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The Early use of Iron In India

Review: The Early use of Iron In India. Dilip K. Chakrabarti.1992. New Delhi: The Oxford University Press. Pp 200, Illustrations 14. Rs. 300/- or $7/-.
by D. P. Agrawal & Manikant Shah

There are diverse viewpoints relating to the earliest occurrence of iron in India. Dilip. K. Chakrabarti represents those who hold the view that iron appeared independently on the Indian scene and that India was in fact an early centre of iron metallurgy. It is primarily to substantiate this viewpoint, it seems that he has produced this book. At the time of writing the book Dilip K. Chakrabarti was serving as a member of the Faculty of the Oriental Studies at the Cambridge University. The first reviewer has his own views on what Chakrabarti has to discuss. In this review we are not discussing Chakrabarti’s theories, but only indicating what he has to say, which of course is substantial. For the first reviewer’s views the reader is referred to his book, Ancient Metal Technology and Archaeology of South Asia (Agrawal, D.P. 2000, Aryan Books International, Delhi)

In the preface of the book itself Chakrabarti refutes all the other viewpoints in this regard and says that the study of the true significance of India being an early independent centre of iron was much vitiated by mainly two preconceived notions. The first of these was the view that the occurrence of iron in India as an external introduction in the past, had a determining effect upon the prevalent socio-economic conditions. The other view relates to the introduction of iron in India with the arrival of the Aryans. Both the hypotheses imply that iron was introduced into India from an external source, which in the eyes of Chakrabarti, undermines the Indian ingenuity with regard to experimentation and discovery. In the light of the historical facts that have glorified the Indian iron and steel in the past, the main endeavour of Chakrabarti has been to fix the period since when such misplaced notions actually took root. Having dealt with this in the first chapter of the book he goes on to substantiate his own point of view in the ensuing chapters devoted to an analysis of the distribution of ores, archaeological evidence, the literary evidence and the smelting traditions, related to the Indian subcontinent.

Chakrabarti begins the book with the analysis of research work in this field. He divides the entire history of research on the pre-industrial iron in India into four phases. The first two phases cover the period from 1795 to 1950. The analysis of the various historical accounts and data, memoirs, various reports, literary documents and the reference to dated iron objects that he presents under these, shows that India was widely known to the ancient civilizations, for the excellence of its iron works and objects. The reference to Damascus swords, wootz iron, the Delhi pillar, iron trade from India and the gift of iron objects to Alexander the Great amply bear this out. Chakrabarti says that during this period scholars and researchers mainly followed the line of J.M.Heath who favoured an independent origin of iron in India.

Chakrabarti sees a distinct departure from the earlier concepts during the ensuing period, which he classifies as the third phase. It is only after 1950 that he finds the notions of external introduction of iron in India taking seed. We are told that this came about primarily through the works of D. H. Gordon who based his opinion exclusively upon the archaeological data available at that time. On the basis of such data it was suggested that iron could have been introduced into India between 600 and 700 BC. Later archaeological findings of the Painted Grey Ware (PWG) culture in the Ganga Doab, however, revealed that iron was known to these people from at least 1000BC, or perhaps earlier. The subsequent findings further supported the case in favour of India being a centre of iron metallurgy in its own right; but the diffusionist viewpoint still prevailed.

Chakrabarti defines the fourth phase of research beginning after his own work in 1976 and calls it the current phase. Under this phase the archaeological evidence was put in the background of the history of research and focus was brought to bear upon different sites as different centres of iron metallurgy in India. Chakrabarti quoting Agrawal 1982 and Allchin and Allchin 1982 says, “The idea of different early iron using centres with an indigenously evolving base of iron technology has been accepted with some modification in two recent interpretations of Indian prehistory and protohistory.”

In order to stress upon the multiple iron centre theory, the second chapter of the book surveys the whole country and projects the wide dispersal of iron ores of varied classification. He also mentions that wherever iron occurs there is almost invariably some trace or tradition of pre-industrial smelting.

The next chapter of the book is devoted to the analysis of archaeological evidence coming forth from the regions almost consistent with the ones enumerated in the previous chapter. This forms the most substantial part of the book and leaves little to doubt about the antiquity of iron metallurgy in India. This chapter also includes the areas that constituted a part of India in the historical past like Baluchistan and the Northwest. (In most of our essays/reviews, the India we mention is the Indian subcontinent, including both Pakistan and India).

To substantiate the results of his scrutiny of archaeological data, Chakrabarti, in the fourth chapter, presents a host of literary data ranging from the Vedic sources to the Greco-Roman literature. Besides these, he shows that the Buddhist and the Jain literature too, stand testimony to the use of iron in India in those ancient times.

Having forcefully argued his case that India was indeed an early and independent centre for iron technology, the author then discusses the pre-industrial iron smelting traditions in India. He concedes the fact that material evidence in this regard is scarce. However he presents a detailed list of reported iron smelting sites on the testimony of F.R. Mallet, a geologist of the Geological Survey India. He even gives a brief list of such sites contributed by Valentine Ball earlier in 1881 in a similar capacity as Mallet who had also put on record that the indigenous iron industry in India was losing out on the face of the competition with the English iron exports, and due to scarcity of fuel. With regard to the processes of iron smelting, Chakrabarti has mainly depended upon the work Metallurgy by John Percy, published in 1864, which defines three types of furnaces used in pre-industrial iron smelting and describes the processes in some detail.

The book is a good read without much technical jargon and even a layman can learn a great deal about the history of early iron in India. Chakrabarti has a formidable reputation of researching his data thoroughly and makes it a point to consult the original sources. With all it contains, the book could prove a valuable addition to one’s personal library, or be used as a reference work.