Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The steel from Serendib.

Damascus, an ancient city with a history running back almost 6000 years before Christ... A city of magic and romance, where civilizations met, displayed their wares, traded, haggled, clashed their swords and sometimes mingled. Damascus is a city which had seen innumerable wars and battles. It had seen the rise and fall of many empires. It had embraced numerous gods only to forget them in due time and worship new gods.
And one legend which still abounds about this city in the near East, is its swords. The Damascus swords had been and still continues to be an object of much speculation. The legendary swords with their blades with the well known rippling pattern, resembling that of flowing water or soft rippling fabric, was a legend.... a mystery..
Stories were abound about the sharpness and the plasticity of the blade. Legends has it that the sword could cut with precision through the barrel of a rifle and through a hair falling across it's blade. It could go through many a battle and slash through bone and flesh and still retain its sharpness. Legends has it that the blade of Saladin himself was of Damascus steel.
The secret of Damascus sword lies in the steel that was used to forge it.
And the story begins many miles due east, in southern India and especially in a small island that they called Serendib.
"..the finest steel for Damascus blades came from Serendib.."
Sri Lanka, as 'Serendib' is better known now, started exporting high quality steel somewhere in the 1st century AD, the production reaching its zenith during the 9th century AD. But how did the ancient Sri Lankans make such fine steel?
The iron age started in Sri Lanka in 1000BC. Little by little Sri Lankans learned to smelt iron from iron containing ores. Initially they used bloomeries, which produced only low carbon high impurity iron of unremarkable quality. But later on they progressed on to use blast furnaces where the stream of air was supplied by bellows.
In Sigiriya, sri Lanka, remains of such ancient blast furnaces have been found. The bellows were made of animal skin and placed in clay containers and an operator work them to keep a constant supply of air.
Blast furnaces developed all over the world and could be defined as the climax of the iron age. Better quality iron with a higher percentage of carbon could be produced this way.
But in Sri Lanka, unlike other areas, high carbon, low impurity steel was being produced even before they had perfected the blast furnace!! So what is the secret?
The discovery was made in a perfectly providential manner in 1988. That year the then reigning government of Sri Lanka embarked on a hydroelectric project centered in the Walawe river basin in Southern Sri Lanka. It involved the construction of 'Samanalawewa Dam' across the Walawe river. The area was not a known archeological site, but an initial field survey revealed a unique archeological discovery.
It was an iron smelting furnace located on the western slopes of the hills, facing south west. Further research revealed almost 80 such sites. Surveys suggested that at one time there could have been almost 3000 smelters in this area.
The furnaces were unique in the true meaning of the word. They were not bloomeries and neither were they blast furnaces.
In fact they were wind driven, actually monsoon wind driven furnaces.
From June to September, monsoon winds sweep inwards to the island from the vast expanse of the Indian ocean. These furnaces took the natural advantage of the monsoon winds to supply a continuous stream of air.
At least one site from 'Samanala wewa' was from as far back as the 3rd century BC. It can be definitely stated that steel of highest quality with low impurities and high carbon percentage was being produced by the 1st century AD. And that is the earliest evidence of high quality steel from south Asia, according to Dr. Jill Julef.
The furnaces were easy to work, because unlike blast furnaces, they required comparatively little man power. So they were cost and energy efficient.
The technical details of the furnaces are also impressive and suggest the broad technical knowledge possessed by the ancient engineers.
Wind, close to the ground level blowing uphill, would reach maximum velocities at the crest, where the furnaces were located. The front wall of the furnace acts as a barrier and splits the stream of air into two layers. The stream that flows up over the top of the furnace roof creates an area of low pressure, which effects the lower layer of air to be sucked into the furnace through the tuyere at the front.
The maximum efficacy of the furnace, depends on the laminar airflow along the tuyere. The airflow has to be in the transition zone between laminar to turbulent. To make sure that this requirement is met, the physical variable called the Reynolds number has to be within a certain range. If we are modern day physicists with complex computation devices we would have to use certain complicated equations to find out the right tuyere diameter and angle to give the appropriate flow speeds assuming that the monsoon wind speeds are more or less fixed.
But more than 2000 years ago the ancient Sri Lankan craftsmen also knew the diameter and the angle which was optimal. It is extraordinary that the modern calculated values of those variables and the actual measurements taken in the field, match together beautifully...
Actual working replicas of the furnaces made by archeologists had been so efficacious that they are presumed to have produced about 10 tons of steel each year.
The carbon source for thus produced steel came from plant material incorporated whilst being produced. This was also different from the more widespread practice of using charcoal as a source for carbon.
Investigations into Damascus steel conducted as recently as 2006 have revealed the presence of carbon nanotubes encasing cementile nanowires. Some specialists claim that this unique nanowire and tube arrangements may have arisen due to the use of plant material for a carbon source.
Steel production in sri Lanka reached its zenith by the 9th century AD. Its reputation as an exporter of the finest steel in the world was well documented in the Islamic world.
But this unique method of steel production seems to have disappeared from the Sri Lankan history by the 11th century AD. This archeological fact may be accounted for by the gradual decline of the ancient rajarata civilization which culminated in the invasion and the subsequent carnage of Kalinga Maga in 1215....
Damascus steel continued to be produced from the steel from south India. But after about 1700 AD, the craft declined until it became another one of the lost arts of the ancient world....

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Buddhism; The philosophy that became a religion.

Buddhism, a philosophy which has its roots in Asia and yet with its unique world view and simplicity continues to attract many followers from around the globe each year; A personification of tranquillity and peace; Saffron robes and calmness.....
The philosophy was born around 2500 years ago in India, 6th century BC. How did it evolve and change over the past 2500 years and is it even the same teaching still?
The story begins in 6th century BC India, an era which could be described as a kind of a religious and philosophical renaissance in India. The Ganges basin where the civilization centred on was undergoing major socio cultural changes. The prevalent Brahminic social divisions and norm codes which severely discriminated the people of so called lower social strata, were beginning to be seen as oppressive. Especially the people of the ruling class who were still considered inferior to Brahmins were beginning to rebel. People were starting to think and question. In what might be called an explosion of knowledge, and innovation, new philosophies came into being. Sources claim that there were 62 religions in the Ganges basin.
Into this melee of spiritualism and philosophy was born a certain child.... destined to be the future lord Buddha.
He probably grew up learning the Vedic teachings of Brahmins. And unlike many he probably sought the meaning of what he was taught. And he probably had a lot of questions, particularly about god. Who is god? Where is he? How does he work his magic? Is it better to love him or fear him?
And he probably didn't get any satisfactory answers..
Living the life of a nobleman he was probably exposed to various learned men. Men who were not Brahmins but philosophers in their own right. Being of unusually curious disposition his interviews with them probably opened our young man's mind to other possibilities.
And so he started his quest to find answers. With time, his questions grew more defined and the requirements of his answers grew more refined. I won't dwell much on how the prince left his castle to find answers and the adventures he had, because adventures they obviously were.. But eventually he found his answers, and Buddhism which is undeniably a great philosophy was born.
Within a short time of its birth, Buddhism spread far and wide. One reason of course was Lord Buddha's emphasis on spreading his teachings far and wide. But in its own right, Buddhism was an attractive philosophy, both to the masses and the nobility. It was new, it was simple, it was different and it didn't rely on an unknown, unseen deity. It gave a new vision that you are responsible for your own fate and that you can as well change it. And most attractively, Buddhism defied the social stratification and discrimination made widespread by Brahmins.
But if truth be said Buddhism was more of a philosophy than a religion. For one thing, there was no deity that you could pray to when in distress. No god to look up, to perform miracles and help you. You were virtually responsible for your own salvation. And the philosophy and the world view was definitely not understood by everyone.
So with time and with the introduction of more attractive religions Buddhism ceased to be the fast spreading philosophy readily embraced by the masses, that it used to be.
But in a certain island nation just south of the southern most tip of the Indian sub continent, it survived. In Sri Lanka, there was the right mix of political and social backgrounds to sustain Buddhism. It was embraced by the royalty. The royal patronage through the centuries guaranteed the safety of Buddhism. Also the fiercely patriotic islanders defied invasions and made sure their culture survived.
But did it really survive? Did Buddhism remain as pure and untainted as we imagine it to be??
Overtime, most obviously practices changed and rituals were established. The philosophy was converted to what would appeal to masses... a religion!!
Rituals like worshipping came into being. Buddhist monks became more focused on literature and gave rise to literary masterpieces which although excellent in an aesthetic sense did little to the teaching of the philosophy. And now... we sri Lankans still have Buddhism... the edited version. We have the religion Buddhism of which we are faithful followers..

The edited version of Buddhism is unique in that it seems to have adopted exactly the rituals that lord Buddha condemned 2500 years ago; the self same rituals that were plentiful in other theistic religions.
For example, Buddhists worship statues of lord Buddha and the 'Bo' trees, "ficus religiosa". Various theologians may try to justify the practice, but there's no denying that lord Buddha himself condemned the practice.
Maybe the primitive impulses of the people always, always revert to safety and protection seeking when concerning things that they consider religious. Maybe that's what happened to Buddhism too.
This may explain the ritual of chanting Buddhist scripture with the hope that it will bring prosperity, good fortune, protection and health.. Scriptures contain the various teachings of Buddhism. So in my opinion, the scriptures deserve to be studied, learned and understood. And to chant them like some magic spells expecting things to happen is to severely degrade their true value.
The same can be said about the practice of tying threads supposed to be sanctified by chanting scriptures to them. I may be wrong but i can't find any evidence of lord Buddha ever having tied such a thread on some disciple as blessing. The practice probably evolved later on with some influence from concurrent practices in Hinduism.

As in any religion, Buddhism also has much to say about death. And one of the main occasions that Buddhists seek out the temple is on the death of a loved one. The current belief is that by doing an alms giving and having the Buddhist priests chant specific scripture, you can add merit to the after life of the diseased person. That is, provided he is born in some low birth where he expects merit. I don't intend to do an in-depth dissertation on the topic. There are theologians who have and will argue to and against this concept time and time again. But once again all i can say is, i can't find any stories of lord Buddha going to some contemporary citizen's funeral to give merit to the afterlife. But I do know that in Hinduism, when someone dies his or her relatives do rituals to help the departed soul attain salvation. No conclusions once again.

Sometimes during the 13th and the 14th century, Sri Lanka saw a renaissance of literature. Under the patronage of learned and scholarly kings, many Buddhists theologians created literary masterpieces. The "jathaka stories" written during the 13th century, supposedly describing the various previous births of lord Buddha is one such masterpiece. But from some point in history these stories started to be taken as facts. Obviously these stories were fables with some moral lesson in them. They were good teaching material to encultivate morals in the people. So the priests often started to base their sermons on these stories. This of course was a good and effective practice and certainly did appeal to the masses. But i can't help wondering if the great doctrine became shadowed due to this diversion. After all Buddhism is not about just storytelling!!
On the other hand, priests with poetic and musical inclinations started to compose their sermons in poetic form and sing them...

Is it too late to salvage the great doctrine? We definitely can't change the rituals. But maybe when enough people start to question, a new generation of truth seekers might be born. A generation trying to salvage the truth from all the misleading decorations. And maybe one of them will succeed!!