A Look At The Brief Crackling History Of Firecrackers In India

Bhubaneswar: While India is celebrating Diwali, the ban on firecrackers which are otherwise an integral part of the festivities have changed the way we look at them. This year, amid COVID-19 pandemic, the celebration has become all about good food, good clothes and lights.

But here we are not talking about Diwali celebrations but about firecrackers and their crackling history in India.

Origin of firecrackers

The use of firecrackers is not new to India. While they originated in China, the crackers soon made their way into India through trade and military contact. The earliest evidence we have of firecrackers in India dates back to the Mughal times. Some historians have pointed out that the knowledge of materials used to make firecrackers existed in India as back as 300 BC.

Historians believe that knowledge of gunpowder existed in India back in the 8th Century. Sanskrit texts such as the Nitiprakasika of Vaisampayana which was compiled in the 8th Century mentions a similar substance. But the potential of gunpowder had not been realized during this time. Though a section of historians is of opinion that Indians were aware of the existence of saltpetre as agnichurna or a powder that creates fire.

Firecrackers in the medieval period

Fireworks and pyrotechnic shows existed as a form of royal entertainment in many medieval Indian kingdoms during festivals, events and special occasions like weddings. 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. Manufacturing formulas for fireworks describing pyrotechnic mixtures are found within Kautukachintamani, a Sanskrit volume by Gajapati Prataparudradeva (1497-1539), a reputed royal author from Odisha.

It is believed 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.

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.

An elaborate description of fireworks in mythological works from this period also brings in imaginations of pyrotechnic exuberance, familiar to the writers of this period, around these epic events. By the eighteenth century, fireworks began to become de rigueur in grand scale Diwali entertainments organised by rulers.

Firecrackers in modern India

Coming to more modern history, the first fireworks factory in India was set up in Kolkata in the nineteenth century. In 1923, Ayya Nadar and Shanmuga Nadar from Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu migrated to Calcutta in search of their fortunes, and having found their fortunes working in a match factory there, they returned to their native Sivakasi and established a match factory. In 1940, the Explosives Act was amended, making the manufacture of a certain class of fireworks legal. The Nadar brothers seized the opportunity and in 1940, created the first fireworks factory in Sivakasi.

Soon the little town of Sivakasi became a firecracker hub. By 1980, there were 189 factories in Sivakasi alone, manufacturing fireworks and supplying them all over the country.

It is plausible to theorise that, unlike in the colonial and medieval eras, with an increase in the population and economic prosperity of the Indian middle class and with ready supply coming in from the flourishing domestic industry, bursting of firecrackers only grew and never looked back.