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Delhi’s pillar, Gumla’s pride
- Pune realtors ask Birajia tribals to produce rust-resistant iron

On the Qutub Minar complex in Delhi stands a short, seven-metre iron pillar from the Gupta age that towers over modern skyscrapers for one sensational quality. The iron doesn’t rust.

Craftsmen hired by Gupta king Chandragupta’s officials are lost in the mists of history, but when Pune-based realtors Orange County wanted a prototype of that fabled pillar, it sought out Jharkhand’s Birajia tribesmen from Gumla district, Bishunpur block.

The Pune-based realtors have asked the Birajias to produce 100kg of rust-resistant iron using traditional smelting methods. Vikas Bharti Bishunpur, an NGO, is overseeing the project.

Birajias are one of the eight primitive tribe groups in Jharkhand. Metallurgists will perhaps be stunned to know that members of this tribe — an offshoot of the Asur clan — can produce iron with very low percentage of carbon.

Many anthropology books, including that of well-known ethnographer S.C. Roy, talk of the Asurs’ pioneering iron smelting methods.

“A few months ago, we had a meeting Orange County executives who asked us to produce iron using traditional tribal smelting methods for their Delhi iron pillar prototype that they want to install in one of their buildings in Pune. We have started the job,” said Pankaj Singh, an NGO functionary who also happens to be a metallurgical engineer.

Six Birajia men from Harup village near Netarhat are smelting the iron. They are the only ones who picked up the skill from a village elder, now dead.

Singh recalled an interesting anecdote. “Nagu Birajia, who excelled in smelting iron in a way that significantly reduced carbon content, single-handedly kept this traditional skill alive in his village. Luckily for us, these six men, Sudhram, Dasrath, Ramdhan, Bifeya, Rambrit and Sohrai, who are his descendants, chose to learn the skill from him before he died in 2008 at the ripe old age of 103,” Singh said.

The prototype of the Delhi iron pillar will be one-tenth the size of the original. But even this will require about 100kg of iron.

The tribesmen can distinguish between the three varieties of iron ore found in Gumla region.

“The tribals call them pola, bichi and gota, what we know as magnetite, haematite and laterite,” said Nitish Priyadarshi, a city-based geologist, who has worked with tribals closely.

Metallurgist Singh of the NGO said the Birajia ironsmiths had chosen haematite ore for the Pune project. “They know their job well,” he said.