A brief and crackling history of fireworks in India

Crackers and fireworks up to nineteenth century India were probably quite expensive and hence commissioned mainly by the rulers for personal and citizen entertainment or by the economically well-to-do of the community.

Updated: October 26, 2017 12:12 pm

Fire, in author and historian Jack Kelly’s words, “ignites our dreams and anxieties” and speaks to humans “in a language more basic than thought”. Not only sacred and formidable, fire is also enduringly entertaining in its pyrotechnical avatars. It is little wonder thus that a festival of lights (flames) and a night of fireworks is continually enchanting across the world. The contribution of firecrackers to air pollution, at a time when they are fairly affordable and readily available in India for all to use, raises the question as to how far do firecrackers and fireworks really go in Indian history and how their availability and consumption has changed over time.

“The use of fireworks in the celebration of Diwali, which is so common in India now, must have come into existence after about 1400 AD, when gunpowder came to be used in Indian warfare,” stated late historian P K Gode in his account, “History of Fireworks in India between 1400 and 1900,” published in 1950.

Fireworks, like its primary ingredient Gunpowder, have a long history in India. Gunpowder — the accidental tenth or eleventh century invention of medieval Chinese alchemists — was early on dubbed as “devil’s distillate,” as it terrified and fascinated onlookers with its flash and bang. As its military use evolved in China, so did its show and gimmick value — right from the white, magical appearing smoke left in the wake of its open combustion. One historical conjecture is that the gunpowder technology, along with the first pyrotechnical mixtures for entertainment, was brought to India and Europe from China by the Arabs.

Fireworks in medieval Indian celebrations

One of the earliest notes of pyrotechnical shows in India is made by Abdur Razzaq, the ambassador of the Timurid Sultan Shahrukh to the court of the Vijayanagar king Devaraya II in 1443. Describing the events of the Mahanavami festival, Razzaq wrote, “One cannot without entering into great detail mention all the various kinds of pyrotechny and squibs and various other arrangements which were exhibited”. Italian traveler Ludovico di Varthema who visited India in this period, made a similar observation while describing the city of Vijaynagar and its elephants: “But if at any time they (elephants) are bent on flight it is impossible to restrain them; for this race of people are great masters of making fireworks and these animals have a great dread of fire…”

Fireworks and pyrotechnic shows existed as a form of royal entertainment in many medieval Indian kingdoms during festivals, events and special occasions like weddings. Manufacturing formulas for fireworks describing pyrotechnic mixtures are found within Kautukachintamani, a Sanskrit volume by Gajapati Prataparudradeva (1497-1539), a reputed royal author from Orissa. Gode mused on the possibility that Chinese pyrotechnic formulas were brought to India around 1400 AD and then modified with the use of Indian substitutes for the Chinese ones not available in India.

Mughal style of painting depicting Diwali with firecrackers. Courtesy: British Museum

It is notable that Ibrahim Adil Shah, the Sultan of Bijapur, circa 1609 AD gave a lavish dowry in the wedding of his courtier’s daughter to the son to Nizam Shahi general Malik Ambar, “with Rs. 80,000 being spent on fireworks alone,” states late historian Satish Chandra in his well-known volume Medieval India: From the Sultanate to the Mughals. While rulers were primarily the organising sponsors of these shows, it is clear that other citizens also had access to fireworks. Duarte Barbosa, a writer and officer of Portuguese India who wrote some of the earliest pieces of travel literature, described a Brahmin wedding in Gujarat from his travels (circa 1518) where the bride and bridegroom “are entertained by the people with dancing and songs, firing of bombs and rockets in plenty, for their pleasure.” His description, according to Gode, also suggested that the fireworks had been manufactured in India and were available in plenty in Gujarat at the time.

Elaborate description of fireworks in mythological works from this period also bring in imaginations of pyrotechnic exuberance, familiar to the writers of this period, around these epic events. For example, a popular sixteenth century Marathi poem by the saint Eknath called “Rukmini Swayamvara,” describing Rukmini’s wedding with Krishna, mentions a range of fireworks, from rockets to the equivalent of the modern phooljhadi.

fireworks through paintings, history of fireworks, mughal painting Various schools of painting : Mughal, Pahari and Rajasthani from the 18th century depict people enjoying firecrackers. Courtesy British Museum and San Diego Museum of Art.

By the eighteenth century, fireworks began to become de rigueur in grand scale Diwali entertainments organised by rulers. Peshwayanchi Bakhar, a Maratha chronicle text, mentions a recounted account of Diwali celebration in the Kotah (modern Kota, Rajasthan). Mahadji Scindia in it describes to Peshwa Savai Madhavarao: “The Divali festival is celebrated for 4 days at Kota, when lacs of lamps are lighted. The Raja of Kota during these 4 days gives a display of fire-works outside the premises of his capital. It is called … “Lanka of fire-works”. Mahadji then went on to describe an image of Ravana at the center, surrounded by rakshasas, moneys and a big image of Hanuman prepared in Gunpowder, which upon being lit actually illustrated the scene of Lanka dahan via Hanuman’s tail via pyrotechnics. After hearing this, the Peshwa gave orders for a similar display of fireworks for his entertainment. The resultant grand performance, as per the chronicle, was “witnessed by the people of Poona in large numbers”.

A historical account in Marathi by Rai Bahadur D.B. Parasnis translating to English fireworks in India mentions the arrival of a skilled English pyrotechnician in India circa 1790 AD, who first impressed the British in Calcutta with his performance and was then sent by them to Asaf-ud-Daullah, the Nawab of Oudh, whom he regaled with a spectacular, continuous display in the sky of colorful fireflowers, fishes, serpents and stars. In one display, a mosque arose in the sky.

A firework display for Mughal emperor Muḥammad Sháh ‘Rangeela’ (1702-1748), portrayed seated and leaning against a bolster. The indolent emperor was known for his various indulgences. Courtesy: British Museum.

Thus, by the late Peshwa period, when the Mughal empire was breathing its last and the British East India Company was afoot realising its designs in India, not only was the knowledge of different fireworks common, but also many references to Diwali along with accompanying description of fireworks or atishbazi began surfacing in various publications. Often these makers of fireworks were also the manufacturers of gunpowder, the raw materials for which were always readily available in India and which was used in bulk in warfare. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, its military use was phased out in favour of newer explosives like Dynamite. Since then, the medieval technology’s principal use remained in the fabrication of fireworks.

Fireworks in modern India

What generally seems apparent from the sparing descriptions of crackers and fireworks in medieval India is not only their grand nature, but also that they were probably quite expensive and  hence commissioned mainly by the rulers for personal and citizen entertainment or by the economically well-to-do of the community. In the colonial era, it is likely that like most indigenous industries, India’s fireworks production and development also took a setback, with imports from Europe and China appearing in the Indian market. 

The first fireworks factory in India was set up in Kolkata in the nineteenth century. After Independence, Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu emerged as India’s Firecracker hub, benefitting from the restrictions of imports of firecrackers. It is plausible to theorise that, unlike in the colonial and medieval eras, with increase in the population and economic prosperity of the Indian middle class — especially in the last three decades — and with ready supply coming in from the flourishing domestic industry, bursting of firecrackers only grew and never looked back.