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Minerals and Metals in Kautilya’s Arthasastra

Minerals and Metals in Kautilya’s Arthasastra
by Manikant Shah

Today when all knowledge, science and civilization is claimed to emanate from the west, people living elsewhere are increasingly led to identify themselves with the thought and behavior of the west. It is surprising to find the people feign forgetfulness, indifference and ignorance of their own past, in utter disregard to the achievements of the past generations, offering an excuse to the west to belie histories other than their own. The situation gives rise to an irresolvable tussle between opposite viewpoints where on the one hand are people who glorify, giving rise to obscurantism and fundamentalism; on the other stand those who smirk at and ridicule the former, being all praise for the west and the west alone. India, in the present times, in-spite of its long history and civilization, finds itself in a similar dilemma. In times of such gross disillusionment a book by A.K. Biswas and Sulekha Biswas in two volumes, Minerals and Metals in Ancient India, presents factually, the knowledge of the Indians in the past with specific regard to the use of minerals and metals based upon archaeological and literary evidence. Here we will discuss only the literary evidence of the Arthasastra as given in the chapter 5 (vol. 2).

It is interesting to note that Kautilya prescribes that the state should carry out most of the businesses, including mining. No private enterprise for Kautilya! One is amazed at the breadth of Kautilya’s knowledge. Though primarily it is treatise on statecraft, it gives detailed descriptions and instructions on geology, agriculture, animal husbandry, metrology etc. Its encyclopedic in its coverage and indicates that all these sciences were quite developed and systematized in India even 2500 years ago. It is surprising that even in the I Millennium BC, they had developed an elaborate terminology for different metals, minerals and alloys. Brass (arakuta) was known, so also steel (vrattu), bronze (kamsa), bell-metal (tala) was an alloy of copper with arsenic, but tin-copper alloy was known as trapu. A bewildering variety of jewellery was also classified and given distinctive names.

The chapter mentions and discusses the knowledge possessed by the Indians as far back as the 4th century BC. At this time ‘Kautilya’ produced the unparalleled treatise named Arthasastra. Kautilya is no other than the extremely clever ‘Chanakya’ or ‘Vishnugupta’ who was also the teacher of king Chandragupta. It was Kautilya who through his sheer genius and shrewdness put an end to the power of Nandas and placed Chandragupta on the throne of Magadh. Kautilya, being an Acharya or a revered teacher of King Chandragupta was directly involved in statecraft as the king always sought his advice. The authorship of Arthasastra in such a capacity assumes great importance. Much before the Europeans could give due credence to earlier literary documents such as the ‘Vedas’, they recognized the Arthasastra as the primary record of objective facts. Moreover, as the Arthasastra is essentially a book on statecraft, the extensive treatment given to mines, minerals and metals in it proves the concerns of Indians in this regard. For example, Kautilya declared that ‘mines were the very source from which springs all temporal power for the strength of government and the earth, whose ornament is the treasury, which is acquired by means of the treasury and the army’. This concept that mines, namely, mineral wealth, are a source which forms the basis of finance was always uppermost in his mind in both his tracts, one rich in agriculture and the other in mines. In their survey of the literary evidence in relation to the wealth and knowledge the authors rightly refer to Kautilaya’s Arthasastraas a storehouse of information regarding minerals and metals in ancient India of the pre-Christian era.

The chapter begins with the importance of ‘mines and metals’ in the society and here we are told that one of the most crucial statements in the Arthasastra is that gold, silver, diamonds, gems, pearls, corals, conch-shells, metals, salt and ores derived from the earth, rocks and liquids were recognized as materials coming under the purview of mines. The metallic ores had to be sent to the respective Metal Works for producing ‘twelve kinds of metals and commodities’. Though the authors wish to show the importance of mines and metals in the society, yet what they point to is their importance for the state and the powers that the state exercised over them. Perhaps, Kautilya himself did not treat the matter so and focused to show its importance for the state alone as the book Arthasastra is on statecraft and not on society.

We know that Chandragupta, on the advice of Kautilya, had amongst its officials a ‘Director of the Mines’ – the Akaradhyaksha. Here the chapter discusses the Director of the Mines, his qualifications and his duties. The Arthasastra advises the Director of Mines to concentrate on the more accessible mines needing less capital investment and yielding large quantities of commodities and large profits over a number of years. The temptation for mining highly valuable gems should be controlled since such materials were rarely obtained in large quantities in one place, and the buyers were few and rarely available. Further, it is told that burdensome mines may be leased to individuals, but otherwise all large profitable mines and metal works should be operated by the state itself.

The next section deals with the gem minerals and is treated more extensively than others. We wonder if it is not due to the fact that the gem minerals reflected the richness of Indian kings. Here we are told that Mani-dhatu or the gem minerals were characterized in the Arthasastra as ‘clear, smooth, lustrous, and possessed of sound, cold, hard and of a light color’. Excellent pearl gems had to be big, round, without a flat surface, lustrous, white, heavy, and smooth and perforated at the proper place. There were specific terms for different types of jewellery: Sirsaka (for the head, with one pearl in the centre, the rest small and uniform in size), avaghataka (a big pearl in the center with pearls gradually decreasing in size on both sides), indracchanda (necklace of 1008 pearls), manavaka (20 pearl string), ratnavali (variegated with gold and gems), apavartaka (with gold, gems and pearls at intervals), etc. Diamond (vajra) was discovered in India in the pre-Christian era. The Arthasastra described certain types of generic names of minerals red saugandhika, green vaidurya, blue indranila and colorless sphatika. Deep red spinel or spinel ruby identified with saugandhika, actually belongs to a different (spinel) family of minerals. Many other classes of gems could have red color. The bluish green variety of beryl is known as aquamarine or bhadra, and was mentioned in the Arthasastra as uptpalavarnah (like blue lotus). The Arthasastra also mentions several subsidiary types of gems named after their color, lustre or place of origin. Vimalaka shining pyrite, white-red jyotirasaka, (could be agate and carnelian), lohitaksa, black in the centre and red at the fringe (magnetite; and hematite on the fringe?), sasyaka blue copper sulphate, ahicchatraka from Ahicchatra, suktichurnaka powdered oyster, ksiravaka, milk coloured gem or lasuna and bukta pulaka (with chatoyancy or change in lustre) which could be cat’s eye, a variety of chrysoberyl, and so on.

The authors further mention that at the end was mentioned kacamani, the amorphous gems or artificial gems imitated by coloring glass. The technique of maniraga or imparting colour to produce artificial gems was specifically mentioned.

We are told that the Arthasastra also mentions the uses of several non-gem mineral and materials such as pigments, mordants, abrasives, materials producing alkali, salts, bitumen, charcoal, husk, etc.

Pigments were in use such as anjan ,( antimony sulphide), manahsil ( red arsenic sulphide), haritala, (yellow arsenic sulphide) and hinguluka (mercuric sulphide), Kastsa (green iron sulphate) and sasyaka, blue copper sulphate. These minerals were used as coloring agents and later as mordants in dyeing clothes. Of great commercial importance were metallic ores from which useful metals were extracted. The Arthasastra did not provide the names of the constituent minerals beyond referring to them as dhatu of iron (Tiksnadhatu), copper, lead, etc.

Having reviewed the literary evidence the authors maintain that the Arthasastra is the earliest Indian text dealing with the mineralogical characteristics of metallic ores and other mineral-aggregate rocks. It recognizes ores in the earth, in rocks, or in liquid form, with excessive color, heaviness and often-strong smell and taste. A gold-bearing ore is also described. Similarly, the silver ore described in the Arthasastra seems to be a complex sulphide ore containing silver (colour of a conch-shell), camphor, vimalaka (pyrite?). The Arthasastra describes the sources and the qualities of good grade gold and silver ores. Copper ores were stated to be ‘heavy, greasy, tawny (chalcopyrite left exposed to air tarnishes), green (color of malachite), dark blue with yellowish tint (azurite), pale red or red (native copper). Lead ores were stated to be grayish black, like kakamecaka (this is the color of galena), yellow like pigeon bile, marked with white lines (quartz or calcite gangue minerals) and smelling like raw flesh (odour of sulphur). Iron ore was known to be greasy stone of pale red colour, or of the colour of the sinduvara flower (hematite). After describing the above metallic ores or dhatus of specific metals, the Arthasastra writes: In that case vaikrntaka metal must be iron itself which used to be produced by the South Indians starting from the magnetite ore. It is not certain whether vaikrntaka metal was nickel or magnetite based iron. Was it the beginning of the famous Wootz steel?

The Arthasastra mentions specific uses of various metals of which gold and silver receive maximum attention. The duties of suvarna-adhyaksah, the ‘Superintendent of Gold, are defined. He was supposed to establish industrial outfits and employ sauvarnikas or goldsmiths, well versed in the knowledge of not only gold and silver, but also of the alloying elements such as copper and iron and of gems which had to be set in the gold and silver wares. Gold smelting was known as suvarnapaka. Various ornamental alloys could be prepared by mixing variable proportions of iron and copper with gold, silver and sveta tara or white silver which contained gold, silver and some coloring matter. Two parts of silver and one part of copper constituted triputaka. An alloy of equal parts of silver and iron was known as vellaka.

Gold plating (tvastrkarma) could be done on silver or copper. Lead, copper or silver objects were coated with a gold-leaf (acitakapatra) on one side or with a twin-leaf fixed with lac etc. Gold, silver or gems were embedded (pinka) in solid or hollow articles by pasting a thick pulp of gold, silver or gem particles and the cementing agents such as lac, vermilion, red lead on the object and then heating.

The Arthasastra also describes a system of coinage based on silver and copper. The masakahalf masakaquarter masaka known as the kakani, and half kakani, copper coins (progressively lower weights) had the same composition, viz., one-quarter hardening alloy and the rest copper.

The Arthasastra specifies that the Director of Metals (lohadhyakasa) should establish factories for metals (other than gold and silver) viz., copper, lead, tin, vaikrntakaarakuta or brass, vratta (steel), kamsa (bronze), tala (bell-metal) and loha (iron or simply metal), and the corresponding metal-wares. In the Vedic era, copper was known as lohayasa or red metal. Copper used to be alloyed with arsenic to produce tala or bell metal and with trapu or tin to produce bronze. Zinc in India must have started around 400 BC in Taxila. Zawar mines in Rajasthan also give similar evidence. Vaikrntaka has been referred to some times with vrata, which is identified by many scholars including Kangle, as steel. On the top of it, tiksna mentioned as iron, had its ore or dhatu, and the metal was used as an alloying component. Iron prepared from South Indian magnetite or vaikrantakadhatu was wrongly believed to be a different metal.

A bar and a broken sword of steel were found at the bottom of the Khan Baba stone Pillar of Heliodorus (dated before 125 BC). The sword assayed 0.7 % carbon and was certified by Sir Robert Hadfield as having been ‘deliberately manufactured as steel’ (Archaeological Survey Report, 1913-14, pp. 203-4). This discovery lends credence to the Arthasastra mentioning vratta (steel) and various war equipments such as khadga (sword). Arrows were iron-tipped. Indian army equipped with iron-tipped arrow and iron swords assisted Xerexes and other Achaemenid emperors in fighting Greece.

The authors have thus established that Kautilya’s Arthasastra records Indians’ skill and knowledge of processing gem minerals, metallic ores, metals, alloys and the end products, as well as an aptitude for scientific methodology, and the development of an elaborate terminolgy, during the sub-continent’s Early Historical Period.


Biswas, A.K. and Sulekha Biswas.1996. Minerals and Metals in Kautiliya’s Arthasastra. In Minerals and Metals in Ancient India. Vol.II. D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd., New Delhi.

Saletore, R.N. 1973. Early Indian Economic History. N.M. Tripathi Private Limited, Bombay.

Manikant Shah
Lok Vigyan Kendra
Almora 263601