Minerals and Metals In Ancient India (In Two Volumes)

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Item Code: IDD223
Author: Arun Kumar Biswas
Publisher: D. K. Printworld Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 1996
ISBN: 8124600481
Pages: 830 (75 Color Illustrations with Maps)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11.0" X 8.7"
Weight 2.62 kg
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Book Description

From the Jacket

In two volumes, the book tells the fascinating, coherently woven story of the Mineral 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 Mehargarh, Mundigak and Ganeshwar to about AD 1200, Volume 1 is a brilliant effort to unravel the mysteries of 'archaeo-materials'-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 ore 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 Rasaratna-samuccaya: a fourteenth century text, highlighting 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 author's painstaking research. Together with maps, figures, tables, appendices and illustrative photographs, it will evoke enormous interest in geologists, metallurgists, archaeo-metallurgists, mineralogists, gemologists, historians of science, archaeologists, Indologists, and the scholars of Indian pre- and ancient history.

Arun Kumar Biswas, holding Calcutta University's M. Sc. Tech. and D.Phil. (Applied Chemistry), besides an M.S. (Metallurgy) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, has , over the years, concentrated his research effort around 'archaeo-metallurgy' and 'history of science', notwithstanding his professional specialization in applied chemistry, surface chemistry, mineral engineering and hydrometallurgy. For over three decades: 1963-95, he has taught at the prestigious IIT (Indian Institute of Technology), Kanpur.

A scholar with varied pursuits: ranging from the history of religions to sacred and secular literature, Professor Biswas has authored a number of papers and books – which eminently include his Science in India (1969). Also, he has edited the internationally acclaimed, multi-authored Profiles in Indian Languages and Literatures. Currently associated with the Asiatic Society, Calcutta – for further research, Prof. Biswas has had the distinction to be on the National Commission for History of Science, Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi.


The Primary credit for the compilation of this monograph goes to the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), History of Science Division, which financially sponsored our project for the period September 1987 to March 1991. Two scholars were employed for this project and they assisted me in collecting and collating the basic reference materials.

Every since India attained her independence, the subject of history of science has evoked enthusiasm. The INSA created its special division and funded research. During my student days (1950-52), the Bachelor's level programme in Chemistry included a course on history of chemistry. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, U.S.A.) Where I worked during 1960-63, the subject of archaeo-metallurgy was being nurtured by the famous physical metallurgist Prof. C.S. Smith whose work on Damascus sword is well-known. Today the developed nations in the West are spending huge amounts of money for sophisticated instruments and still more sophisticated brains to unravel the mysteries of archaeo-materials.

I published my first book Science in India in 1969. Even though I had the latent ambition of working in the field of archaeo-materials, my professional pre-occupations at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur did not permit me to do anything worthwhile till the Hindustan Zinc Limited (HZL), Udaipur invited me in 1982 to work on the ancient zinc slags. Our findings, together with those of the international team of experts led by Dr. Hegde and Dr. Craddock, are reported in the chapter 18 of Volume I. our work on this monograph was started in September 1987.

We have divided our monograph into two Volumes. Volume I has 21 chapters on the archaeological evidences (foreigners' travel accounts also noted) showing the use of minerals and metals in ancient India, the period provisionally ending in AD 1200. The evidence from the Sanskrit literature are compiled in the 10 chapters of Volume II.

Out of the 21 chapters in Volume I, 11 are devoted to the findings in the specifically excavated sites which are chronologically discussed starting from Mehrgarh (chapter 2) to taxila (chapter14). We have naturally made copious extracts from the earlier reports. The readers would notice however we have not necessarily accepted all the 'conclusions' recorded by the esteemed path-finders such as John Marshall, Mortimer Wheeler, D.P. Agrawal, N.R. Banerjee, etc.

In our critical surveys we have entered into controversial topics and asserted on the following independent and occasionally original viewpoints:

(a) There is o acceptable proof that any foreign invading group, such as the mythical Aryanas, brought from outside to India any material culture such as those related to copper, iron or PGW.

(b) Chalcolithic culture in the pre-Harappan Mehrgarh precludes the possibility or necessity of any elaborate technology transfer from Iran to the Harappan India.

(c) The advent of the Iron Age took place in India around twelfth century BC indigenously in three widely apart geographical contexts, and therefore, the diffusionist theory regarding Hittite (or 'Aryan') influence seems to be far-fetched.

(d) The primacy of India in the areas of non-ferrous ore mining, production of carburized iron, laminated iron sheets, wootz, steel, forge-welding of wrought iron, zinc as a distillation product, high-zinc brass, diamond and other gems, etc. in the international scenario can no longer be questioned.

(e) In several areas we have borrowed materials or traditions from outside: lapis lazuli, turquoise, emerald (possible import following earlier traditions related to beryl), advances in the techniques of statuary, coin-casting and gem incrustations, cementation precipitation of copper from mine-water using iron powder, etc.

The acknowledgements in (e) should serve as a pointer that our assertions in (a) to (d) are not motivated by any sense of chauvinism.

The compilations of the literary evidences in Volume II follow the chronological sequence as in Volume I and highlight the fact that whereas correlations between the literary and archaeological data are evident in some cases (Panini, Kautilya, Varahamihira, etc.) there are serious discrepancies in the case of the epics. Since the archaeological dates of Hastinapur, Ayodhya, etc. have been scientifically derived, we have questioned the traditional beliefs regarding the dates of the composition of the epics. If any further evidence is required to convince the readers that we are not chauvinistic, they might turn to chapter 10 of Volume II wherein we have contraposed the literary claims with archaeological data and historical facts, and furthermore placed the irrational trends in the Indian tradition side by side with the rational and positive aspects of Indian science.

The monograph contains 62 tables, 24 figures and 5 appendices. Scientific informations on the minerals in appendix 'A' may be of special help to some readers.

This monograph is not an exhaustive survey; we have endorsed to the readers specific texts on ceramics, pottery, glass, coins, etc. for supplementary reading. We have laid greater emphasis on the raw material aspects such as mines, minerals, gems process metallurgy, etc. The other aspects of material engineering such as lapidary, fabrication, casting, forging, heart-treatment, etc. have been discussed but need deeper studies; many simulation or replication experiments need to be done in the laboratories before anybody could write a comprehensive book on the fabrication of materials in ancient India.

Acquisition and cataloguing of more reliable data are as important as philosophy and methodology of science. First-rate scientific analyses of the ancient Indian artifacts are being done in many foreign laboratories but such quality work is yet to be done in India. The gap between the archaeologist and the material scientist in our country is too wide and must be bridged as soon as possible.

I hope to extend my work beyond the ancient period of Indian history and to cover the pre-modern period of AD 1200-1900. I have articulated my vital concern for the sociology, methodology and philosophy of science in my book Science in India and in several chapters of present work (such as chapter 10 of Volume II). The nexus between science, technology and ancient society must be discovered; the conclusions must be well-grounded on the solid rock of facts and more facts, the cataloguing of which need not be unnecessarily vituperated, as done by some scholars.

How could modern science emerge in Europe first but not in India is a million-dollar question which should receive our deeps attention. The lessons from the past should help us in the future, and to that extent I earnestly believe that the past has a future!

In conclusion, I thank all the friends across three continents who have assisted me in my work. Special mention may be made of the following benefactors:

India: Late Prof. H.D. Sankalia, Prof. S.K. Mukherjee, Prof. B.N. Mukherjee, (Drs.) A.K. Bag, K.T.M. Hegde, S.R. Rao, Amita Ray, D.P. Agrawal, O.P. Agrawal, B.V. Subbarayappa, S.N. Sen, S.R. Sarma, Irfan Habib, I.G. Khan, C.V. Sundaram, H.C. Bhardwaj, B. Prakash, Vibha Tripathi, D. Joshi, Pradip, R.K. Ray, A. Ghosh, N.R. Banerjee.

England: Prof. R.F. Tylecote, Drs. Paul Craddock, (Ms.) Lynn Willies, A.D.H. Bivar, (Ms.) Susan La Niece, (Ms.) Susan Stronge.

USA.: Prof. C.S. Smith, Dr. Ms. Thelma L. Lowe.

The Director of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and his entire staff have provided consistent patronage to our work. We have received commendable secretarial help from Messrs. M.R. Nathwani, Jiwan Lal, Salig Ram R.B.Dube of the Department of Metallurgical Engineering. It is indeed commendable that I.I.T., Kanpur, which does not have any department of Archaeology and Sanskrit, has nevertheless allowed Nayan, an archaeologist and Sulekha (my wife) a Sanskritist, to work in the institute under the INSA project. I thank Nayan and Sulekha for their splendid assistance.


The present study deals with the production and use of minerals and metals in ancient India. The 'ancient' period provisionally ends in AD 1200, and 'India' covers the sub-continent including the present Pakistan and Bangladesh; occasionally references would be made to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Tibet also.

The monograph is divided into two volumes. Volume I is devoted to archaeomaterials, special emphasis being paid to the scientific aspects of mining, minerals, gems and production of metals, alloys and various artifacts. Volume II, deals with the literary evidences specially those available in the Sanskrit texts. In both the volumes a chronological approach has been undertaken.

The Pre-Harappan chalcolithic sites of Mehrgarh, Mundigak, Ganeshwar, etc. are discussed in chapter 2. The evidences there clearly show that the copper-making tradition was indigenously developed in India. The Harappan civilization showed an astounding variety of raw materials and finished products with sharp distinctions in different sites such as Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa,Chanhu-Daro, Lothal, etc. (divided in chapters 3-6).

Harappa, having a large number of furnaces, was probably a manufacturing centre whereas Mohenjo-Daro, a capital city, showed wider varieties of materials. Chanhu-Daro specialized in making beads, seals and standard weights. Lothal was both a Harappan port as well as a mammoth factory-site having an exclusive comppersmiths' quarter. In chapter 7 we shall discuss the copper-smelting practices in the Post-Harappan site of Ahar in Rajasthan.

Three successive chalcolithic cultures-Kayatha, Malwa and Jorwe-of the Peninsular India (2000-900 BC) are reviewed in chapter 8. These cultures bridged the gap between the Harappan and the PGW culture of the Historical Period. The Copper Hoards Culture in the Eastern India (chapter 9) was another phenomenon filling a part of the gap between the Harappan and the PGW eras. Both in the south and in the east, the chalcolithic cultures developed iron-smelting traditions indigenously.

The entire copper-making tradition and culture in the sub-continent during the ancient period are reviewed and summarized in chapter 10. The complex issue of the artifact-ore correlation shall be discussed in detail.

Atranjikhera archaeology (chapter 11) covers the period of nearly fifteen centuries before Christ starting from the OCP culture, through B & RW and PGW eras, to the flourishing NBPW culture. In the earlier stage, the link with chalcolithic culture of Ahar is evident. The twelfth century PGW stratum of Atranjikhera exhibits one of the earliest uses of iron in India. This site also exhibits the uses of copper alloys (including brass), agate, carnelian, sajji matti for the NBPW, etc.

The diffusionist theory of the iron technology being brought into Indian from outside by the 'invading Aryans' are discussed in chapter 12 and rejected. There are enough evidences that by 1200 BC the Iron Age had started indigenously in at least three nuclear zones of the sub-continent – around Atranjikhera in the north, Karnataka in the south and in the Bengal-Bihar area in the north-east. The various features of the early Indian practices such as solid-state reduction, carburization, lamination, forge-welding, quench-hardening, etc. and the various iron tool types used in different nuclear zones are presented in chapter 12.

The Hastinapura archaeological evidence (chapter 13) shows that the material splendour described in the epic Mahabharata could not correspond to 1200 BC Hastinapura. Further discussion in chapter 6 of Volume II shows that the epic was expanded in several stages, the material grandeur described in the epic corresponding to the later Historical Period.

The archaeological findings from the pre-Maurya, Maurya, Greek, Parthian, Scythian and Kusana layers at Taxila (chapter 14) corroborate many aspects of the written history of India. These display the glory of 'second urbanisation' in India after the Harappan era. Amongst the diverse alloys of copper found in Taxila, most noteworthy is the brass vase assaying 34.34 per cent zinc which proves the earliest use in Taxila of high-carbon steel, stone objects, beads and ornaments of noble metals, gems (like beryl), glass etc.

India's trade in minerals and metals with the outside world up to the Maurya Period (chapter 15) is attested firstly by the circumstantial evidences such as seals and finished goods of particular design and then by the accounts of the Greek writers, some of whom had visited India. In the following chapter the Indo-Roman trade on minerals and metals during the early Christian era has been reviewed critically. A special feature of this chapter is clarification of the confusions surrounding the nomenclatures of minerals and gems in the ancient world; this particular topic is further discussed in the chapter 7 on Ratnasastra in Volume II.

The knowledge of mining archaeology in India (chapter 17) remains in a rudimentary stage. In this chapter we have compiled some 34 principal C-14 dates for ancient Indian mines starting from 1260 BC Rajpura-Dariba in Rajasthan; however a very large number of ancient mines have remained undated. The antiquity of sub-surface mining for copper, lead, silver and zinc ores in north India, and of gold in the south has been well-established.

In chapter 18 we highlight the recent discoveries pertaining to the primacy of ancient India in the field of zinc and brass metallurgy. India was the first to make and use distilled zinc some time during fourth century BC. Brass icons were made continuously across twenty-three centuries. Hedge, Craddock, Willies, etc. and our team at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur have done considerable work on zinc slag and the thirteenth century commercial process at Zawar Mines. There was a technology transfer of the zinc distillation practices from Zawar, India to Bristol, England some time during the early part of the eighteenth century.

Chapter 19 deals with the later part of the Indian Iron Age during the Christian era. Wootz was the famous Indian production of carburized iron, produced in crucibles, and from which steel swords were made. Literary evidences suggest that Indian steel used to be made in the second century AD, if not earlier.

The world-famous Delhi iron pillar is a marvel of ancient India showing the largest forge-welded object of the era. Both the dry weather of Delhi and the special composition have contributed to the remarkable rustlessness of the pillar. Many scientific details of the Delhi pillar, other iron pillars in India and the ancient Orissa beams are presented in this chapter. The pre-modern tribal iron metallurgy in India is probably a remnant of the earlier traditions of ancient metallurgy in the sub-continent.

India produced a huge variety of art objects for which diverse raw materials were used (chapter 20). Many kinds of rocks and stones, limes and plasters, pigments for painting etc. were used since the pre-Christian era. The Buddhist relic caskets faithfully display the contemporary art objects made of steatite, rock crystal, beryl, gold, etc. Metallic icons-Buddhistic, Jaina and Brahmanical – constitute a great treasure of ancient Indian Art. Surveying the traditions of Gujarat, Nalanda, Kashmir, Nepal, Tibet and South India in icon-making, we have presented some of the scientific data in this chapter. In India there were distinct trends of alloy-making using different proportions of copper, tin, zinc, lead, gold (different kinds of gilding procedure), etc. the uses of sophisticated instruments and techniques are adding new dimensions to the scientific knowledge of the ancient Indian art objects.

The trend of scientific analysis unraveling the mysteries of the archaeo – materials of ancient India is bound to continue and escalate (chapter 21). However these analytical data must be handled and interpreted with caution by the historians and archaeologists in the light of their own findings and other evidences such as the literary (extensively discussed in the ten chapters of Volume II).

The investigations on the past of our material culture have not only bright future but are also likely to be instructive towards the future planning of science in India.

Preface From the Second Volume

Minerals and Metals in Ancient India Volume I dealt with the archaeological evidences (foreigners' travel accounts also noted) showing the use of minerals and metals in ancient India, the period spanning from the Pre-Harappan era up to AD 1200.

This Volume II covers the period between the Rgveda and the early fourteenth century AD text Rasaratnasamuccaya dwelling on the indigenous literary evidences on the use of minerals and metals in ancient India, more particularly the relevant Sanskrit literature.

The archaeological evidences clearly prove that the ancient Indians were familiar with gems, non-gem minerals and metals, even before the Harappan era. The literary evidences however start with the Rgveda which, we believe, was contemporaneous with the Harappan civilization in the sarasvati Valley.

After an introduction to the subject in chapter 1, this dissertation begins with the Rgvedic evidences of the ancient metallurgy in India (chapter 2). The post-Rgvedic literature (chapter 3) mentioned specific metls including iron, a few gems and non-gem minerals. Surprisingly however, the details of iron-making or the newly invented potteries such as PGW/NBPW are not found even in the later Vedic literatures; this is probably an effect of the casteist division in the society.

Panini's Astadhyayi contains the etymological roots of many technical terms, evolved during the post-Vedic period, and refers to bellows, beryl and coins (chapter 4) which have been found during the archaeological excavations at Taxila. Kautiliya Arthasastra describes the Mauryan political economy, the emergence of a large state, the increasing role of mines in the state economy a large variety of gems constituting the elements of international trade and the diversity of alloys, coins and ornaments (chapter 5).

Chapter 6 in this volume examines the references to minerals and metals in the epic Mahabharata which must have been compiled in the present form over several centuries.

A millennium of the Ratnasastra texts is the subject-matter of chapter 7, in which the large variety of gems mentioned in the Sanskrit texts have been discussed from the modern scientific standpoint. Similarly, the Rasasastra texts dealing with chemical and metallic transformations, which evolved over centuries, have been comprehensively discussed in chapter 8.

Whereas Rasasastra or Indian alchemy indulged in an extravaganza of wild concepts such as conversion of base metals to gold, discovering a drug for immortality and so on, the subsequent literatures on iatrochemistry became more realistic. Rasaratnasamuccaya of the early fourteenth century AD period, is a pinnacle of Indian iatrochemistry and discussed in our penultimate chapter 9.

The last chapter summarises our findings; furthermore two specific topics are discussed therein. The problem of correlating the evidences in the Sanskrit literatures and the archaeological evidences has been critically examined. Secondly, we have made a brief presentation of the irrational as well as the rational or positive elements of philosophical thinking in India as revealed in the Sanskrit literatures related to minerals and metals.

Several appendices are presented at the end of this volume. The technical words appearing in the literature have been stratified: (A) modern scientific nomenclatures, then those belonging to, (B) Rgveda and post-Rgvedic period, (C) Panini's Astadhyayi, (D) Kautiliya Arthasastra, and (E) post-Christian eras. The entire Sanskrit literature on minerals and metals has been scanned from a modern standpoint, and therefore, appendix 'A' fittingly provides scientific information on the minerals discussed in this thesis. Our studies on the subject up to AD 1200 (earlier Volume I and this Volume II) are being extended to cover the pre-modern period (AD 1200-1900) as well.


List of Tablesxiii
List of Figuresxix
List of Illustrationsxxi
2Minerals and Metals in the Pre-Harappan India5
3The Story of Material Splendour in Mohenjo-Daro31
4Minerals and Metals in Harappa79
5Bead and Seal Technology at Chanhu-Daro93
6Harappan Industrial Port at Lothal107
7Chalcolitihic Ahar127
8Chalcolithic Cultures in the Peninsular India (2000-900 BC)135
9Chalcolithic Culture in the Eastern India163
10Copper in Ancient India177
11Iron, PGW and Urbanisation at Atranjikhera193
12Iron in Ancinet India209
13Minerals and Metals in the Mahabharata Epic Sites of Hastinapur and Ahicchatra249
14Minerals and Metals in Taxila through Centuries255
15India's Trade in Minerals and Metals: Pre-Harappan to Pre-Roman Periods281
16Indo-Roman Trade in Minerals and Metals289
17Mining in Ancient India: Non-Ferrous Ores and Other Minerals315
18Antiquity of Zinc and Brass in Ancient India351
19Iron in the Ancient India of the Post-Christian Era385
20Some Indian Archaeomaterials in Ancient Works of Art409
21The Future of the Past473
Coloured Illustrations483
Second Volume
List of Tablesxi
List of Illustrationsxiii
2Materials and Metals in the Rgveda5
3Minerals and Metals in the Vedic Literature after Rgveda15
4Materials and Concepts in Panini's Astadhyayi29
5Minerals and Metals in Kautiliya Arthasastra39
6Minerals and Metals in the Indian Epics from an Archaeological Viewpoint57
7A Millennium of Ratnasastra (Gemmology) Literature in India69
8Non-Gem Minerals and Metals inthe Ancinet Texts Culminating to Rasasastra125
9Rasaratnasamuccaya-A Pinnacle in the Indian Iatro-Chemistry153
Coloured Illustrations187
A.Scientific Information on the Minerals Used in the Ancient Period of Human History199
B.Word Related to Minerals and Metals in the Rgveda. Additional Techical Terms in the other Vedic Literatures213
C.Technical Terms Related to Minerals and Metals Mentioned in Panini['s Astadhyayi221
D.Some Typical Technical Words in Kautiliya Arthasastra235
E.Some Technical Words in the Post-Christian Era Indian Literature Related to Minerals and Metals243
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