Iron smelting by Asur tribals a dying form

By Nityanand Shukla, IANS

Ranchi : The age-old art of iron smelting practised by the Asur tribe of Jharkhand is dying as new technology and low iron prices have made the traditional system unviable.

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Asurs, one of the primitive tribes in the state, have been involved in iron smelting for centuries. So experienced are they that they can locate an iron ore-rich site with the naked eye. They are mostly found the Garwah, Gumala and Palamau districts of Jharkhand and today number just some thousands.

“The iron rods available in the market cannot match the quality of the rods produced traditionally. The iron that we produce does not rust in water. There is no possibility of getting tetanus from it,” said Manohar Asur, a resident of Gumala district.

The tribals recall that the iron they produce has been used in many wars.

“Bows and arrows and other sharp edged weapons made of our iron were used by people of this state to fight the British during the freedom struggle,” said Man Singh Birajia, another iron smelter.

The tribe can recognise three varieties of iron ore at the Netharhat Plateau. One is magnetite, which they call pola, the second is hematite from coal, known as bichi, and the third is hematite from laterite, known as gota.

The Asur families are known to perform Sansikutasi worship, which may be called productive magic, aimed at securing good iron while smelting. During this, all the implements required for smelting are collected in front of the house.

A cock and hen are sacrificed. The ritual is followed by dancing, drinking and merrymaking. The head of every family has to don a new piece of cloth on this occasion.

During the last several decades, due to the introduction of improved metallurgy and forest conservation, which imposes restrictions on wanton cutting of forest trees, the iron smelting industry of the Asurs has suffered a great deal.

Traditionally, at least three people work continuously for a minimum of six hours to smelt iron. The rocks – any of the three types of rocks from which iron is made – are crushed into coarse form and melted in the blast furnace.

The furnace, one or one and a half metres in length, is in cylindrical shape and made of mud. Charcoal is ignited in the furnace and the crushed rocks are poured into it. The rocks are melted till the solution form starts pouring into a leather bag kept beneath the furnace. Air is pumped continuously into the furnace so that the metal does not solidify.

The iron made by the tribals is sold at Rs.100 per kg. The prices of iron rods made from factories are, however, much lower at Rs.30 to Rs.40 per kg. The tribals say they charge higher prices because of the high quality and the labour needed.

“The Jharkhand government has done nothing to protect our interests. The availability of factory made iron on a large scale and at cheaper rates has made it difficult for us to eke out a living. Our younger generations are opting to leave this profession,” said Sukhram Birajia, another iron smelter.

(Nityanand Shukla can be contacted at [email protected])