The mystery of the missing steel

  • 14/01/1994

The mystery of the missing steel WHAT'S wootz? It's not the bark of a Chihuahua nor an expletive. This exotic word (unknown even to the Oxford English Dictionary) refers to a legendary Indian steel that gave Damascus swords and daggers their flexibility, wavy appearance and superior edge.

The mystique of wootz steel (scholars say wootz is a corruption of ukku , Telugu for steel) goes back to the time of Alexander the Great, who supposedly received wootz ingots as gifts from king Porus.

Since medieval times, scientists and blacksmiths the world over have been intrigued by this technology, which vanished mysteriously some time in the last century. Even today, no one has been able to replicate this process.

Thelma T Lowe, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, says wootz-making was a flourishing industry till as late as the early 19th century and has identified at least 14 sites in Telengana district of Andhra Pradesh as possible wootz steel sites.

It is now known that wootz was also manufactured in Mysore in Karnataka, Salem in Tamil Nadu and in Sri Lanka.

There is some evidence for scientific basis for making this special steel. In one of the PPST sessions, Lowe presented a paper affirming wootz-making as "deeply embedded in the knowledge-base of Indian science". She believes the "composite" make-up of the wootz-making process is well documented in ancient texts such as Rasaratna Samuchaya. However, this suggestion could fuel controversy because some scholars believe the "Indian" steel was actually of Chinese origin.

Other form of ancient iron-making still exist in a tribal pockets of south Bihar, Orissa, and Madhya Pradesh, chiefly among the Agarias, Birjias and Lohras.

A few Indian scientists and activists have joined hands to revive these traditions before they, too vanish. Metallurgist B Ballal of IIT-Bombay is working with the Agarias, trying to unlock the secrets of the iron smelted by them. Sunil Sahasrabudhe of the Varanasi-based Gandhian Institute of Studies is organising the Agarias into panchayats and hopes to persuade the government to allot them a piece of land for their work.

S Bannerjee, R&D director of the Steel Authority of India, says traditional iron-making is superior to the "idiotic" modern process. It bypasses several expensive routines of modern steel-making. If revived, it would provide employment and lessen pollution of rivers.

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