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 (b) Egypt (c) Central Asia (d) Iran (e) China as a background to the present study. The following points are to be focused upon:

A. The early iron technology, typology, iron utilization pattern and whether it had any impact other than status symbol needs to be assessed.
B. Why and when iron comes to be adopted in preference to copper-bronze.
C. Coming of an age of iron in ancient world.

Ch.III. Advent of Iron in India

1. 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?
d. III. Iron at Chalcolithic Ahar (?)
1. First iron in India in Copper-Bronze Age Setting
e. The Harappan Context (?)
f. Iron at Chalcolithic Madhya Pradesh (?)
g. III.2. First Regular Use of Iron
h. 2.1 Context of Early iron in India
i. (In a large country like India there are different zones that show iron in divergent cultural contexts).
2. 2.2 Chronological Framework and antiquity of iron.
3. 2.3 Conclusion and Discussion.

Ch.IV. Iron In Ancient India: From Wrought Iron To Steel

As suggested in Ch. III, 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.

IV.1. The Early Iron Age (Second half of 2nd mill. BC – 7/600 BC) : The main culture of this stage are :
IV.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.
IV.2 The Middle Iron Age (7/600-100 BC)
2.1 The Northern Black Polished Ware Culture
The emergence of cities vis-a-vis iron.
IV.3 The Late Iron Age (100 BC/AD-5/600 AD)
(Culmination of technology and the golden age of iron technology in the Indian History).
It is proposed to collect archaeological and literary data on different aspects of iron technology during the above stages. The mining belts in the close geographical proximity of the above mentioned cultural horizons will also be explored for defining the resource zones.
The techno-typological features of iron objects at each stage will be studied in the general background of the culture concerned. This will give us an insight into the inter-regional relationship and the impact of technology adaptation reflected in the cultural milieu.
IV.4 Conclusion and Discussion

CH.V.Iron in India from the Mediaeval to the Pre-Industrial Stage

A. Status of iron from the Imperial Guptas to the Mighty Moghuls
V.1.Progress in iron working and important landmarks
V.2 Centres of production
V.3 Commercial out put, export mechanism, trade and routes adopted.
B. Status of Iron during the British Times
The records of the British period provide ample evidence about a flourishing iron industry that existed in India during the British rule. The British seem to have been intrigued by the high quality iron and steel produced by the indigenous workers. As stated earlier, highly qualified engineers were engaged to examine its properties, production mechanism, distribution system etc. They even tried to start their own plants such as ones at Kumaon. The Swedish companies were also engaged in similar ventures, though unsuccessfully. Remnants of these industries are still present bearing testimony to it. One may find them even today in hilly regions close to Nainital. Failure to produce such high quality iron at an economically viable level was followed by steps to throttle the indigenous production. This measure was taken possibly to ensure replacing the indigenous iron with the cheap factory made British iron. New sets of rules almost banned production of indigenous iron. It may be worthwhile going through the old British records giving us the details of the rules-regulations, imports and ban on charcoal-wood utilization as raw material for iron making. The hostility eventually caused death of an industry. A good number of artisans engaged in production of a high-class industrial product were rendered jobless and reduced to the status of labourer. All this and its survival in remote areas will be examined in detail in this section.
V.4 The Ethnological Evidence: The Model of understanding technology
V.5 .Pre-industrial Iron working in India (India had a rich tradition of iron working before the British period. The British period records bear testimony to a flourishing iron and steel industry at a large number of places. The nature of their working and the mechanics of production and distribution will be examined in this section).
V.6 End of a Tradition: The teeming industry of iron production including of the wootz steel 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 while dealing with the status of ethnological evidence on iron.

CH.VI. Survival and Revival:

Iron working survived in some remote parts of the country against all odds. It has been preserved even today by some ethnic groups. We propose to underline the nuances of the metallurgical techniques through first hand examination wherever possible. Following points will be focused upon

1. Ore selection and mining
2. Beneficiation
3. Smelting-forging and smithy
4. Tools, implements and settings
5. Furnaces, forges, tuyeres, slag etc.
Revival of Indigenous iron technology: Problems and Prospects
It may be worth examining whether there is a possibility of reviving this craft today. Its prospects will be examined for:
1 Economic viability (?)
2 Future prospects of revival
4.3 Conclusion and Discussion

Ch.VII. Conclusion

VII.1 Socio-economic Implication of Use of Iron through The Ages
2. Technology adaptation and productivity
3. Innovations in Iron and distribution through trade
4. Cultural dynamics.