From: Rajan Gopalan

Not many of us were aware! Jai Hind!!

                   Story of swords and steel
Brishti Guha

An engraving of Saladin by Gustave Doré

In the 5th century BC, Herodotus, the Greek
historian whom posterity knows as the “father of history”, wrote about
Indian iron. The iron that Herodotus wrote about tipped the arrows
that Indian soldiers used against intruders. Archaeologists estimate
that iron was in use in ancient India (in the eastern Vindhyas and the
central Gangetic plain) from as early as 1800 BC. By the Gupta era,
wrought iron production was advanced enough to create the famous Iron
Pillar of Delhi – a pillar known not only for its exquisite
workmanship but also for its ability to resist corrosion in nearly two
millennia of constant exposure to the elements.

Likewise, ancient Indian steel, too, was prized very
highly. According to American historian, Will Durant, King Porus is
said to have selected 30 pounds of steel (instead of gold or silver)
as gift for Alexander. Indian steel – also called ‘crucible steel’ or
‘wootz steel’ – was in great demand as the material with which
legendary swords were forged. Foreign geographers of the 11th and 12th
centuries, such as the Moroccan geographer, Ash-Sharif al-Idrisi, and
the Venetian geographer, Giovanni Ramusio, were all praise for Indian
swords. Al-Idrisi described how “Hindoos excel in the manufacture of
iron, and in the preparation of those ingredients along with which it
is fused to obtain that kind of malleable iron, usually styled Indian
steel.” He also mentioned how their workshops produced “the most
famous sabres in the world”. Indian steel, particularly Indian swords,
came to be known in Arabic as “Hundwániy”.

What made Indian swords so special? These swords
could bend at a 90 degree angle and immediately spring back to their
former positions, yet their blades would be sharp enough to slice a
falling bolt of silk and cut it in half. An icing on the cake was the
fact that these were swords of spectacular beauty. Under the surface,
wavy patterns crisscrossed in a unique design reminiscent of damask.
According to anthropologist and archaeo-metallurgist Ann Feuerbach,
Indian steel was originally shipped in the form of ingots to the
Middle East and Syria; because of the Syrian connection, the swords
made with this steel were also known as Damascus swords, whose
properties derived from the special way in which the steel had been

The Middle East traditionally served as a conduit
between the East and the West, transmitting Indian work on mathematics
to Europe, for example. But it decided to keep its familiarity with
Indian swords to itself. The discretion fetched it a spectacular
reward: hordes of invading European crusaders were roundly defeated by
Saladin and his troops using these swords. The swords could cleave
through a European helmet in a single stroke and suffer no damage. The
invading armies were baffled by their encounter with the sharpest,
strongest and yet most flexible swords and scimitars they had ever

After the Crusades, these “Hundwániy” swords were
introduced to Spain and Italy as “Ondanique”, according to the most
famous traveller of all, Marco Polo. Ramusio mentioned how a man who
possessed a sword, or a mirror, made of ondanique, would regard it as
a “precious jewel” because of its “surpassing value and excellence”.

Indian steel-makers carefully guarded their
metallurgical secrets. Westerners knew that to be able to make such
swords themselves, they needed to know how to produce steel with the
special qualities intrinsic to Indian steel. From the 17th to the 19th
centuries, a number of Westerners tried to replicate the special
properties – the strength, sharpness, and superplasticity – of Indian
steel, but to no avail. These included Michael Faraday, better known
for his contributions to electricity and magnetism and the discovery
of benzene. He spent many years performing a series of experiments,
adding alloys to iron in a fruitless attempt to replicate the
structure and characteristics of Indian steel.

It was not till 2006 that scientists got a closer
glimpse into the secrets of Indian steel. Crystallographer Peter
Paufler and his team of researchers had access to some swords made
with this steel. Using an electron microscope, and dipping the blades
of the swords in hydrochloric acid, the team discovered that the
underlying structure of the steel contained carbon nanotubes. Carbon
nanotubes – for whose discovery three scientists got the Nobel Prize
in 1996 – have a cylindrical structure with one-atom thick walls, are
associated with remarkable degrees of thermal and electrical
conductivity, and are used in a number of applications at the
forefront of the still emerging field of nanotechnology, including
bone tissue engineering, improving the tensile strength of fabrics and
sports materials, and microscope probes. These nanotubes encased
“nanowires” made of another hard material, cementite. According to the
scientists, who published the results of their study in Nature, this
combination of nanotubes and nanowires in the underlying structure of
the steel used to make the swords was responsible for the swords’
hardness, sharpness and flexibility.

The discovery of nanotubes in Indian swords may
finally have provided scientists with a clue to their secret. Indian
steel, which was manufactured in crucibles where iron was heated with
burning leaves and wood, was heated to temperatures just high enough
to preserve the impurities in the iron (such as vanadium) which then
bonded with the carbon in the plant matter to form nanotubes. Paufler
and his team hypothesize that these tubes could then have been filled
with cementite, which would produce nanowires, accounting for the
wiry, wave-like pattern on the swords. The alternation of hard
cementite with softer steel in between could explain the strength and
the flexibility of the swords, while the resistance of carbon
nanotubes to acid had a role in the blades’ legendary sharpness.
Though scientists must use inference to guess the exact process by
which Indian steel-makers and sword-smiths arrived at their results,
this was not a one-off accident, but a technique which was replicated
faultlessly by the steel-smiths over hundreds of years.

Ancient Indian metallurgists were thus the
inadvertent pioneers of modern nanotube research, forging swords that
fired the imagination of warriors and scientists all over the world
for centuries. How were these remarkable skills lost to the world? In
an unfortunate twist, the skill of making these sabres and swords died
out in British India. According to Sir Richard Francis Burton and
David Arnold, this was largely a matter of conscious policy; our
British rulers realized the importance of iron and steel-making skills
in the success of rebellions, particularly after the mutiny of 1857.
They then instituted a series of measures, such as the Arms Act of
1878, to limit Indians’ access to firearms while destroying the
existing Damascene swords they could find. Mines were forcibly closed,
particularly in mineral-rich regions like Rajasthan. Even the caste of
miners became extinct and with it, their trade secrets. As the British
eliminated the military might of princely states, they also eroded
their capacity to mine and work metals. The constant vulnerability of
the subcontinent to a series of foreign invaders may partly explain
why much of the indigenous knowledge died out by the modern era

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