List of metals in ancient India

The diverse and rich history of India has borne testimonies to numerous achievements and one such achievement was the art of metallurgy. The discovery of various metal artifacts, such as the sculpted dancing girl and crucible with remnants of slag are some of the myriad examples of the same.

The Indus Valley Civilization was a melting pot of such activities. Mohenjodaro, Harappa and Lothal were the major centers of such activities. The circular and the rectangular shaped kiln discovered in Lothal, Gujarat, was believed to have been used for casting of metals. Again, the articles made of metal discovered in Lothal such as miniature figures, amulets, bird-head shaped pins, needles and bronze drills are widely regarded as the precursors to the machine tools. These above mentioned articles were exclusive to the Indus Valley region.

During the Industrial Revolution the usage of metals grew exponentially but before that the evolution of mankind and metallurgy almost took place simultaneously. Metals which could be easily smelted were given preference over difficult ones. A brief review of the usage of some of the most fundamental metals is as follows:

Gold and Silver

Gold and Silver, also called the noble metals, were very popular for their usage in jewelry making and sheets. Owing to their ductility and lustrous appearance they were in wide usage. The usage of Gold and Silver may be tracked to varied regions across the globe i.e. from the Bulgarian cemeteries to the valleys of Mesopotamia. Even much hyped mummy of the enigmatic Pharaoh Tutenkhamen (ca 1300 BC) bears spectacular Gold castings. Some of the Gold and Silver ornaments from Indus Valley sites such as Mohenjodaro are hosted in the National Museum, New Delhi.

The deepest ancient mine in the entire world is found in the Maski region of Karnataka. After elaborate carbon dating it was found that the mines can be dated back to the 1st Millennium BC. The production of Silver was also widespread across the globe including India. The Aravalli region in the north western part of India along with Laurion in Greece and Rio Tinto in Spain are some of the few ancient Silver producing sites in the world.

Zinc

Across the world, the earliest solid evidence of the production of Zinc was from India. Zinc is one of the most difficult metals to smelt but ancient Indian metallurgists had mastered the technique of smelting Zinc as is evident from the semi-industrial scale production of Zinc in the Zawar region of Rajasthan. Owing to the high volatility of the metal while smelting of the same, a unique technique of downward distillation was developed by the ancient Indian smelters. Nagarjuna’s Rasaratnakara elaborately describes the method of Zinc smelting. The elegant Bidri ware of the Bidar province in Hyderabad was another remarkable example of artistic innovation. The impressive articles with a unique inlayed alloy of Zinc were extremely popular in those days.

Iron

The megalithic cultures of the southern part of India especially in the second half of the second millennium BC were the first records of the usage of Iron in the Indian subcontinent. Later, in the first millennium AD the forging of wrought Iron was well established. The best example is the Gupta period Iron pillar at Mehrauli, whose inscriptions can be dated back to the 3rd century AD. The purity in the alloy making technique is evident from the above mentioned pillar which has a uniform slag distribution and even a smaller degree of phosphorous content. The first record of the usage of cast Iron for architectural purposes in India was found in the famous Mysore Palace in Mysore, built by the Wodeyars.

Steel

Indian production of Iron and Steel can be recorded back to the Greek and Roman times. Some of the accounts of the Greek travelers mention the Indian process of Steel manufacture as the crucible process. The Greek account mentions the word ‘Wootz’ which originates from ‘ukku’ a term that was widely used across Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to denote Steel. Arab Idrisi says, “The Hindus excel in the manufacture of Iron. It is impossible to find anything to surpass the edge from Indian Steel.”

Mercury

Mercury was very popular in ancient India owing to its alchemical significance. Kautilya’s Arthashastra is the earliest reference of the distillation process that was used for the extraction of Mercury. Vermillion or Cinnabar, which has extreme ritualistic significance in the Indian tradition, is made from Mercuric-sulphide. It was also used for making the red bindi, which is widely worn on the forehead by the Indian women. The ancient alchemical texts also mention the usage of Mercury for alchemical transmutations.

Lead

The Aravalli region in Rajasthan was one of the earliest Lead mining sites in Ancient India. The smelting of Lead indeed developed steadily in the following eras. Galena or Lead Sulphide was used for the manufacturing of kohl or kajal (eye-liner) in ancient Egypt (ca 4000-3000 BC). Later, the manufacturing process was replicated across the ancient world.

Copper

In ancient India, Copper artifacts were discovered from pre-Indus Valley sites such as Baluchistan, near the north western border with Iran. In some of the Indus Valley sites i.e. Harappa, evidences of some Copper smelting furnaces have also been found. The mining of Copper was very much prevalent in ancient India and such evidence has been garnered from the Khetri region of Rajasthan in the 3rd– 2nd millennium BC.

Bronze

The world renowned Bronze sculpted statue of the dancing girl from Mohenjodaro is the best example of the Tin mining and smelting technology in ancient India. The extricated Bronze casting retrieved from the Thanjavur region of South India reflects the scenario during the Chola period. Unlike Southeast Asia, South Indian Bronze was mostly solid cast. In various parts of India mirrors made of Bronze have also been found.

Conclusions

The above reviews are testimonies to the fact that the ancient Indian metallurgist were amongst the best metallurgists across the great ancient civilizations of the world. The most notable contribution of the ancient Indian metallurgists to the development of high carbon content Steel and Zinc ultimately led to the further development of these techniques during the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America. Thus, the ancient Indian civilization also made a remarkable contribution in the development of the usage of metal which often regarded as the yardstick of human progress.

Some Interesting Reads on Metallurgy

  1. Agrawal, D. P. and Ghosh, A. (eds.). 1971, The Copper- bronze Age in India. Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi.
  2. Agrawal. O. P., Narain, H., Prakash, J. and Bhatia, S. K. 1992, Development of Iron Metallurgy in Ancient India, Archeometallurgia Richerche e Prospettive, Bologna.
  3. Anantharaman, T. R. 1997, The Rustless Wonder, Vigyan Prasar, New Delhi.
  4. Prakash, B. (ed.) 1997 (in press), Archaeometallurgy, Proceedings of the World Archaeology Congress-3 held at New Delhi, Dec. 1994, Routledge, London.
  5. Bhardwaj, H. C. 1979, Aspects of Ancient Indian Technology, Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi.
  6. Biswas, A. K. and Biswas, S. 1996, Minerals and Metals in Ancient India, 2 vol. D.K. Printworld, New Delhi.
  7. Chakrabarti, D. K. 1992, The Early Use of Iron in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
  8. Craddock, P. T. 1995, Early Metal Mining and Production, University Press, Edinburgh.
  9. Ganorkar, M. C. and Rama Rao, N. (eds), 1991, Role of Chemistry in Archaeology, Birla Archaeological Institute, Hyderabad.
  10. Hegde, K. T. M. 1991, An Introduction to Ancient Indian Metallurgy, Geological Society of India, Bangalore.
  11. Kuppuram, G. 1989, Ancient Mining, Metallurgy and Metal Industries in India, 2 vols. Sundeep Prakashan, New Delhi.
  12. Radhakrishna, B. P and Curtis, L. C. 1991, Gold, The Indian Scene. Geological Society of India, Bangalore,
  13. Smith, C. S. 1981, A Search for Structure, MIT Press, Boston.
  14. Srinivasan, 1997(In press), Archaeometallurgy of Bronze Images and High-tin Bronzes from South India, (D.Phil. thesis research, University College London), Indicopleustoi & IGNCA, Brussels.
  15. Sundaram, C. V., N Rajagopalan and Baldev Raj (eds.) 1997, (In Press) Where Gods Come Alive, Vigyan Prasar, New Delhi.
  16. Srinivasan, S., High tin bronze working in Kerala, in Tripathi, V. (ed.)Archaeometallurgy in India, Proceedings of the First National Seminar in Indian Archaeometallurgy, 1991, Sharda Publishing Ltd., New Delhi.
  17. Srinivasan, S and Glover, S., Wrought and quenched, and cast high tin bronzes from Kerala, Journal of Historical Metallurgy, 29(2), London
  18. Srinivasan, S. and Griffiths, D., Crucible steel from south India, preliminary investigations on some newly identified sites, in Materials Issues in Art and Archaeology, Materials Research Society Symposium Proceedings, Vol. 462, 1997, Materials Research Society, Pittsburgh, USA

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