On a Sunday afternoon in July, a fellow reporter and I were on our way to Sakhuapani, a sleepy and isolated village about 170 kilometres from Ranchi, Jharkhand’s capital. Cell-phone coverage is sporadic here, and the nearest town, Netarhat, often referred to as the “Queen of the Chota Nagpur plateau,” is about 15 kilometres away. As our sedan turned onto a desolate and narrow road, it was blocked by a row of parked lorries. We had to ask the drivers to shift them and let us pass through to get to the village. It had rained incessantly during our three-and-a-half-hour drive from Ranchi, and it was still drizzling as we approached the village.
Sakhuapani is inhabited primarily by the Asur—an Adivasi community believed to be India’s first metallurgists. The Asur, predominantly concentrated in Jharkhand, is said to have descended from the mythological Asuras—the supposed pioneers of metal craft in the Vedic era. There are around 75 families living in Sakhuapani today. The Asuras’ primary method of metal extraction—procuring charcoal from sal trees and using it to smelt iron ore—supposedly yielded rust-free iron. Stories about this method are entrenched in Asur folklore and rituals. In one custom, songs about a furnace are sung to expecting mothers. Sal trees were always central to Asur life; the literal meaning of Sakhuapani is “sal water.”
The Asurs’ traditional smelting profession has declined over the years, denying them what was once their chief source of livelihood. In 1907, Tata Steel, currently the second-largest steel company in India, built a steel plant in Sakchi, now known as Jamshedpur, a village about 300 kilometres from Sakhuapani. Although the plant was a good distance away, AK Pankaj—a writer researching indigenous human-rights, whom I met in Ranchi—explained that the Tatas’ industrial smelting practice effectively made the Asurs’ traditional process redundant. He added that the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, which placed an embargo on the indiscriminate felling of trees, severely threatened the Asurs’ smelting method. The Asur also believe that their method of smelting was reproduced, without credit, by the Tatas.