Friday, March 19, 2010

India's Legendary Wootz Steel

Let us start with a quote:

The school or college going student today may not be aware that India's contributions and prowess in the making of iron and steel were amongst the most remarkable in the ancient world. Of course, many of them may have had the occasion on school tours to visit the imposing Qutb Minar Complex in New Delhi and to admire the splendid Gupta era Iron Pillar (ca 400 - 420 AD). ...

There is another truly remarkable story that is not so well known. This is the chronicle of the legendary wootz steel from India, which has long been a subject of much fascination around the globe, with many legends and accounts surrounding it...

Thus begins the first chapter of the popular science book India's Legendary Wootz Steel: An Advanced Material of the Ancient World by Dr. Sharada Srinivasan and Prof. Srinivasa Ranganathan. The former is with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, which is inside the IISc campus, and Prof. Ranganathan is my senior colleague and a good friend. This book is a result of their collaborative work for well over a decade in the interdisciplinary area of archaeometallurgy. The story of wootz steel that their work has uncovered is truly fascinating.

First, a few words about wootz: it is the anglicization of 'ukku', the Kannada word for steel. Artisans and craftsmen from parts of south India had the technology to make wootz steel, a 'high-grade' steel that "was highly prized and much sought after across several regions of the world over nearly two millennia". India, apparently, was a leading exporter of this steel for ages. This steel is "synonymous with Damascus steel since it was used to make the fabled Damascus swords", so it also played a technological role in re-drawing the maps of nations and empires over many centuries. We only have incomplete knowledge of how Indian artisans came to develop and perfect the technology of making this high-quality steel.

A story about such a legendary steel and the lethal weapons made from it is always interesting; and, Dr. Srinivasan and Prof. Ranganathan have chosen to tell this story at a popular level "oriented towards a wider readership inclusive of school and college students".

"There is a plethora of historical accounts from around the world, which conjure up picturesque and fanciful images of the fame that Indian iron and steel seems to have enjoyed. When many consider that a scientific temper has not yet been deeply inculcated in modern India, where many people's lives are still guided by superstition, it comes as a pleasant surprise to note the high esteem in which some of the skills of Indian metallurgists and metal workers were held. It bears testimony of the existence of technological acumen and a sense of experimentation in Indian antiquity."

What you get from this book is not a straight and simple narrative about wootz; instead, you get a large and complex picture painted on a broad canvas. It has many sub-pictures, if you will, covering individual aspects of wootz -- its origins in south India, myths, legends, historical and literary accounts about this steel, and how the Damascus sword -- a great killing machine in its era -- was made from steel 'outsourced' from India. The book also covers developments in making and use of iron and steel in other parts of the world, placing Indian artisans' technological expertise in this field in a wider perspective.

The book doesn't stop with recounting stories from antiquity about wootz. Its later chapters deal with scientific studies done on this steel from the 16th century onwards. For example, did you know that Michael Faraday "... enthusiastically studied wootz between 1819 and 1822" before his interest "moved on to the problem of electromagnetism"? Wootz continues to fascinate modern metallurgists and materials scientists, who have been using the some of the most sophisticated techniques and equipment, such as electron microscopes, to figure out what made this material tick. In these chapters, you will find a brief account of such 20th century materials science concepts as superplasticity, dendritic solidification, laminated composites, nanotechnology, and more!

Along the way, you will find many interesting characters who took interest in this material: early (9th to 15th century) scholars and visitors from the Middle East, 18th and 19th century scientists such as Michael Faraday, mid-20th century scientists such as Cyril Stanley Smith, and finally, late 20th and early 21st century scientists such as John Verhoeven. You will also encounter great historical figures, including Alexander and Porus, Chandragupta II Vikramaditya, and Tipu Sultan.

The blurb says, "it appears fair to claim that wootz steel as an advanced materials dominated several landscapes: the geographic landscape spanning the continents of Asia and Europe; the historic landscape stretching over two millennia as maps of nations were redrawn; the literary landscape as celebrated in myths and legends, poetry and drama, movies and plays; and, not least of all, knitting together the religious landscape through trade and other interactions of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity". The book backs up this claim with lots and lots of evidence.

For a richly illustrated -- with 65 figures -- book of less than 150 pages, such a vast scope is both its strength and weakness. It is a weakness because the vast amount of information makes one feel a little overwhelmed, and sometimes, the narrative tends to jump from one topic to another. On the other hand, it is a strength because, after a first reading, you can go back (alas, the book lacks an index) to the interesting parts to just 'snack' on them. And, there certainly is plenty to snack on: myths, legends, literature, history geography, early and modern science, and literary and scientific personalities. Oh, yes, the book also has interesting nuggets on empires, kings, and great wars!

All in all, a lively and interesting book -- and an important contribution -- on a fascinating material. Do check it out!

(You can download the pre-publication version of the book from Prof. Ranganathan's website. The only catch is that the text and figures are in separate files; thus, their combination does not have the same look and feel of the book itself, which is beautifully produced, with text and figures intermingled. I have asked him to see if the final version itself can be made available online; as and when it happens, I will post an update, with links. HIS E-MAIL-
Post a Comment