The blacksmiths of Telangana and tracing the origins of wootz steel
The idea for this post started when I came across a fascinating short article from the Hans India newspaper.
In Blacksmiths of Telangana: A forgotten tale of hammer and tongs, the journalist gives us a first-person view of these traditional indigent wayside smiths in the Indian city of Hyderabad, whose trade is in danger of being wiped out.
Living in extreme poverty, these families are waning as children pursue more lucrative jobs, modern manufacturing technology spreads — rendering their skills obsolete — and the cities forbid them to carry out their trade within their borders.
Yet their skills were, at one time, unique. Telengana, a state in southern India, is believed by many to be source of the wootz steel prized by European and Middle Eastern smiths for centuries. Many blades, including the Viking Ulfbert blades and Damascus steel are now believed to have been made of steel billets first manufactured in this area, then traded across the then-known world.
The article mentions the following (I’ve added links to background information):
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.
The report mentioned above was researched and written by members of India’s National Institute for Advanced Studies and the UK’s University of Exeter. The project involved members of the team visiting 120 known mining, smelting and smithing sites in the Telengana region, collecting and analyzing samples. 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.