The Smelter’s Wife: women in pre-industrial iron-smelting economy in South Asia

Pre-industrial iron-smelting is generally considered to be a craft overwhelmingly, if not entirely practiced by men. A number of ethnographic studies on iron-smelting, a majority of which are based in different parts of Africa, suggest that while adult men actively participated in various aspects of iron-smelting, women were normally prohibited from even visiting the space where smelting was carried out. A majority of these African cases also record sexualized perception of iron-smelting, where the smelters were often considered to be involved in a sexual act with their common wife, the furnace, which ultimately results in the “birth” of the new iron bloom. The exclusion of post-puberty and pre-menopausal women from the space where iron-smelting is conducted has been understood in this context. However, this cultural exclusion of women from iron-smelting in Africa has contributed in a significant way in attributing a passive (or often, non-existent) role to women in iron-smelter households. The women are mostly mentioned while discussing these taboos and prohibitions, but their economic and domestic roles were considered too obvious and therefore, overlooked. In this post, based on ethnoarchaeological research, I explore the economic roles of women in the iron-smelter households, based on two case studies from east-central India- northern Telangana and the Netarhat Plateau in Jharkhand (Fig. 1). Based on these cases I argue that even if women did not participate in iron-smelting directly, they played significant economic roles which contributed in the proper functioning of the household when the adult male members of the family were away for smelting in the forests or selling iron blooms in the faraway markets.


Figure 1. Google Earth map showing Kadem in northern Telangana and Netarhat in Jharkhand

Pre-industrial iron-smelting in northern Telangana was a seasonal activity. The availability of fine iron-rich magnetite sand, or wuske, transported downhill by the seasonal torrents depended on the intensity of the annual south-west monsoon. A stronger monsoon would bring down more wuske, which in turn, would ensure more raw material for smelting. For collecting the ore and other resources required for smelting, and to smelt near where these resources were available, the adult male members (and their teen-aged male apprentices) of the mudda kammari (iron-smelter) community would be away in the forests for months at a time.

My ethnoarchaeological research with the mudda kammari suggests that during the long absence if the male members, the elder women of the smelter families were in-charge of the entire household. It was their responsibility to both take care of the children and the older members of the family, as well as be the principal earner for the family. In a number of ethnographic interactions, surviving aged female members of the mudda kammari families informed that they were actively engaged in the weaving of clothes and baskets while their husbands and sons were away in the forests for smelting. While some of the produces were for immediate household use, the surplus produced by the mudda kammari women were sold in the weekly market of the village. Although unattested in the ethnographic narratives, It is possible that the mudda kammari women also produced for the same farmer households that their male counterparts were forging agricultural implements for, outside the smelting season. Although iron-smelting was the primary source of income for these families, it was not necessarily a stable source. Since smelting was a seasonal activity, and the availability of iron ore, and therefore, the amount of iron produced, depended heavily on the intensity of the summer monsoon, the income from it was not predictable and must have varied each year. The baskets or clothes produced by the women, on the other hand, were a more regular source of income, providing some financial stability to their families.

With the decline in the demand for the services of traditional village blacksmiths (kammari), as well as other cottage industries like small-scale weaving and basket-making, there is a large-scale displacement of the kammari community. With a reduced number of regular clients, the blacksmiths are forced to either look for other part-time work, or abandon their profession completely. To complement the dwindling income from the smithy, the housewives of the kammari families are now engaged in making bidi (local teak-leaf cigarettes). Local bidi factories offer the women Rs. 100 (US$ 1.40) per thousand bidis (Fig. 2 & 3). With industrialization and advent of urban market economies, their previous income from small-scale weaving, tailoring and basket-making has significantly decreased.

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The Netarhat Plateau in Jharkhand state of east-central India is the home of the Asur tribal community of iron-smelters. In the early 20th century the Colonial and post-independence Indian forest laws, and large-scale industrial manufacture of iron forced the Asurs to abandon their ancestral calling and settle down in numerous small villages spread across the length and breadth of the Netarhat Plateau. Today, the Asurs are small farmers, cattle herders, and many work as daily-wage labours in the bauxite mines of Netarhat Plateau.

Before this recent decline, the Asurs lived as semi-sedentary groups of iron-smelters, traveling through the dense forests of this region in search of veins with iron-rich laterite ore, and good teak tree timber for charcoal. Unlike northern Telangana, the Asurs traveled and smelted in small family groups, where women and children participated directly in smelting. While the male members of the family went to collect wood for charcoal and mine iron-ore from the forest, the women and children processed the clay for making the furnace, tuyeres and other refractory materials. After processing the clay, the furnace and the tuyeres were also constructed by the women and the children, to give enough time for the clay to dry before the men returned with charcoal and ore for the smelting to commence. When the women and children returned with lumps of  iron-ore, the women pulverized these in order to make them suitable for smelting. The women and children also traditionally acted as bellow-operators during the entire smelting process, taking turns to trample the foot-operated bellows, typical to tribal smelting in central and eastern India.

After a few smelting episodes, the male members of the family would carry the smelted iron to the urban markets in the valley, often situated more than 100 kilometers away, and included several days of tiresome trek through the steep ravines of the densely forested hills. While they were away, the women assumed the responsibility to collect suitable iron ore, and timber for making charcoal, as well as prepare the furnace for the next few batches of smelting. The children accompanied their mothers and older siblings and acquired important knowledge about strategies for identifying and processing high-quality ore, and timber, as well as furnace construction in this period.  Since smelting was the only source of earning a living, it had to continue all year round.

The above discussion is an early attempt to dispel the myth of pre-industrial iron-smelting as a male occupation in the Indian context by underlining the important role played by women in the iron-smelting economy. In the context of northern Telangana, women did not directly participate in iron-smelting. However, their role as part-time weavers, tailors, and basket-makers significantly contributed to the financial stability of smelter households, as the income from iron-smelting relied heavily on the environmental conditions. In Netarhat, the Asur women had a more direct involvement in iron-smelting, as well as in mentoring the children who learned important aspects of the technology by being actively involved in different stages of the iron-smelting process. Although the participation of women cannot be clearly discerned in the archaeological record, my ethnographic study of two iron-smelter communities attempts to provide some analytical framework to study gender in pre-industrial iron-smelting in South Asia.


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