Preparing the Sinews of War: The Method and Economics of Iron and Steel production in Tipu Sultan’s Mysore

Mysore’s transformation into a technologically advanced state was precipitated on account of the special circumstances that it found itself in towards the middle of the 18th century. Regular skirmishes with the British made   Tipu Sultan realize that the Europeans could only be defeated on the battlefield by employing superior technology and tactics against them. Fortunately for Tipu, the natural resources that Mysore possessed would become his greatest ally in this search for technological parity with the European adversary on the battlefield.

According to Francis Hamilton Buchanan, who is 1800 was sent by the conqueror of Mysore, Lord Wellesley, Governor General of India to Mysore to collect data on the climate and natural resources as well as the condition of peoples and their agriculture and manufactures, there existed in many parts of Mysore iron forges for the manufacture of iron. The iron was made partly from the black sand which was found during the four months of the rainy season in the channels of all the torrents in the country which the monsoon currents brought down from the rocks or from an ore called ‘Canny Kallu’ found in the rocks themselves.  However, only iron from the black sand could be made into steel. And it was this iron that would be the bedrock of Mysore’s gun-making industry.

Buchanan discovered Iron being smelted in various talukas near Tumkur, a distance of about 70 kilometers from Bangalore – Madhugiri, Chinnarayanadurga, Hagalawadi and Devarayadurga. The first 2 talukas contributed iron ore in the form of black sand from channels described above that would be used to make steel for sword blades, cannon, muskets, stone cutter chisels, etc  and the rest gave iron ore mined out of rocks which was used for all other purposes, primarily agricultural and household.

The work people in the smelting houses were four bellows-men, three men who tended the charcoal and three women and one man collecting and washing the sand. They worked only during the four months when the sand was to be found; and for the remainder of the year they cultivate the ground, or supply the inhabitants of towns with firewood. There are four men working in shifts at the bellows with the more skillful among them taking out the iron and building up the furnace. In each furnace the worker first put a basket of charcoal weighing about half a bushel (which is about 7 kilogram). He then would gather as much as he could of the black sand that he could lift with both hands and put in double that quantity. After placing another basket of charcoal, the fire was stoked by the bellows as often as necessary. This process of loading the furnace with charcoal and black sand is repeated every time the earlier load of charcoal is burnt.

In all, Buchanan noted that each smelting saw an input of about 20 kilograms of dry black sand which after smelting gave a mass of iron weighing about 9 kg wight. The iron was now taken to the forging house where there were 3 hammer-men, 1 man to manage the forceps, 2 bellows-men and 4 men to apply charcoal, which is made from Bamboo. Here, this mass of iron was again burnt and hammered into 11 wedges of iron, each conveniently shaped like a plough-share and hence easily trade-able as one. So, in the end about 47% of iron was procured from the ore, which though quite impure was malleable, a prime requirement for all tools from plough-shares to sword blades. Every day 3 furnaces are smelted and 33 wedges are forged.

So, at this stage we have these iron wedges extracted from ore that was mined from river beds in Mysore. How did the Mysoreans convert this into what could easily rank among the world’s best steel? Dr. Benjamin Heyne in 1814, wrote about the production of steel from these iron wedges after keenly observing the process in Mysore. He writes “ In order to convert the iron into steel each piece (wedge) is cut into three parts, each of which is put into a crucible carefully made of refractory clay, together with a handful of the dried branches of the  ‘Avaram’ tree and a few fresh leaves of the ‘Vonangady’ shrub. The mouth of the crucible is then closely shut with a handful of red mud, and the whole is arranged in circular order with their bottoms turned towards the center in a hole made on the ground for the purpose. The hole is then filled with charcoal, made of any wood except from the Banyan tree and large bellows are kept blowing for six hours, by which time the operation is finished. The crucibles are then removed from the furnace, ranged in rows on moistened mud, and water is thrown on them while yet hot. The steel is found in conical pieces – button like at the bottom of the crucibles, the form of which it has taken.”

The Mysorean method of production of steel could be said to be superior to the contemporary European method of  cementation by charcoal alone, which used to take anything between six to seven days, on the one hand, and fourteen to twenty on the other. By contrast, under the Indian method carbon and hydro-carbon acting jointly on iron formed steel within four to six hours. It is very likely that the Avaram wood and the Vonangady leaf were used for fuelling the furnace as they acted as de-oxidants.  De-oxidation is important in the steelmaking process as oxygen is often detrimental to the quality of steel produced.  Recent studies on ethanol and methanol extracts from the   Avaram plant have shown it’s superior anti-oxidant properties.  The excess of iron in the ore was gradually eliminated in the process of reheating. Steel of the kind required could be obtained by interrupting the process of de-carbonizing when wanted.

Let us now having looked at the Steel making process in Mysore move our attention to how the workers employed in this industry were organised and the method as well as amount of their remuneration. The Forging house studied here by Buchanan produced 33 iron wedges a day. Every 4 days, after production of 132 wedges they were divided amongst the workers as follows:

The incomes (in Kind) of the workers at the Iron Forge are as detailed below:

Proprietor:                                                         35 pieces

Panchala, Foreman at the forge:                10 pieces

Foreman at the smelt:                                     8 pieces

Bellows-men:                                                     5 pieces

Two of the women, at 5 each:                       10 pieces

Remaining 16 persons, at 4 each:               64 pieces


TOTAL:                                                               132 pieces

So, the workers would distribute the produce among themselves. In currency terms let us evaluate the value of these pieces. Buchanan mentioned that 4 pieces of iron made from the sand sold for a Fanam, which was a small Gold coin in circulation in Tipu’s Mysore. So, in currency terms let us now examine the earnings of each of the workers over a monthly period (30 days) iterating the data forward from the one calculated earlier for number of wedges produced (132) over a 4 day period. 5 Fanams were worth a Silver Rupee which was worth 960 Copper Kasu in Tipu’s time.

The incomes (Cash values) of the workers at the Iron Forge are as detailed below:

Proprietor:                                                         263 pieces =>   65 Fanams – 144 Kasu

Panchala, Foreman at the forge:                75 pieces    =>  18 Fanams – 144 Kasu

Foreman at the smelt:                                     60 pieces =>   15  Fanams

Bellows-men:                                                    38 pieces  =>     9  Fanams – 96 Kasu

Two of the women, at 5 each:                       10 pieces  =>      2 Fanams – 96 Kasu

Remaining 16 persons, at 4 each:               64 pieces  =>    16 Fanams


TOTAL INCOME OF WORKERS:                  132 pieces  =>    125 Fanams – 480 Kasu

Since a rupee was worth 5 Fanams, we may state that the entire output of a contemporary Mysore Forge produced a revenue of 25 Rupees 2 Fanams – 96 Kasu to its labour over a 4 day production cycle. The proprietor earned a sum of 13 Rupees – 144 Kasu each month. For a season of about 6 months that the forges worked in a year leaving out the Monsoon and other unproductive months, the Proprietor earned an income of 78  Rupees – 4 Fanams – 96 Kasu.

Let us now go forward again and see the expenses incurred by any one of the individuals associated with the forge. The proprietor, like today’s Contractor was supposed to defray all other fixed expenses for a whole season of work.

The expenses incurred by the Proprietor of the Iron Forge are as detailed below:

Forest keeper, for permission to make charcoal:  100 Fanams

Village chief for permission to gather river sand:   40 Fanams

Furnace Rent:                                                                        15 Fanams

Custom House (Tax):                                                          30 Fanams

For a pair of Bellows each – Smelt & Forge:                66 Fanams

Sacrifices to propitiate Gods:                                           15 Fanams

Charity for Brahmins:                                                       10 Fanams

TOTAL EXPENDITURE :                                                  276 Fanams => 55 Rupees – 1 Fanam

Profit made by the proprietor is  (78  Rupees – 4 Fanams – 96 Kasu) – (55 Rupees – 1 Fanam) = 23 Rupees – 3 Fanams – 96 Kasu 

What needs to be remembered here is that the Proprietor was the contractor who arranged men and materials for the purpose of forging Iron. He did not have to spend time at the forge and was free to pursue farming or trading or any other employment that he chose to which provided him with additional earning power.

We are also fortunate to have access to information about the payment to workers at the Steel Forge. Here, we are informed that the number of people employed in converting the iron wedges to steel is thirteen. A head workman makes the Crucibles, loads them and builds up the furnace. 4 teams of workmen, each consisting of 3 persons, one to tend to the fire, and 2 to work the bellows. Each team therefore, labors in the working season only four hours a day; except every fourth day when they must work 8 hours. They are all cultivators and in their leisure time, they manage their fields. Here too, there is besides the 13 men a proprietor who advances all money required to the workmen, and who receives payment when the steel is solid. Fifteen Pagodas ( 52 Rupees – 6 Fanam) worth of iron is purchased as raw material for the furnace. Of this 15 pagodas (a standard Gold coin prevalent in South India) worth of iron, 2 are given to the head workman and 1 each distributed among the remaining workmen and proprietor. All this iron is then handed over by each of the 13 people to the head workman, who for three months in employed in making the crucibles, loading them and preparing the furnace..During this time, the 12 workmen would bring him clay, repair the hut where the furnace was and make charcoal; but all this labor was only done in intervals when needed and they were free the rest of their time to work in their fields.

After the steel is produced, every man takes the measure of steel produced by the iron he gave to the head workman as pay. In many cases, the proprietor would have advanced sums of money to the laborers for their daily needs which he would now collect from them. Another quantity of iron worth 15 pagodas is purchased and this is done again till in a season 45 pagodas worth of iron is made into steel. It is again the proprietors responsibility to supply his team of workers with necessary advance on their pay to be recovered later as well as the general expenses attending the forge.


The incomes of the workers at the Steel Works is as detailed below:

45 Pagodas of Iron produce 1800 iron wedges divided into 5400 pieces of steel of which:

4500 pieces of good steel @ 2.5 pieces/Fanam:                                        1800 Fanams

900 pieces of poor steel @ 6 pieces/Fanam:                                               150 Fanams

Deducting Expenses:                                                                                       – (247) Fanams

Deducting Cost of Iron: (1 Pagoda = 10 Fanams)                                    – (450) Fanams

Net Profit:                                                                                                              1253 Fanams

This profit, divided among 15 labor, gives 83.5 Fanams income to each individual. This is an income of about 7 Fanams per month for a workman with a single share. The foreman gets double of this at 14 Fanams per month  as he spends all his time in the Workshop.

The expenses incurred by the Proprietor of the Steel Works are as detailed below:

Forest keeper, for permission to make charcoal:   110 Fanams

Village chief for house rent:                                            15  Fanams

Custom House (Tax):                                                          30 Fanams

For a pair of Bellows:                                                         42 Fanams

Sacrifices to propitiate Gods:                                          30 Fanams

Charity for Brahmins:                                                       20 Fanams

TOTAL EXPENDITURE :                                                  247 Fanams => 49 Rupees – 2 Fanams

This expenditure is shared by each worker, in proportion to his quantity of steel. The whole profit of the proprietor is the 3 Pagodas worth of iron converted into steel, for which he would already have advanced 40 odd pagodas to buy the 45 pagodas worth of iron required by the steel work over the year. This he manages with his own capital or with cash borrowed from a moneylender.

Let us now for each kind of Forge, summarize the wages/profit earned by the owner of the forge as well as the basest of workers there.  Since we do not have access to the investment made by the proprietor of the Iron forge we can only assess his Profit in terms of % of Expenses/Income which gives him a  dividend of 70%. At the same time the remuneration of the most menial of workers is 1 Fanam for every production cycle of 4 days giving him a wage of  7 Fanams – 96 Kasu in a month.

In case of the Steel Forge we may calculate the ROI (Return on Investment) as:

(Gain from Investment – Cost of Investment)/ Cost of Investment which in our case is (in Fanam worth):

The team together takes home (1253 – 450) / 450 = 1.7 or an astonishing 170% ! The least paid of labor earns 7 fanams a month.

Let us now compare the wages of a higher 30 Fanams / month and lower 7 Fanams / month with contemporary wages in India. The  Returns Register of the PWD (1830-31), Bengal Presidency  mentions the daily wages of a Laborers on Zamindari estates in the districts of Dinagepore, Bakegunj, Dacca, Murshidabad, even the Parganahs of Calcutta as 2 annas per diem. This means monthly wages hovered at 3 Rupees – 12 annas in East India Currency. The years 1790-1800 were very depressed times in Bengal due to  famine and the wages would have been lower. Even if one wishes to disregard the wages in British Bengal looking at the depressed conditions there, one may move to the relatively prosperous and neighboring Bombay Presidency where the Bartle Frere Price Commission Report of 1864 gives the minimum wage was only 7 Rupees – 12 Annas per month in 1863 and notes that the early decades of the 19th Century saw much lower wages on account of the depression .which continued more or less till wages improved in the 1850’s on account of the US Civil war demand for Cotton, construction of the Railways and the Indian War of Independence.

Contrast this with the wages of the most menial of workers at the Mysore forge at the turn of the 18th C who made between 7 -8 Mysore Fanams in a month which comes to about 2 British Rupees – 4 Annas each month. One also has to keep in mind the fact that in the forges of Mysore,  these workers were not needed to work more than 4 hours a day and were free to work the rest of the time in their fields or as hired labor elsewhere thus adding to their monthly income.


A Blunderbuss produced at one of the Royal Workshops in Mysore


Steel Barrel of the Blunderbuss with Bubris Etched

As discussed earlier, Ore was extracted from rocks in another way. Buchanan visited a village near Tumkur where the ore  was being mined and found a man with a pickax digging up on the side of a hill. Until he got a perpendicular face five or six feet wide and as much  high. Before him he has then a face containing ore, more or less intermixed with clay, sand, and hematite and covered with two to three feet of external soil. He would go on to physically scoop out the ore, and matters with which it is mixed; and having beaten them well with his pickax, and rubbed them with his hands, pick out the small pieces of ore throwing away the sand, clay and other matter.

This stone ore was made into iron in exactly the same way as described above for ore from black river sand. However the smelting process slightly differed. The ore was smelted twice a day. At each time, an amount of cleaned ore is put into the furnace and wrought iron to the weight of about 20% of the ore is produced. This iron is heated after cutting into wedges, in a forging furnace and beaten at once by 3 men, with hammers weighing 7 – 9 kilograms each. The iron, very malleable is now ready for sale. This iron was primarily used to fulfill Mysore’s Household and Agricultural requirement. It would also be used in making war equipment like Shells, round shot, horse accouterments, sword and lance blades for the Kandachar militia, etc.


Part of Horse Armour manufactured in Mysore, 1799 AD Courtesy Pvt. Collection


Observe the Bubris struck along the borders of the Armour

The forge at Hampapura by the banks of the Kabini river was one of the factories that regularly supplied iron wedges to the Sarkar and Buchanan records that Tipu’s father, Haidar Ali made an allowance of a Fanam per Maund (appx. 38 kilogram wt.) of iron sent to the Government. So, what needs to be remembered here is that Tipu himself or in his time did not actually kick-start a new Industry in Mysore; it was already there, but he only actively incentivised, encouraged and regulated their activities. And in doing this he was able to bring up methods of production as well as the output to levels yet unseen in the rest of South India. Another very important contribution of his was his policy of encouraging foreign Craftsmen to come to Mysore and produce new Cannon and other armaments inducing in this process more modern methods of forging and manufacture.

Tipu Sultan’s embassy to France’s Louis XVI which left Indian shores in July, 1787 carried requests to France to dispatch to Mysore ‘seeds of flowers and plants of various kinds, and for technicians, workers and doctors.’ The King informed the ambassador that such craftsmen and technicians, who could improve the manufacture of arms and introduce new industries in his kingdom could be arranged for. The transcript of Tipu’s letter to the French King received from the reports of British Intelligence at the French court to London is preserved in the India Office library records makes for interesting reading. The letter requests for 10 masters for casting cannon; 10 gunsmiths; 10 foremen for casting incendiary bombs; 10 workers of Sevres porcelain; 10 glass workers; …one Engineer; one caster of bullets;  We also know how many French artisans agreed to enter Tipu’s service: 10 casters of cannon; 10 gunsmiths; 10 casters of bullets; …. 10 watch makers;….2 engineers and  2 gardeners. Obviously, manufacturing the best weaponry would also mean ramping up science, quality as well as scale of Metal production to the best standards of that time. This is Tipu’s primary achievement.

At Kankanhalli, the iron foundry was under the exclusive preserve of the army manufactory. This factory, like today’s ordinance factories in India appears to have been conducted entirely on Government account and for it’s exclusive benefit.

The Revenue regulations of Mysore drafted under Tipu’s supervision himself is a very important source which helps us understand the importance Tipu gave to Mysore’s Iron and Steel Works. This book of regulations was to be compulsorily retained , read and followed by all Government functionaries throughout the extant of Mysore’s possessions from Malabar to Dharwar.

Instruction no. 78 in the booklet read thus:- If there are ten iron-foundries in your district, you are by encouragement, to increase them to double their number; and according to the indents and musters sent from the Huzoor; you are to have iron Dubas and steel Kuhuttes made and forwarded. Whenever an order comes to your Kuchery for iron shot and Dubas, you are to forward them without the smallest delay;Ironmongers may make all sorts of implements of iron, but you are to take care that they do not sell shot. You are also to ascertain where there are mines of iron and steel; and obtain from thence the utmost possible quantity of each of those articles, which you are to take the greatest care of.

Instruction no. 122 read thus:- You are to cause the name of your district to be stamped on all the iron implements and shot which are made in your district and are to send them through your Cutchery to Agran Puttun.

We see Tipu asking his Amildars who were Civil officers in-charge of each district to encourage and expand the production of Iron and Steel as well as to keep an open eye of sources of ore and acquire them for the Sarkar. We see a very interesting point made of the output of the forges. Along with iron implements they produced Dubas , Kuhuttes and iron shot. Kuhuttes (from the Dravidian Katthi for Knife) were sword blades for the use of the Sarkar, iron shot were round metal balls used in muskets and cannon for ammunition. But what is enlightening here is the use of the wqrd – Dubas (From the Hindustani Dubba for box) are Cylindrical Shells, something unique throughout the Armament world of the 18th Century to Mysore and Tipu. These Dubas or Cylindrical Shells were Rocket casings into which charge and fuse would be put, ends sealed and a steel blade or long bamboo attached  to the shell with leather strips and sent flying into the sky bringing fire and terror into the hearts of Mysore’s enemies. Tipu also goes further asking the foundries to mark the shot and implements  with the name of the district as a quality check so that the item could be verified at any time against both inventory as well as Quality.

To sum up, we have now seen a well developed and advanced Iron and Steel industry in 18th Century Mysore which made use of the best of the resources the land had to offer with a well organised Labor force being paid wages which were far ahead of corresponding wages in British occupied territories nearby. All of this together helped to change Mysore from a petty principality of 33 villages to World power status.


The currency conversion ratios used are as follows:

British: 1 Pagoda = 3.5 Rupee = 42 Silver Fanam = 3360 Kasu

Tipu: 1 Pagoda = 2 Rupee = 10 Gold Fanam = 1920 Kasu

The conversion key were the following ratios:

1 Tipu Pagoda = 3 British Indian Rupees

1 Tipu Pagoda = 2 Tipu Rupees (Double Rupee – Haidari)

1 British Rupee = 16 Annas


  1. A journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar, Francis Buchanan; 1807
  2. Iron and Steel Production in Eighteenth Century Mysore, Nikhiles Guha; 2002
  3. Tipu Sultans Mysore – An Economic Study, M.H. Gopal; 1971
  4. History of Tipu Sultan, Mohibbul Hasan; 1951
  5. The coins of Tipu Sultan, Rev. Geo P. Taylor; 1914
  6. The Standard guide to South Asian Coins and paper Money Since 1565 A.D.; 1st Edition
  7. The Mysorean Revenue Regulations, Translated by Burrish Crisp; 1792
  8. Poverty and Unbritish rule in India, Dadabhai Nauroji; 1901
  9. Medicinal values of Avaram, International Journal of Current Pharmaceutical Research – V. Joy, M. John Paul Peter and others; 2012
  10. Of Damascus Sword Blades, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society – Henry Wilkinson; 1837
  11. Tipu Sultan to Zynal Aabideen, 6th Nov. 1786: Select Letters of Tipu Sultan, William Kirkpatrick, Letter no. CCCXCIV
  12. Tipu Sultan to Raja Ram Chander, 13th June, 1786: Select Letters of Tipu Sultan, William Kirkpatrick, Letter no. CCXCIV

About Olikara

An engineer, history buff, collector of South Indian antiques.
This entry was posted in Tipu Sultan & his times. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Preparing the Sinews of War: The Method and Economics of Iron and Steel production in Tipu Sultan’s Mysore

  1. Sona Olikara says:

    Extremely well researched and well written

  2. Pingback: Technology Transfer and a Cashless Economy: Tipu Sultan’s efforts to imbibe European Science and keep Indian Gold in India | The Seringapatam Times

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