Delhi is steeped in history with a plethora of old monuments and historical artifacts. One of the most curiosity-evoking structures you’ll find in Delhi is the iron pillar that stands smack in the center of the Quwwatul Mosque complex. The pillar is a metallurgical marvel. Made from 98 percent wrought iron, the pillar stands at a modest 7.3 meters, but weighs a little over 6 tonnes.
There’s really nothing groundbreaking about it until you come to know that this iron pillar is more than 1,500 years old, and there’s not a smidgeon of rust on it despite standing exposed to the elements for centuries.
Pillar of misinterpretation
Like a lot of monuments in Delhi, the iron pillar has a lot of stories to tell. Some are shrouded in mystery, some are pretty much documented and established facts. The pillar has an inscription going across it. The inscription is six lines long, set as three stanzas. The script is in ancient Brahmi. It describes the heroic deeds of a king named Chandra, presumably from the Gupta period, going by the pillar’s age.
Scientists and historians from around the world have been trying to unravel the mysteries behind the pillar. For one, it’s amazing to know that the technology to forge such high-quality steel existed at this point in time. Another mysterious aspect of the pillar is with regards to its location.
Delhi is not the original location of the iron pillar. There is no doubt that the pillar was moved here. There has been substantial evidence to suggest that the original location of the pillar lies somewhere in Madhya Pradesh, another Indian state. So there arises the next question, how was it moved to its current location thousands of years ago?
Theories surrounding the location
The iron pillar has been the object of fascination for plenty of scientists, historians, and metallurgists for a long time now with several books and even scientific papers written with the pillar as the primary subject.
In one such book, The Story of the Delhi Iron Pillar, the author states that the original installation of the pillar took place near Udayagiri in Madhya Pradesh. Then later, the Mughals took over Udayagiri and the Sultan transported the pillar to Delhi as a token of victory. This is one of the more plausible theories behind the mystery of the pillar’s original location.
Explanations for the no-rust phenomenon
Likewise, there are scientific theories to explain the mystery of the pillar not accumulating rust after thousands of years. According to experts at the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, the relative absence of rust could be attributed to a film of “misawite” forming over the iron pillar.
This thin layer, which is a compound comprised of oxygen, hydrogen, and iron is believed to have formed over the pillar around three years after the pillar was erected. It has been spreading and forming a thin layer over the iron pillar over more than a thousand years.
It’s believed that the ancient Indian technique of processing iron ore and converting it into steel resulted in a high amount of phosphorus in the finished metal and this is the reason behind the formation of the thin protective film around the pillar. Again, it’s not completely determined how ancient Indians at that point in time had the tools and technology to produce such high-quality steel.
“A study conducted in 1963 by M.K. Ghosh of the National Metallurgical Laboratory suggests the pillar was created by hammering lumps of hot iron, one at a time, to shape the pillar. Each lump weighed 44 to 66 lbs each. A close look on the surface of the pillar shows the hammer marks of the forged iron. Ghosh opined 120 laborers took two weeks to create the pillar,” according to historicmysteries.com
All theories aside, wherever you come across an object that people don’t have a good understanding about, it’s common for certain “enlightened” members of the local population to generate superstitions around it. The iron pillar in Delhi is no different. It is believed that if you can wrap your arms around the pillar until your fingers touch each other, you’re due for some good luck!
But whatever your beliefs, there is something very strange about the pillar — the technical prowess needed to make it, and the fact that it has not rusted for 1000’s of years — a feat that is still not considered possible.