As Indian states ranging from Delhi to West Bengal have imposed bans on firecrackers this year, the reactions have been mixed. Many people are furious that their rights have been taken away, while some others have said that it’s for the best that pollution caused by Diwali, however small, is stopped during the coronavirus. Some others, however, contend that the ban is justified because fireworks aren’t meant to be a part of Diwali celebrations anyway.
This last argument couldn’t be further from the truth — India’s history with fireworks goes back at least 2300 years.
India’s History of Diwali Fireworks
Kautilya’s Arthashastra has mentions of saltpeter
2,300 years ago, Kautilya had written the Arthashastra, India’s grand treatise on management, rule of law, and economics. In it, he talks about saltpeter (Agnichaurana), which was a “powder to create fire”. Kautilya said that saltpeter could be used to create smoke which could be used to fight an enemy in a war.
Nilamata Purana says fireworks have to be illuminated on 14/15th day of Diwali
The Nilamata Purana is an ancient text (6th to 8th century CE) from Kashmir, which contains information on its history, geography, religion, and folklore. It says fireworks have to be illuminated on 14th/15th day of Kartika (Diwali) to show path to dead ancestors.
A Chinese text writes Indian people produce “purple flames”
A Chinese text from 1300 years ago says that people of north-west India were aware of the existence of saltpeter, and used it to produce “purple flames”. This would indicate that the flames were produced for aesthetic purposes rather than military, which were the early precursor to modern fireworks.
Italian traveler says the Vijayanagara people are “masters of producing fireworks”
A lot of happened in the intervening period. Gunpowder had been invented in China a few centuries ago, and it eventually came to India. Indians quickly adopted it to make even more elaborate fireworks. Italian traveler Ludovico di Varthema who visited India in this period, said this 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…”
Sanskrit volume Kautukachintamani describes mixtures used to make fireworks
Manufacturing formulas for fireworks describing pyrotechnic mixtures were described within Kautukachintamani, a Sanskrit volume by Gajapati Prataparudradeva (1497-1539), a reputed royal author from Orissa. Fireworks were used to celebrate Diwali, as shown in the Mughal-style painting below.
Literature describes rockets and phooljhadis during Krishna’s wedding with Rukmini
A popular sixteenth century Marathi poem by the saint Eknath called “Rukmini Swayamvara,” describes Rukmini’s wedding with Krishna. The poem mentions a range of fireworks, from rockets to the equivalent of the modern phooljhadi.
Aurangzeb bans fireworks
Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, though, wasn’t a fan of fireworks. In a firmaan (royal decree) dated 9th April 1667, Aurangzeb banned fireworks. The firmaan was titled “Restriction on Aatishbaazi”, and said that the display of fireworks is “forbidden.” It added that no one is to “indulge in aatishbaazi”.
Grand fireworks celebrations take place on Diwali
As Mughal power waned, Diwlai celebrations became even more grand. Peshwayanchi Bakhar, a Maratha chronicle text, mentions an account of Diwali celebration in the Kotah (modern Kota, Rajasthan). Mahadji Scindia says: “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”.
Diwali becomes India’s biggest festival
Diwali becomes India’s grandest celebration, with people from across the country bursting crackers, lighting up sparklers, and setting off rockets. But in spite of strong evidence that Diwali produces negligible pollution, several states are now taking steps to ban firecrackers, which leaves India’s 2000-year-old tradition under threat.