The discovery of copper marks the beginning of the Chalcolithic period when humans started using metal instead of stone and clay to fabricate their hunting tools, domestic utensils and other artifacts like ornaments, decorative pieces and mirrors. The oldest evidence of the use of regular copper artifacts comes from the Nal Cemetery in Quetta, dating back to III Millennium BC. Mehrgarh in Baluchistan has given some fragments of the earliest copper fragments datable to the V Millennium BC.
Copper is one of the most important metals on this Earth. In India, copper was traditionally used in religious ceremonies. Rasa Ratnasamuccaya, an early medieval work, provides a vivid account of the processes of extraction of copper along with its use in Ayurvedic and traditional medicinal systems. Copper mining is mentioned in ancient works from Kautilya's Arthsastra (3rd Century BC) to Ain-i-Akbari written by Sheikh Abul Fazal in 1590 AD. In Kumaun, in the Central Himalayas, copper smithy is an old traditional technology.
Kumaun is known for its hoary metallurgical traditions and seems to have played a significant role in the traditional copper technology. Some evidence related to the Copper Hoards Culture shows that copper mining was a thriving industry in Kumaun region. The Copper Hoard Culture is generally dated to II Millennium BC.
There are three significant finds of Copper Hoards' type of artifacts from Kumaun, one from Bankot, second from Pitalpani, and the last from Haldwani. In 1989, a hoard of eight anthropomorphic copper objects was discovered while digging a stone quarry close to the Bankot Inter College. It contaieds 98% copper, 1.22% iron, and some minor impurity of arsenic. Another anthropomorphic copper artifact was found from a scrap shop at Haldwani in the Nainital district, similar to the ones reported from the Gangetic valley. Thus, there is strong circumstantial evidence that the copper technology of Kumaun may go back to the II Millennium BC. Half of the analyzed Copper Hoards artifacts have shown a significant presence of arsenic. As the copper mines of Kumaun also have arsenic bearing minerals, there is a high probability that copper for the Copper Hoards Culture derived from Kumaun.
There are several rich ancient copper ore sites in the Central Himalayan region such as Kharahi Patti, Rai-Agar, Bora-Agar, Askot and Ramgarh in Kumaun and Dhanpru, Dhobri, Pokhri, Chaumattiya, Raja, Danda, Talapungla, Kharna Nota, and Thala mines in Garhwal. Generally Chalcopyrite is the common mineral in the Central Himalayan's copper mines. Agar village mines situated in the Pithoragarh district were perhaps the most important copper mines of Kumaun during the British period. An ancient furnace was located at this village near the talc mine. There are three rectangular pits in two terraces in the village. Two of them, Pits #1 and #2, are dug in the upper terrace, while Pit #3 is on a lower terrace and is comparatively bigger. The Kharahi Patti mines, in the Bageshwar district, are located close to the north of the town of Almora and extends between Binsar and Bageshwar. According to Atkinson, the Gaul mine of Kharahi Patti and the Sor Gurang mines produced grey copper in small quantities. Tamtyura, Danochhina, Changochhina, Kharak Tamta, Ghingarkhola, Binsar, Bhatkola, Simsyari, Bihargaon, Uder khani, Bilona, Agar, Gair-Siekra, Lob, and Beragaon were some of the sites where metallurgy was practiced in ancient times. In some villages such as Tamtyura, Uder khani, Binsar, Sikra, Kharak Tamta, and Jula, copper smithy is still practiced, but mining and smelting are not. Out of its 500 families, approximately 65 families are practicing copper smithy at present. Only the Tamta caste people did the copper smithy in ancient times.
According to the local copper craftsmen of Kumaun, a Chandra king of Champawat brought coppersmiths form Rajasthan to set up coppersmithy in Kumaun Himalayas during the medieval period. Their first settlement is said to be at the Gosni village near Lohaghat. Later on, with the transfer of the capital from Champawat to Almora sometime in the first half of the 16th Century AD, some of the families of the coppersmiths were also brought to Almora to produce necessary items like tablets and stamps. During the Gorkha regime in the 18th and 19th centuries, two brothers, Raibhan and Jaibhan, were given land near Lamgara in Almora district to settle down and to produce traditional utensils. Some Tamta families also shifted to Kharahi Patti (Bageshwar District), probably in search of copper ores. In 1884, the British government banned the mining activity in Kharahi Patti. In 1942-43, a group of people agitated and urged the government to withdraw the ban imposed on mining in the Kharahi Patti. During 1952-56, the Khan-garh area was explored for the occurrence of copper ore by the Indian government. Today, these copper mines are completely closed.
According to the traditional accounts, in olden times people used a large bag on their back for collecting the ore. This work was done by the lower castes. After collecting the ore, it was washed with water to remove the soil. Then, cleaned ore was mixed with fresh cow dung to make small pellets. These pellets were dried in the sun and charged into the furnace or in a big handi like crucible, which is made of locally available brown clay, tempered with powdered quartz or limestone and bafila grass. While smelting the ore, the pot was covered with ash, and the molten liquid copper settles down at the base of the crucible.
Today, utensils (like thali, parat, water drum, lota, kuni, gagri) are fabricated, but some workers also make traditional decorative items like idols and statues through cold and hot work with the help of a hammer. Carving and engraving on copper artifacts are the most remarkable features of these traditional copper works. For soldering they use a mixture of brass, zinc, copper, tin, and borax. They coat it and heat it on the furnace. They use rice husks as a washing and polishing agent in their traditional copper smithy.
The furnace which they use is locally known as afar. It has the
large wheel of a bicycle, but in olden times it was made of wood which was
cased in iron. A small fan tied with ropes directly connects with this wheel.
The fan has a small nozzle which is made of clay and ropes and is locally
known as nava.
In Kumaun we thus see that traditional technologies have continued for millennia, and are relevant even today to the lives of the common people. Perhaps it holds the key to their economic regeneration.