Are Fireworks part of Indian Culture?
Recently, we had discussed about festivals & their significance in the National Identity of India:
During the discussion, some of my friends and readers shared their experiences about being approached by NGOs which were calling for a boycott of Diwali through some misleading information which could be broadly classified as follows
1) Fireworks are a modern invention.
2) Fireworks were never a part of Indian culture.
The above claims are purely false propaganda created with an intention to distort Indian history. This article debunks such myths by consolidating all the documentary evidences which proves that Fireworks are atleast 2000 years old and has indeed been an integral part of Indian culture cutting across religions, caste, creed & gender for several hundreds of years.
The major constituent of firework is Gunpowder which in turn comprises of Saltpetre (Potassium Nitrate), Sulfur & Charcoal. While the Sulfur & Charcoal act as fuel to prolong the combustion, it is actually the Saltpetre which gives the characteristic purple flame due to which Fireworks are used not only for military but aesthetic (celebratory) purposes as well. Historians around the world have confirmed that the knowlege of gunpowder existed in ancient India. Dr Gustav Oppert (a German Indologist) has done extensive research on this and has been an authority on this subject, with his works being accepted & quoted by several books by authors & historians around the world.
Apart from the ancient Sanskrit texts which referred to Saltpetre as “Agnichurna“, its usage for producing smoke (to fight the enemy during war) was documented 2300 years ago in Kautilya Arthasastra. Also, Chinese texts dating back to 7th century had acknowledged that Indians were aware of Saltpetre and its usage for producing purple flames implying that it might be used for aesthetic purposes apart from military.
Over the next few centuries, Saltpetre was experimented by alchemists, and there are Chinese texts dating back to the 9th century which mentions the usage of Saltpetre enclosed in bamboo tube to create loud explosions. The Chinese believed that such explosions could keep evil spirits at bay.
As the Chinese continued to innovate further with different form factors like sparklers, light fountains, rockets etc, they quickly sensed the business opportunity & began to export them to Europe & India. By 16th century, fireworks had become one of the major sources of entertainment for Indian royalty. Grand fireworks during functions (especially weddings) costing a fortune had become a norm. In 1609, Adil Shah spent a whopping Rs 80,000 on fireworks alone.
(Just to give an idea of the magnitude of the money, consider the case of Bangalore around that timeframe. In 1687, Bangalore was a 150 year old business hub with trade links to Rome and a thriving city. The city was purchased for Rs 3 lakh by Chikkadevaraya Wodeyar. It means the amount of money spent by Adil Shah on fireworks could have fetched him almost 1/4th of Bangalore).
One of the earliest paintings depicting such firework grandeur is that of Dara Shikoh’s marriage in 1633.
Paintings from 16th & 17th centuries suggests that fireworks were part of celebrations/festivals by the masses (royalty as well as non-royalty) and not limited to any particular religion or gender.
The only time when people were denied of fireworks was during Aurangzeb’s tenure. From 1665 onwards, Aurangzeb banned fireworks during Diwali because had considered it to be “Hindu practice”. The exhibit preserved at the Bikaner Museum sheds more light on the same.
However, with the downfall of Aurangzeb and the rise of the British, the ban was lifted and fireworks gained prominence again during celebrations. In fact, the British Imperial’s obsession with fireworks was at an all time high during the 17th & 18th century. Fireworks of all shapes and forms were used to produce spectacular shows in front of palaces and community gatherings.
In 1815, artist Sita Ram, under the auspices of the Governor General of Bengal, Warren Hastings, produced paintings depicting celebrations & spectacular firework displays as follows.
To cater to the rising demand in domestic market in the early 19th century, Das Gupta set up the first Indian fireworks factory in Kolkata to manufacture color matches, light fountains & loud crackers. By the early 20th century, the industry shifted it’s base to Sivakasi (Tamil Nadu) and the rest is history.
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Links to the paintings: