A Brief History of Wootz

If we look at history before firearms came on the scene, we see much romanticism associated with swords and other blades. They were revered and even worshipped. The weapons themselves had stories and were often as well-known as the bearer. The swords that great men and women wielded, had legends of their own. The sword, now, however, is reduced to a ceremonial adornment, seldom drawn from the scabbard.

There’s more, however, to these swords than their legends. The oldest record of a sword-like weapon, or long-daggers, goes back to 3300 BC, in the Bronze Age. What we would consider a proper sword was not practical in the Bronze Age, due its tensile strength. Some innovations followed in China, but it wasn’t until the Iron Age that swords started getting their due, 12th century BC, onwards, when smiths discovered that by “adding carbon during smelting, they could improve produce an improved alloy”, which we now know as steel.

This painting is in the guest house of the largest R&D steel laboratory in the world, the Steel Authority of India, in Ranchi.

This painting is in the guest house of the largest R&D steel laboratory in the world, the Steel Authority of India, in Ranchi.

The first proper mention of steel, in India, comes around 326 BC when Alexander defeated Puru (often called Porus, in Western texts) at the Battle of the Hydaspes (modern-day River Jhelum). King Puru, though he lost the battle, did not lose his rival’s respect, and continued to rule his kingdom, Paurava. In-spite of the battle, there was mutual respect between these two kings. Puru offered to Alexander, as a token of respect, his sword, and a 100 talents of steel. If we assume that contemporary chroniclers used Greek standards, one talent is equal to 26kgs. That’s close to 3 tonnes of steel!

But why steel? Well, at those times, steel was rare, and therefore, more precious than gold. And this was not just any steel, these 100 talents were of Wootz Steel.

The word, Wootz, has its etymology in Urukku, or Ukku. Ukku is a Kannada word, but perhaps has its origins in classical Tamil, with “Ekku.” In the middle ages, in Russia, they were called the “Bulat” steels. In Persia they were known as “Pauhad Janherder”. Clear similarities, then, between these words and the common word for steel in India today: फ़ौलाद (Faulad).

According to Pliny The Elder, a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, as well as naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, we read of import of iron from the ‘Seres’ kingdom during the first century BC, which would refer to the Ancient Chera kingdom of South India. Another popular Roman travelogue, the Periplus of the Erythrean (Red) Sea, also mentions trade with the Chera kingdom, along the Malabar Coast of Kerala. Various accounts refer to Wootz as ferrum candidum (bright iron), ferrum indicum, sericum. Sericum, no doubt comes from Seres, or the Cheras. Yet, it became popular world over as Damascus Steel, perhaps because the finished product was seen in Damascus, Syria. While Wootz was cast in India, the fine swords made of this material were forged in Persia and Arabia, and probably seen (and sold) in Damascus. This is not to say that swordsmithery was absent in India. In the 12th century AD, the Arab traveller and cartographer Al Idrisi, wrote:

‘The Hindus excel in the manufacture of iron, and in the preparations of those ingredients along with which it is fused to obtain that kind of soft iron which is usually styled Indian steel (Hindiah). They also have workshops wherein are forged the most famous sabres in the world. …It is not possible to find anything to surpass the edge that you get from Indian steel (al-hadid al-Hindi)’

Elsewhere, Al-Biruni (973-1048 AD) says:

“There will never be another nation, which understood separate types of swords and their names, than the inhabitants of India…”

Arab accounts refer to Hindvi, Hindiah, or Hinduwani steel, which later got stylised to the European Ondanique, as well as Teling Steel, which undoubtedly refers to the Telengana region. This points us to the source; “…wootz ingots were produced in Southern and South Central India and Sri Lanka. The area of Hyberabad, formerly Golconda, was perhaps the most reputed area of the production of wootz.”

Damascus Steel - Pattern; CSMVS, Mumbai

Damascus Steel – characterised by distinctive patterns of banding and mottling reminiscent of flowing water; CSMVS, Mumbai. Click to see larger version.

Due to the nature of Wootz and the forging method, swords made of Wootz are “characterised by distinctive patterns of banding and mottling reminiscent of flowing water.” Further, “Such blades were reputed to be tough, resistant to shattering and capable of being honed to a sharp, resilient edge.” [Link] The word, ‘Damas’ in Arabic language means water. Another reason, why, possibly, the swords got their name.

The romanticism of the sword, then, is no mystery. Before becoming a favourite sword, the material travelled many lands, passed through many hands. The steel, the forging, the beauty of the swords must have captured imaginations around the world. This wondrous alloy, of all things, has inspired poetry. The Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin immortalised ‘bulat‘ with a poem when he wrote in 1830:

All is mine, said gold;
All is mine said bulat;
All I can buy said gold,
All I will take, said bulat.

Wootz and swords made of Wootz continued to capture the imagination of the world. It was the subject of many stories, like the one between King Richard the Lion Hearted and Sultan Saladin the Saracen. This story, perhaps best explains what it meant to have a Wootz sword and what it is capable of.

The trade of Wootz continued in the 17th century, with accounts of Persia and Golconda trading this marvellous alloy, during the Qutb Shahi reign.

In recent history, Wootz finds mention again, during the Revolt of 1857. The swords had such a reputation that the British decided to destroy all Wootz swords. They had to build a special machine for this, because the shearing blades meant to cut the Wootz swords, themselves got cut by the tough Wootz blades.

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India, today, is the 4th largest producer of steel, with 86.5 million metric tons of crude steel production. Given that this is the place where the finest steel was invented, there’s a long way to go. Sure, we don’t make swords anymore, but it is unimaginable to imagine a world without steel. Pretty much the same way, as it was, since the first Wootz sword was forged thousands of years ago.

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I must make a special mention of the book, “India’s Legendary Wootz Steel—An Advanced Material of the Ancient World“, by Sharada Srinivasan and Srinivasa Ranganathan. This book has been the major source of reference for this post.

References

  • Srinivasan, Sharada, and Srinivasa Ranganathan. India’s Legendary Wootz Steel: An Advanced Material of the Ancient World. Bangalore: National Institute of Advanced Studies and Indian Institute of Science, 2004. Print.
  • Forbes, R. J. “The Early Story of Iron.” Studies in Ancient Technology. 2. Rev. ed. Leiden: Brill Academic Pub, 1964. 238-140. Print.
  • Jeans, J. Stephen. “Early History.” Steel: Its History, Manufacture, Properties, and Uses. London: E. & F.N. Spon, 1880. 8. Print.
  • Rickard, T. A. “The Primitive Smelting of Iron.” American Journal of Archaeology (1939): 100-01. Print.
  • Sasisekaran, B., and B. Raghunatha Rao. “Iron in Ancient Tamil Nadu.” India; Metallurgy in India: A Retrospective. NML Jamshedpur. Web. 17 July 2015. .
  • Sherby, O.D., and J. Wadsworth. “Ultrahigh Carbon Steels, Damascus Steels, and Superplasticity.” (1997). Web. 17 July 2015. .
  • Sinopoli, Carla M. “Craft Products and Craft Producers.” The Political Economy of Craft Production: Crafting Empire in South India, C.1350–1650. Cambridge UP, 2003. 192-193. Print.
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Ancient Kolhapur: A (Very) Short History

Kolhapur, a major city in the state of Maharashtra is steeped in popular history. It has an important place in Maratha history, primarily after 1707, following the succession dispute between the descendants of Chhatrapati Shivaji. References to Kolhapur in this period are many, and well documented. There’s more to this city than this recent history, however.

It goes way back; more than 2000 years ago.

Satavahana Kingdom. Image via Wikipedia

Satavahana Kingdom. Image via Wikipedia

Excavations in and around Kolhapur reveal that it was first occupied during the Satavahana period (c. 200 BCE to 200 CE). The early Satavahanas ruled, what is now Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. They were the vassals of the Mauryan empire, and established themselves after the decline of the Mauryan kingdom, around 230 BCE.

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Around 1st century CE, the western parts of India were ruled by Saka (Indo-Scythians) rulers, who were collectively known as the Western Satraps. The Western Satraps, occupied territories from the early Satavahanas during their reign in this region. By 63 CE, Nahapana, one of the most powerful Satraps, was ruling over Malwa, Southern Gujarat, and Northern Konkan, from Broach (Modern Bharuch, in Gujarat) to Sopara (Modern Nalla Sopara, near Mumbai)  and the Nasik and Poona districts. While I haven’t found any specific mention that Nahapana’s domains included Kolhapur, we have other sources to confirm this. Suffice it to say for now, that Kolhapur was under the rule of the Western Satraps.

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Come 126 CE, and we have one of the most famous kings of the Andhra Satavahana dynasty — Vilivayakura II, also known as Gautamiputra Sri Satakarni, also known as Shalivahan. (Yes, he is the one who gave us the Shalivahan calendar, which is used in India throughout.) Vilivayakura II recovers the territories lost by the Satavahanas to the Wester Satraps. Vilivayakura II makes Kolhapur his western capital. Kolhapur is mentioned as Hippokoura by Ptolemy and Vilivayakura II is referred to as Baleokouros. Couple of decades later, Vilivayakura II’s son, Pulumayi II moved the capital to Pratishthan (Modern Paithan, in Maharashtra) on the upper waters of the Godavari River.

Safe to say, then that there is enough influence on Kolhapur, of the Yavanas (Ionians, or Asiatic Greeks), the Indo-Scythians, the Parthians (of Persia), and the Andhra Satvahanas.

In other sources, Kolhapur is mentioned as Kollaksetra, from where it derives its current name — Kolhapur, as seen on inscriptions from the Shilaharas (800 CE – 1256 CE).

The site of Brahmapuri where the excavations were made is now almost within Kolhapur city, and the artefacts are available to view from the Town Hall Museum at Kolhapur.

References

  • Ghosh, Amalananda. An Encyclopaedia of Indian Archeology. Vol. II. Brill, 1990. 84.
  • Smith, Vincent A. “The Sunga, Kanva, and Andhra Dynasties.” In History of India, edited by A. V. Williams, 194. London: Grolier Society Publishers, 1906.
  • Lévi, Sylvain, Jean Przyluski, Jules Bloch, and Prabodh Chandra Bagchi. Pre-Aryan and Pre-Dravidian in India. [Articles.]. Asian Educational Services, 1929. 173-175.
  • Prasad, Durga. “Chapter II—The Satavahanas.” In History of the Andhras: Upto 1565 A. D., 33. Guntur, Andhra Pradesh: P. G. Publishers, 1988.
  • Rawlinson, H. G. “India and The Roman Empire.” In Intercourse between India and the Western World: From the Earliest Times to the Fall of Rome, 117-119. London: Cambridge University Press, 1916.
  • “Appendix 4 – Chronology of the Sunga, Kanya, and Andhra Dynasties.” Appendix 4 – Chronology of the Sunga, Kanya, and Andhra Dynasties. Accessed July 15, 2015. http://www.ibiblio.org/britishraj/Jackson2/appendix04.html.

For the Love(rs) of Hummus

Hummus

Hummus

I must say that this is not happening by design – two consecutive posts related to Food history. Yet, it was fascinating as I read it, so I had to share:

“For example, chickpeas are widely grown by traditional farmers from the Mediterranean and Ethiopia east to India, with the latter country accounting for 80 percent of the world’s chickpea production today. One might therefore have been deceived into supposing that chickpeas were domesticated in India. But it turns out that ancestral wild chickpeas occur only in southeastern Turkey. The interpretation that chickpeas were actually domesticated there is supported by the fact that the oldest finds of possibly domesticated chickpeas in Neolithic archaeological sites come from southeastern Turkey and nearby northern Syria that date to around 8000 B.C.; not until over 5,000 years later does archaeological evidence of chickpeas appear on the Indian subcontinent.”

Excerpt From: Diamond, Jared. “Guns, Germs, and Steel.”

You may also be interested in reading this article on Hummus and this entry on Chickpeas in Wikipedia.

Baljuna Covenant

The men, excluding Genghis Khan were nineteen in number. The water that he refers to are the muddy waters of the Baljuna (perhaps a lake, or a river).

Upon arrival at the Baljuna, the provisions were used up. It happened that from the north a wild horse ran up. Kasar brought it down. From its skin they made a kettle; with a stone they got fire, and from the river, water. They boiled the flesh of the horse and ate it. Genghis Khan, raising his hand toward the sky, swore thus: ‘If I finish “the great work”, then I shall share with you men the sweet and the bitter; if I break my word, then let me be as this water.’ Among the officers and men, there was none who was moved to tears. [Genghis Khan, by John Man, Bantam Books, ISBN13: 9780553814989]

This, according to John Man, ‘marked Temujin’s [Genghis Khan] nadir in military terms, but a turning point in terms of leadership.‘ This situation, is brought upon Temujin by way of treachery, because of which he retreats to Baljuna.

The most authoritative document on the history of Mongols is the “The Secret History of the Mongols,” and it fails to mention this.

I can imagine why.

Such instances are the ones that go off record. You may know about it, but there is never a document about such incidents. For one, they potentially expose a weak moment about a hero, for the other, and perhaps more important, these incidents are so intimate that they are necessarily off the record. Even if you were a part of the incident and were charged with documenting history. There is something about men in difficult circumstances that binds them, bonds them.

We might think that this was pure rhetoric and exaggeration, but, you might agree that we aren’t new to rhetoric and exaggeration. I invite you to read today’s newspaper (or any day’s newspaper for that matter).

And while we are at it, here is some more, from “The Secret History of the Mongols”:

Thus Jamuqa, attempting to demoralize the Naiman soldiers
on the eve of battle with Chinggis Qahan, attributes qualities of superhuman toughness to the Mongol commanders:

Their foreheads are of cast copper,
They have chisels for snouts,
They have awls for tongues,
Their hearts are of iron,
They have swords for whips.

An Etymological Question

In the book, Genghis Khan: Life Death and Resurrection, by John Man, I stumbled upon the word – Subedei. This is the name of one of the four generals of Genghis Khan – known as the “four hounds.” The variants of that name include, Subotai, Subedei, Tsubotai, and the preferred spelling Sübeetei (Chinese). Something about this name and some further clicking from one link to another was a path to a thought – a theory.Here I go, with the theory (yes, yet another).

I believe this is another example of a person who became a word. Like Louis Pasteur. A small background, before I begin: Subedei is a Mongol word. According to the Wikipedia article on Subedei, he is also know as “Subedei Baatar (meaning Subedei Warrior/Hero in Mongolian history books)” Baatar, seems to be a common word in Mongolian – Starting from the capital – Ulan Baatar (spelling variants to this exists too, Ulan Bator, for example). I’ll stick with Baatar for this article. Ulan Baatar translates to Red Hero, named in the honour of Damdin Sükhbaatar.

And coming back to the theory, I believe that the word Subedar in Hindi (Hindustani, to be more precise), is a derivative of Subedei. Apart from his other conquests, he fought significant wars in Central Asia – I’d assume that given his fame – he lived in the history books of that time – for some time. So the word must have remained in memory for some time – let’s assume a couple of hundred years – for the sake of my theory – and that the word eventually became a more generic one – to mean a lead – in an army. Subedei died in 1248. A little more than hundred years later, Timur-e Lang was born (1336) and ruled most of Central Asia until 1405. Along comes Babur in 1526 – after the First Battle of Panipat – and establishes the Mughal Empire. Mughal, being the Turkish word for Mongol. Pretty long winded, but I’ll now get to the point.

This is how I think the word Subedar, though a title now, came as a variant of Subedei via Mongolia. The reason, by the way, about the background of Ulan Baatar earlier, is that I noticed a word, in the book, Subotai the Valiant: Genghis Khan’s Greatest General by Richard A. Gabrielbagatur. It gives the same meaning to this word as baatar – brave, valiant, hero. Bagatur – again – closely resembles Bahadur – the Hindi word for brave, valiant, hero. Richard Gabrial further works on this word and mentions that the Russian word – bogatyr – is a derivative of bagatur.

This theory has been confirmed.

The Subedar theory however is suspect, a bit fanciful even. (Just this indulgence, however, has helped me stumble on a few things of note.) The reason why my theory may fall to pieces, is that it’s likely that the word is an extension of the word suba, meaning district, collection of villages etc. and anyone who was responsible for such a suba, would aptly be called Subedar.

But if bahadur travelled from the steppes of Mongolia via Uzbekistan to India, there may be a glimmer of hope for subedar.

PS: If you do have ideas about the root of Subedar, I’d love to hear from you – help my theory – either ways.