Similar to the rust-proof iron pillar (also known as the Ashoke pillar) of Delhi, India, that graces the Qutb complex, we come across another rustproof iron wonder, recently discovered.
As per Wikipidia, the iron pillar, which weighs more than six tons and is 23 feet tall, is believed to date back to as early as 912 BC. Incidentally, the pillar initially stood in the center of a Jain temple complex housing twenty-seven temples that were destroyed by Qutb-ud-din Aybak, (another evidence of Islamic atrocitity) and their material was used in building the mosque and Qutub Minar complex where the pillar stands today. The pillar has been called “a testament to the skill of ancient Indian blacksmiths” because of its high resistance to corrosion, due to both the Delhi environment providing alternate wetting and drying conditions, and iron with high phosphorus content conferring protection by the formation of an even layer of crystalline iron hydrogen phosphate.
The name Sunrakh doesn’t ring a bell for those who have bought flats at posh residential colonies across the road. But very soon, this sleepy village off National Highway 2 will add a new chapter to ancient Indian history, particularly in the use of iron.
Vrindavan is right next door, and, in fact, a turn from Chatikara leading to the temple town takes one to this village. After a couple of potholes, the road disappears into a dusty path that leads to a water tank, which local residents believe to be around 3,000 years old.
Ramtaal is undoubtedly one of the oldest sites in the region, as per British revenue records. And like many archaeological and heritage sites, this, too, lay forgotten till Braj Foundation, a voluntary organisation recharging and conserving water bodies in the region since 2005, discovered it.
Having recharged almost 40 kunds or water bodies—most of them ancient and in remote areas—across the Braj region in the last seven years, the NGO came upon Ramtaal. Removal of encroachments was a tough task as was de-silting as the tank had turned into a flat field, says Vineet Narain, chairman of Braj Foundation. The process started in December 2011 with financial assistance from Kamal Morarka, CMD of Gannon Dunkerley Group. Deep de-silting brought out the original tank, and further excavation revealed iron used in the plinth of the structure. “The surprising part was that molten iron plates used at the bottom of the tank had not rusted,” says Narain.
S K Dubey, Archaeological Officer of the state Archaeological Department, who has taken samples of this iron, says, “This kind of use of iron, at the plinth level, is indeed a unique discovery. However, a lot needs to be examined before drawing conclusions. The bricks used in the water tank seem to date back to at least the 7th century while the bottom level may be older. We plan to send the samples to our Lucknow office for further examination. Though iron has been in use for the past 3,500 years, usually plaster-like arsenic or bitumen is found in such ancient tanks. The use of iron is, thus, rare and more so because there is very little evidence of rusting,” he explains.
The tank measures 120 feet in length and 180 feet in width, while its wall is 4 feet 6 inches thick, with a 1.5-metre-wide and 2-inch-thick iron plate running through it. “The brick size is 12 and ¼ inch x 8 ¼ inch with a thickness of 2 ¼ inch. The specifications match those given in Samarangana Sutradhara, a text compiled by Parmar ruler Raja Bhoj (AD 1000-1055) for constructing a public water tank,” claims Project Manager Bipin Vyas, who has been involved in various heritage restoration works in Mathura and Agra.
History professor Virendra Singh, a native of this village who teaches at Government College, Kushinagar, and has done extensive research on Mathura region, says that Ramtaal finds mention in several ancient texts such as poet Jagadanan’s Brajvastuvarnan, and that the site dates back to the Kushana period. He, too, agrees that use of iron in a water tank and that at the lowest level is unusual. “We need to find out the reasons why it has not rusted, and whether it is 100 per cent iron. Perhaps samples should be sent to the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, Lucknow, for proper carbon dating. This will be a new chapter in the history of the region,” he says.
Singh points out another angle to the discovery: “There are no iron ores near Mathura. However, Ramtaal is situated at the junction of five highways of the Kushana period. Also, the Yamuna flowed close by then. Thus, a powerful individual or organisation—maybe a king—is likely to have brought iron via these highways or boats carrying iron plates must have anchored near this place. This seems a possible explanation. After all, Mathura was an important Hindu and Buddhist centre, an ancient janpad, and even during Mughal rule, a trade centre between Agra and Delhi,” he says. Singh puts the date of the site around 2,500 years ago.
Project Manager Vyas, however, says that archaeologists from Bangalore have unofficially confirmed it to be 2,900 years old.
The excavation has been brought to the notice of the district administration as well. Sanjay Kumar, District Magistrate, Mathura, says, “While the work done so far by the NGO is commendable, the administration will have to wait for a formal report from the archaeological department. Once the findings are final, the district administration can approach the Archaeological Survey of India. Meanwhile, we can ask the department to speed up the work.”
For the local villages, there are issues other than those of historical importance. While some feel that once the findings get a formal stamp, Ramtaal will no longer be a village property, others hope the development and promotion of the site will lead to employment generation. Rajesh Chander, a member of the gram panchayat, has another worry: “Encroachments and land grabbing is happening in connivance with local revenue officials, and hence, things may not be smooth for making Ramtaal a tourist spot,” he says.
The Braj Foundation, however, has grand plans. Narain cites the example of the ancient Brahmakund in Vrindavan that they have restored and turned into a tourist spot. “We will ensure that the original structure is protected, and renovation and beautification done in a manner that will attract tourists, and development done in order to generate employment,” he says.