Damascus or Wootz steel of Telangana

Iron Age may have come into existence in Telangana much before the rest of the world. At least that's   the conclusion reached by archaeologists excavating the University of Hyderabad campus who found iron artifacts dating back to roughly 2,200 BC has a long tradition of metallurgy.

One of the noteworthy scientific and technological products of old India was Telangana steel, also called Wootz, Ukku or Damascus steel. Its origins can be traced back as far as 500 A.D. Apparently, The Raw Ore Used To Make The Legendary 'Damascus Steel' Came From Telangana! 

Known for their skills since 300 AD, blacksmiths of Telangana had a glorious past. Interestingly, a team of researchers that was fascinated by the high quality of Tipu Sultan’s sword that was put for Sotheby’s auction in 2012 in London wanted to find out the origin of the majestic sabre. The sword was auctioned for an enormous 502,500 pounds.

The team comprised of Bangalore-based National Institute for Advanced Studies (NIAS) and UK’s Exeter University finally traced the origins of the metal used to make the Sultan’s sword, which was known for its toughness due to high carbon content. To their utter surprise, they found out that the sword was made by blacksmiths of Telangana, maybe someone who lived between Nizamabad and Hyderabad.

Additionally, they were given access to a number of blades thought to have been produced from steel from this region, so they could attempt to match components and qualities of the steel in the blades with the materials found at the old sites.

They were able to confirm that Tipu Sultan’s blade was indeed made with steel from this region, and further delved into the nature and qualities of Telengana steel and its historic production. Their results have been collected and are available in the report:  Pioneering Metallurgy: Origins of Iron and Steelmaking in the Southern Indian Subcontinent, which explores the ways in which they collected, analyzed and matched the samples.

Remnants of iron ore smelting found at many places demonstrate the hoary roots of artisanship and tool making in Telangana for at least two thousand years.
The specialty of “Telangana Ukku” is that it’s mainly depended on certain trace elements like Vanadium, which may have been present in that certain iron ore body in the locality. When that lode was exhausted, the steel made from other places did not show these trace elements. As the raw material vanished, the secrets of the master steel men of Telangana gradually vanished. Now all we know today is that the process of making “Ukku” entailed repeated heating and cooling for days on end to burning at a particular temperature, and hammering of steel into ingots, and further treating the lumps into shaped blanks, before making it into swords.

In terms of natural and human environment Northern Telangana lies in what is now the remote rural heartland of India and is a landscape of scattered agricultural villages of mixed occupational groups, interspersed with tracts of teak-dominated forest and bisected by the west to east flowing Godavari river.

That the area was settled well into the past is evidenced by the plethora of small abandoned irrigation reservoirs seen both on the ground and recorded on early topographical maps. 

While there have been few intensive archaeological surveys of the area there are known megalithic burial sites indicative of an Iron Age, iron-using culture which, although not clearly dated, is presumed to precede an Early Historic settlement phase. 

Of the latter, Kotilingala, an enclosed habitation site on the banks of the Godavari in Karimnagar district, is best known and dated to the early centuries BCE when the region formed part of the core of the post-Mauryan Satavahana kingdom.

Telangana has been consistently associated with the production or iron and steel and the trade in ingots of high-carbon steel. Prior to any field surveys this was known through historical documentation, particularly firsthand accounts from European travelers visiting or doing business in the region. These accounts cluster in the seventeenth century, as the activities of the Dutch East India Company expand into the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia, and include mentions of the village of Konasamudram in Nizamabad district as an established steel-making centre or give descriptions of the trade in steel ingots from the Kingdom of Golkonda through the port of Masulipatam.

Damascus swords and knives dominated the weapon industry from the Iron Age to the Viking age. Alexander the Great was said to have had a Damascus sword, and even Aristotle commented on the high quality of the Damascus steel blade. 

Damascus steel is a legendary blade that was a fad once upon a time in Europe. Did you know that the raw material for this legendary blade apparently was imported from Telangana.

Although the region is rich in ore, smelting is no longer practised and it appears that the knowledge of smelting technology is significantly lost. Some village elders retain some memory of the thriving smelting industry of the past, but the information obtained during the 2010 survey was sketchy and further intensive enquiry is required.

Today, roadside blacksmiths still work in Telangana, the descendants of artisans responsible for creating the legendary metalwork. Juleff surveyed the region in 2010 with her colleagues, and of them, ‘Jai’ Jaikishan, is a historian working at BNS College in Hyderabad, India. He explains that Telangana produced lots of crucible steel in the 16th–18th century. ‘Wootz producers in this region were called Kammari. Their technical expertise was much in demand for making war equipment, but at present village smiths are not handling wootz steel.’

Jaikishan blames the loss of wootz knowledge on the British East India Company’s response to the Indian Rebellion, or First War of Independence, which started in 1857. ‘They decided to stop the production of wootz steel in 1858,’ he says. Meanwhile, forest laws imposed in 1862 also stopped Indian communities exploiting nearby trees, cutting the supply of charcoal. ‘This broke up the iron and wootz industry in this country,’ Jaikishan says.