Bharat ki Chhap - Episode 4: The Iron Age
Director: Chandita Mukherjee; Cinematographer: Ranjan Palit
Duration: 00:49:20; Aspect Ratio: 1.366:1; Hue: 33.602; Saturation: 0.131; Lightness: 0.289; Volume: 0.316; Cuts per Minute: 5.939; Words per Minute: 69.626
Summary: This episode introduces the Iron Age. We understand the Vedas and their growing influence on society, traditional iron-smelting techniques from Bastar, geometry through Shulbasutra and a changing social structure.
After the Harappan cities declined, new people began to move into the Indian subcontinent. They brought a proto-Indic language that became the basis for Sanskrit and the Indo-Aryan languages. They also brought new ways of life, fought, and mingled with, the earlier inhabitants. Their literature, passed on through generations, is the oldest literature of this subcontinent. The Ramayana
were written at the end of this period.
Every civilisation has its epics and heroes. Thus the Mahabharata
reflect India in those times – people's struggles, anxieties and ideals. Writers have always drawn contemporary meaning from the epics. Dharamvir Bharati in Andha Yug
describes the effects of a nuclear holocaust using the mythical brahmastra
as a symbol.
Hear, O lords of heaven
Each of you, from lofty heights
Looking on at this war – bear witness!
Arjun drives to this -
Here is the brahmastra!
What have you done? Ashwatthama, inhuman one!
Do you know what results from the brahmastra?
If truly aimed, O beast, then for centuries to come
The earth shall yield no fruit,
Children shall be born crippled and diseased
We shall be a race of dwarves
All knowledge gathered by humans through the ages
Shall forever be lost
In the ears of wheat snakes will hiss
The rivers flow with molten lava
The sun will be eclipsed, the earth become barren
Ashwatthama, inhuman one, what have you done?
Nissim: Literature of the time mentions brahmstras
and flying machines. But we find no proof that such things existed. Instead, we have found that in many ways, their technology was less advanced that that of the Harappans.
Maitreyi: Yet we have evidence of seemingly minor things that were of immense value then – superior bronze and, later, iron weapons. Horse-drawn carts with lighter, spoked wheels so travel over rough terrain was easy. Harappan bullock-carts had heavy, solid wheels
Harappan axes were hafted, tied to handles, but this axe was socketed, fitting firmly, and so was more efficient for clearing the forests.
Nissim: These 'small things' were to come together to lay the foundations of new cities. Knowing all this if we regard the epics as history, we shall do justice neither to our history nor to our epics.
Valley near Kargil, Kashmir
The Indo-Aryan speakers first arrived with their cattle, through the Hindukush ranges. They came over centuries, 1500 BC onwards
Their oldest book the Rig Veda
indicates that they first settled on the banks of the Chenab, Sutlej and Saraswati rivers. Unlike for the Harappan period we find almost no material remains of this time, for these people wandered in search of pastures for their cattle. So their possessions were few. We call this entire period the 'Rig Vedic period'. The Rig Veda
tells us they were cowherds. Cattle was their economic strength. They grew seasonal crops like barley – but milk, milk products and meat, including beef, was their staple diet. Their language reflects the importance of the cow.
Baramullah pasture lands
The king was gopa
near relatives - gotra. Godhuli
were times of day. Most interesting are their words for battle - gavishti, gaveshana, goshu, gavyu
Clearly, when they fought, it was to acquire cow, sheep or goats. The Rig Veda
is full of prayers for success in these raids. But it also contains hymns describing Rta -
a concept of special significance for us.
was a means of comprehending nature. The changing seasons, life and death, sunrise and sunset, every aspect of nature followed a pattern governed by the law of Rta.
Science, too, aims to know the patterns in nature. Rta,
then, contained a scientific attitude. Humans also obeyed Rta,
as did the gods. But as people grew less dependent on nature and social and religious ties grew more important, Rta
gradually became a social law. Its scientific aspect grew weaker and its religious aspect became stronger. In the Rig Vedic
period, people's lives were close to nature. Most hymns praise the god Indra. They contain prayers for victory in battle, for cattle and for health. Some verses are in praise of bountiful nature - Varuna, Agni, Ushas are invoked
Usha, daughter of heaven, has descended to earth
And banished darkness
Usha, bride of the sun, giver of food
Mistress of wealth, she rules the treasuries
The radiant horses appear, heralding her approach
In all directions, Usha rides her chariot
Truthful among the true, great among the great
Divine among the gods
Worshipped amond the worshipped
Usha dispels the dark. All living creatures -
animals too – await her coming
O Usha, grant us animals, horses, grain
And male progeny
May the gods watch over us
By 1000 BC the Indo-Aryan speakers had spread as far as today's Punjab, Haryana, into parts of Rajasthan and west UP, to the banks of Yamuna. This was the 'Kuru-Panchala land' of the Mahabharata.
The Yajur, Sama
and Athava Veda,
and parts of the Brahmanas
were composed in this, the later Vedic period. The artefacts found at over 700 sites reveal that by then people had begun to settle down and practise farming.
National Museum, New Delhi
These objects show an improved quality of life. Take this grey pottery found at most sites, known as Painted Grey Ware or PGW. These pots have fine walls and are very well fired. When tapped they give a metallic ring. To this day, in our homes such dishes,
bowls and lotas
are used for eating and drinking, and their shapes closely resemble these. In many large settlements of the time, we find iron. But iron was then used mainly for weapons.
Nissim: Iron - a metal, like copper, that gave a whole age its name - the Iron Age. And later made the use of stone almost redundant.
Maitreyi: Unlike copper, silver or gold, iron is not found on earth in its pure form. But meteors from space sometimes contain pure iron mixed with nickel. Humans first learned of iron thus. Proof comes from northern Turkey, dating to about 5000 years ago.
Nissim: But to extract
iron from the ore is more difficult. Evidence indicates that 3500 or 4000 years ago, again in north Turkey, the Indo-European speaking Chalybis tribe discovered the process and kept it secret for centuries.
Maitreyi: When the Indo-Aryan speakers first arrived, they probably knew of iron - but not how to make it. Evidence from PGW sites shows that by 1000 BC they had learned how to extract iron.
Nissim: Others, too, had made the discovery. The Indo-Aryan speakers had spread, by then, only upto the Yamuna. Other settlements like the megalithic cultures in central and south India also existed. It seems they had no contact with the Indo-Aryan speakers, yet iron is found at many megalithic sites. At a site in the Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu, Amrita saw some megalithic remains.
Sittanavasal, Pudukkottai District, Tamil Nadu
By this village pond are megalithic graves, 3000 years old. They seem just stones lying around, till you look closely. It's a circle of laterite stones. In its centre is a granite rectangle, which has a different purpose. Excavations reveal a tiny room below with an earthen urn containing skeletal remains. The dead were buried along with their personal belongings - jewellery, pots, gifts and iron objects. This megalithic iron is already as old as the iron from Vedic sites.
How did they live? What were their homes like? We have no clear picture.
Bangles and beads, worn by a girl to look lovely. Tools of iron, that made life easier. Pots, which held food for those who toiled. And swords, that protected them all their lives but couldn't prevent their final end in these graves.
Nissim: Megalithic cultures existed in many parts of the world. In India they are of a later date. Amrita showed us stone-ringed burials, but megaliths of many types are found.
Maitreyi: At most of these places we find iron. Iron is more difficult to extract than copper but iron ore is much more abundant than copper ore. So once people learnt to extract iron everybody could have iron tools.
Nissim: Iron had such an impact that almost every region had its own iron-smelting artisans. Their traditions till survive in some places. Ramanathan went Bastar in Madhya Pradesh (now Chattisgarh). People here still erect megalith-type memorials to their dead. However these are no longer made of stone. They are of wood or even cement.
Kondagaon area, Bastar Dist., Chasttisgarh
In Kusma village, Ramanathan met Sonadhar, an ironsmith of the Madia tribe.
Kusma Village, Kondagaon, Bastar Dist., Chattisgarh
Ramanathan: How deep will you dig?
Sonadhar: Five or six feet
Ramanathan: But not every rock contains iron
Sonadhar: How do you know?
Ramanathan: By breaking the rock. Look, it has these streaks that are black and shiny. So this contains iron.
Ramanathan: Is this the furnace?
Sonadhar: Yes. Let me show you what we do.
Ramanathan: Is this some special clay?
Sonadhar: Not really
Ramanathan: It's shaped to fit this?
The slag collects at the bottom. We have to remove it from time to time. This pipe is called a kootan.
It's placed here, and tied to a pair of bellows. And we seal off the mouth.
Ramanathan: So no air can get in?
Iron from rock. Smelted in a simple mud furnace. I spent a unique night with these ironsmiths.
Ramanathan: Why is air pumped in from this one point?
Sonadhar: So that the air pressure and temperature keep going up, they must not fall. This is the ore we were collecting today.
Ramanathan: I see
Sonadhar: Now the furnace is ready to be fired
I stayed up all night watching them take turns to operate the bellows so the temperature inside wouldn't drop. They can control only the fire. The colour of its flames is a useful guide, which is why they always smelt iron at night - so they can see the colours that are lost by day.
Ramanathan: How much iron will finally get?
Sonadhar: We'll feed in coal and ore twelve to fifteen times and get one and a half or two kilos of iron. Watch this - I was telling you how we remove the slag.
Ramanathan: May I do it?
Sonadhar: Of course. Stay on – in four years I'll teach you the work.
Ramanathan: Will you keep me?
Sonadhar: We'll even find you a girl to marry, if you like!
Sonadhar: It's morning – time to break open the furnace.
Ramanathan: How do you know it's time?
Sonadhar: You can see – the colour of the flames has changed.
Ramanathan: And you know the iron is ready? We know how much ore and fuel went in and we pumped the bellows constantly. Also look at the slag.
Why they broke open the furnace and took out the newly smelted iron, I, too felt happy. And I wondered - when people first made iron from rock, how did they feel? And what was their method?
Deccan College, Department of Archaeology, Pune
Furnace remains, found in Naikund village in Maharashtra, provide an answer. This megalithic furnace from 600 BC is similar to Sonadhar's. Experts from Deccan College, Pune, studied the remains and designed this model. This was the clay pipe to let in air. And here are the actual remains. The pipe they found, circular bricks that were part of the furnace, iron ore and slag, like I took out from the Bastar furnace. This is iron – and these, tools made of iron. The megalithic ironsmiths had a skilful technique. Iron melts at 1600ᵒ Celsius, but people then had no way of maintaining this high temperature. What did they do? The Naikund finds tell us. Impurities in iron melt at 1200ᵒ Celsius. So they raised the temperature enough for the impurities to melt and rise to the top, leaving pure iron below. This was beaten into implements.
Kusma Village, Kondagaon, Bastar Dist., Chattisgarh
Nissim: In the method we saw, iron is not melted but the impurities are melted off, and later the hot iron is beaten to remove remaining impurities. Thus wrought iron is obtained. This was the tradition of the Indian subcontinent.
Maitreyi: Wrought iron is, however, inferior to bronze. It rusts, and sharp edges blunt easily. Iron is of value chiefly for making steel. Nissim: Steel is made by adding carbon to iron in the right proportion and manner. To make steel from wrought iron - the iron was heated along with coal powder and beaten to mix in the carbon.
Maitreyi: The art of making steel was developed here after 300 BC, but iron had become common much earlier. At first, iron was used mainly for making weapons. But by 700 BC or so articles of daily use and agricultural tools began to be made of iron.
Dept. of Ancient History, Univ of Allahabad
Around 700 BC a new kind of pottery became popular in the Ganga-Yamuna doab.
Known as Northern Black Polished Ware or NBP, it is found along with iron tools. While the pottery reflects superior craftsmanship, we also learn that for these river bank settlers agricultural tools of iron had become important.
Later Vedic literature, and excavations, tell us that by the seventh century BC the Indo-Aryan speakers had crossed the forests of the Gangetic plains, reaching modern-day Bihar. After a period of farming, they discovered that transplanting paddy increases the yield.
Their changing lifestyle owed much to iron. Iron was needed to cut down forests and plough the clayey soil of the Gangetic plains.
The higher yields resulting from new tools and techniques did not always go to the farmer. Many regional states had emerged – republics, or those ruled by kings, or by tribal chiefs. Everywhere, the status of the king and brahmana
grew, while that of the vish,
commoner or farmer, fell.
The Shatapatha Brahmana
clearly states -
The feast is for the Kshatriya, the subjects are his food. The more there is for him, the more shall this land prosper and grow.
Maitreyi: In our subcontinent, this age's literature gives the first direct evidence of people's thinking and science. Science is more than techniques - it's the underlying principles and questions.
Nissim: Our information comes from the Vedangas -
appendices to the Vedas.
Texts like the Kalpsutra
describe religious rituals, but works like the Jyotish Vedanga
tell us about their astronomy etc.
Maitreyi: The Shrautasutra
gives instructions for fire rituals. Special bricks were needed for the fire altar or chiti.
This gives us an insight into later Vedic geometry. Ranjan will tell us more.
Ranjan: Based on what they desired, they made altars of different shapes, They might want cattle or a better harvest victory over enemies or to enter heaven - but every type of altar was built according to common rules. The area had to be 7.5 square purusha.
was based on the length of a man. It had to have five layers of 200 bricks each, but in no adjacent layers could bricks be laid identically. These rules seem simple, but posed many problems - how to make different shapes of the same area? The rules, though given by the religious lawbooks, let to problems of geometry, and the solutions were beyond the scope of these texts.
Nissim: Instead, we must turn to an oral composition, the Shulbasutra
a cord or string. Two geometric shapes can be made with its help. We can stretch it and use it like a ruler to form a straight line, or hold one end firmly and rotate the other to make a circle. The altar-makers used cord for measurement. So their constructions were chiefly of the straight-edge and compass type. Like the right angle, the square, the rectangle. Or the area of two squares combined to make one square. A square that in area is the difference between two squares. A square equivalent in area to a rectangle. And all this just with the help of cords.
Ranjan: The Shulbasutra
contains the oldest and clearest general formulation of Pythagoras' famous theorem. The theorem says that in any right-angled triangle, if the hypotenuse is c, then c2 = a2 +b2. The Greek proof taught in schools is based on the triangle. The Shulbasutra
explains it using the rectangle. The theorem is expressed thus in the Shulbasutra :
I'll now demonstrate what the sutra
Take a rectangle
On two adjacent sides, make squares
Draw a diagonal through the rectangle and make a square on it.
says that the square on the diagonal equals in area both squares on the sides. In the Indian subcontinent the square, rectangle and circle were used, rather than the triangle. Even temple architecture reflects this.
Maitreyi: Yes – look at these temple plans. We must also remember that the Shulbasutra
gives no proofs of theorems. Some scholars hold that proofs existed but were not worked into the sutras.
Yet it's true that because of this lacuna our geometry, unlike Greek geometry, never developed a logical system.
Ranjan: The Shulbasutra
also has another significance - geometry, it was thought, began with the need to measure land for taxation. Thus 'geo-metry'. But now another theory has emerged. Such measurement does not require great precision. Precision is needed more by the mason or carpenter, or joints won't sit right, walls will fall down. So geometry grew out of this other tradition to which the Shulbasutra
is also linked. Its geometry must also owe something to those potters who made bricks of various shapes for the altars.
Ranjan, it's also been pointed out recently - the Indo-Aryan speakers hardly used baked bricks. But before them the Harappans used suck bricks on a large scale. So some scholars believe that unless the Harappan masonry tradition survived, the Shulbsutra
could not have been composed.
Around 600 BC in the Gangetic plains cities came up one by one: Champa, Vaishali, Rajgriha, Shravasti, Ayodhya, Kashi. Among these was Kaushambi, the ruins of which stand near modern-day Allahabad. The earlier inhabitants of these regions were mostly defeated by the Indo-Aryan speakers and accorded a status inferior to the vish.
But a synthesis, too, was on, as in languages. Everyday words like langal
or plough, puja
or prayer, pundit
or priest, were adopted from local languages by the Indo-Aryan speakers. This fusion had its impact on the new urban life. A few centuries earlier, in the Rig Vedic period, people lived in small groups, knew each other - but all this would change. To reap nature's benefits, people must make some sacrifice. The forces of nature had to be appeased, if only with a poor man's cow! The later Vedic custom of sacrifice and offerings made the priests more and more powerful. And when people started growing rice, a big share of that, too, went to these middlemen. New kings emerged, new social classes, and a variety of professions. A thousand years after Harappa the first cities of the Iron Age came up in the Gangetic plains.
Kaushambi, Uttar Pradesh (near Allahabad)
Ranjan: One of these prosperous new cities was Rajgriha, which had from the start an unquiet history. Here Ajatashatru killed his father Bimbisara to become king.
Amrita: The city was surrounded by these five hills. Rajgriha owed its wealth to this road by which came the iron from Chhota Nagpur. These walls reinforced the natural hilly defence. Rajgriha controlled the iron trade. Two hundred years later, Kautilya was to say - “He who controls the mines controls the world.”
Ranjan: Rajgriha is a good example, as the first capital of powerful Magadha. With the use of iron, more was grown from the land, helping crafts to come up and new cities to emerge. But this wasn't all that happened.
Amrita: The caste system was becoming more rigid. Discrimination was growing while the old tribal structures fell apart. Communities based on democratic values were destroyed.
Ranjan: And the change was extremely rapid. While agriculture grew and added to prosperity, there was no dearth of exploiters and grabbers. People saw these changes in their own lifetimes. Society was in turmoil, especially in the cities where different traditions met and clashed. Self-seeking and extortion ruled.
Amrita: People began to think about their situation. They asked questions, and sought new answers. What was happening in these cities?
Ranjan: What new philosophies were emerging?
Everything was changing
But this was not the result of great wars
Nor was it the writ of petty kings
Nor the influence of planets and stars
But behind the changes were ordinary things
Like the spread of iron and growing of rice
Just ordinary things
The tribes and republics with their assemblies
Led lives that were fixed according to laws
Society, nature, gods were all ruled by
But then came the cities where selfishness was law
Power-mad kings emerged
Priests, greedy for wealth multiplied
Conducting sacrifices and demanding grain
In the name of gods and goddesses
All rouns was a strange disquiet
A revolution was under way
Someone said -
”Life is an illusion and struggle futile”
Someone said -
”There is no god in this world
Someone else said -
”It makes no difference
Goods deeds or bad – for good is rewarded
nor bad deeds punished”
But these philosophers preached in vain
They had no solutions, won no followers
Yet some thinkers kindled new faith
They brought hope to their times
And promise for the future
One was Mahavira
Gautam Buddha the other