How Indian steel shaped history

In ancient times, no king would have parted with a sword made of wootz steel—even for a moment. Because, these swords twisted history in ways indescribable today. From Arabian sultans to European monarchs to all vassal kings in between filled their armoury with them. Because, a marauding army could storm in any time, toppling the citadels, dethroning the king thus setting new course to history. There needed a powerful weapon. Only weapons made of wootz steel fit the bill. Ancient kings turned to India for help.

The steel was strong, sharp and able to cut even a hanging gauze in one go. The iron pillar of Delhi is the best specimen of its non-military use. Visit the 7 metre long obelisk, raised in 3rd century BC, by the King Chandragupta. Weighing over 6,000 kg, it still stands pretty much the same. There is not even a sign of corrosion, in spite of Delhi’s polluting environs. This is not an exaggeration. On the other hand, perhaps modern science hasn’t given wootz steel its due, considering the vast body of ancient literature in praise of it. When Alexander ran amok in India in 3rd century BC, he received a gift of 100 talents of Indian steel.

 Weapons made of wootz steel turned kings into monarchs or vice versa on the plains of Arabia, jagged hills of Rome and the other battle grounds of Europe. What is the special about Wootz steel? It is a pioneering steel alloy and there was no substitute to it in the ancient world beginning from 5th century B.C to 17th century AD—and in lesser degree it remained in vogue until 19th century, according to some sources. Wootz steel is quite unlike other steels in texture and, production; it had patterns developed from low levels of carbide-forming elements, cementite nanowires, and carbon nanotubes. These technological innovations were unheard of in Europe at the time.

Patronized by the Chera kings, the steel was manufactured in South India, especially in Golconda, Mysyore and Malabar region. The name itself, some sources say, is a corrupt anglicised version of Tamil word ‘Ukku’ for ‘wook’. The steel making involved sophisticated technology even by today’s standards. That included heating of black magnetite ore with carbon in sealed clay crucible inside charcoal furnace. Interestingly, these metallurgists had incredible knowledge of nature; for example, they sourced out carbon from bamboo and certain wild plants.  The incredibly powerful, well-finished steel came out of their furnaces travelled to distant lands, and earned varying names like Wootz, Ukku, Hindvi steel, Hindustani steel and Seric Iron. But the name Wootz stuck.

Through Arabs, the technology reached in Damascus, where it developed into an industry.  All this happened centuries before the so-called industrial revolution in Europe in 19th century. Europeans became curious of the technology, and tried to copy it. Benjamin Heyne (1770-1819), Scottish botanist and naturalist part of British East India Company, set out to study the secrets. 

In 1790, British Royal Society subjected to elaborate study the steel but to no avail. Russian metallurgist Pavel Petrovich Anosov developed something close to wootz steel, and was still nowhere near in quality. The technology finally died out when British prohibited its trade in 1866. Jealousy—what else?