Israel: history of the svastika

Israel: history of the svastika (Symbol of ancient Indian gold)

May 8, 2008

Last week the people in Israel and around the world remembered those who have been persecuted in the Jewish Holocaust during WWII. Millions of people lost their lives in the name of the Nazi hook-cross. But this symbol wasn't theirs to use.It was a distortion of the ancient swastika symbol. Our Israeli team made a report. Let's take a look.

The Nazis who murdered tens of millions of people used the hook-cross as their symbol. Thus many of those who survived and are alive today find it difficult to accept this sign.

[Dina Gordon, Holocaust Survivor]:
"I was born in Croatia during the Second World War and most of my family members were taken to concentration camps of the Nazis and most of them were murdered there. So of course for me the black symbol of the swastika of the Nazis was always the symbol of the most evil thing, of the greatest pain and greatest suffering."

But the black hook-cross used by Hitler bears a totally different meaning from that of the ancient swastika symbol. 

[Dr. Brent Besch, German Priest, Jerusalem]:
"We are talking about a very ancient symbol called swastika. swastika stems from an old Indian language. The first syllable "su" means "good, well" and "asti" means "to be, being" and the "ka" is diminutive. So it means a thing of good luck we can say. So this symbol means something good, good luck symbol."

The swastika symbol, which mostly appears as a golden sign, appeared in India 2,500 years ago.

Because of the way the hook-cross was used by Hitler, it is mainly associated, until today, with Nazism and seen by many Israelis as a hatred symbol. 

[Gila Bakshy, Rehovot]
"This symbol always shakes us, it brings us back to the past."

[Binyamin Marder, Rehovot]
"For me, it's a symbol of murder, it isn't a human symbol."

[Batya Ofer, Rehovot]
"When you see it, you feel threatened immediately."

[Shai Tirosh, Rehovot]
"It will be good if there's any power that's able to reestablish the true meaning of this symbol."

However, the long history shows us that prior to this association, swastikas were used across the centuries as a symbol of good luck.

Remains of ancient swastika symbols were unearthed in many archaeological excavations around Israel, as well as around the world.

Avshalom Yakobi discovered in 1974 the ruins of a synagogue dating back to 400 AD. 

[Avshalom Yakobi, Amateur Archaeologist]:
"We can see here in several places mosaic patterns in the form of swastika. They appear all around and in the part where the synagogue was repaired later. Every Jew who comes here can see those swastikas and read the written explanations."

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner is a renowned Jewish religious leader in Israel. Rabbi Aviner is one of those who lost many of his relatives in the Nazi death camps.

[Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Head of Ateret Jeshiva]:
"It is well known that the swastika is an ancient symbol that belongs to the Indians, and Hitler adopted it. So the problem isn't the swastika. The problem is the cruelty of the Nazi's who murdered more than 6 million of our brothers." 

Hitler and the Nazi regime were defeated in all the fronts except one: for decades the swastika symbol which they have stolen and warped was considered in the west as negative.

NTD, Jerusalem, Israel.

The oldest attested appearance of svastika glyph is on Sarasvati hieroglyphs (so-called Indus script epigraphs). Over 50 seals containing the glyph have been found and its hieroglyph usage attested together with other pictorial motifs. The decoding of the word sathiya 'svastika glyph' read rebus as sattva, jasta 'zinc' is detailed under the section Mlecchitavikalpa: Svastika glyph as zinc on this section; the monograph to read/download.

Svastika as symbol of health (ppt)(7 Nov. 2008) -- Punit

Early meaning (artha) of Svastika, as wealth (artha). 

Svastika in Sarasvati civilization

- The early meaning of svastika as a glyph (as wealth) 

The early meaning of svastika as a glyph 


This monograph reviews the evidence of the use of svastika  as a glyph throughout the ancient world for over 3 millennia. The conclusion is that it connotes an object,  a mineral - zinc (maybe, in its zinc oxide form called calamine). Brass was an alloy of copper and zinc and was  known even before zinc was sublimated and discovered; by melting copper with calamine, brass which was a relatively  easy material to cast (at a melting point of about 900 degrees C) with a yellow color comparable to the color of  gold was produced. This decipherment is consistent with the occurrence of svastika glyph in the following contexts:  1. together with an endless-knot glyph ( mer.ed 'iron'; rebus: mer.hao'twisted'); 2. together with the glyphs of a tiger looking back and an elephant [(kol krammara 'alloy smith'; rebus: kol 'tiger', krammara 'turning back'); (ib 'iron'; rebus: ibha 'elephant')] 3. together with a drummer glyph 4. Syracuse coin showing Arethusa at the center of a svastika 5. together with ducks in a Cyprus artifact (shown in Annex 1) 6. spearhead from Germany (shown in Annex 1) 

Depiction of four or five svastika glyphs is an indication of the number of parts of zinc mixed with, say, eight parts of copper to create different types of hard or soft brasses (high brass has 35% zinc; low brass has 20% zinc), including arsenical brasses or lead brasses. They are also combined with iron, silicon and manganese to increase wear and tear resistance. An alloy called Corinthian brass, an alloy of gold, silver and copper, was known in ancient times. (In later technological developments, zinc is used to galvanize steel to prevent corrosion). " Before the discovery of zinc metal in India (made by the distillation route) sometime during the fifth-fourth century BC, brass could be made, as in Lothal and Atranjikhera, only by the cementation route in which one of the following was smelted along with copper ore : zinc ore, sphalerite concentrate or the roasted product, philosopher 's wool or zinc oxide. The traditions of making philosopher's wool and cementation brass could have persisted even after the discovery of the distillation process of making zinc… the distillation route of making zinc and alloying this with molten copper was the only way of making high-zinc (more than 28%) brass, such as the 4th century BC Taxila vase (34.34% zinc)" (Arun Kumar Biswas, Zinc and related alloys, 

"References to Zinc and brass are found in the lost text Philippica or Theopompus (4th century BC), quoted in Strabo's Geography (XIII, 56): "There is a stone near Andreida (north west Anatolia) which yields Iron when burnt. After being treated in a furnace with a certain earth it yields droplets of false silver. This added to copper, forms the so-called mixture, which some call oreichalkos." This pertains probably to the process of downward distillation of zinc ("droplets of false silver") and its subsequent mixing with Copper to make brass oreichalkos (arakuta in Kautilya's Arthasastra) described in detail in the post-Christian era Sanskrit texts." 

Charaka Samhita has references to medicinal uses of zinc(300 BCE). 

A remarkable account of the use of svastika in ancient periods and conclusion that the glyph connoted an object is provided in: Thomas Wilson, 1896, *The Svastika_. The earliest known symbol, and its migrations; with observations on the migration of certain industries in prehistoric times,*Washington DC, The Smithsonian Institution, US National Museum, Washington DC. 

Elsewhere, the entire corpus of Sarasvati hieroglyphs (Indus script epigraphs) has been deciphered as related to the repertoire of a smith and smithy. Consistent with this decipherment, the early meaning of svastika as a glyph is presented as a hieroglyph, read rebus: satva, 'zinc' (Pkt.)*satavu, satuvu, sattu* = pewter, zinc (Ka.) *dosta* = zinc (Santali) *jasta *= zinc (Hindi) *jasada, yasada, yasadyaka, yasatva *= zinc (Jaina Pali). Homonyms to denote the glyph are: *sathiya_** (H.), sa_thiyo (G.); satthia, sotthia (Pkt.) = svastika_ ** sign.* 

* * 

*Many hieroglyphs (including svastika and endless-knot motifs) become metaphors of wealth as shown in the use on ashtamangala necklace and on archways hoisted with s'rivatsa glyph. (Details provided in notes on decipherment of Sarasvati hieroglyphs). Svasti which is derivable as su + asti in Sanskrit grammar is explained as a metaphor for 'welfare, auspiciousness' by the depiction of the glyph on temple doors, during the historical periods. The rationale for using the glyph to connote welfare is that zinc as an additive to create an alloy of copper called brass, produced a metal which was 'as good as gold', that precious metal called soma 'electrum'. * 

* * 

*That zinc - represented by the hieroglyph, svastika -- was a traded commodity together with other minerals is apparent from the finds of epigraphs containing Sarasvati hieroglyphs at locations such as Altyn Depe. Swat, Seistan. 

* * 

The burden of this monograph is that this 'object' was in fact, zinc, a commodity traded and used for alloying with copper, to create brass. This alloy has alchemical overtones as discussed in Kalyanaraman, 2006, *Indian Alchemy: Soma in the Veda*, Delhi, Munshiram Manoharlal. 


Professor Arun Kumar Biswas 
The Asiatic Society 
1, Park Street 
Calcutta   16


India achieved the distinction of being the only country in the ancient and the medieval world to produce pure zinc metal and high zinc-brass alloys. The saga of zinc in ancient India has been established only recently by a team of scholars from India (Hegde, Biswas) and England (Craddock, Willies). The present author has recorded the current status of our knowledge on the subject in a paper and in a book. This provides a brief summary and also includes a hitherto unpublished material on the Bidri alloy.

The earlier occurrence of zinc in man - made artifacts is in the form of the copper alloy known as brass. Ever since the discovery of copper and the alloying elements of tin, arsenic, lead, etc., different materials, including zinc, were used to alloy and harden copper.

The earliest method of making brass was possibly the cementation process in which finely divided copper fragments were intimately mixed with roasted zinc ore (oxide) and reducing agent, such as charcoal, and heated to 1000oC in a sealed crucible. Zinc vapour formed, dissolved into the copper fragments yielding a poor quality brass, zinc percentage of which could not be easily controlled.

Fusion of zinc with copper increases the strength, hardness and toughness of the latter. When the alloy is composed of 10-18% zinc, it has a pleasing golden yellow colour. It can also take very high polish and glitter like gold. For this property, brass has been widely used for casting statuary, covering temple roofs, fabricating vessels, etc.

Reduction of zinc oxide around 1000oC is crucially important : below 950oC no zinc is produced. Zinc is obtained in the vapour form at this temperature, since its b.p. is 913oC. With trace of oxygen, the zinc vapour would be reoxidised and hence the successful operations in the past must have been done in closed crucibles. If the temperature were higher than 1083o C during brass-making, then copper would melt and flow down to the bottom of the crucible forming a puddle there, exposing a very small surface area of the metal for alloy formation.

Brasses containing upto 36% zinc are known as a- brasses, which undergo easy cold work. Brasses containing more than 46 % zinc are brittle. With zinc content between 36 and 46%, we have a+b brasses which are lighter, harder and more suitable for casting statuary.

Werner and Haedecke demonstrated experimentally that brass produced by the cementation process could not contain more than 28% zinc. Brass founders trying the cementation process have verified this observation.

The materials of antiquity containing more than 28% zinc in copper matrix must have been prepared by mixing the two metals, which could have been possible only after the discovery of zinc as a separate metal and its preparation by a process such as distillation. The antiquity of brass artifacts can, therefore, be divided into two eras, one preceding, and the other following the discovery of zinc as a separate metal.


We claim that the earliest artifact noted so far containing an appreciable amount of zinc anywhere in the world is from India. Lothal (2200   1500 BC) showed one highly oxidised antiquity (No. 4189) which assayed : 70.7 % copper, 6.04 % zinc , 0.9% Fe and 6.04 % acid-soluble component (probably carbonate, a product of atmospheric corrosion). The material could have been prepared through smelting of zinc-bearing copper ore or the cementation route described earlier. The raw materials might have come from the Ahar-Zawar area. The Harappan site of Rosdi, also in Gujarat, has yielded a few samples of chisel, celt, rod and bangle, made of brass and assaying upto 1.54% zinc.

Similar materials might have been used for making the brass-bronze items of Atranjikhera during the PGW era (1200-600) BC. One copper-based item contained 11.68% Sn, 9.0% Pb and 6.28% Zinc, while another item assayed 20.72% Sn and 16.20% Zn. Both the samples contained traces of iron and sulphur, indicating the possibility of chalcopyrite and sphalerite-galena having been the source materials, which could easily come from the Ahar-Zawar area. Most of the brass samples in ancient India contained variable proportions of Zn, Sn and Pb (Table 1).

Table 1   Analysis of Some Brass Object in Ancient India

S.NoDate & SiteObjectAnalysis %Remarks
1.- 1500 BC LothalNo.4189 Copper Object70.706.04--Ref.5


Chisel, Celt 

rod, bangle

95.5   98.5Upto






  • 1000 BC
  • Atranjikhera










4.4th century BC


Vase Bm


5.2nd century BCBangle73.7219.700.105.84Ref.8
6.2nd Century AD


Female figure carrying flower container Indo Parthian88.607.600.132.49Ref.6 pp.56-57
7.5th century ADGandhara Buddha68.5020.253.863.62Ref.13
8.6th century AD AkotaAmbika76.7016.321.614.04Ref.6, pp.104-105
9.7th Century AD MahudiRishabhanatha66.0012.805.901.50Ref.6, p.66
10.8th century AD KashmirShiva82.0017.001.00-Ref.14
11.9th Century AD NalandaBuddha78.9515.150.743.03Ref.15
12.11th century AD, W.TibetManjusri65.5030.400.301.70Ref.16

We have drawn attention to the brass items of Lothal and Atranjikhera and their possible link with the 1260 + 160, 1136 + 160 BC and 1050+ 150 C-14 dates of the timber samples in the Rajpura   Dariba silver-lead-zinc mine near Udaipur.

During the Harappan era, copper used to be alloyed with tin and arsenic; since these were scarce commodities, alternative alloying elements had to be looked for. Artisans in the Rajasthan-Gujarat region might have stumbled on to zinc ore deposit as a new source of alloying element.

Craddock et al surveyed the evidences of early brass artifacts in the West. The earliest brass artifacts known in the West come from excavations at the Gordion Tomb in Phrygia, dating from the 8th and 7th centuries BC onwards. These came after the Lothal and Atranjikhera traditions. From the 7th Century BC, the Greeks commented upon brass or oreichalkos, but always as an expensive, exotic metal not produced in Greece. There was no zinc in the early Greek bronzes, Etruscan bronze of the 5th century BC contained 11% zinc.


The earliest brass containing more than 28% zinc, which could be made only after the isolation of pure zinc metal came from Taxila. Craddock pointed out the overriding importance of the vase (BM 215-284) excavated from the Bhir Mound at Taxila and dated to the 4th century BC. This brass sample contains 34.34% zinc, 4.25 % Sn, 3.0 % Pb, 1.77% Fe and 0.4% Nickel. This is very strong evidence for the availability of metallic zinc in the 4th century BC. Possibly India was the first to make this metal zinc (rasaka) by the distillation process, as practised for the other metal mercury (rasa).

There are references to zinc and brass in the lost (4th century BC) text Philippica or Theopompus, quoted by Strabo in his Geography :

"There is a stone near Andreida (north west Anatolia) which yields iron when burnt. After being treated in a furnace with a certain earth it yields droplets of false silver. This added to copper, forms the so-called mixture, which some call oreichalkos" (Strabco, Geogrraphy, Book XIII, Sec 56).

The above reference pertains probably to the process of downward distillation of zinc ( droplets of false silver ) and its subsequent mixing with copper to make brass oreichalkos (arakuta in Kautilya s Arthasastra) described in detail in the post-Christian era Sanskrit texts.

It is quite possible that the zinc making technology travelled west from India during 6th-5th centuries BC, as it did later again in the 18th century AD. The pseudo-Aristotelian work  On Marvellous Things Heard  mentioned :

"They also say that amongst the Indians the bronze is so bright, clean and free from corrosion that it is indistinguishable from gold, but that amongst the cups of Darius there is considerable number that could not be distinguished from gold or bronze except by colour" (quoted by Craddock)

The Indian emphasis was on the  gold-like  brass and not on the zinc metal. The Greeks, however, used zinc metal as such in a few cases. In the course of the excavation of the Agora in Athens, a roll of sheet zinc was found in a sealed deposit dating from the 3rd or 2nd century BC. Analysis showed it to be nearly pure zinc with 1.3% lead, 0.06 % Fe and 0.005% Cu with traces of Mn, Mg, Sn, Ag and Sb (quotated by Craddock). Although Needham and Forbes doubted the above evidence on the ground that  the pieces were beyond the contemporary technology . Craddock certifies this to be genuine sample. It is quite possible that the Greeks had carried the material or the technology which had existed in Taxila as early as 4th century BC and possibly much earlier in Rajasthan.


The recent pioneering work on the zinc-lead-silver mining archaelogy in the southern part of Rajasthan by Willies et al and the relevant C-14 dates have firmly established India s primacy in non-ferrous ore mining in the ancient world.

The ancient workings in the South Lode (100 m depth) of Rajpura-Dariba mine (80 km north-east of Udaipur) have been C-14 dated as 1260 BC, 1050 BC and the East Lode workings as 375 BC, 360 BC, 250 BC, 120 BC, 150 AD etc. Thus, it is clear that the tradition of underground mining in India goes back to the thirteenth century BC, if not earlier. The earliest emphasis was possibly on copper ore; at Rajpura-Dariba, the other targets were lead, silver and possibly zinc ore, which is strongly suggested by the brass artifacts of Lothal and Atranjikhera.

The art of smelting zinc ore and recovery of zinc metal by distillation must have been discovered before 4th century BC when Taxila produced the brass vase containing 34.34 % zinc. This possibility is reinforced by the facts of mining archaelogy. Starting from the 5th century BC, we have many C-14 datings in Rajpura-Dariba, Rampura-Agucha (40 km south of Ajmer) and most crucially, in the Zawar mine systems.

Zawar (24o21' N, 73 o41'E) is about 30 km south-west from Udaipur, where the ancient mines (earliest C-14 date obtained so far is 430 BC) are found, both opencast and underground. Zawar Mala, Mochia and Balaria are some of the specific mines in this area.

The host rock of the Zawar mines is sheared dolomite, the result of metamorphism of sedimentary dolomites. The ore was geologically deposited syngenetically as disseminated lenses within the dolomite beds. Zinc occurs as sphalerite or as marmatite in which zinc sulphide is in solid solution with iron sulphide. Also associated with the rock are galena, hydrozincite, pyrite, silver, etc.

Ancient workings are found at outcrops on the ridge of Zawar Mala, and as deep as the 470 m (above sea) levels of the modern Zawar Mala mine, some 120 m below surface. The upper parts accessible from there were a few tens of metres below surface, isolated by a roof fall. At the surface, mine openings occur at intervals of 50 m or so. Willies investigated one mine of more commodious proportion   Pratapkhan or Pratap s mine   in which Rana Pratap Singh, rival of Akbar, took refuge during 1595   1600 A.D. A flat  room  floored with phyllite slabs is inferred as Pratap s refuge. The quarried materials used to feed a zinc smelter just below the narrow valley.

The earliest C-14 datings in the Zawar mines are 430 + 100 BC of the PRL 932 sample from the Zawar Mala mine and 380 + 50 BC of the BM 2381 sample from the Mochia mine. Similar datings from Rajpura   Dariba (e.g. 375 BC), Rampura Agucha (370 BC), etc. confirm widespread underground mining of lead-zinc ores in the southern Rajasthan during the fifth-fourth centuries BC onwards.

Subsequent C-14 datings in the said mining area are : 250 BC, 200, 170, 140, 120 BC, 60 AD, 110AD, 150 AD.

As regards the recovery of zinc from the ore, the crucible reduction/distillation method was put to large scale commercial practice in the 13thcentury AD; this will be described later. Indirect and circumstantial evidences suggest that distillation method was in vogue much earlier, probably from the 4th century BC onwards, although not on a large scale, as we find in the 13th century AD context.

In this connection, we recall the evidence from Rampura Agucha. The zinc-lead-silver ore at the site was selectively mined at least as early as 370 and 250 BC. An appreciable amount of zinc must have been separated from the zinc-rich ore (present-day ore in the site contains 13.5% zinc), as revealed from the low-zinc content slag. One sample of slag assayed as low as 0.01% zinc. Near the slag dump area several retort-like pieces were reported. When assembled, their appearance suggested a cylinder approximately 20 cm long with walls 4-5 cm thick and an innermost pipe-like feature with a coating dirty white material, mainly zinc sulphate. They could be mistaken for tuyeres but for their closed pointed ends. This is highly suggestive of a used retort. Along with this, some thin walled tube-like object containing a thin coating of blister type material was also found.

It is conceivable that the retorts were being used in the said context for roasting zinc ore to obtain the light, white, smoky zinc oxide, which the ancient Greeks called pompholyx or philosopher s wool. In the modern zinc plant at Udaipur, roasting of zinc sulphide concentrate produces not only zinc oxide (and sulphur dioxide gas) but also some zinc sulphate, which was detected in the 4th-3rd century BC retort in Rampura Agucha.

The said retorts, already found sealed at one end, must have been closed or sealed at the other and also to prevent the escape of smoky zinc oxide into the atmosphere. The retorts were possibly modified to serve as reduction distillation chambers (to produce metallic zinc), the final version of which, notified in the 13th century AD context, would be described later. Very significantly, Tiwari et al. noted that the slag sample from Agucha containing only 0.01% zinc but as high as 9.30% lead, was  attached to baked earthen materials which could be part of the earthen appliance used for smelting . We suggest the possibility that the earthen appliance was a zinc distillation retort. Remains of zinc furnaces have been found at Sojat in Jodhpur also.


We may now turn our attention to the antiquity of brass in ancient India. Before the discovery of zinc metal in India (made by the distillation route) sometime during the fifth-fourth century BC, brass could be made, as in Lothal and Atranjikhera, only by the cementation route in which one of the following was smelted along with copper ore : zinc ore, sphalerite concentrate or the roasted product, philosopher s wool or zinc oxide. The traditions of making philosophers  wool and cementation brass could have persisted even after the discovery of the distillation process of making zinc. We invite attention of the readers to the analysis of some Indian brass objects made before 4th century BC (Table I)

As we have indicated earlier, the distillation route of making zinc and alloying this with molten copper was the only way of making high-zinc (more than 28%) brass, such as the 4th century BC Taxila vase (34.34% zinc). The said vase (BM 215-284), excavated from the Bhir Mound site, was made before the Greek settlement in Sirkap.

One bangle from the second century BC Sirkap settlement assayed 19.70% zinc. The Dharmarajika settlement of the post-Christian era produced brass objects like bangle and pot with controlled compositions 77-79% Cu, 12.88-13.07% Zn, 2.5-3.5% Sn and 3-6% Pb.

Some of the other early brass samples from ancient India have been reviewed by Neogi and Ray, an extract of which is presented below :

Brass articles of 1st century BC or AD have been found on excavation of some ancient stupas. General ventura executed operations for the examination of the stupas at Manikyalaya in 1830. Three deposits were obtained, of which the third, at a depth of 64 ft. consisted of a copper box enclosing a brass cylindrical box cast and a beautifully turned on the lathe. The lid of brass casket was found on cleansing to be inscribed. From the inscriptions on the various articles of this deposit and the accompanying Indo Scythian coins, the great tope at Manikyalaya has been identified to be a mausoleum of the Indo-Scythian King Kanishka (1st century BC or AD).

Another inscribed brass urn of the same date as the former has been discovered in a tope about 30 miles west of Kabul in Wardak district. This urn, which in shape and size approaches closely the ordinary water-vessels in use in India to this day, was originally thickly gilt and its surface has in consequence remained well preserved.

As regards coins, both brass and bronze were used in ancient India for coinage. Circular punch-marked brass coins of Dhanadeva and Aryavarma of Ayodhya (c, 1st century BC) have been found. Brass coins of kings of several other dynasties living at that time have also been collected. From these archaeological and numismatic evidences it is clear that brass was in common use in ancient India during the first century BC. A small number of die-struck coins of the Pre-Gupta and Gupta periods, including a piece attributed to Chandragupta II, are considered to be made of brass.

Table I features some of the typical brass objects in ancient India up to 11th century AD, before the advent of Muslims in the country.


In April 1980, the Hindustan Zinc Limited (HZL) sponsored a three-year research project on recovery of zinc from the ancient slags which was successfully conducted at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur by the present author. In 1982, HZL collaborated with British Museum Research Laboratory (P.T.Craddock, Lyon Willies, etc.) and the Department of Archaeology, M.S.University of Baroda (K.T.M.Hegde) on archaeological investigations, and this led to the spectacular discovery of the zinc distillation outfit, including furnaces and retorts showing the production strategy, Craddock described the exciting discovery.

"On the third day of the excavation (December 1983), one of the Baroda team (Hegde) spotted the corner of a refractory plate sticking out from a heap of spent retorts beside a goat track in a valley on Zawar Mala  With mounting excitement we cleared a small area above and around it to reveal first, the edges of furnace walls, and then the tops of retorts still in situ."

Extensive archaeological and archaeo-material investigations followed : we now present the summary of the results of the historical experiments performed in two continents.


During the 1983 excavations, two groups of furnaces were uncovered. A single bank of seven furnaces upon Zawar Mala contained small retorts 20 cm long and 10 cm in diameter. In old Zawar, there was a more extensive arrangement of furnaces using a larger retorts (30-35 cm long and 10-15 cm diameter). In both groups, 36 retorts in a 6 x 6 arrangement were contained within the truncated pyramid of each furnace. Thus, no less than 252 retorts were fired simultaneously in a single bank. The retorts were supported vertically on perforated bricks through which the condenser tubes passed into the cooler zinc collectors beneath.(Figs. 1-3).

The furnaces are in two parts consisting of a zinc vapour condensation chamber at the bottom and a furnace chamber at the top. The two chambers are separated by a perforated terracotta plate. The condensation chamber measures 65 x 65 cm and 20 cm in height. The perforated terracotta plate that separates the two chambers is a composite unit made up of four equal segments of 35 cm2. It is 4 cm thick, well-baked, and sturdy. Its perforations include circular holes of two sizes : larger ones of 4 cm diameter each of which is surrounded by a number of smaller holes of 2.5 cm diameter. Within the furnace, the composite terracotta plate was found to be supported on a ledge in the furnace walls on all four sides and a single solid terracotta pillar placed below the junction of its four segments.

Up above the perforated terracotta plate is the furnace chamber, in which 36 charged retorts (Figs.1-2) were arranged, inverted vertically; it may be presumed that 36 vessels were placed, one underneath each retort, to collect the condensed zinc vapour. This arrangement of downward distillation retort with the condensing unit underneath or  distillation per descensum , is precisely what had been described in Rasaratnasamuccaya text (2,157-166, 9.48-50). The brinjal-like retorts in Zawar (Fig.3) are also similar to the vrntakamusa described in Rasaratnasamaccaya (10.22-23).

It appears that a cylindrical reed of 1.5 cm diameter was inserted into the retort after it was charged and the funnel part was luted on it (Fig.3); this is evident from the central hole which is preserved in many retort residues. The reed helped to keep the charge within the retort when it was inverted and placed in the furnace. When the furnace was fired, the reed burnt away leaving behind a cylindrical flow channel for the zinc vapour to flow freely out of the retort. The ore must have been roasted before smelting.

The smelting charge must have included a small quantity of common salt (as surmised from the chlorine and sodium contents in the retort residue) and an adequately large quantity of carbonaceous matter, apart from the calcined ore, and then rolled into pellets of 1 cm3 volume

( Rasa Ratna Samuccaya or RRS 2.163-164 refers to the gutikakrti pellets containing sodium bicarbonate and borax). The charge (about 1.5 kg per retort) was loaded into clay retorts fitted with funnel like condenser tubes, as described before (Fig.3). These were indeed the brinjal-shaped crucible or vrntakamusa, as described in RRS(2.157, 2.163, 10.23-24, etc.). On heating in the furnace, zinc oxide was reduced by a carbonaceous matter to zinc vapour. The reducing blue flame of carbon monoxide was observed to be substituted by white flame of zinc vapour, indicating that reduction had taken place (bhavet bila sita yadi   RRS 2.159-160).

Using a scanning electron microscope and observing the vitrification textures of the Zawar retort and clay materials, Freestone estimated that the temperature reached in the Zawar zinc distillation furnace was of the order of 1150-1200oC, and that this temperature was maintained for 5 hours ore more. The highly endothermic reduction of zinc oxide must have been achieved at a very low partial pressure of oxygen (less than 10-20 atm) to prevent re-oxidation of the metal. Zinc vapour condensed in the tube, the temperature being around 500oC, and collected in the vessels placed below. This kind of downward distillation or tiryakpatana of zinc vapour, produced under a highly reducing atmosphere, has been described in RRS (2.163-168, 10.48-50).

A part of the zinc oxide was converted to well-identified silicate phases and thus could not be recovered as reduced metal.

Freestone et al. estimated that 200-500 g zinc was extracted per retort, or 7-18 kg per smelt of 36 retorts. Each retort weighs about 3 kg. Thus, the debris of around 6 lakh tons of spent retorts corresponds to about 1 lakh ton of zinc, according to Freestone et al. which might have been produced at Zawar during 13th-18th centuries AD. This has been indeed one of the most outstanding levels of industrial production in the medieval world.


Six lakh tons of spent retorts contain two lakh tons of residues within, assaying about 3% zinc. Therefore, some 6000 tons of zinc metal remain within the retort residue, and probably another 1000 tons in the lead slag. Our research at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, sponsored by the Hindustan Zinc Limited, was directed towards the recovery of zinc from these two kinds of slags. The first step in our world was characterization of these residues, which turned out to be very useful and relevant to the archaeo-metallurgical problem.

The phases identified by X-ray and electron diffraction studies by Biswas et al. are summarized in Table 2.

Table 2 - Phases Identified in Zawar Retort (Content), Wall and (Lead) Slag by X-ray and Electron Diffraction Studies (Biswas et al.)

SamplePhases identified
X-ray diffraction Electron diffraction
Retort content
Goslarite ZnSO4.7H2O 
Esperite Ca
2Pb (ZnSiO4)4 
Sphalerite Zns, Chalcopyrite 
2, larsenite, PbZnSiO4
Zn2P2O7.5H2O, goslarite, 
hemimorphite, esperite,quartz.  
2ZnSi2O7, hardistonite 
or aurichalcite Zn
Retort Wall
Goslarite, hardistone, hemi- 
morphite, Zn2P2O7.5H2O 
aurichalcite, quartz,sphalerite
Goslarite, hemimorphite, 
 willemite Zn
Quartz, goslarite, 
Zn2P2O7.5H2O, hemimorphite 
Sphalerite, chalcopyrite, hardistone
Hemimorphite, goslarite, 
hydrozincite, quartz. 

           The results show that in the roasting operation prior to retort distillation, a small part of sphalerite was not converted into oxide and remained in the retort as ZnS and ZnSO4. The presence of goslarite or ZnSO4.7H2O (hydrated at a later stage) was confirmed by the endothermic DTA peaks apart from X-ray and electron diffraction studies. Some ZnO might have remained unconverted in the retort to undergo atmospheric conversion to basic carbonate at a later stage. While most of the ZnO was reduced to metal, a part of it must have been converted at a high temperature to phosphate and silicates from which the metal could not be recovered. Biswas et al. detected a number of zinc, calcium-zinc, lead-zinc, calcium-lead-zinc and magnesium-aluminium silicates. Later, Freestone et al. reported that lead slag contained iron, calcium-iron, calcium-zinc, magnesium and calcium-magnesium silicates. The only silicate phase that Freestone et al. could report in the retort residue was CaMgSi2O6 or diopside.

Biswas et al obtained secondary electron images of retort residue samples and found that the particles have a variety of morphology : plates, needles and spheres. Scanning electron microscopy and X-ray microanalysis showed characteristic peaks of many elements, the most prominent being those of silicon and calcium. Scanning was done a fine electron probe on the zinc-containing particles in the size range of 0.5   40 m m.

Several of the small particles (0.5-8.0 m m) show approximately constant values for the ratio of intensities corresponding to the elements Si, Ca, Mg, Fe, Al, Zn, Pb, Mn, Na, K and S (in decreasing order of occurrence), indicating that these particles containing a few of the above elements are homogenous in nature. The larger particles show wide variation in intensity ratios and hence variation in the chemical composition of the grains from point to point. Thus, the approximate size of the zinc containing and other homogenous grains in the retort residue is in the range 0.5-8.0 m m.

The size of the particles in the lead slag sample was found to be lower than that in the retort residue. The size of the zinc-containing grains was estimated to be in the range 0.5-6.0 m m. m m, by carrying out point to point analysis. The X-ray spectrum showed the presence of titanium apart from the other elements noted in the retort residue.

The work at IIT Kanpur was directed primarily towards the recovery of zinc from the siliceous retort residue and slag at Zawar. We found that the non-silicate phase, such as hydrozincite Zn5(CO3)2(OH)6 could be easily leached by acid. A special  fast leaching  technique, making use of the water-starved nature of the silicate-sulphuric acid system, could recover more than 80% of the zinc contained in the silicate phases, such as hemimorphite Zn4(OH)2Si2O7H2O, willemite Zn2SiO4 etc.

The characterization work done at IIT, Kanpur, has established the existence of complex zinc phosphate-silicate phases in the slag which could have been produced only by the above 1000oC pyrometallurgical smelting process. This corroborates the conclusions reached by Craddock et al.

The large scale manufacture and widespread use of zinc and brass in medieval India need to be fully chronicled. Table 3 records a few brass icons of India for the period 1350-1752 AD; the high zinc content, sometimes in the range 35-40%, in these icons is particularly not worthy. Item No.9 in Table 3 is dated 1752 AD   five years before the War of Plassey, and eight years before the Zawar production was slowed down on account of the Maratha invasions. During the medieval period, the Moghuls had used brass (as well as bronze) for manufacturing guns and artisans of Bidar (83 km from Hyderabad) used high zinc (84%) brass or bidri alloy for ornamentation over it by gold or silver ware.

Table 3 - Brass Icons in India (1350-1752 AD)

S.No.Site ItemElemental percentagesImpurities
1350 AD
68.41.618.59.5-Fe, Ag, Bi
2.Gujarat, 1480 ADModel Temple with four doors 10 x 24.5 cm68., Mg, Bi
3.Gujarat 1485 ADVishnu-Narayana58.90.536.82.1-Fe, Al, Ag, Si, Mg, Bi
15-16 AD
Rajput Prince on Horse72.90.421.82.71.0Al ).3, Ag, Mg
5.Gujarat 1554 ADKal Bhairava76., Mg
17 AD
Chauri-Bearer58.31.535.52.3-Fe, Ni, Al, Ag, Cd, Si, Mg
17 AD
Dipalakshmi Rajput Girl58.80.933.24.50.8Al 1.6, Mg
18 AD
Dipalakshmi52., Al
1752 AD
Tirthankara-Seated62.3-36.00.5-Fe, Ag, Bi
10.NepalSadakasari Lokesvara Form of Avalokitesvara60.52.7535.32.37-Fe, Ni, As, Au

The etymology of the words denoting zinc became clearer. Madanapala   Nirghantu of 1374 AD mentioned yasadam vangasadrsam or the  zinc metal (yasada) like tin  (Table 4). Yasada means that which gives yasa or fame; the connection was clear in so far as zinc was known to produce the famous gold-like yellow alloy of brass (vide 2nd century AD text Rasaratnakara 1.3). The European word  zinc  was probably derived from yasada; the Sanskrit word became jast (Abdul Fazl) and dasta in several Indian languages.

In 1597, Libavius (AD 1545-1616) received Indian zinc, which he called  Indian or Malabar lead . He was uncertain what it was. Although Paracelsus (1616 AD) is generally credited to have given the name  zinc  to the metal, large scale export of the metal from India to the West started later in 17th century, and according to Roscoe, the identification of zinc as the metal from blende or calamine was accomplished by Homberg in 1695.

Table 4   Some Literature on Zinc 

1374 ADMadanapala   Nighantu refers to Yasam vangasadrsam (zinc   tin like) : Yasada means that which gives yasa or fame, converts copper into yellow gold-like brass
1597 ADLibavius receives a sample and calls it Indian or Malabar lead
1616 ADParacelsus calls it  zinc  from Yasada, in several Indian languages : dasta
1695 ADHomberg identifies Indian zinc as the same metal from European calamine
Before 1730 ADAn Englishman transmitted Zawar technology to the West   identity not known
1730 ADWilliam Champion s experiment at Warmley near Bristol; patent in 1738. Cost of metal £ 260 a ton, whereas calamine cost only £ 6 a ton
1743 ADChampion starts manufacturing zinc by distillation per descensum   process  notoriously close to the Zawar process  (Morgan and Craddock)
1751 ADPostlewayt s Disctionary of Trade and Commerce admits ignorance about zinc technology. India continues making high Zn brass statues
1800-1820 ADZawar zinc industry devastated by famine and Marhatta invasion
1886 ADV.Ball quotes Beckmann s History of Inventions (Bohn s Edition, ii.p.32) : "An Englishman went to India in the 17th century to discover the process used there in the manufacture of zinc, and returned with an account of distillation per descensum. I have not yet been able to identify this Englishman".



In pre-modern India several traditions of art works based on metals, alloys, gems and stones flourished and became internationally famous. Many of these traditions started in ancient India and continue vigorously in modern India.

Bidri ware, the sleek and smooth dark coloured metalwork with intricate eye-catching designs on its glossy surface, is famous all over the world. This metalwork as well as the technique to produce it are found in India alone.

Bidri is an alloy which contains 76 to 98 % (normally in the neighbourhood of 95 %) zinc, 2 to 10 % copper, upto 8 %. lead, 1 to 5% tin and trace of iron (vide Table 5). Occasionally high percentage (19.9) of lead and (11.4) tin have been noted. However mostly it is high zinc low copper alloy. Up to 1 % copper in the zinc forms the terminal solid solution h ; above 1 % copper the Î phase precipitates at the grain boundaries in this phase field. The usual yellow brass may contain not more than 40-50 % zinc, often less; copper constitutes the remainder or the predominant phase. Thus brass and bidri represent the two opposite ends of the zinc- copper phase diagram.

The Bidri ware s surface is first made smooth and a solution of copper sulphate applied to it to darken it temporarily for engraving. The engraving tools cut the intricate but delicate tapestry of design into the metal which is then lighter in colour than the darkened surface and enables the pattern to be seen clearly. 

Table 5   Results of Atomic Absorption Spectrometry Analysis of Birdi Ware (Taken from La Nilece et al) 

Victoria & Albert Museum

Acquisition nos.

DescriptionPercentage by weight content
ZincCopper Lead TinIron
2539-1883 I.S.Huqqa91.
I.S. 46   1977Weight92.
1479   1904Ewert89.34.80.8< 0.10.8
I.S. 10   1973Bowl92.
02942 (I.S.)Huqqa84.
I.S.131   1958Pan box95.
I.S. 181   1965Huqqa76.
I.S. 31   1976Bottle98.
857   1874Huqqa92.
I.S. 17  1 1970Pan box81.32.02.0< 0.10.5
02949Bottle83.82.56.6< 0.10.2
855   1874Huqqa99.
02941 (I.S.)Basin91.
I.S. 4  1977Huqqa83.63.70.8< 0.10.6
I.S. 19   1978Huqqa85.< 0.1
120   1886Bottle86.
I.M. 224   1921Bottle91.
2066   1883Box79.62.719.90.10.5
1402   1903Huqqa95.
I.S. 11  1973Vessel97.63.41.8< 0.10.1
I.S. 39   1976Huqqa89.
I.S. 19 - 1980Huqqa80.
856 - 1874Huqqa77.

The piece is then handed over to the inlayer. The inlay may be of silver, brass or occasionally gold. The final stage after the inlay has been burnished, is to blacken the surface of the piece so that the inlay stands out. This is done by applying a paste of ammonium chloride, potassium nitrate, sodium chloride, copper sulphate and mud which darkens the body by producing a characteristic black patina while having no effect on the inlay. The paste is later washed off and finally oil is rubbed into the piece to deepen the blackness of the patina. The result is a lustrous dense black body to contrast with the shining lining   white (silver) or yellow (brass or gold).


La Niece and Martin performed some replication experiments to show that the black colour of the patina was due to copper. The recipe for blackening the bidri metal has the main constituents in a warm solution of potassium nitrate (one part) often substituted by well-urinated soil, and ammonium chloride (four parts).

In a replication experiment a clean pure zinc sheet was immersed in the above solution, when a pale grey patina of zinc oxide and chloride was produced. When the experiment was repeated with the addition of copper sulphate, a reasonably good but superficial black patina formed almost instantaneously. Again only zinc oxide and chloride were the main crystalline products. XRD analysis identified Zn5(OH)8Cl12H2O,ZnO and Cu2O (cuprite) as the crystalline phases. None of these explains the blackness of the patina which was amorphous and contained copper.

Similar experiments were performed with a specially prepared alloy of zinc containing 3 % copper. When this alloy was dipped in a warm solution of potassium nitrate and ammonium chloride, it turned as deep black instantly and the patina was even and adhered well to the metal surface. This was found to be non-crystalline. Scanning electron microscopy showed the patina to be about 10 m m thick assaying 30 % copper as a contrast to 3% in the bulk. Zinc and chlorine were the other elements detected.

La niece and Martin have postulated that ammonium chloride preferentially dissolves the zinc from bidri and the resulting copper-enriched surface or the copper-rich Î phase precipitate gets oxidised by potassium nitrate producing the black colour. The use of clay does not seem to be crucially important. It could merely serve as a source of alkali nitrate and as a poultice to absorb the unwanted zinc chloride formed during the process. The matt black patina is easily damaged by the standard cleaning techniques designed to remove the white decomposition products from the zinc.


The mystery of the black patina is not yet fully solved. The inventors of the tradition did not have any ideal about the underlying scientific principles; they merely hit upon the arts and crafts aspect of the process.

The craft of bidriware is a kind of damascene work which has defined by sir George Birdwood as  the art of encrusting one metal on another, not in crustae , which are soldered or wedged, but in the form of wire, which by undercutting and hammering, is thoroughly incorporated into the metal which it is intended to ornament. The original tradition at Damascus was to encrust gold wire, and sometimes silver wire, on the surface of iron, steel or bronze.

A group of the damascene craftsmen moved from Syria or Iraq to india. Some of them were at Ajmer in Rajastan and hit upon the idea that damascening could be done on the base of high zinc low copper alloy. Zawar in Rajastan was the major zinc production center in the medieval world. the said craftsmen moved down south during the 15th century A.D. and settled at Bidar (17 o55 N and 77o3  E) near Hyderabad. when the art flourished in that place for centuries, it became known as Bidriware crafts.

The earliest known craftsmen like Abdullah-bin-khaiser and his pupil Sivanna worked at Bijapur. Historical evidences indicate that the beautiful articles presented to Alauddin Bahamani II (1434-1457 A.D.) on the occasion of his coronation impressed him very much, and he invited the craftsmen of Bijapur to settle at Bidar itself. The workers used to prepare beautiful huqqa base, ewer bowl, pan box, basin, bottle, slabchis, cot legs etc. The varieties of workmanship of the design consisted of tarakashi (inlay of wire), taihnishan (inlay of sheet) zaranishan (low relief, inlay levels with surrounding area), zarabuland (high relief, for examples silver over a lead pad, aftabi (design in overlaid sheet) etc.

The russian traveller Althanasins Nikitin, who visited Bidar during 1470-1474 A.D., took with him some of the early Bidriware specimens for presentation to the Russian Emperor. A large number of articles of Bidriware were made for presentation to the prince of Wales when he visited India in 1875. These now adorn the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum which has published a comprehensive bibliography and illustrated catalogue on the subject. Bidar and Hyderabad museums also have beautiful collections of this kind of ware.

Mahmud has given some details about this craft under specific heading such as raw materials, tools, implements, process of production, preparation of alloy, mould making, casting (such as goblet ) etc. The manufacture of Bidriware has been carried on under a system of division of labour. The moulder prepares the alloyed metal, casts the vessel and turns it to its proper shape by his lathe. The carver engraves the patterns on the surface of the vessel, and the inlayer designs the patterns, inlays the ornament of gold, silver or brass, and finally polishes the article. In the pre-modern India there have been four seats of Bidriware manufacture: Bidar, Lucknow, Purnea (Bihar) and Murshidabad (Bengal ).


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