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Smelting Songs from Central India: the Agaria

The Agaria are another group of tribal iron-smelters residing in the forested Central Indian highlands. Mythologically, the Agaria trace their origin from the “twelve Asur brothers” the sons of Sabar Sai, their ancestral deity. Like the Asur of Jharkhand, the Agaria worship Lohasur (God of Iron [ore]), Agyasur (God of Fire), and Koelasur (God of Charcoal).  Their mythology recounts the same tragic tale of the destruction of Lohripur, an iron fortress, ruled by the mythological king Logundi Raja where the “twelve Asur brothers” smelted iron and lived in prosperity*.

At the beginning of my doctoral research in 2012, I explored possibilities to work with the Agaria smelters of Chhattisgarh. However, my repeated attempts were frustrated by the on going Naxalite insurgency in the area. Therefore, for the Agaria smelting-songs, I turn to Verrier Elwin’s seminal anthropological study on the tribe (1941) in the 1930s. This is the only anthropological work in India where indigenous iron-smelting was recorded in its social context while it was still prevalent. However, the book is currently out of print, and the purpose of this post is to highlight the importance of this work by reproducing three smelting-songs from this book.
The first one is a flirtatious song, rich with sexual innuendo. It brings out the centrality of the knowledge iron-working in an Asur/Agaria identity creation. The second song is a poetic description of the distribution of work in the smelting, refining and the forging process at the smelting-hut. The final song deals with the technical aspects of iron-smelting.

Song 1
(A boy to his lover)
Come to the forest and cut a green tree;
Come to my furnace and blow the bellows for me, friend.
(The girl’s response)
Press the bellows in the forge; the slag comes flowing.
Make me sleep with you; I will live in your Asur house, friend.
(The boy teases)
Come to the bazaar and I’ll buy a goat.
This Asur girl does not know how to work at the furnace, friend.
(The girl retorts)
He can cut down trees and collect a little honey,
But this Asur boy doesn’t know how to beat the iron, friend.
(The boy flaunts)
In his hand there’s a pot, and a necklace round his throat.
First he makes a hammer, and then a pair of tongs, friend.
(Finally the girl admits defeat)
The Moharia have come playing on their drums,
And I- I do not know the bellows-dance**, O friend.
(Elwin 1941:169)

Song 2
Hai re hai! Without two men and a girl the Agaria’s work cannot be done.
He cuts wood, he hollows out the bellows, he stretches skin above them.
The girl dances on the bellows, with both her feet she dances.
The girl dances before the furnace. They pour the iron-stones down the slide.
The furnace is full of charcoal. The ore is on the slide.
In front, they [the men] extract the iron; behind, excretes the slag.
The girl dances before the forge, to heat the iron again.
One [man] brings the iron with his pincers, the other [man] beats with the hammer.
They make the pincers, they make the hammer;
To plough the earth they fashion iron, to kill the sambar they make the arrow.
(Elwin 1941:170)
Song 3
Hai re hai! What earth is used to make this kiln?
What earth is used to strengthen the iron***?
What wood is used for the charcoal
Which turns the stones to water?
Hai re hai! The kiln is made with murminjni earth.
The iron is strengthened with chapra earth.
The charcoal is made with sarai [teak] wood.
And turns the stone to water.
(Elwin 1941:171)

Source (cover image and the songs):
Elwin, V. (1941). The Agaria. Calcutta, Oxford University Press.

*It is worth noting here Brouwer (1995) recorded the prevalence of a similar mythological tale of exodus from an iron fortress among the Viswakarma  blacksmiths of Karnataka. During my ethnoarchaeolgical fieldwork in northern Telangana, I heard faint recollections of a similar myth of displacement from some elder Viswabrahmin Kammari (rural blacksmiths) of the region. It is difficult to ignore the astounding similarities in the basic structure of these myths spread across three different iron-working groups in the Central and South-Central India. However, without more data from further research, any attempt to draw a general conclusion from these similarities, will constitute a dangerous a quantum leap.

** The process of bellow-operation. The bellows of tribal iron-smelters of Central India normally use feet-operated bellows as opposed to hand operated ones of the iron-smelting communities of Telangana and other parts of peninsular India.
*** Elwin mentions that the Agarias did not use any flux. However, during my fieldwork with the Asurs, several aged smelters explained that they used “white stones” (probably limestone) to “make the iron strong”. This line probably indicates something similar.

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