How ‘Hindu’ Were Our Diwali Firecrackers, Dear North Indians? 

As Delhi’s smog thickens, here’s why we need to revisit history & see why Diwali & fireworks don’t go hand in hand.

Published
Opinion
4 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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Dear Fellow Residents of Delhi and NCR,

Thank your stars for small mercies. This year the post-Diwali pollution is perceptibly less and the toxic stench of sulphur and phosphorus is less asphyxiating. Fewer deaths of senior citizens and children due to respiratory diseases have been reported, but hazards greater than paddy burning in Punjab continue to lurk in the shadows.

Are We a Theocracy? No! Then Why Flout SC Rules Citing Religion?

There are some easily excitable and irresponsible compatriots of ours who have been shouting themselves hoarse subverting the rule of law, suggesting that the Supreme Court can go and take a walk, as bursting firecrackers to celebrate Diwali is a matter of “Hindu religious beliefs”.

Some (including sitting judges) have started articulating the view that courts can’t and should not pronounce judgments on matters concerning religious beliefs and practices.

In this land of infinite and glorious variety, conceding this, amounts to demolishing the judicial system in one fell swoop. Any individual can invoke this plea to justify inhuman behaviour or patently criminal practices, repugnant to moral conscience and natural justice.

Gone are the times when in a theocracy the Pope or the Caliph, Qazi or any other religious leader could claim sectarian monopoly to interpret the Holy Book for their flock, enforce divine commandments under threat of excommunication or worse. In a modern state, it is for the courts alone to adjudicate all disputes between individuals, groups or citizen and the government. Their jurisdiction includes contentious issues in different religions. What is the ‘core’ or essential practice of a religion can’t be established otherwise. Time to return to fireworks.

India, Stop Claiming “Religious Rights” Over Firecrackers

Historians tell us that it was a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ that someone in China ‘invented’ firecrackers by overheating a dry bamboo that burst with a bang. It was a while before gunpowder contributed to a louder and more spectacular explosion. The Chinese are not a people to rest on their laurels, and continued in succeeding centuries to convert the firecrackers into fireworks.

The addition of myriad chemicals, particles of metal and minerals blended with artistic imagination extended the horizons of pyrotechnics – literally translated as aatishbazi –(dis)play with fire. The West has grudgingly admitted that it was in China where fireworks first lit the sky and became a custom, if not part of the core practice of celebrations at the Imperial Court, and religious festivities in the temples.

Slowly the fireworks and the much-maligned firecrackers were exported from China to the rest of the world. There is no mention of fireworks in India before the end of the 15th century.

Foreign travellers like Verthama have chronicled their use in Vijayanagar Empire. Kautuk Chintamani, compiled by Gajapati Pratap Chandra Rudra Dev of Orissa around the same time, also describes pyrotechnics as expensive amusement, fit for rulers and the very rich.

Gunpowder, an essential ingredient of fire crackers, was unknown in ancient India. All available evidence suggests that gunpowder and fireworks came to India with the Arabs and Mongols in the medieval period.

Even a Cricket Match is Enough to Burst Firecrackers

The uber patriotic Swadeshiwallas may not like it, but if anyone can claim that fireworks are essential to their traditional festivities, it is the Chinese. True, there are other lands and people where elaborate fireworks displays are part of public celebration, but they all flatter the Chinese through imitation. The US Independence Day, Guy Fawkes’s Day, Halloween are the examples that readily come to mind, but none of these is remotely tinged with religious fervour.

Lest we forget, we don’t explode firecrackers or set off fireworks only on Dussehra or Diwali. Winning a cricket match or a municipal election is occasion enough to profane the sacred.

Display of fireworks and the accompanying nuisance, as marriage processions wind through roads choked by traffic, is enough to throw anyone into a furious non-religious frenzy.

Fireworks industry in India is arguably one of the most ruthlessly exploitative industries where children are made to toil in inhuman and extremely hazardous conditions. Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu is infamous for child labour.

There have been a number of gory accidental deaths but not much has changed.

Don’t Play With Fire

There is no dearth of self styled scholar-translators who can quote at will scriptures to ‘prove’ that Indians/Hindus have, since time immemorial used firecrackers to celebrate victory of good over evil, and to express joy. But myths, legend and lore have kicked history in the butt in contemporary India, and ‘ Flowers Showered from Heavens’ can easily be passed off as fiery starlets dropping earthwards – remains of extinguished sparklers!

Deepawali was (and is) meant to celebrate the dweep (light), and obsession with aatishbaazi (pyrotechnics) can only prove a dangerous distraction. We are literally risking lives by playing with fire.

One is reminded of a line in one of Tagore’s poems where he compares the transient dazzle of fireworks with the flickering light of the humble earthen lamp that can illumine the path ahead when needed, and is forever ready to combat darkness.

Wishing you a comparatively pollution-free winter and hoping that pyrotechnics remain confined to verbal exchanges.

(Padma Shri awardee Professor Pushpesh Pant is a noted Indian academic, food critic and historian. He tweets @PushpeshPant. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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