Did we borrow crackers from the Chinese?

With Diwali around the corner, the festive frenzy is at its peak. We are all geared up to have fun. But is it fun without crackers, diyas and friends? Buying crackers brings back so many memories from childhood. It was a ritual we all would wait eagerly. 

Would you like to know about the origin of firecrackers? Let us see a brief history of the use of gunpowder in India.

When did the use of fireworks and crackers get associated with Diwali? While the common folklore is that the use of fireworks in the form of firecrackers was a recent discovery, we have numerous sources to tap into that help us understand the use of Agni has been a significant part of Indian culture from times immemorial. 

​Chinese Song Dynasty:

 The invention of gunpowder with its use in pyrotechnics is attributed to the 9th Century Tang Dynasty and 11th Century Song Dynasty of China. There are also sources which predate this to 142 AD to the Tao dynasty. The use of gunpowder as a defence mechanism in war is accredited to the Mongols, who took it to the world. The Mongols quickly got accustomed to gunpowder use during their attacks on China and quickly adapted the knowledge in their conquests to the Central and West Asia. It later spread to Korea and Japan in the Far East, where it was mastered into an art form.

Indian adaptation:

The Islamic rulers soon got a whiff of the power in gunpowder around the same time. Once they understood how it can be used to light up the night sky, it became associated with every celebration. This culture later passed on to the locals and passed on to the Mughals. The Portuguese who visited India were also showing off with their use of crackers and fireworks. As mentioned in the renowned medieval historian Farishta’s book – Tarikh-i-Firishta, Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud used 3000 cartloads of crackers to welcome the envoy of his Mongolian counterpart – Sultan Hulagh Khan. This must be one of the earliest recorded events in the history of Delhi to see fireworks of such scale. 

By the time Feroz Shah Tughlaq started ruling Delhi, evening fireworks were quite common and they were importing Chinese fireworks for pyrotechnics for celebration and fun. According to Dr Katherine Schofield is a historian of music in Mughal India and the para-colonial Indian Ocean, and teaches in Kings College, London. Dr Katherine says that the use of fireworks, gunpowder for the celebration was associated with Mahanavami around the 1440s as per Persian ambassador Abd al-Razzaq. 

Mughal’s love-affair with crackers:

It is said that Akbar was fascinated by crackers as a child. The Portuguese and the Jesuits also used the firecrackers extensively. Akbar, to encourage religious harmony and peace, encouraged the celebration of festivals, birthdays, weddings and other occasions. Firecrackers and night displays slowly became a prominent attraction at such events. In some of the literature of the period, it is also said that Akbar encouraged the worship of light and fire. Though it is not apt to club the celebration of Diwali in the present form, with the Mughal times, use of fireworks was for sure encouraged and patronised the celebration of all festivals. 

But, can we just attribute the usage of fireworks, especially the invention of gunpowder to the Mughals, Chinese and leave it at that? Did gunpowder only come into the picture in the 9th Century? 

Ancient Indian Agni-puja:

Since time immemorial, Indians were using fire as an important component for religious rituals. Some form of the firecrackers was also used in their celebrations, pujas and other rituals. Many clear references regarding the use of firearms for war and as a show of skill exist in our ancient texts. Whether the use of firearms mentioned by Chanakya/Kautilya or the nature of agneya astrasAgni-banas, Agni-dharana or the use of viswasghati, which explains the making and use of inflammable substances, there are definite references to the use of fire for both fight and delight. So to say that we were introduced to the firecrackers only in the 12th century might be farfetched.

A tool for pest control: 

India is primarily an agricultural society, with rice as the staple food. Rice saplings face the infestation of ‘tiny leafhopper’ (an insect of the Cicadellidae family) and other insects which increase significantly during the autumn months. By feeding on the freshly sprouted plant saps, they transmit plant-infecting viruses and bacteria. This can cause complete drying of the crop, reduce rice yields. This is one of the reasons smoke is used as a cover to block the growth and movement of the pests. One of the oldest customs in India for pest control during the cold dark days has been to burn chaff and diyas and create enough smoke to keep pests, mosquitoes in control. So for a long time, our practice has been to burn earthen lamps that produce soot to attract and kill small insects, along with the burning of sulphur crackers that kill most pests. 

Final words:

Did you know that the Turkish word top and the Persian tupang might be derived from the Sanskrit word dhupa

So when do you think the actual usage of firecrackers and gunpowder start? I bet that we were celebrating with firecrackers in India long before the Chinese invented it. What do you think?

This Diwali, as we all are facing the problem of air pollution and some of us have breathing problems due to Covid19, we encourage you to follow local rules, use crackers to a minimum and sensibly. Happy Diwali to you and your family.

#StaySafe #HappyDiwali #PlantScience

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