Lighting up the skies with a display of fireworks has been the hallmark of the Deepavali celebrations in India. The history of using fireworks can be traced back to millennia.
History of Fireworks in India
Vijayanagar Fireworks – 600 Years Ago
Vijayanagar was a kingdom that covered the Central Deccan area with its capital at Hampi. Its most famed king was Krishnadevaraya.
The Vijayanagar kingdom was famed for its prosperity and well administered society.
History of the Vijayanagar kingdom which was at its peak around 600 years ago speaks of dazzling displays of fireworks during festive occasions.
Map of Vijayanagar kingdom Krishnadevaraya
Bhoja Fireworks – 1000 Years Ago
Around 1000 CE, the vast region of Malwa in Central India was ruled by Raja Bhoja, who was an accomplished scientist, engineer as well as able administrator. The present day city of Bhopal and the 1000 year old dam there, in good working condition even today, owe their name and fame to his technological and administrative skills.
Bhoja had devised new engineering devices based on mechanics and thermodynamics for protection, defence, comfort as well as for fun.
His work Samarangana Sutradhara describes how fire and certain chemicals could be used in a controlled manner to create objects that could lift off into the sky, create a blast, display lights and sound.
Spectators used to gather to watch him set off such displays.
Fireworks in 1st Millennium CE
The early part of the 1st Millennium CE, saw the evolution of various forms of fireworks display ranging from naphtha throwing by the Byzantians and Arabs, the usage of green bamboo to crack and produce loud noise when thrown in fire as used by Chinese to the Indian use of heat and chemicals to send up objects into the sky.
Collectively, these ancient civilizations took fireworks to the stage from which the present day pyrotechnics could evolve.
Bhogar’s Fireworks – 2000 Years Ago
It is worth noting that in literary and history circles, especially in Tamil Nadu, there is mention of how firecrackers can be traced back all the way to one of the Tamil Siddhars, a Siddha saint called Bhogar who lived around 2000 years ago.
The Siddha Saint Bhogar
A goldsmith by birth and alchemist by practice, Bhogar had put the knowledge of chemistry, botany and physiology to a combined, good use. He is credited with having discovered many medicinal cures as well as many chemical and mechanical applications such as steam boats, flying aircrafts etc.
His work Saptakanda describes the various works and experiments he had carried out including formulae for some of them.
The Tamil records speak of Bhogar having travelled to China to spread knowledge.
Indian Treatises on Fireworks
Zain-ul-Abidin, the Raja of Kashmir between 1421 and 1472 CE, had composed 2 works on the manufacture of fireworks.
The tomb of the Kashmiri king, Raja Zain-ul-Abidin
The Samskrt text Kautukachintamanai by Gajapati Prataparudradeva of Orissa authored between 1497 and 1539 CE also contains formulae for making different kinds of fireworks.
Foreigners Observe Indian Fireworks
- Barbosa, the Italian traveller who came to Vijayanagar, during the prosperous reign of Krishnadevaraya, writes in his travelogue about how Deepavali was celebrated in Hampi with fireworks. This clearly shows us that celebration of Deepavali with fireworks has been a tradition of this land for atleast over 500 years.
- Varthema, another Italian traveller who visited much of S.E.Asia between 1502 and 1508, writes about the people of Vijayanagar as great masters in the art of making fireworks and how their fireworks had reached the islands of Sumatra.
Ludovico di Varthema,1470–1517 & his book
3. Abdar Razzak, an Ambassador from the court of Emperor Shah Rukh of Turkeythe court of the Vijayanagar kingdom between April to December 1443, mentions about having seen the use of fireworks in Vijayanagar, during his visit.
The Samskrt dictionary contains age old words such as Sphotak, Visphotak for explosives and words such as agnikreeda meaning sporty display of fires, pointing to ancient Indians’ knowhow and usage of fireworks and explosives.
From Deepavali to other Festivals
Taking a leaf from Deepavali, today festivals such as New Year, Christmas and many other festivals or even events around the world are celebrated with fireworks. In England, Guy Fawkes day has been traditionally celebrated with fireworks.
Guy Fawkes celebration
America celebrates Independence Day on 4th of July every year with characteristic displays of fireworks.
America’s Independence Day Fireworks
Fireworks of the God – Ad hir Vettu
In every major temple festival, when the Deity is brought out in procession, fireworks have been an essential part of processional fanfare. A single loud sounding burst from a firecracker at important milestones of the procession, was a signal to the people of the village and nearby areas to be ready to receive and pay respects to the Deity, who was approaching.
Such fireworks in the Tamil land have been called Adhir Vettu – resounding blast.
In Tamil Nadu, there are still specialists who make these loud sounding crackers and they are still used in traditional temple processions and temple festivals, the most famous fireworks being that at Trichur Puram festival.
We thus see an usage of fireworks, especially for Deepavali and other festive occasions going for millennia, in our history.
Why These Fireworks?
More than for merrymaking, bursting of firecracker has been used as way to announce. Announce either the arrival of the Divine or the departure of the Evil. An age old practice has been to burst cracker on the death of someone, especially wicked, vile.
It is a common tradition followed even today, to burst atleast one cracker, even in the poorest of poor houses, on Naraka Chaturdasi to acclaim the death of the Asura, Naraka.
We see this when effigies of Ravana made with fire crackers are set aflame on Vijaya Dasami day during Dassehra, to mark the death of Ravana and victory of Rama, i.e good over evil.
With the blurring of the history behind traditions over time, since the death of the wicked also means joy, bursting of firecrackers took on the connotation of celebrations and joy instead.
An Act of Proclamation
Bursting of loud crackers besides being a wonderful sight and an expression of merriness, has an effect of infusing a sense of bravery, boldness, courage and achievement. It ushers in a feeling of having won over something. It is like an act of proclamation – a proclamation of siding with the right and righteous.
The firecrackers therefore had been put to a fitting use, to evoke such emotions when celebrating occasions that stand for a victory of good over evil.
They can emphasize the cause of celebrations, if only we care to know the cause and care to use the crackers discriminately.
A Thriving Industry Today
In many places though, this tradition has given way to indiscriminate use of long string of crackers that go on endlessly for minutes, as a mere sign of celebration of a few, at the cost of discomfort and distress to other pedestrians, animals and vehicular traffic.
Also, all caution is thrown to the winds, by the youth of present day, as they handle fireworks.
The industries too in present times exploit local and seasonal labour, especially child and women workforce.
Making of fireworks is a thriving industry around Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu, in China and other parts of world as well. Manufacture and export of fireworks and the field of pyrotechnics have become an important contributor to the economy of the land.
The pollution that fire crackers give forth is negligible compared to various other sound and air pollutants that we are polluting this earth with, on a daily basis and valuable, considering how they can be effective in emphasizing a good cause.
So, if we can ensure that we can keep under check, the inconsideration and other safety and labour norms that are flouted around the business of firecrackers, then we can make every Deepavali season SOUND FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS.
Given this wholistic understanding, let us celebrate Deepavali with care, caution, consideration and cheer – the way Deepavali has been celebrated for hundreds of years in this land. It is the most popular festival of India, celebrated in its own distinctive style.
More on our book “Deepavali”.