By Stephan Knapp


India’s Developments in Metallurgy
(An Excerpt from the book Advancements of Ancient India’s Vedic Culture) by Stephen Knapp

In this article we see how metal work was very important to ancient India, which became famous for the metal it made, as well as the utensils that were produced, its refinement of iron, and its steel and the swords made from it.  India also made great strides in using copper, silver, and was one of the first countries to mine gold.

India has a great history of metal work, and smelting of metals and deriving alloys, which was done as far back as 3000 BCE. The trade of metal products was extensive between India, Egypt and Rome. Tools of iron and steel from ancient India were of great demand for many purposes. It is indicated that the first weapons of steel for the people of the Mediterranean came from India.

Many of the ancient Sanskrit texts contain instructions on metal work, such as the building of furnaces as found in the Brihad-vimana-shastram, or bellows, or the making of metal powders or binders or glue, as in the Rasendra-sara-sangrahah, Shilpa-ratnam, and Rasa-ratna-samucchaya, all from the 9th, 11th and 12th centuries CE. 1

AThe Atharva Veda (Shukranti 4.7.194-196) mentions the procedure of production of lead shots or granulesBthe crude way of atomisation of liquid metals. These lead shots were used like bullets for punishing thieves.@ 2

It is known that there are some 44 old texts that describe the process of Indian metallurgy. One of the most well-known of these texts is called the Rasaratna Samucchaya. In it we find descriptions of many aspects of this technology, including the structural arrangement and function of the chemical laboratory, the kosthi yantra (the furnace), the tiryak patana yantra (vessels for containing chemicals), the dheki yantram (the distillation pot), and other things, like the chemical work to be done in the laboratory.

The Aswalanan Grihya Sutra mentions that when a child is born, the father should feed him from a golden vessel with clarified butter and honey with which he has ground the gold dust. This rite was performed for the sake of longevity and the general health of the child.

Manusmriti (2.29) also mentions that before the navel string is cut, the jatkarma ceremony must be performed for a male child, feeding him gold dust, honey and clarified butter. This is also described in the Sushruta Samhita (Sarir 10.12)

According to the research done by the archeologist Jim G. Shaffer, he determined that iron ore was recognized and used by the late third millennium BCE in southern Afghanistan, and then used to make iron items. Iron ore and items made from it have also been found in eight bronze age Harappan sites, some as far back as 2600 BCE or earlier. This makes Shaffer=s views quite convincing. This may have been a natural development from smelting copper, and then using it for the making of iron utensils. 3


Kamlesh Kapur describes in her book Portraits of a Nations: History of India in regard to the metal objects found at various sites, such as Mehrgarh and Nausharo: AThe first metallic objects were found near the excavated burial grounds. These were mostly ornaments. Hammering of unalloyed copper seems to be the only technique used to manufacture these small ornaments. These are dated around 7th millennium B.C. Weapons, chisels, axes and blades were found near habitational sites. The date of these objects is around 4th millennia B.C., thus, it is clear that molding, casting and the use of copper-lead alloy indicate an advanced knowledge and skill of these ancient people.@

AIn Naikund, India, archeologists have found a smelting furnace dated to 800 B.C. The Deogarh temple in India (600 A.D.) has hundreds of iron objects.@

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According to Will Durant, Hindus seem to have been the first people to mine gold. Greek visitors like Megasthenese have mentioned this in their records. Much of the gold used in the Persian Empire in the 5th century B.C. came from India. India also mined silver, copper, zinc, led, tin and iron. Indians also knew the techniques for isolation, distillation and use of zinc.@ 4

AIron is no doubt a metal of great antiquity. A great deal had been written about Indian iron. Robert Hadfield (1912), the British metallurgist, quotes >Without doubt, the process of making iron and steel have been used in India for thousands of years.= Heath J. M. (1839) therefore rightly claims that the Hindus had been familiar with the manufacture of steel from time immemorial and confirmed the opinion of Hadfield that the stone works of Egypt could only have been carried out by tools of iron, probably cemented or hardened steel from India.

AIn the earlier part of the 19th century, iron-making was practiced in many areas of India. They were located at places where iron ore and charcoal were easily available. The descriptions of the iron making process have been given by many observers throughout the years, from Captain Hamilton (1708) all the way to Holland (1893). It is gathered that large furnaces with a charge of as much a one ton of ore at a time were operated in Malbar (South India).@ 5


Another rather unknown early development of ancient India is the ability of its craftsmen to make high grade steel. S. Ramachandran relates in Iron and Steel Technology: Opinions for India: ASteel has been known in India since hoary antiquity and is referred in the Vedas as Ayas. It has been deduced from archeological evidence that ancient Indians knew the art of making steel.@
The name of Wootz is figured to have is origin in the Kannada-Telugu word for steel, which is wukku. This steel was made through a process by mixing low carbon soft iron and high carbon brittle steel at high temperature. India used to export this kind of steel from the 2nd century onwards to places like Iran, Arabia, Damascus, etc., where they wanted strong armament. Most places, like Arabia, they only knew how to make the brittle steel, but when that was combined with the Indian steel, they could get stronger material. This is how Indian steel became identified with Damascus swords and became widely exported to the West and East. By 1500, it became a coveted commodity in international trade.
Also, in Ancient and Medieval India, Mrs. Manning writes: AThe superior quality of Hindu steel has long been known, and it is worthy of record that the celebrated Damascus blades have been traced to the workshops of Western India. Steel manufacturing in Kutch enjoys at the present-day a reputation not inferior to that of the steel made at Glasgow and Sheffield.@

In this way, we can see that ancient India knew the technology of making steel from iron, as well as welding and smelting it from times immemorial, a technology that became known only later in places like England.
Further evidence of this is confirmed by Mr. L. White Jr., as found in the April, 1960 issue of American Historical Review: AEduardo Saline, an authority on the metallurgy of early medieval long swords, suggests that the marvelously skillful twisting and fagoting of thin rods of steel and iron of different qualities that produced the laminated Merovingian blades was inspired by Indian Wootz steel, which achieved similar results by crystallization.@
Mr. J. Needham writes in Science and Civilization in China: ASteel was manufactured in ancient India, and it was being exported to China at least by the fifth century A.D.@
More insight into the expertise of the early Indian metal workers is further explained as follows: AIn metallurgy, Indian metalsmiths had unparalleled achievements to their credit. They were the first in the then known world, to have successfully developed the extraction of zinc from its ores. They had understood, even if empirically, the complicated nuances of zinc metallurgy, its endothermic reduction reaction and the reducing atmosphere needed for the downward distillation of zinc, even as early as 400 B.C. It was only two thousand years later that a similar process was adopted in the west. Indian ironsmiths had perfected the process of extracting iron from its ores in such a way that iron of as high a quality as 99.7% could be obtained. Their forge welding technique was equally remarkable, as evidenced by the massive Iron Pillar (late 4th century A.D.) Now standing majestic and serene near Qutab Minar in Delhi, unrusted for over 1600 years. This technique was not short-lived either. There were larger iron pillars and beams of high purity that speak volumes about the metallurgical skills of ancient Indian ironsmiths. Even in the production of steel, an iron-carbon alloy, they had won approbation and Indian steel, known as Wootz steel (with 1.3-1.6% carbon content) was sought after in West Asia for fabricating the famous Damascus swords. Metallic iron-casting with exquisite iconography and iconometry from about the 7th century A.D. was an accomplished metal craft in India.@ 6
Regarding the iron pillar at the Qutab Minar, evidence shows that it was made in the 4th century. According to the Sanskrit inscription on it, it was set up by Chandra Raj as the flag post in front of the Vishnu temple in Mathura. It was likely the Garuda stambha with an image of Garuda, Lord Vishnu=s bird carrier on top. It was brought to Delhi in 1050 by Anang Pal, founder of Delhi. 7
A chemical examination of the pillar in 1961 showed that it is made of surprisingly good steel and contains much less carbon in comparison to the steel of today. Dr. B. B. Lal, the chief chemist of the Indian Archeological Survey has concluded that the pillar is made by joining 20-30 kgs of hot iron pieces. It is believed to have been manufactured in 15 days by 120 workers. The fact that 1600 years ago the technique of joining pieces of hot iron was known is a matter of amazement because not a single joint can be seen in the whole pillar. The fact that it has not rusted after being in the open for 16 centuries amazes many expert scientists. 8
As further related by James Ferguson in his book, A History of Indian and Eastern Architecture (p. 208, from 1910), AThe Iron Pillar of Delhi opens our eyes to an unsuspected state of affairs, to find Hindus at that age capable of forge-welding a pillar of iron, larger than any that have been forged even in Europe up to a very late age, and not frequently even now. It is almost equally startling to find that after exposure to wind and rain for centuries, it has remained unrusted and the capital inscriptions are as clear and as sharp now as when put up fifteen centuries ago…@

Conclusions of elaborate scientific studies were that the iron pillar was made of wrought iron and has 99.7% iron content. The pillar is a low carbon steel heterogeneous structure with rather high phosphorous content. The pillar was not cast in one piece but fabricated ingeniously by forging and hammer-welding lumps of balls of hot pasty iron in step by step process. The presence of lead solder in the joint between the decorative bell capital and the main body of the Delhi pillar, confirmed by X-ray analysis, establishes the use of lead based solder. 9


Copper was another metal that the people of ancient India learned how to use expertly. From as far back as 2000 BCE, people had made fine copper axes with sharp cutting edges by casting the copper in molds. The capital of this technology was around Ujjain, as well as the Nasik-Ahmednagar-Pune and other districts. Also, bronze was known in the Indus Valley region before 3000 BCE. Items in bronze were made through the lost wax system, which is still used today. This was very well established in Mohenjodaro, especially for art and decorative items. The copper alloy of brass was also used, which in its earliest form contained more than 28% zinc. References in Greek texts to zinc technology indicates that zinc objects were traded from India as far back as the 6th or 5th century BCE. 10
As explained further: APure copper was also used as a material for making instruments and vessels for medicinal purposes. A copper probe for applying Antimony to the eye has been found in the excavations of Bijnor and another in Bihar excavations. The sage Sushruta mentions a copper needle in the operation of cataract. Tin was also used as a material for blunt instruments. Sushruta mentions plates of tin to surround a tumor end to protect the healthy parts before the actual surgery. Such plates are recommended to be made of tin / lead / copper. Sushruta also mentions that use of lead probes, iron and silver cups. Among many other things, gold and silver needles are mentioned as necessary things for a lying-in-room, by Charaka. To cut the navel chord of the new-born child, he recommended a knife of either gold or silver or iron. In the Manu-Smriti, one meets before the section of the navel string, a ceremony is advised on the birth of a male-child, wherein little honey and ghee mixture is given to taste for the newborn with a golden spoon. A golden needle is mentioned by Sushruta for pricking the bulbs of some plants to extract its juice.@ 11


Iron, steel, zinc, and other metals were only a part of what came out of early India, along with the chemical processes that they had learned so many years ago. Silver and gold were also of importance. The archeological finds of silver artifacts have helped clarify the antiquity of the Vedic culture. Silver ornaments that had been found at Kunal, another Sarasvati site, prove that copper purification (which releases silver as a by-product) was known in India before 3000 BCE.
AGold: a typical naturally occurring gold powder, is mentioned in the Mahabharata (2.52.2-4) was known as Pipilika Gold.

ASuch gold powder was presented to the King Yudhisthira at the time of the Rajasuya Yagna ceremony by various kings like Khasa, Pulinda, Ekasana, Arha, Pradara, Dirghavenu, Parada, etc. These kings were residing beneath the shades of the bamboo trees on the banks of the Sailoda river flowing in between Meru and Mandarachala (Himalayas). Due to the high purity of the Pipilika Gold, it was a novelty and suitable item for the presentation to the royal families.@ 12


Archeological excavations at Mohenjodaro in Sindh (now in Pakistan) and Harappa in Punjab (also now in Pakistan) have shown that the people of the Indus Valley civilization (2500-1800 BCE) were skilled in employing a wide variety of chemical processes. Bricks, water-pots, vessels, jars, earthenwares, terracotta, jewelry, metal vessels and implements, seals, painted pots, chrome glazed pottery, and glass vessels, and many other items have been found. The Indus Valley people used mortar consisting of lime, gypsum, sand plaster as construction materials for building houses and mansions. In metal working also the Indus people were experts in casting and forging. Copper and bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) were utilized for making tools and weapons, domestic utensils, statuettes, bangles, finger-rings, ear-rings, amulets, wires and rods. Gold and silver were used for jewelry and ornamental vessels. Later excavations have unearthed specimens of iron implements. Recent excavations in several other parts of India have revealed similar objects hidden under the ground. 13
AEveryone is familiar with the chemical excellence of cast iron produced in ancient and medieval India. The tempering steel was brought to perfection in India unknown to Europe. Alexander received a precious gift of 30 pounds of not gold but steel from the Indian king. India was the leader of several chemical and pharmaceutical industries including dyeing, tanning, soap making, glass, and ceramics, cement and metallurgy. Indians were far ahead of European experts in several technologies involving melting, smelting, casting, calcination, sublimation, steaming, fixation, and fermentation. There were experts in the preparation of a variety of metallic salts, compounds and alloys, pharmaceutical preparations, perfumery as well as cosmetics. It is appropriate to mention that it is the Muslims who took much of the Hindu chemistry, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics, and other branches of science and technology to the Near East and then to Europe. It is well established that the secret of manufacturing of Damascus-steel was taken by the Arabs from Persians and the Persians from India.@ 14
AEvidence suggests that nearly three thousand years back, Indians knew the art of making glass and coloring it by metal salts. In ancient India, glass was used to make beads, bangles and laboratory ware. There is also mention of India exporting a huge lens to China. Evidence of an ancient (5th century B.C.) glass factory at Kepica in Uttar Pradesh has been found. Lumps of glass of different sizes and colors, including one 40 cm x 42 cm x 26 cm and weighing over 10 kg, were found. Central Glass and Ceramics Research Institute in Calcutta tested the glass and found it to be of soda lime, with a high percentage of alumina. Today aluminum silicate glasses are used for making kitchen ware, which can be heated on a stove.@ 15
According to the writings of Periplus, glass had been manufactured in India since the 3rd century BCE. In the writing of Pliny, he referred to the glass of India as being superior to all others.

Another aspect of this was the distillation of scents for making perfumes and fragrances in liquids or ointments. One speciality was sandalwood and its oil, used from ancient times. The sandalwood tree was native to India, such as Karnataka, where it was grown and used for its fragrant qualities. It became a great product for exporting to Greece, Arabia, and other places. Musk was another fragrant item that became in demand, gathered from the secretions of the gland of the male musk-deer. Camphor was another fragrant item exported from India since ancient times, often used in rituals and prayer.
Lac was used as a varnish or protective covering on wooden furniture, or as a dye, such as for finger nails and cloth. Lac is the resin-like substance secreted on trees by the Lac insect.


Different areas were known to make pottery as far back as 4000 BCE. Most were naturally made for utilitarian purposes with the use of a potter=s spinning wheel. There were also jars and even huge wares (3 meters in height) for storing grains, made of alluvial clay from the banks of the Sindhu River, tempered with sand containing fine mica particles.
From 2000 BCE in Mohenjodaro and Harappa, kilns were found which were used for making glazed pottery. There were eighteen sites from the 5th to the 1st century BCE in Northern and Central India that were known for producing pottery. These include Sarnath, Mathura, Patna, Sanchi, and other towns in this area. 16


Diamonds and many other precious and semi-precious jewels were used in the art of Vedic culture. But this science was not only about how to recognize the value of the gems and how to use them for decoration, but also for their use in Jyotish and counteracting the evil or negative influence of planets, or even in heightening their positive forces. The Garuda and Agni Puranas contain a lot of this kind of information.
The Garuda Purana was also known for containing information on the locations of diamond minds. Such places included the Himalayas, and the mountainous or hilly regions of Saurastra, Kalinga (between the Mahanadi and Godavari), Venvatata (near Nagpur), etc.


1. Pride of India: A Glimpse into India=s Scientific Heritage, Samskriti Bharati, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 113-114.
2. Dr. V. K. Didolkar, Metallurgy in Samskrita Literature, Samskrita Bharati, New Delhi, Oct. 2000, p. 16.
3. Vans Kennedy, Researches into the Origin and Affinity of the Principal Languages of Asia and Europe, Longman, London, 1828, p. 185.
4. Kamlesh Kapur, Portraits of a Nations: History of India, Sterling Publishers, Private Limited, 2010, p. 408-9.
5. Dr. V. K. Didolkar, Metallurgy in Samskrita Literature, Samskrita Bharati, New Delhi, Oct. 2000, pp. 18-19.

6. B. V. Subbarayappa, Foreword, from Science and Technology in Ancient India, by Editorial Board of Vijnan Bharati, Mumbai, August, 2002.
7. Science and Technology in Ancient India, Vigyan Bharati, pp. 76-77.
8. Suresh Soni, India=s Glorious Scientific Tradition, Ocean Books Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2010, p. 53.
9. Science and Technology in Ancient India, by Editorial Board of Vijnan Bharati, Mumbai, August, 2002, p. 83.
10. Ibid., pp. 86-90.
11. Dr. V. K. Didolkar, Metallurgy in Samskrita Literature, Samskrita Bharati, New Delhi, Oct. 2000, pp. 7-8.
12. Ibid., p. 13.
13. Prof. A. R. Vasudeva Murthy and Prasun Kumar Mishra, Indian Tradition of chemistry and Chemical Technology, Samskrita Bharati, Bangalore, India, August, 1999, p. 3.
14. Ibid., pp. 1-2.
15. Science and Technology in Ancient India, by Editorial Board of Vijnan Bharati, Mumbai, August, 2002, p. 43.
16. Ibid., p. 44.

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