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Wootz

There are many powerpoint presentations floating on the web touting the greatness of ancient India. The bullet points include items like the invention of zero, surgery, ayurveda, grammar etc. One item missing in the list is Wootz, a steel alloy making technique discovered in India (between 200 B.C. and 300 A.D.) But amateur historians cannot be blamed for leaving it out, since even professional historians do not seem to have given it much value.

The fascinating story about Wootz steel is that, it was exported from India to a global market and was popularly known as Damascus steel. There is a new book on this topic titled Indiaâ??s Legendary Wootz Steel and Nanditha Krishna has a review.

Wootz is a form of crucible steel, formed by adding large quantities of carbon to iron. This results in alternating layered light and dark etched patterns, created by welding layers of lower and higher carbon steel. The design came to be known as damask, referring to the watered pattern, and thereby Damascus. Today the word â??â??Damascusâ??â?? is applied to patterns in integrated circuits with copper interconnects. Wootz was the western name for high carbon steel from India, derived from the Kannada ukku and Sangam Tamil ekku, meaning crucible steel.

The Iron Pillar of Delhi (AD 400) and the lesser-known iron pillar at Kochadri in Karnataka and the iron beams of the Konark temple – the latter two situated in humid coastal areas – stand testimony to ancient Indian knowledge of corrosion resistance.

By 1100 BC, iron was in use in South Indian megalithic cultures, from Adichanallur in the South to Vidarbha in the North. Kodumanal in Tamil Nadu was a hub of ferrous crucible processing by 300 BC. The southern peninsula became the centre of this vibrant and growing steel industry, which attracted traders from Rome and the Middle East. By AD 300, the Alexandrian alchemist Zosimos of Panapolis had published an unequivocal reference to Indian crucible steel. The pattern-welded crucible steel manufactured in India was used by the European Merovingians, Carolingians and even the Vikings between AD 500 and 800. [Made in India via IndiaArchaeology]

A sword which is popular in Kerala is called the urumi and it is used in Kalaripayattu. This sword is made of a special composition of steel that it could be limp as well as straight based on the need.

3 Responses to Wootz

  1. Hari September 8, 2005 at 7:14 pm #

    Linguistic avatars of Wootz:
    http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/t_es/t_es_agraw_wootz.htm

    Minor typo in the original (quoted) article: it should have been kudachadri and not kuchadri.

  2. sunil September 9, 2005 at 11:25 am #

    Actually, Prof. Ranganathan (Metallurgy, Indian Institute of science) has recently written an entire book on Wootz steel in India, that Abinandanan had on his blog (i cant find the link in Abi’s blog).

    But here’s a link to Prof. Ranganathan’s home page which has a link of the book he’s authored (with the full text and figures). A great effort.

    It’s outstanding. Do take a look.

  3. JK September 9, 2005 at 5:44 pm #

    Sunil, This blog post is about that book you pointed to. The whole book is online and is written for the layman.

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