Tribes knew Iron Smelting

Dr. Basanta Kumar Mohanta

Ore Furnace
Bellow Tuyere
Charcoal Operational Technique
Causes for abandonment  
The technology of iron smelting was introduced in India after the copper-bronze age, of Indus Valley civilisation. Since that time the traditional iron smelting technology was continuing till the mid part of the twentieth century and gradually became extinct. The tribes like Asur, Agaria, Kol, Cheeroo and Kharia were some of the primitive iron smelters of central and eastern India. These tribal people live in the dense hill and plateau region close to the source of the raw materials. They smelted iron not only to fulfill their needs but also to meet the requirements of the neighbours.

The iron ore are iron oxide with impurities like silica and alumina. The selection of ore is important for an iron smelter. An Agaria generally prefers the low grade of the iron ore. They recognise the source site by the colour of the soil of a particular place. Sometimes the ores are found on the surface. They collect the ore nodules from exposed surfaces near rain-gullies. Sometimes, shallow digging is also required. They usually collect these ores two to four days prior to the smelting.

Although the size of the furnace varies from community to community and place to place but the shape almost remains same. These furnaces were almost cylindrical in shape. The locally available clay mixed with straw or rice husk were used to prepare the furnace. One smelting furnace contains two passages, one at the top and other at the ground level. The top passage was used for allowing charcoal and ores where as the ground level passage was meant for attaching the tuyeres. The air used to be blown into the furnace through this passage. This passage was also used for removing the bloom at the end of the work.


The Asur and the Agarias used a pair of foot bellow for blowing air into the furnace. The foot bellow has three components. A solid wooden bowl, two bamboo made blow pipes and a leather bellow. One end of the bamboo pipes each connected with the earthen tuyeres while the other one is fitted to the wooden bowl covered with hide. The wooden bowl acts as conduit for passing air from bellow operation.


The term Tuyere basically means a nozzle through which air is blown at a high drift into the furnace for smelting operation. The women folk of the tribes used to make the earthen tuyeres.


Charcoal was used for firing the furnace. Furnace was either dug in the ground or made like a hearth. The charcoal was prepared by burning wood in a pit covered by leaves and sand. Good varieties of charcoal were made by burning log of valuable timber quality like Sal (Shorea Robusta). Strict forest rules, however, made the availability of Sal difficult and this forced the tribal smelters to abandon the indigenous form of smelting.


Operational Technique

Inside furnace ore and charcoal were arranged in alternate layers. After packing the furnace, the fire used to be lit through the bottom hole. Usually layering was done during day and firing in the evening. Normally women blew the air by operating the bellow whereas change or supply of ore and charcoal was done by a man.

A complete set of operation used to take nearly twelve hours. Before the beginning of the smelting operation a pig used to be given in sacrifice to appease supernatural power.


Causes for abandonment

These iron smelters lived in dense forests rich with iron ore for easy availability of raw materials. After practicing the method for nearly four thousand years they could not pursue any further. Both Verrier Elwin and Leuva observed the death of the practice in early twentieth century among the Agaria and the Asur. The causes of the demise of such practice could be (i) the establishment of modern technology based iron smelting plant at Tata Nagar and Burnpur, (ii) restriction on forest tree felling, (iii) labour intensive process of antique smelting and (iv) the growing reluctance amongst the concerned tribes to pursue the practice, due to the spread of education. Further constant market failure could not sustain the old age technique.



Source: Photographs
All Photographs are by the author