Minerals and Metals in Pre-Modern India by Arun Kumar Biswas

Minerals and Metals in Pre-Modern India

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Minerals and Metals in Pre-Modern India
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A Sequel to his widely acclaimed Minerals and Metals in Ancient India, in two volumes, (196), Professor Biswas here continues with the fascinating story of indigenous gems, non-gem minerals, metals and metallic art: from 1200 AD onwards to almost the threshold of modern times. Like its predecessor, this volume too is sponsored by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), New Delhi.

Beginning with a view of medieval India's enchanting gems, its highly dexterous diamond mining, and an array of non-gem minerals including, among others, metallic ores of copper, lead, zinc, ferrocobaltite, aluminium, and even building stones, the book offers a focused study of iron and steel, brass and zinc in pre-modern India-with coherent descriptions of the diversities of ores processed, smelting techniques, wootz-making and other products in different parts of the subcontinent.

A painstakingly researched work based on foreigners' travelogues and many other sources, the book re-explores the achievements of indigenous industries of the day, highlighting how, for about two millennia since the Lothal and Atranjikhera eras, India commanded primacy in zinc and brass; how its zinc smelting and distillation technology were transferred to the West, like the Chinese technologies of paper and gunpowder; and how its artisans could work marvels in metal. The author examines, in retrospect, Indian traditions of metallic works, which are vividly exemplified in its arts of enamelling, encrustation, jewel-setting, brass and high zinc Bidriware, and much else.

Concludingly, Professor Biswas also goes into the causes that spelt decline of the Indian industries and the superb vitality of its artisans' tradition.

About the Author

Arun Kumar Biswas (b. 1934 -), educated at the Calcutta University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, has been Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (1963-1995) and, since 1995 at the Asiatic Society, Calcutta.

An authority on applied chemistry, surface chemistry, mineral engineering, archaeo-metallurgy, history of science, and the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda literature, Professor Biswas continues to nurture concepts of archaeo-material science, futuristic emphasis on the Vedantic concept of socialism (samya). His published work comprises about a hundred articles and over a dozen books that not only reflect the versatility of his academic/research concerns, but have also brought him international recognition.


Our earlier book entitled Minerals and Metals in Ancient India, submitted to the Indian National Science Academy, was subsequently published in two volumes by D.K. Printworld in 1996. We have been fortunate in receiving several technically competent and overwhelmingly sympathetic and appreciative reviews such as the following:

Paul Craddock, Journal of Historical Metallurgy Society, 29, No. 2, 1995, pp. 117-20; Editor, Indian Science Cruiser, June 1996; Editor, Minerals & Metals Review, Annual 1996, pp. 280-7; Tanuja Pant, Hindustan Times, 4 August 1996; C.V. Sundaram, Current Science, Vol. 71, No. 7, 10 October 1996, pp. 587-8; Ranabir Chakrabarti, DESH, 13 December 1997, pp. 125-9, also 18 April 1998, pp. 13-14; Ajay Mitra Shastri, Indian Journal of History of Science, 32 (3), 1997, pp. 297-300, etc.

Craddock acknowledged that the work is 'ambitious, being a survey of the whole range of inorganic materials by a noted materials scientist', but failed to pin-point our original contributions on the deep antiquity of brass and zinc in Lothal and Atranjikhera, phase studies of ancient zinc slag, etymology of beryl and emerald, etc. The reviewer in the Minerals and Metals Review Annual 1996 was more specific.:

Professor Arun Kumar Biswas captures a panoramic view of the hoary, richly variegated cultures which, in their final analysis, lead him not only to question the diffusionist the 'Aryan intrusion', but also to highlight, among a range of his first-time-arrived conclusions, the primacy of India in the areas of non-ferrous are mining, production of carburished iron, laminated iron sheets, wootz, steel, forge-welding of wrought iron, distilled zinc and high-zinc brass, etymology of vaidurya and marakata, etc.

In two volumes, the book tells the fascinating, coherently woven story of the minerals and metals – from across the entire sub-continental sprawl of the old world India.

The present volume of Minerals and Metals in Pre-Modern India may be considered to be the third volume in the series or as a sequel to the earlier two volumes. We are grateful to the reviewers for the several suggestions made for changes in the earlier two volumes which would be incorporated in the next edition. Ranabir Chakrabarti expected discussion on salt in ancient India, and this he would find in the present volume. Whether in the sector of salt or gems, minerals or metals, the Indian sub-continent has witnessed remarkable continuity from the pre-Harappan to the pre-modern eras. This we have meticulously documented in the area of zinc and brass, earning from the reviewers some words of deep appreciation.

The conclusions that we have reached in the present volume have been partly communicated elsewhere. Several papers have been published in Indian Journal of History of Science in 1993, 28 (4), pp. 309-30 (primacy of ancient India in zinc and brass), and in 1994: 29 (2), pp. 139-54 (on etymology of beryl and emerald); 29(3), pp. 389-420 (gem minerals); pp. 421-63 (non-gem minerals); 29 (4), pp. 579-610 (iron and steel in pre-modern India). A very special article "Minerals and Metals in Medieval India" has been published as chapter 11, pp. 275-313 in History of Indian Science, Technology and Culture, Vol. III, Part I edited by Professor A. Rahman, Oxford University Press, 2000.

We have particularly emphasized in the cited articles as well as in this volume, the reasons for medieval decadence of S&T in the sub-continent. Writing on the indigenous industries and traditions in pre-modern India, we have paid our tribute to the indomitable artisans of India representing so many castes, religions, languages and sub-cultures. Their vitality was sustained through centuries, and could not be extinguished either by the Hindu Obscurantism, Muslim fundamentalism or British colonialism. Our entire work on Minerals and Metals in Metals in Ancient and Pre-Modern India is indeed dedicated as a tribute to those indomitable artisans who have ceaselessly toiled through the centuries. Their contributions to our civilization have been as abiding and monumental as those of seers and philosophers.


The Indian National Science Academy (INSA), New Delhi, had sponsored our research work (1987-91) on Minerals and Metals in ancient India. The final report was submitted in two volumes. The first volume devoted to the travellers' accounts and archaeological evidences contained 21 chapters, 59 tables and 24 figures. The second volume summarized the literary evidences (particularly from the Sanskrit literature) in 10 chapters, 3 tables and 5 useful appendices. D.K. Printworld Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, has published the monograph in two volumes.

The coverage period of the above-mentioned work spanned from the Pre-Harappan millennia to about AD 1200. We planned to cover the subsequent medieval period in India, and preferred to replace the word 'medieval' by 'pre-modern'.

As in the earlier ancient period, the foreign travellers' accounts were found to be more weighty than the description penned by indigenous writers. Our present work entitled Minerals and metals in Pre-Modern India, again sponsored by INSA, New Delhi (1991-4) has been considerably enriched by writings of eminent foreigners/travellers such as Al-Biruni, Amir Khusrau, jean Baptiste Tavernier, Henry Howard, D. Havart, Alexander Hamilton, George Pearson, Benjamin Heyne, F. Buchanan-Hamilton, H.H. Voysey, James Franklin, H. Yule, J.M. Health, S.G.T. Heatly, James Prinsep, etc. We are happy that we have been able to fully exploit the classic writings of Valentine Ball whose 1881 treatise on Economic Geology (of India) is a veritable compendium of evidences of pre-modern mining, mineral processing and extractive metallurgy in India.

The present monograph has seven chapters. Chapter 2 on gem minerals deals with travellers' accounts, Moghul Treasury, itemized discussion on pearl, coral, chalcedony, beryl, etc., a special section on diamond mining and finally concluding remarks. Appended at the end of the chapter are some Persian/Arabic/Hindustani terms for gem minerals used in medieval India.

Non-gem minerals in pre-modern India would be discussed in chapter 3. Principal items therein are salt, alkaline salt or reh, saltpeter, metallic ores – of copper, lead and zinc, special minerals like sehta or ferro-cobaltite, sulphates of copper, aluminium and iron, gold-bearing river sand, building stones and iron ores of different varieties in different geographical locations of India.

Chapter 4 on iron and steel in pre-modern India emphasises diversities of ores processed, smelting techniques and products in Southern, Central, Eastern and Western sectors of the country. Iron-carbon alloys, mentioned in Rasa-Ratna-Samuccaya, and wootz (crucible steel)-making in south India have been specially emphasized. The chapter includes detailed discussions on three different types of iron and steel enterprises in pre-modern India, charcoal crisis and other reasons for stagnation and eventual extinction of indigenous iron industries.

Chapter 5 summarises the primacy of India in brass and zinc metallurgy ever since the Lothal and Atranjikhera eras, and the singular achievements of medieval Zawar in the art of zinc distillation. It is established that there was a technology-transfer of the zinc downward distillation technology from Zawar, Rajasthan in India to Bristol, England sometime during the early eighteenth century.

Various traditions of the metallic art works in pre-modern India would be summarized in chapter 6. One outstanding example is the Bidriware of Bidar based on high zinc low copper content alloy provided with a black patina and encrusted with gold or silver wire. This belonged to a broader family of damascene art products probably introduced by the immigrants from Syria or Iraq. Other traditions which survived the ravages of time are related to brassware, gold and silverware, tin-coating of metallic utensils, minakari or the art of enamelling, jewel-setting, etc. these traditions developed 'without the use of stream or machinery' have survived on account of the artistic sense and perceptive originality of artisans. On the other hand, the traditions of indigenous mining and smelting dwindled to extinction on account of lack of intellectual support from the educated community and the ruling class, numerous technical problems, lack of innovation and the ruthless emerging domination of the colonial power.

Chapter 7, the last one in this monograph, contains a brief summary and concluding remarks. The positive achievements in the pre-modern Indian industries are highlighted. During this period India was receiving impetus in the area of material technologies from the emerging colonial powers, often imperceptibly; this aspect has not been fully researched so far. At the same time, there were technology transfers from India to the West, specially in the metallurgical sectors of wootz and distilled zinc. The chapter ends up with the articulation of causes behind decline of the indigenous industries, the superb vitality of the artisans' traditions in India and lastly the utility of the historical studies such as the one described in this monograph.

Back of the Book

In two volumes the book tells the fascinating, coherently woven story of the Minerals and Metals – from across the entire sub-continental sprawl of the old-world India (including Pakistan and Bangladesh).

Covering a vast span of over five millennia: from the Pre-Harappan Chalcolithic sites, like Meharagarh, Mundigak and Ganeshwar to about AD 1200 Volume 1 is a brilliant effort to unravel the mysteries of 'archaeomaterials' – with scientific inquiry into both the modes of production and use of minerals, gems, metals, alloys and other kindred artifacts. Including, as he does, a chronological discussion of the 'specifically excavated' sites, from Mehargarh to Taxila, Professor Arun Biswas captures a panoramic view of the hoary, richly variegated cultures – which, in their final analysis, lead him not only to question the diffusionist theory concerning the 'Aryan intrusion', but also to highlight, among a range of his first-time-arrived conclusions, the primacy of India in the areas of non-ferrous one mining, production of carburized iron, wootz, steel forge-welding of wrought iron, distilled zinc and high-zinc brass. Barring the foreign travellers' accounts, the volume draws exclusively on archaeological evidence.

Volume 2 approaches the theme from the viewpoint of indigenous literary sources – chronologically marshalling over three thousand years of Sanskrit writings: ranging from Rgveda to Rasaratnasamuccaya. Reviewing, among other things, the entire gamut of studies in gemology (Ratnasastra) and alchemy (Rasasastra), the authors here set out a meticulous analysis of Rasaratnasamuccaya: a fourteenth century text, high-lighting the climactic heights of iatrochemistry in ancient India. With detailed explanations of Sanskrit technical expressions, the volume also tries to correlate, wherever possible, literary evidence with archaeological data.

Sponsored by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), New Delhi, Minerals and Metals in Ancient India has involved years of the authors' painstaking research. Together with maps, figures, tables, appendices and illustrative photographs, it will evoke enormous interest in metallurgists, archaeo-metallurgists, mineralogists, gemologists, historians of science, archaeologists, Indologists, and the scholars of Indian pre-and ancient history.


  Preface v
  Acknowledgements xi
1 Introduction 1
2 Gem-Minerals in Pre-Modern India 5
3 Non-Gem Minerals in Pre-Modern India 45
4 Iron and Steel in Pre-Modern India 101
  -A Critical Review  
5 Brass and Zinc in Pre-Modern India 141
6 Bidri and Other Art Works in Pre-Modern India 171
7 Concluding Remarks 187
  Plates 197
  Bibliography 221
  Index 225

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