Diwali fireworks not very old, give Mughals the credit
NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court ban on cracker sales in Delhi has been denounced by many. Traders are upset for obvious reasons — it implies economic losses for them. But the rightists too have criticised it for being an “anti-Hindu plot”. Many, in fact, claim it is like the “Mughals banning Diwalicrackers”. But what does history say?
History shows the beginning of fireworks displays in India was concurrent with the rise of the so-called Islamic empires. To condense the timeline, gunpowder originated in China in the 9th century and its use in pyrotechnics began a little later. The Mongols got acquainted with gunpowder use during their attacks on China and took the technology into Central Asia, the land of the crescent in West Asia, and Korea and Japan in the Far East.
When the Mongol hordes started entering India, they brought this fiery tech with them and introduced it to the Delhi Sultanate in the mid-13th century. So, when did people in Delhi first witness fireworks? Professor Anirudh Deshpande of Delhi University, a military historian, says fireworks were used to welcome the envoy of Mongol ruler Hulagu Khan , an event that renowned medieval historian Firishta said occurred in March 1258 in his book Tarikh-i-Firishta (also called Gulshan-i-Ibrahimi). It took place in the court of Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud in Delhi, and 3,000 cartloads of fireworks (seh hazar arrada-e-atishbazi) were brought for the occasion.
Lt Col (later General) John Briggs of East India Company, who had translated this book into English, was “at a loss” to explain what Firishta meant by ‘atishbazi’ and thought it was the ‘Greek fire’ used by Muhammad bin Qasim and Mahmud of Ghazni. But Professor Iqtidar Alam Khan, in his landmark work on the use of gunpowder in India, argues that this was real gunpowder fireworks.
A century later, fireworks displays were being held in Delhi during the reign of Sultan Feroze Shah Tughlaq. Tarikh-i-Firuzshahi specifically talks about evening fireworks on Shab-i-Barat. By the early 15th century, gunpowder technology had reached south India through Chinese merchant ships that carried “bombards”, according to Khan. The Zamorin and others began using it for pyrotechnics, though not as weapons of war.
“Gunpowder was present at the court of Vijaynagar in 1443-44, according to Persian ambassador Abd al-Razzaq, who describes a Mahanavami, or possibly New Year, festival complete with fireworks, music and dancing,” points out Dr Katherine Butler Schofield who teaches at King’s College, London.
The Portuguese, who came to India before the Mughals, also used fireworks. “The Jesuits used to try to impress Akbar with them,” reiterates Schofield. “And there is a chapter on fireworks in Nujum ul-Ulum, the major 1570 work of Ali Adil Shah of Bijapur.”
The Mughals and their Rajput contemporaries, Schofield says, used fireworks extensively, “especially in the dark months of the year — late autumn and winter”. “The chronicles of the reigns of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb describe fireworks being used for weddings, birthday weighings (tuladan), coronations (including Aurangzeb’s), and religious festivals like Shab-i-Barat. Abu’l Fazl describes Akbar creating an effigy of his enemy Hemu, filling it with fireworks, and lighting it up early in his reign when he was only 13 years old (1556),” she said.
The Mughal attitude to Diwali could be gauged from what Fazl writes in the first volume of Ain-i-Akbari: “His Majesty (Akbar) maintains it is a religious duty and divine praise to worship fire and light; surly, ignorant men consider this forgetfulness of the Almighty and fire worship.”