The Meenabharani festival is a 10-day annual celebration in parts of Kerala which includes a grand display of fireworks. It is believed that the Goddess showers her blessings upon her devotees on the last day.
However this year, the show of fireworks took a tragic turn in a temple at Kollam, Kerala, when a stray cracker fell on a fireworks stockpile inside a concrete structure resulting in a huge fire and explosion that claimed over a 100 lives.The incident which has left the nation in shock, resulted in government authorities taking a serious look into the usage of fireworks in celebrations.
Fireworks form an integral part of a large number of Indian festivals. In Kerala, fireworks display are particularly an important part of local festivals and temple culture.
When and how did the usage of fireworks originate?
The use of fireworks originated in China. The prime constituent of fireworks is gunpowder, which in turn is formed of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal. It is saltpeter which gives the colours to fireworks, while the other two ingredients are required for prolonging its effects. In his work, “Book of the kinship of the three”, Wei Boyang of the Han dynasty in second century CE, had first mentioned the use of a substance which historians believe was the first reference to gunpowder.
There are other historians who ascribe the origins of gunpowder to Indian Sanskrit texts such as the Nitiprakasika of Vaisampayana which was compiled in the 8th century BCE. However, the potential of gunpowder to be used in fireworks was not realised during this period.
Saltpeter and Sulphur appeared in Chinese texts before the first century CE. Historian Kaushik Roy is of the opinion that ancient India was aware of the existence of saltpeter which was known as ‘agnichurna’ (powder that creates fire). Reference to the substance is available in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, an ancient Sanskrit treatise on statecraft and military strategy. It was composed between 300 BCE and 300 CE.
It was from the time of the Tang dynasty in China (700 CE) onwards, that gunpowder came to be used for fireworks display. The Chinese believed that the noise created by gunpowder used inside a bamboo tube, would keep evil spirits at bay. Therefore, use of gunpowder for fireworks became common in Chinese celebrations.
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How did the use of fireworks spread from China to the rest of the world?
By the thirteenth century, the military pursuits of the Ming Dyanasty in China, introduced gunpowder to South East Asia, Eastern India and the Arab world. A number of military strategies was passed on to the Delhi Sultanate from the East Indian tribes. It is possible that the use of gunpowder got transferred in a similar way. While warfare remained the primary use of gunpowder, the utilization of the substance for the purpose of fireworks was also learned from China.
“Use of fireworks for entertainment purposes had spread from China to Arab countries. The trade relations between Kerala and the Arab world led to fireworks becoming an integral part of Kerala festivals,” said Dr M G S Narayanan, who is an authority on Kerala history.
Since when did fireworks become a part of Indian celebrations?
From the fifteenth century on, there is evidence of a large number of Mughal paintings which depict the use of fireworks in grand celebrations. A 1633 painting shows the marriage of Mughal prince Dara Shikoh with much pomp. Fire illuminations in the background show that such displays had become common in grand events.
In his celebrated book on medieval India, historian Satish Chandra described the marriage ceremony of Adil Shah, ruler of Bijapur in the seventeenth century, wherein he said that Rs. 80,000 was spent on fireworks alone.
Use of fireworks in celebrations was popular during the British rule in India as well. By the nineteenth century, the rising demand for fireworks led to the establishment of factories. The first fireworks factory in India was set up in Kolkata in the nineteenth century. It later moved to Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu.
While the display of fireworks has remained an essential component of not just Indian festivals, but also any grand celebrations in the country, there has been a huge demand on ban of such showcase of fire after the accident in Kerala. However, the Travancore Deavaswom Board which manages 1,255 temples in the state has ruled out a ban on the grounds that that bursting firecrackers are part of a number of temple rituals.