Aspects of Iron Technology in India


Vibha Tripathi

Department of History

Benaras Hindu University, Benaras


Iron heralded a new era in the history of human civilization. Iron technology has a special place among the ancient technologies that accelerated the pace of progress and brought prosperity in society. In human history Iron Age succeeded Copper-Bronze Age as iron required a different kind of skill and a higher level of metallurgical expertise. The craftsmen who were adept in working with copper and its alloys and other glittering metals like gold, silver etc. that could be used in their native form on a much lower temperature could not smelt iron with the same technique. India has rich iron ore deposit. The ore is not only widely distributed but also easily accessible in the form of nodules scattered on earth’s surface. This must have facilitated easy hand picking of rich ore nodules by the early or primitive metal workers. However, richness of mineral and its easy accessibility may not be sufficient conditions for an early and efficient production of metallic iron. The metal workers had to be well conversant with the suitable minerals as well as possess sufficient metallurgical know-how.However, how and under what circumstances the metallurgy of iron evolved has been studied by scholars of other world civilizations. But the history of iron technology in India, its beginning and process of development is yet to be fully studied. Some worthwhile efforts to examine different aspects of iron technologyhave been made by scholars like, Niyogi (1914), M.N. Banerjee (1927: 432-436; 1932: 364-366),Banerjee 1965; Pleiner (1971:5-36),Sahi1979: 365-368, 1994; Chakrabarti 1992; Chakrabarti and Lahiri 1994:12-32; Tripathi 1986: 75-79; 1994: 241-251; 2001, 2008; Tewari 2002:99-116, 2003:536-544, 2010: 81-97).On the basis of available information, an attempt is being made to trace a brief history of iron technology in India.


Recent archaeological researches and archival accounts including foreign records by travelers or historians of ancient India, some of them dating back to pre-Christian era bear this out that Indian iron and steelhad gained recognition in the ancient world.In 5th century BCE Herodotus, the Greek historian who is also known as father of history stated that in the battle of Thermopylae the Indian soldiers fought with iron-tipped arrowheads (Photius Book VII: 65). Almost at that very time, Ktesias the Greek ambassador to the Persian court and a physician gratefully acknowledged the gift of two swords of Indian steel made to him by the king and the Queen mother (McCrindle 1882, reprint 1973:9). Quintus Curtis reported that the vanquished rulers of North-west India paid a tribute of 100 talents of steel ingots along with bags of gold dust and other precious items to Alexander. This suggests (1) that iron and steel produced in India at that particular age was considered valuable enough to be presented as a tribute to a monarch. (2) It also suggests that by 6th – 5th century BCE Indian iron and steel had become some kind of status symbol and an object of value being exported to different parts of the ancient world. This assumption gets corroborated by facts like accounts of Arrian (c. 92-175 CE) who mentions about import of Indian steel to Abyssinian ports as early as the beginning of the Common Era. These accounts clearly bear this out that iron metallurgy was sufficiently developed in India at quite an early date. A multi-pronged approachincorporating archaeological, anthropological, metallurgical and literary data is required to study ancient Indian iron technology. We now proceed to look into the genesis and development of iron technology on India.




Whether iron metallurgy was indigenous or was learnt through other sources through diffusion is the key issue of beginning of iron in India. We first propose to discuss the diffusionistic theory of origin of iron in India followed by the alternative view points.


Origin of iron technology in India may be examined by taking into account 1) status of iron at the earliest occupational strataas depicted in archaeological remains and in the literary accounts; 2) chronology of iron on the Indian border-lands to see whether that region had the potential to lend the technological know-how to the neighbouring regions.