Metallurgical Marvel of Ancient India - Ashokan Pillars, Iron Pillar at Qutub Complex - How they were made?

Metallurgical Developments and examples of Ancient India, Making of Ashokan Pillars and Iron Pillar at Qutub Delhi

Ashokan Pillars - Prominent Features and Symbolic Meaning

The Ashokan Pillar stands out as another noteworthy example of ancient Indian' Art and Architecture. It is noted as much for its original and appropriate design as for its successful execution. The Pillar was designed as a monolithic shaft with a foundation of 12 feet, tapering up to an average height of 50 feet, crowned by a capital to serve as a religious symbol. For Ashokan Art was at the service of his religious mission and not an appeal to the senses. The religious significance of the Pillar informs all its parts. At the foundation is found the figure of a peacock (mayura) as the symbol of the Maurya Dynasty. The trunk of the Pillar was made to convey through the centuries in a permanent form the royal religious message of Morality inscribed on it in indelible characters. Every inch of the Pillar and its valuable space is utilized for the highest purpose of mass-education in morals. The culmination is reached at the top or capital made up of three parts comprising

  • a big wheel placed on the shoulders of
  • four lions set back to back and
  • abacus decorated by figures of four animals with a smaller wheel alternating between them

The four animals, the elephant, bull, horse, and lion are symbolical of the four turning-points of the Master's life from Nativity to Buddhatva, while the wheel is the Dharmahakra (Kingdom of Righteousness) which was inaugurated by him at Sarnath, the place of the pillar marking out that great event of the Buddha's first preaching. The big wheel on Lions is designed as one of 32 spokes, the thirty-two marks of the Superman (Mahapurusha-lakshanam). Thus every part and detail of the Pillar is a religious symbol.

The Ashokan Pillar is also conspicuous for its polish which is "the despair of modern masons", as stated by Vincent Smith. The polish was so bright and blazing that both Tom Coryat and Whittekar (Kerr's Voyages and Travels, IX 423) coolly described it as a pillar of brass, Chaplain Terry as a pillar of marble, and Bishop Heber as a pillar of “Cast metal." It is also possessed of features testifying to the skill attained in the art of dressing, chiselling, and shaping stone.

How Ashokan Pillars were made?

In the first place, its material was quarried in the hills of Chunar whence it was carried to the central workshop at the capital of Pataliputra where it was shaped after a uniform design so as to have the average height of 50 feet and weight of 50 tons. Secondly, these gigantic pillars and heavy weights had to be moved to their appointed sites like Meerut at a distance of more than 1000 miles from their place of fabrication. The location of the Pillar thus presented a formidable problem of transport.

It was tackled by Sultan Feroz Shah Taghlak who took it into his head to decorate the city of Delhi by planting in it the Ashokan Pillar which he saw at Topra near Ambala. Its removal from such a short distance to Delhi called for the making of a special cart of 42 wheels at each of which pulled 200 men. The labour-force of 8400 men was required for the haulage of the Pillar and its transport in different stages to its destination. According to another account, elephants were first tried to draw the cart and then 20,000 men. Lastly, a reference may be made in this connection to some of the metallurgical marvels produced in ancient India.

Iron Pillar at Qutub Complex, Delhi

One of the metallurgical masterpieces is the Iron Pillar at Qutub in Delhi made of material which is pure, rustless, malleable iron, a standing monument which has defied for more than a millennium the ravages of time, the wear and tear of weather and the attack of oxidation. Its composition was examined by a Committee of Experts who have held that it was beyond the capacity of any Iron Foundry of that age (c. 400 A.D.) to produce such a finished metallurgical masterpiece.

India also produced the steel of which was made the famous Damascus blade: The Brihatsamhita of Varahamihira mentions a particular preparation of cement which is described as Vajralepa, 'cement strong like the thunderbolt'. It was this enduring cement which must have gone into the making and strengthening of the joints of the Ahsokan Pillar which still stands four-square to the winds through more than 20 centuries at Nandangarh where it braved the earthquake of 1934, which laid low the palaces of kings and razed to the ground many a solidly-built city.

Another metallurgical masterpiece of ancient India is the Sultanganj colossal image of the Buddha in copper. "It is made of very pure copper, cast in two daggers over an inner core by a sort of circ perdu process. It is 7 feet high and weighs about a ton. A people which was capable of producing such works in stone and iron must have attained considerable proficiency in metallurgy and engineering" [p. 338 of Legacy of India, (Oxford)].


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