Copper Technology in the Central Himalayas Goes Back to 2000BC
By D.P. Agrawal & Lalit Tiwari
The discovery of copper marks the beginning of the Chalcolithic period when
humans started using metal instead of stone and clay to fabricate their hunting
tools, domestic utensils and other artefacts like ornaments, decorative pieces,
mirrors etc. The oldest evidence of the use of regular copper artefacts comes
from the Nal Cemetery in Quetta, dating back to III Millennium BC. Mehrgarh
in Baluchistan has given some fragments of the earliest copper fragments datable
to the V Millennium BC.
Copper is one of the most important metals on this Earth. In India copper
was also used traditionally in religious ceremonies. Rasa Ratnasamuccaya,
an early medieval work, gives a vivid account of the processes of extraction
of copper and its use in Ayurvedic and traditional medicinal systems. Melting
point of copper is 1083°C and its common minerals are Malachite, Azurite,
Cuprite, and Chalcopyrite etc. The copper mining is mentioned in ancient works
from Kautilya's Arthsastra (c. 3rd Century BC) to Ain-i-Akbari
written by Sheikh Abul Fazal in 1590 AD. In Kumaun, in Central Himalayas,
copper smithy is an old traditional technology.
Kumaun is known for its hoary metallurgical traditions and seems to have
played a significant role in the traditional copper technology. Some evidence
related to Copper Hoards Culture shows that copper mining was a thriving industry
in Kumaun region. The Copper Hoard Culture is generally dated to II Millennium
There are three significant finds of Copper Hoards' type of artefacts from
Kumaun, one from Bankot, second from Pitalpani, both near Pithoragarh, and
the last from Haldwani. In 1989 at Bankot, a hoard of 8 anthropomorphic copper
objects was discovered while digging a stone quarry close to the Bankot Inter
College. It contains 98% copper, 1.22% iron and some minor impurity of arsenic.
Another anthropomorphic copper artefact was found from a scrap shop at Haldwani
in Nainital district, similar to the ones reported from the Gangetic valley.
Thus there is strong circumstantial evidence that the copper technology of
Kumaun may go back to the II Millennium BC. Half of the analysed Copper Hoards
artefacts show a significant presence of arsenic. As the copper mines of Kumaun
also have arsenic bearing minerals, the probability is high that copper for
the Copper Hoards Culture derived from Kumaun.
Ancient Mining Evidence
There are several rich ancient copper ore sites in the Central Himalayan
region like Kharahi Patti, Rai-Agar, Bora-Agar, Askot and Ramgarh in Kumaun
and Dhanpru, Dhobri, Pokhri, Chaumattiya, Raja, Danda, Talapungla, Kharna
Nota and Thala mines in Garhwal. Generally the Chalcopyrite is the common
mineral in the Central Himalayan's copper mines. Agar village mines situated
in Pithoragarh district were perhaps the most important copper mines of Kumaun
during the British period. An ancient furnace was located at this village
near the talc mine. There are three rectangular pits in two terraces in the
village. Two of them, pit no1 and 2 are dug in the upper terrace, the third
one on a lower terrace, and is comparatively bigger. The Kharahi Patti mines,
in Bageshwar district, are located close to the north of Almora town and extends
between Binsar and Bageshwar. According to Atkinson the Gaul mine of Kharahi
Patti and Sor Gurang mines produced grey copper in small quantity. Tamtyura,
Danochhina, Changochhina, Kharak Tamta, Ghingarkhola, Binsar, Bhatkola, Simsyari,
Bihargaon, Uder khani, Bilona, Agar, Gair-Siekra, Lob and Beragaon were some
of the sites where metallurgy was practised in ancient times. In some villages
like Tamtyura, Uder khani, Binsar, Sikra, Kharak Tamta and Jula copper smithy
is still practised, but no mining or smelting. Out of 500 families approximately
65 families are practising copper smithy at present. Only the Tamta caste
people did the copper smithy in ancient times, though they are now included
among Scheduled castes.
Recent Historical Evidence
According to local copper craftsmen of Kumaun, during the medieval period,
a Chandra king of Champawat brought coppersmiths form Rajasthan to set up
coppersmithy in Kumaun Himalayas. Their first settlement is said to be at
Gosni village near Lohaghat. Later on, with the transfer of the capital from
Champawat to Almora, sometime in the first half of the 16th century AD, some
families of coppersmiths were also brought to Almora to produce necessary
items like tablets and stamps. During the Gorkha regime in the 18th and 19th
centuries, two brothers Raibhan and Jaibhan were given land near Lamgara in
Almora district to settle down and to produce traditional utensils. Some Tamta
families also shifted to Kharahi Patti (Bageshwar District), probably in search
of copper ores. In 1884 AD the British government banned the mining activity
in Kharahi Patti. In 1942-43, a group of people agitated and urged the government
to withdraw the ban imposed on mining in the Kharahi Patti. During 1952-56
the Khan-garh area was explored for the occurrence of copper ore by the Indian
government. But now these copper mines are totally closed.
According to the traditional accounts, in olden times people used a large
bag on their back for collecting the ore. This work was done by the other
lower castes. After collecting the ore was washed with water to remove the
soil. Thus cleaned ore was mixed with fresh cow dung to make small pellets.
These pellets were dried in the sun and charged into the furnace or in a big
handi like crucible, which is made of locally available brown clay,
tempered with powdered quartz or limestone and bafila grass. While
smelting the ore, the pot is covered with ash and molten liquid copper settles
down at the base of the crucible.
They fabricate traditional utensils (like thali, parat, water
drum, lota, kuni, gagri, etc.), but some workers also
make traditional decorative items like idols, statues, etc through cold and
hot work with the help of a hammer. Carving and engraving on copper artefacts
is the most remarkable feature of these traditional copper works. For soldering
they use a mixture of brass, zinc, copper, tin and borax. They coat it and
heat on the furnace. They use rice husk as a washing and polishing agent in
their traditional copper smithy.
The furnace, which they use, is locally known as afar. It has a large
wheel of bicycle, but in olden times it was made of wood and an iron casing
covered this wooden wheel. A small fan tied with ropes directly connects with
this wheel. Fan has a small nozzle, which is made of clay and ropes, locally
known as nava.
In Kumaun we thus see that traditional technologies have continued for millennia,
and are relevant even today to the lives of the common people and perhaps
hold key to their economic regeneration.