Wootz Steel and Malabar

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The Outhaals of Nellumboor and the Wootz steel

'One blow of a Damascus sword would cleave a European helmet without turning the edge or cut through a silk handkerchief drawn across it' that was how the Damascus sword was described during the Crusades, a sword which had a blade patterned “as though a trail of small black ants had trekked all over the steel when it was still soft” in the words of a 6th century Arabic poet, Aus-b-Hajr. Before long, the sword had attained a legendary reputation and the Excalibur of King Arthur had fallen by the wayside. Don’t you think it a good diversion, to learn a bit about all that?

Many years ago, my ‘cousin in law’ asked me if I had heard about Wootz steel, and though I had heard it in passing, I knew nothing about it. The questioner is considered to be one of the greatest minds in the field of material science, a nanotech ustad and a pioneer in the carbon nanotube field – Prof Pulickel Ajayan from Houston. I filed away the mention, into a document in my drafts folder. I got to it eventually and not surprisingly, discovered quite a bit about the connection of Wootz to Damascus.

Interestingly, the foundations of the subject ‘Material science’ itself came about from a single- minded pursuit of this Eastern product by many Western scientists (CS Smith MIT) and a study of a few samples of crucible steel from Malabar! That eastern product was none other than what was known as ‘Wootz steel’, something master craftsmen in the Tamilakam, Canara and Malabar laboriously smithied over centuries.  It is still considered to be the original high-quality steel made anywhere, more than a thousand years before steel production was perfected in the West. Though most Indians tout the Iron pillar of Delhi as the last symbol of the glorious craftsmanship from Northern India, they missed those lumps of crucible steel which were exported from the south to the West, eons before. And it was with these ingots sourced from the southern enclaves of India that the famed swords used by the greatest Arab and Persian swordsmen, were crafted in Damascus.

Most people still believe that the best swords are the Samurai swords from Japan, but that is because there are very few surviving Damascus swords and secondly because they don’t make the latter anymore. Anyway, let’s head to India and see how a bunch of metalworkers perfected an alloy which was used to create the sturdy weapon of those times. The demand was there and the blacksmiths knew what to do. The iron ore from which the steel was formed was found on the slopes of the Western Ghats.  With the ever-increasing trade links between Malabar and Arabia, the steel had a demand there, where artistic craftsmen made fine swords from it.

But well, now let us go south, to the sides of the once formidable Western Ghats. Steel foundries In Salem on the Tamilakam side and Nilambur as well as Kollengode on the Malabar side were busy with orders, making steel weapons, swords and daggers, even the Urumi and other masterpieces the old-fashioned way, using the crucible process and after much pounding of the product. This was centuries before the ancestors of Siemens (the name which holds the present patent, or is associated with) were born and well before the Japanese made the Samurai swords.

In South India, the demand for weapons was strong, what with the many hand to hand conflicts fought between the foot soldiers of regional feudal societies and later the Malabar – Portuguese battles.  The wars were fought with a certain amount of formality, at prescribed times and to a method. No deceit was tolerated and cheating was dishonorable. Swords, spears and arrows slung from bows were the main weapons. There were numerous types of swords, the broadsword, the dagger, the flexi-sword urumi worn around the fighter’s waist, and of course special swords and daggers carried by nobleman which were pieces of art.  The Nair who was responsible for security and warring, always walked around with a drawn sword and his shield (and there were temple swords carried by the velichapad). As time went by, the weapon of the rebel was also popular, the Malappuram Kathi.

The sourcing of steel from the South of India had been documented by the Greeks and we can see for example Aristotle (384BC) describing the process of making the Indian steel. “t was produced by heating in a charcoal hearth malleable iron with about 10% dried wood”. Galen (131AD) mentions that knives made from Indian steel were remarkable for their strength and hardness, but were often so brittle that the cutting edge splintered off, owing to them having been improperly tempered (It was a modified tempering process at Syria which perfected the Damascus blade).

The process with which the names of Martin and Siemens are associated is interestingly an adaptation of the old South Indian method of manufacturing Wootz steel. Now why was it called Wootz? It was called Wootz for no specific reason (a clerical error, so they say) and conjecture is that it somewhat sounded like Ukku. The first time the term was used was when Scott sent Malabar steel samples to J Banks in 1794, calling it Wootz. One Major Puckle who first saw two types of ingots at Canara, heard the terms ucha (superior) and nicha (inferior) as related to quality of product while noting that Ukku is the term for steel in Kannada. In Malayalam and Tamil, it is Urukku and somehow this word morphed into Wootz. RK Dube in his paper on the subject argues that it was transliterated from the Sanskrit word Utsa, which was the term used for steel in Western India. Kuppuram opines that it is directly taken from Telugu.

On the Malabar side of the Western Ghats, the blacksmiths produced a kind of Wootz steel, using a process somewhat similar to that described by Major Puckle observing it in Deccan. Jeans provides detail - At Nellumboor, there are a number of native furnaces in operation, making a steel after a fashion peculiar to themselves. "The ore is a black magnetic oxide, that runs sometimes as a species of lode through the laterite, which is here in most places the covering of the trap rock, and at others is found—but this is probably the result of disintegration—as a species of sand, interspersed with nodules of the size of a pigeon's egg, along the banks of the rivers or in the nullahs (water-courses) down which the monsoon torrents, find their way to the low country. This sand is collected from the hill sides and nullahs, and carried, generally by women and children, in small baskets on their heads to the sites of the furnaces. On reaching the furnaces this is carefully washed and stored in little heaps as may be found convenient.

They then cut down the Irool (Xylia dolabriformis) or kadamaram trees, which have extremely straight clean boles, at a height of about four feet from the ground with axes. The timber once down is split and cut into pieces varying from eight to ten inches in length by three or four inches diameter, and then placed in a circular hole in the ground in a quantity sufficient to yield, at the rate of six to one, about 56 or 60 lbs. per hole; it is slightly covered over with leaves and earth, and toward sundown, when the men are leaving the jungles, fire is applied. The result of these operations is that in the morning the wood set the night before is found sufficiently charred, and the first part of the day's work is to remove from the holes, and store it in light baskets, which are carried home in the evening on the fellers' heads; each man thus cutting his own timber, setting it in the little pits, and eventually bearing it to the furnaces.

The next and last material to be considered is a small amount of flux, and for this is used a small seashell carried up from the coast; in all probability it contains some phosphorus.
We now come to the construction of the furnace itself, which is built of brick, and lined, or rather plastered, internally with a kind of cement, formed of clay and pounded laterite. It is from eight to ten feet high, section circular, and say fifteen inches diameter at the bottom to two feet at the top, built on a regular batter, without any bellying or sloping boshes as in the European high furnaces. The tuyere holes are placed about four inches from the bottom of the hearth, and the blast is supplied by a couple of men sitting down, and each working a couple of goat-skin bellows, one in each hand.

The furnace itself is first of all filled with charcoal and as this begins to burn down the charge is added in the proportion of about 25 lbs. of ore to 50 lbs. of charcoal; it is not however put on in these quantities, but in little charges of three or four pounds of ore to seven or eight of coal and a few shells; the materials thus become thoroughly mixed, and to this may, I think, in some degree be attributed the quality of the resulting produce. When a sufficiency of material, which experience of the capacity of the furnace readily indicates, has been filled in to form a catty or lump of iron as large as the space between the bottom of the hearth and the tuyeres, the charging is stopped, but the blast is continued until the contents are fairly blown down. Time is then allowed, only a few hours, for the iron in the bottom to cool a little, and then the front of the furnace is broken open, the lump dragged out, and cut up into whatever sized pieces may be desired. It should be mentioned here that the yield from the ore is about 20% in Malabar.

We now come to the question of what species of iron or steel this metal is. It is, in fact, of two distinct qualities, some portions of it being of a bright steely fracture, whilst others are fibrous, like wrought iron. The better pieces are put aside for the further process to be presently described, and the fibrous or iron-like ones are sold just in their rough state to the smiths, who manufacture from them all the implements used in the country—cart axles and tires, hammers etc., by the simplest and most laborious process of ordinary hand forging.

From the better or, rather, more crystalline parts the well-known wootz steel is made, by melting them in little crucibles with about 10% of dried wood, Cassia auriculate (avarakka), and two or three leaves of Asclepias gigantea (vellerukku). The little crucibles are then set in an open circular charcoal fire urged by a gentle blast, and in due course the fragments of the cattie, or lump, are reduced to a button of clean solid steel; not so hard, certainly, as our cast steel, but capable of being forged into instruments of admirable temper, and taking a cutting edge like that of a razor."

That was how Perumkollars of Nilambur and perhaps Kollengode made Wootz steel in Outhals. Not just Nilambur, but that was the general process of making Wootz steel in the various regions of South India (Deccan, Tamilakam and Malabar). We know from historic records that these ingots were exported to Arabia for ages (e.g. Abraham Ben Yiju during the 12th century).  So, what did the Arabians do with these blocks of steel? They drew a thin ribbon from the blocks of steel by hammering, then a bundle of these were welded together by further pounding and after rough shaping, the fine edge was ground. As they were hammered chiefly on one side, a curved shape resulted, and thus was created the Arabian saber.

A key element in Damascus blade production seems to have been forging and hammering at a relatively low temperature - about 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit. After shaping, the blades were apparently reheated to about the same temperature, then rapidly cooled, as by quenching in a fluid. These swords can be easily recognized by a characteristic watery or ''damask'' pattern on their blades.

The tempering part was the real secret and this but naturally created many a lore or legend. Some said the blade was a result of quenching in 'Dragon Blood'. Some said it was done with donkey urine, others explained with a whisper that it was actually in the urine of redheaded boys or as the wizened Bedoiun said, in the urine of a ''three-year-old goat fed only ferns for three days.'' Of course, they had to make sure that the blade was heated until it glows ''like the sun rising in the desert.'' Another macabre legend explains that the golden blade should be cooled to the color of royal purple and plunged ''into the body of a muscular slave'' so that his strength would be transferred to the sword!! Those who disliked such lore, chose to believe the onerous process of slow cooling achieved when the blade, still red hot, was ''carried in a furious gallop by a horseman on a fast horse.'' Much of these could be based on superstition, but from a scientific point of view added nitrogen to the alloy. The real secret and a detailed documentation of the process of blade making was never discovered and will perhaps never be.

In the end, this legendary blade with a higher carbon content, which was crafted from the Indian Wootz steel, was further tested and tried through many wars to give rise to the Persian usage – Jawab-e-hind means to give an "Indian answer", i.e. "a cut with an Indian sword"

As we all know, the industrial revolution which followed had Europeans trying to integrate many of these age-old processes in factories, for mass production. But naturally, the study of Wootz and replication of the method in Britain, beccame primary. The first of the persons who spent a good amount of time and resources was an energetic bloke named Dr Helenus Scott at Bombay who sent a few samples of Malabar Wootz steel to Jospeh Banks and Alexander Johnson in London. Michael Faraday, himself the son of a blacksmith, was one of those scientists who collaborated with J. Stodart, to determine the composition of wootz, incorrectly concluding that the key factor was Wootz’s silica and aluminum content. Jean Robert Breant later conducted numerous experiments seeking to reproduce the properties of wootz by adding to ordinary steel such elements as platinum, gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, lead, bismuth, manganese, uranium, arsenic and boron. None of the efforts succeeded.

One of the big mysteries was how the skill of Damascus blade making, declined and was lost. A hint comes from the vanadium content in a genuine blade. These vanadium levels provide the basis for a theory. It appears that in order to produce the damascene patterns of a wootz Damascus blade the smith would have to fulfill at least three requirements. First, the wootz ingot would have to have come from an ore deposit that provided significant levels of certain trace elements, notably, Cr, Mo, Nb, Mn, or V. Then again there was the high phosphorous levels. Then there is the strict process involved in creating the blade, which of course was kept a secret.

The general agreement is that the ore base which had all these trace elements had been exhausted and without the correct raw material, the blades could no longer have the same qualities. The craftsmen went on to work on other end products. Perhaps other reasons hastened the decline, the reduction of wars in Europe, Arabia and India, the arrival of deadlier weapons to the scene such as the gun and gunpowder. Then again if you go to India, you will find that after the English arrived, they killed off much of the smithy cottage industry, pushed by the demands of the industrial revolution from back home.

With the British confiscating all knives and swords, with them changing the rules and methods of war, with a decline on demand from Arabia, the outlook for the Malabar blacksmith was bleak. The foundries went into disuse and with that the production of Wootz ingots in South India stopped altogether. India was forced to import steel from Britain and weapon making was discouraged. In the end, the craftsmen of Arabia notably Damascus stopped receiving the right type of steel and with that the manufacture of the Damascus blades stopped, and yes, the secret of the sword died with them.  
Scientists continued to try and figure out the real secrets behind the properties of Wootz and it was in 2006 that Marianne Reibold and colleagues from the University of Dresden uncovered the extraordinary secret behind the properties of Wootz steel, they were the presence of carbon nanotubes.

They discovered that wootz steel composition had these nanotubes which were revealed after a dissolution of the sample in hydrochloric acid. The study showed some remnants with incompletely dissolved cementite nanowires, suggesting that these wires were encapsulated by carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes are among the strongest materials known and have great elasticity and tensile strength. From the analysis they found nanotubes were protecting nanowires of cementite (Fe3C), a hard and brittle compound formed by the iron and carbon of the steel. They also discovered that the technique of etching the blades with acid brought out the characteristic wavy light and dark lines of the damask pattern, by dissolving a wee bit of the surface, exposing the acid-resistant carbon nanotubes. That is the answer to Wootz steel’s special properties –it being a composite material at a nanometer level.

How the old-timer blacksmith produced these is of course a question which many would ask, and while part of the answer is in the ore itself which contained small traces of metals in the wootz including vanadium, chromium, manganese, cobalt and nickel, the rest is in the cold and hot phases of production when the impurities were perfectly spread out and catalyzed the formation of nanotubes and formation of the cementite nano wires and eventually the formation of the wavy patterns.
Let it also be clear that all of the Wootz did not come from Malabar, in fact other regions including Ceylon were principal producers though they may have passed through Malabar ports during the Medieval periods. The origins of the steel used for these Damascus swords could be one or more of these locations around the Western Ghats, not just Malabar. Kuppuram and Sharada have connected thee origin to locations in Tamil Nadu and Andhra (Warrangal).

But there was a time when these blacksmiths known as kamala karuvan, kammara, preumkollar, made not only ingots for export, but also swords and knives for the local populace, living in specific settlements near the mountain slopes and rivers. Beypore for example had the island of Karuvanthuruthi. Kollengode in Palghat, got its name from Kollakudil which means blacksmith's hut. The iron furnaces of the area including Nilambur were known as Outhauls or Oothalas (ooth is blow – aala is furnace) and the remains of such manufacturing centers were very common in various parts of the locality. The magnetic ore was mostly found in Malabar especially in Palghat, Valluvanad, and Kurmbranad regions. The collected ore was hammered with large hammers called Koodams, separated and filtered using a process called Kunneriyal and taken to the furnace or the Oothala, and checked visually through the kurickakkal pipes, while charcoal was made using the choolakari and kuzhikari methods. A very detailed study of the Perumkollar community and their methods can be found in Ajesh’s thesis.

Even after the export of ingots stopped, some of these blacksmiths of Nilambur used to make the famed Malapuram Kathi and the Manjeri razors, a source of much concern to the Malabar administrators.

Though I did not want to make this article too complicated, I must mention and acknowledge the work and papers of a fascinating lady who has worked so much on the subject of Wootz steel, an authority on the subject, none other than the scientist and Bharatnatyam exponent Padmashri Sharada Srinivasan from Bengaluru.

But it was all because of Helenus Scotts’s curiosity of Malabar’s Wootz in 1794 that the foundations of a structured study of material sciences started, ironic isn’t it? Anyway, everything comes back a full circle as they say, for today, the Indian steel king Mittal rules the roost, controlling global iron and steel production. It should also be noted that most of the global foundry work is done only in India and almost all automobile pistons and engine blocks are made in India!

Perhaps a fitting end to the tale.

Artisan Communities in Pre-Modern Malabar: A Case Study of Perumkollas – Ajesh AM, PhD thesis
Ancient Indian mining, metallurgy and metal industries – G Kuppuram Vol 2
The many papers on the subject of Wootz Steel – Sharada Srinivasan
Carbon nanotechnology in an 17th century Damascus sword – Ed Yong, National Geographic, Sept 2008
Steel: Its History, Manufacture, Properties, and Uses - By James Stephen Jeans
The making and selling of Wootz – Bennet Bronson (Archeomaterials – 1986)
The Key Role of Impurities in Ancient Damascus Steel Blades - J.D. Verhoeven, A.H. Pendray, and W.E. Dauksch