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.

Bhawani: The Sword of Shivaji

An article in the Times of India from a few years ago, talks of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s Bhawani Sword  having originated in Toledo, Spain. This claim was supported (as a possibility) by none other than Babasaheb Purandare.

“Yes, it can be true because there has been documentary evidence to show that swords had been imported from Spain because of the quality of steel and the mastery of its workers in designing swords and knives,” confirms historian Babasaheb Purandare. According to Purandare, Shivaji possessed three swords which were named Bhawani, Jagdamba and Tulja. Via Desperately Seeking Shivaji’s Sword

Ninad Bedekar, however, casts doubts due the inscriptions on the sword.

What is the class (type) of the Bhawani sword?

According to S. N. Sen, the Bhawani sword is a Genoese blade and the firangi, a Toledo Blade. There is more information about the Bhawani sword being a Genoa blade.

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 16.46.56If you look at some of the old paintings of Shivaji, it seems that the sword on his right arm was a Patta or a Dandpatta, which has an integrated gauntlet. However, if we go by the description of the Bhawani in the text above, by Nick Evangelista, it could not have been a Patta. The existence of a spike, means that there could not have been a gauntlet.

AN01043315 001 l

Portrait of Shivaji; painting mounted onto an album folio. Inscribed. Album contains 26 paintings of Indian princes. Ink, opaque watercolour and gold on paper. Album bound in red leather and stamped on both covers with a central medallion, spine decorated with gold leaf. Interior cover marbled. Courtesy British Museum

There are many such images of Shivaji, that often depict a Dandpatta in the right hand and another sword in the left; which looks more like the firangi (which a straight blade).

There seem to be no specific references to a Toledo Sword or a Genoa sword — they always refer to them a the Toledo Blade or the Genoese Blade. Which makes sense because, according to this page in the Higgins Collection:

As European traders came to India in the 1500s and 1600s, they brought swords from the blademaking centers in Spain, Italy, and Germany. The blades of these swords were much admired in India, and some were fitted into Indian-made hilts. English swords were less respected: one Indian admiral of the 1600s remarked that English blades were “only fit to cut butter.”

So, while the blade itself was imported from either Spain or Italy, the class of the sword is an entirely different matter, because the sword was crafted locally. A distinction needs to be made between the blade and the sword, I suppose.

A sabre or Farang; slightly curved seventeenth century European steel blade stamped on each side with an Arabic inscription and chased on the right side with a crescent moon face; Indian iron basket hilt grip covered with purple and silver gilt cloth; flat circular pommel and curved spike. Green velvet covered wooden scabbard with chased gold mount and chape. Courtesy: Royal Collection Trust

A sabre or Farang; slightly curved seventeenth century European steel blade stamped on each side with an Arabic inscription and chased on the right side with a crescent moon face; Indian iron basket hilt grip covered with purple and silver gilt cloth; flat circular pommel and curved spike. Green velvet covered wooden scabbard with chased gold mount and chape. Courtesy: Royal Collection Trust

As regards the Jagdamba sword, it is commonly assumed (and accepted, I guess) that the Jagdamba was gifted to Edward VII, the Prince of Wales, during his visit to India. It’s a badly cropped image, so there is no way to clearly state that this is a straight blade or a curved one. The Trust makes no mention of the name of the sword. Also, on the page, there are images of two swords.

A look across various old illustrations of Shivaji, indicate the possibility of the Bhawani sword being a straight blade, and not a scimitar. Also, because I believe it is a gauntlet sword, there’s a good chance that it was a broadsword (double-edged).

Yet, in contemporary illustrations, it is shown as a talwar or a scimitar (curved blade). Are these representations of the Bhawani sword or the Jagdamba sword?

I’ll keep updating this page as I find new information. If you have anything to contribute, please suggest, using comments below.

 

Notes:

  1. TNN. (2002, July 2). Desperately Seeking Shivaji’s Sword – The Times of India. Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/pune-times/Desperately-Seeking-Shivajis-Sword/articleshow/14790290.cms
  2. Sen, S. (1920). Siva Chhatrapati being a translation of Sabhasad Bakhar with extracts from Chitnis and Sivadigvijaya, with notes. (Vol. 1, p. 19). Calcutta: Univ. of Calcutta.
  3. Evangelista, N. (1995). The Encyclopedia of the Sword (p. 55). Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
  4. Pata (sword). (2014, November 29). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pata_(sword)
  5. British Museum – Portraits of Indian Princes. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?assetId=135116&objectId=265601&partId=1
  6. Firangi (sword). (2014, November 27). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firangi_(sword)
  7. Pata (gauntlet sword). (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.higgins-collection.org/artifacts/1550
  8. Sabre. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/38023/sabre