Monday, August 23, 2010

Stories from Chinnur: 2

Kunasamudram steel.. the legendary material is said to have made chisels for stonemasons of the Great Pyramid. Damascene swords were made from it in the middle ages and the wootz technique copied in Europe. As we walk from village to village around Chinnur 20 years ago we see the blackened places that define slagheaps on the banks of the local cheruvu, where steel was smelted till the early years of the 20th century. Not only the steel itself was a technological marvel, it was smelted in small earthen crucibles that were able to withstand the temperatures that melted the iron ore out of the metal-bearing rock.

It was the Mannevarlu who had been steelmakers for centuries. The current generation had seen it in their childhoods, but had never practiced it themselves. It was done at night, they said, on moonless nights so that you could see the molten steel flow. Iron-bearing rock was scattered on the ground around the stream-beds. Small earthen furnaces were loaded with charcoal made from local hard woods. Hide bellows, foot-pumped, raised the furnace temperature. And there you had it, the highest quality steel ever made, no mining scars, no displacement, independent professionals, a highly skilled artisan technique.

The Mannevarlu now eke out a living as agricultural labour, their cynical employers giving them part wages in liquor they distill from raw sugar. Some are employed by the Silk Board to mate the tassar moths, something only the Mannevarlu seem to be able to accomplish.

Srinivas and I walk through the forest with Sarpanch of Kusnepally, on our way to try out, yet again, steel-smelting with the Mannevarlu. The Sarpanch is of the Devangula jati, a tassar weaver. He scans the trees as we walk, and darts off now and then to pick a wild tassar cocoon. The stronger ones among the wild tassar moths, he tells us, were able to force their way out of the cocoon without biting through the silk, so you got the thread all in one length. Today the cultivated insects have lost this ability. The cocoons have to be boiled to kill the grubs before they bite their way out, cutting the silk to bits.

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